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Steam Heat -- Reinventing The Banya In New York

Some of the regulars at Russian Baths and a familiar face on television.
Some of the regulars at Russian Baths and a familiar face on television.
NEW YORK -- What does it say about a culture when one of its most honored rituals involves thrashing the body? Can we read it as a symbol of harsh Russian life, or does it speak more to a mentality -- a "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality -- and the importance of having a thick skin?

The "banya," or Russian bath house, with its leafy birch batons, known as "veniki," begs the curious outsider to make it into metaphor.

But to the modern Russian, as to his grandfather and his grandfather's grandfather, the banya is simply an essential part of being. It is pharmacy, spa, and social club -- a place to open the pores, relax the muscles, and strengthen friendships. It has been the site of many a business deal, too, but more often it's a place to forget about problems and to give in to ritual: 10 minutes in the steam that rises from heated stones, the therapeutic discipline of the venik, and an icy-cold shower to finish. A cup of tea or a shot of vodka are the equally soothing codas, and the effect of it all is something like a post-massage high.

But can a pillar of Russianness be transplanted to America? Even as the banya is quintessentially Russian, people are carriers of culture, and as they move, their institutions often follow. Today, there are nearly a dozen banyas, or spas with elements of the banya, in New York City. The oldest dates from 1892, and in the newest, the paint has barely dried.

All of the city's banyas, with the one 19th-century exception, were built since 1980 -- a reflection of the two most recent swells of Russian immigration to the United States. About half of the immigrants who came in these waves settled in New York, which has the largest population of Russian immigrants in the country. They are the ones who built the banyas.

But in recent years, the city's banya landscape has changed. New, modern banyas have sprung up and others have undergone significant face-lifts. Some offer imported cakes and others provide caviar body wraps. Many have, to one degree or another, become less "Russian" -- or at least not the same kind of "Russian" that the city's original banyas stood for. The immigrant community that produced the originals is behind the recent trend as well.

A Soviet poster at Russian Baths reads: "Go to the banya after work."
Or rather, their wallets are. In the time taken for the last two batches of Russian immigrants to become fully established New Yorkers, they have made a swift ascent up the socioeconomic ladder. In 2005, according to the Department of City Planning, households of Russian origin or ancestry had an average per capita income of about $50,000 -- a figure that is almost double the citywide average. That's up markedly from a decade ago, and the banyas have reflected the trend.

As Russian-Americans expect better and can afford more, their revered institution accommodates. Expressions of Russianness in Russia, the banyas are expressions of the Russian-American community in New York City today -- even if that means moving away from their original character.

'A Banya In America?'

The Neck Road station on the New York City subway is the gateway to Gravesend, a neighborhood whose desolation and sleepiness could have inspired its name. But around a few corners and down an alley, wedged between the ladder of a fire escape and a metal fence, is a spot of color.

It's a sign that says "Russian Baths" in bright red, with the Russian translation in blue below it. The words are on a white background, and together, the three colors are those of the Russian flag, as well as the U.S. flag. Maybe there was no need to give the place a more distinctive name than "Russian Baths" when Israel Odessky and his partners opened it in 1980. Indeed, it was the first banya in Brooklyn.

Sixty years old, with wizened features, Odessky came to New York in 1979 from Chernivtsi, a city near the Ukrainian-Romanian border. He first had the idea of a banya business when musing what do to in his new homeland. "I was thinking, even as I was crossing the border, that maybe I wanted to do a banya," he recalls. "I told my friends and they laughed at me -- 'A banya in America?'"

Odessky's first job in New York was as superintendent of a building. Soon, he was promoted to property manager, first for one building and then for more. Eventually, he was asked to oversee 1075 Sheepshead Bay Road, a building that happened to have a pool and a small sauna in its basement.

"We asked the landlord to give us a lease, and in actuality, he didn't even need the money," Odessky says. "He had big real estate, but he did us a favor -- like we say, a 'mitzvah' -- and he gave us a one-year lease. We wanted more, but it was just a year at first. But then, when they saw our effort...," Odessky trails off. The rest of his thought is visible all around us -- a banya with a steam rooms, a sun deck, a restaurant, a staff of 19, and a clientele of graying, towel-clad, Russian-born regulars. Their haunches fill the white plastic chairs that encircle a central pool.

