Moscow: With Light Steam

Photo by James Hill

“In the banya all are equal.”

“In the banya there are no generals.”

“In the banya there are no epaulets.”

These Russian proverbs hold true for everyone in the banya, or steam bath, with one exception –– the person who makes the steam. The steamer is more equal than others. And that is as it should be. For he or she is directly responsible for your pleasure.

If a paril’shchik (sometimes called a banshchik) makes good steam, bathers will discourage others from trying to make the steam. If a steamer makes great steam, bathers will rearrange their lives to be at a banya when they know he, or she, will be there.

On Sunday mornings at the Seleznyovsky Baths, in Moscow, the lone exception to the proverbs is the man pictured in the photo. His name is Grisha, short for Grigory. He makes the steam from 10 o’clock to noon. For a decade, friends and I went to that banya at precisely those times, precisely for his steam.

We tried dozens of other public bathhouses in the city. We tried, we think, every single one. Some were nicer, most were less expensive, and all had inferior steam.

So we kept returning to “Seleznyovka” even though the attendants can be surly, and the owners do not reinvest the profits. We followed the steam.

Grisha is a regular guy, but on Sundays he is transfigured. He is able to strike just the right balance of heat and moisture regardless of the weather, or the number of bathers. It is an ability that lies beyond the realm of science, or habit, an ability that is guided by something arching toward the divine.

“How do I know how much [water] to toss into the stove? I don’t. I do it based on sensations, on feelings, I guess,” he told me once.

Sometimes Grisha incorporates tinctures sold at drug stores, infusions of mint or eucalyptus with pure spirit. Other times he uses beer and aromatic oils, such as pine or anise or orange.

Sometimes he steeps herbs –– wormwood, mustard, horseradish root, garden lovage –– in hot water, making a broth that he hurls into the stove, delivering the scents in infinitesimal droplets.

The floor-to-ceiling stove at Seleznyovka holds 14 tons of cast iron cylinders –– aglow a mercurochrome red –– that are heated by gas flame overnight to between 850 and 1,115 degrees Fahrenheit.

I cannot see what is happening inside the stove when Grisha hurls the water, but I know by sound. Water hurled the right way lands with the sound of a wave crashing into a sandy beach. It is not the sound of a wave crashing against rocks. The crash –– called a clap, or khlopok –– is the sound of the transformation of water into gas, the very creation of steam.

The sound indicates an ideal steam, a light steam.

“With beer, you sense the steam,” Grisha said. “Such a steam embodies a kind of heaviness, as if you’ve wrapped yourself up in something.”

To me the aroma of steam made with beer smells of fresh hops, weightless and crumbly. Some liken the smell to that of bread, baking.

Grisha also uses a hand-turned propeller (they are not customary in banyas) at the ceiling to push out stale air from the steam room, and pull in fresh air. He also uses a wand –– a thin aluminum pole about five feet long, with a fabric-covered hoop at one end –– that he sprinkles with aromatic oils, then uses to direct steam over the bodies of bathers.

During the hottest steams, the moist steams (which can exceed 240 degrees Fahrenheit at the ceiling), he pulls a black balaclava over his face and pulls on black woolen mittens that reach the elbows. The mask and gloves protect his skin from the hot-hot steam. They also make him look like an executioner.

Grisha’s steam improves my mood, my health, my life. It yields sensations similar to endorphin highs, sensations a female Russian friend calls “wings on my back.” It hastens the physical and emotional recovery from the week that transpired, and revitalizes me for the week to come.

Grisha’s steam changes how I see myself, and the world.

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