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Capsule Review

Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse

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Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse
Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse
By Ethan Pollock
Oxford University Press, 2019 360 pp. Purchase

Pollock has produced a rarity: a work of solid scholarship that is also an elegant page-turner. It traces the history of the Russian steam bath all the way back to the Middle Ages, exploring how its image and function have shifted over time. Peter the Great, the westernizing reformer who led Russia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, saw the banya as an outmoded habit of the common people. Westernized Russian elites of that era readily agreed with Europeans who ridiculed the bathhouse as barbarous. But after Russia defeated Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, the banya became a patriotic symbol: a cartoon published at the time showed the terrified French emperor in a banya being thrashed by Russian soldiers. In the early twentieth century, amid the louche atmosphere of late imperial Russia, urban bathhouses came to be associated with sex and sin. When the Bolsheviks took over after the Russian Revolution, they sought to recast the banya as a source of modernizing cleanliness: Stalin declared that Soviet communism would not countenance dirty people. As the Soviet era drew to a close, the recreational function of the bathhouse superseded its utilitarian one. In the words of an American reporter writing in the 1970s, the banya was “the closest thing Russian males [had] to a men’s club.” More recently, a highly popular film depicted the banya as a place for tough men who can stand up for Russia against the corrupt and decadent West.

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