Veniki and felt banya hats hang from the ceiling at Brooklyn's Russian Baths.
At first, Odessky's banya drew only 20 to 30 of these revelers per day. Running the banya was his second job, and it was only open in the evenings. Now, it is his only job and the banya is open every day from early morning to near midnight. Eighty to 100 people flock here daily -- including the residents of the building above, whose rent includes use of the facilities. For other visitors, the standard rate during non-summer months is $30, venik not included. For seniors, and there are many of them, the cost is $25. The prices are new, up $5 from the previous mark, which means that Russian Baths is no longer the cheapest banya in town. Now, it's on par with its competitors, and in more ways than one.

Reflecting The Community

The price increase is partially the result of rising operation costs, but it also speaks to this banya's participation in the "industry trend." That is, modernization. Six years ago, a hockey-themed restaurant was built in place of the old eating area at the suggestion of Odessky's partner, who allegedly has connections to a former coach of the Soviet national team. The cafe is decked out with autographed USSR jerseys and three flatscreen televisions. In the back is a brand-new kitchen, and the menu now features imported sweets from Bindi, an Italian dessert company.

The banya's locker room has also been refurbished, and one of the two original steam rooms has been renovated and relocated. The relocation made way for the addition of third room, complete with high-tech steam machine.

For Odessky, it all makes sense. "In the Russian community, a lot of people became successful businessmen," he says. "When you give more service and everything looks nice, these people will feel welcome and relaxed." Moving up in the world is "part of life" in Odessky's view, and it is quintessentially American -- not Russian: "It's the American dream, and I am an American."

Steve Meyers, a 40-year-old financial consultant and Russian Baths regular, says that there is still a mix of classes at the banya -- "you get a taxicab driver and you get a guy who's worth $20 million" -- but doesn't deny that the demographic has shifted upward. He estimates that it happened in the last five to seven years. "See that fat guy on the phone? He owns a major company that installs refrigerators around the country."

But Steve also notes that despite the improvements at Russian Baths, the plastic chairs do remain. Also, unlike other banyas that have done away with the policy, patrons here are still allowed to bring their own fruit and thermoses of tea from home.

Prices have inched upward at Russian Baths.
For the most part, he says, Russian Baths is still the authentic New York Russian experience: comfortable, and, at least if you want it to be, no-frills. That's why Steve continues to come here. "It's not supposed to be upscale," he says. "It's supposed to be about the steam."

But Steve also spends well over $100 on his trip to the banya. Even though he comes every week, he hasn't bothered to buy a money-saving block of 15 admission tickets. His venik has been prepared for him by the staff, and his table is replenished with food and drink throughout the afternoon. "There aren't as many of those guys anymore," he says, pointing to two men in the corner who pull their own veniki out of tattered plastic shopping bags.

Not 'Russian Service'

A borough and a world away is Okeanos. Tucked away on east 51st Street, it is "a modern spa in the spirit of the tsars," according to its website. Guests at the Greek-named spa can relax "as gods, tsars, and politicians have for centuries," albeit via a "contemporary interpretation of time-honored rites."

Co-owner Andre Izrailov is an attractive man in his early 30s, with black hair that is stylishly slicked back. His pants are beautifully pressed and he wears a pumpkin-colored sweater over his button-down. New-age music with watery sound effects loops in the background as we tour his 10 treatment rooms.

But first, we pass a few trinkets for sale in the front reception area -- like a magnetic razor shaving set nestled in a lacquered walnut box that doubles as a humidor. Well over $1,000. And then there's Izrailov's favorite decorative element -- blue Murano glass embedded into the floor. Then come the rooms. One features a Vichy shower, a device that resembles a showerhead chandelier, which hangs over a drain-equipped table, enabling patrons to be rinsed of scrubs and mud packs without having to move. It's a staple of French spas, I am told.

The treatment rooms are also used for massages, such as the "Siberian" hot-stone massage -- 90 minutes, $210. The stones themselves are not Siberian, nor is the pairing of hot stones and massage, but Izrailov tells me that Russian oils are used in the process. Some patrons opt for a body treatment, such as Okeanos's signature caviar wrap. Izrailov's team of aestheticians worked with a lab for six months to create a Russian-caviar-infused cream, which they say leaves skin supple and smooth. There is a barbershop room for facials and a "shave ceremony," a bar area with waterfall and attached private cigar room, and in the back, two Russian steam rooms.

