MOSCOW – As the women arranged themselves along the wooden floors and benches of the sauna, the furnace hissed and bundles of pine and birch branches filled the space with an herbal aroma.
The attendant poured one ladle of water after another against the iron rods, ticking up the temperature. “God, give us health,” she said.
“God, give us health,” the other women repeated.
As the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, Russia’s bathhouses – or banyas as they’re called here – remain the country’s most popular wellness centers and a deeply rooted cultural tradition.
But, like other communal spaces across the globe, they are not suited for social distancing. And that is one of the core quandaries: Can the community bonds and intimacy of places such as Russia’s banyas remain the same in a world reordered by the coronavirus pandemic?
So far, the life in the banyas appeared remarkably unchanged.
“It’s just the same as it ever was,” said Natalia Dyakina, who joins friends weekly at the Rzhevskie Baths, Moscow’s second-oldest bathhouse, dating back to 1888.
“I just wish it was open during coronavirus. We really suffered without it,” she added. “I was never worried about coming here because this is where you come to get healthier.”
One woman inside the sauna cracked a joke that there was no coronavirus in the steamy room, another promptly hushed her. This was a sacred space, and such talk did not belong, she scolded.
“Russian values might have changed after the Soviet Union was dissolved or the 2008 financial crisis, but the banya is our history,” said Oleg Pashkov, the director of the Rzhevskie Baths. “We were never worried about people’s habits changing. The people who appreciate this culture will always come.”
During World War II, Rzhevskie Baths was a stop for Soviet soldiers to bathe before boarding the nearby train that would take them to the front. One gentleman has visited its sauna every week for the past 49 years – until Russia’s coronavirus restrictions closed Rzhevskie and other bathhouses for three months.
It’s not practical to wear a mask or gloves inside when temperatures can reach 210 degrees Fahrenheit, but Russia’s health regulator initially told bathhouses that patrons would have to observe a roughly five-foot distance from one another in the sauna.
The agency then backed off that instruction, believing that the rooms get so hot that it’s not possible to infect someone inside. But the World Health Organization website’s “Mythbusters” page warns that the coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, can be transmitted in hot and humid environments.
Other restrictions remain, such as limiting the capacity and closing the swimming pools.
Sitting in a booth in the Rzhevskie Baths’ dressing room, Irina Sergeyeva recounted her own close call with the coronavirus. Her daughter had been infected and has since recovered. But Sergeyeva still ignored her daughter’s pleas to stay away from the banya and has resumed the once-a-week visits.
“I think the Russian mentality is different. We just don’t care,” Sergeyeva said. “It didn’t even occur to me that it might be risky.”