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Tuesday, 06 February 2007

Beaten in the Banya, Ukraine

Written by Daniel Reynolds Riveiro
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I was naked except for a pair of plastic sandals and the brown felt version of Gilligan’s hat. My friend, Kiril, was unadorned in the exact same manner. He was also beating me with birch branches.

I’m told this is a Ukrainian tradition.

I probably shouldn’t have told his mother, Larissa, that I’d had a sore throat, because she had been making me gargle five times a day with a mixture of water, salt and iodine. His father, Sergei, made me sit and eat salted raw onion with him, also thought to be a great cure. Stranger still was that they both thought the ultimate cure for me was a visit to the neighbor’s banya.

The banya, or bath house, is a 2,000 year old Slavic tradition that goes like this: you sit in a sauna, you sit in a steam room, you get beaten with birch branches, you dive into an ice cold pool, you repeat.

Have I mentioned that Ukraine is the country where Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born? It is from his name and his writings that we get “masochism.”




The banya was a tiny, stand-alone structure, fifteen feet long and four feet wide, hand-built by the neighbor out of mortared white brick and surrounded by snow. A wide pipe jutting out of the corrugated metal roof leaked ashy smoke into the sky.


We opened the door and stepped inside.

Directly in front of us was the banya’s heart: a massive stove built of uneven pieces of iron, burning huge hunks of scrap wood. To the left was the room with the steam room, shower and pool. To our right was the sauna, where three teenage boys were sitting and relaxing in their underwear. “Good,” I thought. I get to keep my underwear on.

After introductions, the teenagers moved into the steam room to let us have the sauna, but not before removing their last figurative fig leaves.


Kiril and I took off all our clothes, put on our sandals and hats, and then sat in the dry heat to talk. Ten minutes later, we were in the banya’s other room. The wood-enclosed steam room took up one quarter of the room. I could hear the three boys beating each other in there, loud painful-sounding thwacks.

This “cure” was sounding worse all the time.

The “pool” was on the left, a four-foot deep hole in the ground lined with cement, two feet wide and six feet long. It also had no water in it. Between the pool and the steam room, a showerhead jutted out of the wall.

We waited for a minute before the three teenagers spilled out of the wooden room, thick plumes of steam following them. Inside the steam room, I sat on a wooden bench while Kiril put some birch branches with wide, flat leaves in a pot of water to soak, then poured more water onto the upturned mouth of a piece of pipe running to the furnace.

The steam slapped me in the face and turned the skin on my arms a devilish red. I was informed the steam was over 200 degrees Fahrenheit; something my burning body had no trouble believing. After a minute, it was simply too hot and I had to leave the room, the three boys looking at me with confused expressions. Shame made me go back in and be properly masochistic.

Back inside, Kiril sat upright, eyes closed, head in the steam gathered near the ceiling. He pointed at the ski cap on his head. “To keep in the heat,” he said.

Sweat poured out of me, off of me, running down me in rivulets and pooling in the sandals on my feet. I felt horrible, having to make my mind go other places just to deal with the painful intensity of the steam. Eventually, I could run my hand down my arm and dead skin would be pushed ahead of it, gathering into white gunk.

Finally, Kiril reached for the branches. I sucked in a burning breath of dread. Taking them out of the pot of water, he held them over the steam rising out of the upturned pipe to get them that much hotter, and then told me to turn around.

Slowly, I did.

Thwak! Thawk! He began hitting my back and butt with them. Thwak! Thwak! And surprisingly, they didn’t hurt. Possibly I had permanently damaged my nerve endings, but the branches just left a pleasant tingling sensation. He told me to turn around and told me to cover my groin with one hand and my heart with the other. He began beating my stomach and chest, my face turned up and to the side, eyes closed. By the time we were done, the floor of the steam room was littered with leaves.

I commenced to beat him with the birch branches, him telling me to hit him harder and harder. Swinging them that hard left me gasping for breath, lungs charbroiled from sucking down all the searing air. I still didn’t understand how this could enthrall an entire culture for over two millennia. I mean, I felt even worse than when I had come in.

I was relieved when we left the steam room, but dread returned when Kiril switched on a nozzle in the empty pool. High-pressured water shot out and Kiril stepped directly into its path, one hand over his genitals, the other over his heart. He rotated around, lifting his legs to get them into the spray, and then hurried out of the pool.

When I stepped into the spray, I felt like someone hit my chest with a croquet mallet. The water had been chilled to -10 in the Ukrainian winter night and now traced with needles every spot where the birch branches had hit my steam-cooked skin, a mental image of overlapping, angry red lines, a spider-web of killer bee-stings

We went back into the steam room and I sat, gasping for breath, feeling nauseous, light-headed and on the verge of passing out.

And then I felt it: a full body high, skin tingling as feeling returned to it, my head clearing out and a feeling as if I was floating inside myself. I awake, aware, serene. And in that moment was the secret of the banya.

We weren’t finished: the last step was to soap up and do some serious exfoliation with a sort of plastic Brillo pad. There was shampooing involved, and shampooing another naked man’s head is a very strange thing indeed, but then we were done.

Kiril took a home-canned jar of pickled peppers to the neighbor as thanks for letting us use the banya, and then we went home. Exhausted, I wolfed down dinner and went straight to bed.

When I woke up the next day, my sore throat was gone.

©Daniel Reynolds Riveiro

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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