Izrailov, who emigrated in 1990 from Dushanbe, says he came up with the idea of Okeanos in a banya: "My friend and I were entertaining the idea of opening a business, so we took an associate to a banya in Brooklyn. Well, we all expected better service than what we received." Having to pay for coat-check, "zero service," and uncomfortable plastic chairs left a bad taste in his mouth, even as the banya, he admits, wasn't terribly different from those in Dushanbe.

Moreover, his associate was an American. "We just wanted something better," he recalls. "Somewhere where we could bring an associate and get good service, not 'Russian service'.... Something we would not be ashamed of."

Champagne, candlelight -- and no plastic chairs -- at Okeanos Spa.
Izrailov does not claim that his six-year-old business is an authentic banya. In fact, his goal was just the opposite. "We make it clear to people who come here that the only true Russian component of this place is the steam room," he says. "We don't bill ourselves as a Russian sauna, and we aren't one."

Not Just Russian

Some of the New Yorkers who make up Izrailov's clientele, albeit a mere 10 percent or less, do not need an introduction to whatever Russianness there is here. They are Russians themselves. And Izrailov says that they feel quite at home. "I think they have the same feeling as my partner and I had when we first came up with the concept -- sitting in a sauna in Brooklyn and not really getting what you want. And they are New Yorkers -- Manhattanites -- and Manhattanites are very particular about what they want," he adds. "We try to deliver that, and so I think this spa is really more Russian New York than anywhere else."

Izrailov's argument is that as Russians become New Yorkers, or at least Manhattanites, the result is a movement away from what once satisfied a community. The eschewal of the "Russianness" that Andre associates with older Brooklyn banyas is not a loss of tradition as much as an updated layer that is built upon it. Perhaps this is indeed the banya that is most reflective of the upward mobility trend.

Then again, how much can Okeanos be the real Russian New York if it caters to so few Russians? There are certainly banya-goers at Russian Baths who could afford Okeanos, but they haven't made the switch. Russian Baths has itself been upgraded, but the banya core has been left intact. Perhaps that says something about the community -- its lack of a desire to truly abandon the familiar. At least as far as the all-important banya goes. Even Andre leaves some room for this. He has visited the old Brooklyn banyas once or twice since his business opened. For some reason -- maybe because he's in work mode, he suggests -- he can't quite manage to relax in his own steam rooms.

Izrailov's business, which has been featured in more than a dozen magazines, is attracting attention in Russia, too. His idea of creating a luxury spa with banya elements is so appealing, in fact, that he now does occasional consulting for Russian banya owners. A small number of upscale banyas have long existed in Russia, the most famous being Moscow's opulent Sanduny, but according to Izrailov, interest is growing of late. "More and more in Russia now, they are having the need to bring it to that level too," he says. Perhaps in this way, Okeanos is far more connected to Russia than it seems.

Between the extremes of Russian Baths and Okeanos, other banyas in New York City also reflect the changing times. The recently reconstructed Mermaid Spa in Brooklyn's Sea Gate neighborhood has an authentic banya core -- and yet co-owner Zina Kotlyar has felt pressure from business partners to plan new additions. They include a "European body-wrap room" and an "anti-aging Cleopatra's facial room." She's not thrilled with the idea. "We're trying to improve, for sure," Kotlyar says, "but without losing the Russian style." Many of her competitors are facing the same dilemma, or are simply embracing whatever can bring in more money.

New York City's interactive banya museum piece?
There is one outlying case, however, that bucks the citywide trend. Founded in 1892 to meet the cultural and hygienic needs of immigrants coming through Ellis Island, Russian & Turkish Baths on Manhattan's Lower East Side is the oldest banya in the city. Today, it remains true to its cramped, no-frills roots, and yet is visited mainly by non-Russian locals, tourists, and the odd celebrity. (Chris Noth, "Mr. Big" from "Sex and the City," was a patron when I visited. He had never heard the word "banya" before I mentioned it.) It appears that this banya won't modernize because it wants to remain the city's interactive banya museum piece. The Russianness here has become a form of exoticism.

Changing, And Staying The Same

Back where I began, at Russian Baths in Gravesend, nothing could be farther from the truth. When I return, I decide to talk to Leonid and Isaak, the two men that Steve had pointed out to me. They are the old guard sitting in the corner, who bring their veniki from home in plastic shopping bags. Leonid has gray hair, his friend Isaak has a bushy moustache, and both have a cynical -- and very Russian -- sense of humor. Both are in their 50s and both have organized their work schedules to have Tuesdays free. That's their banya day. They've been going to the banya together for decades, both in what was once the Soviet Union and in Brooklyn.

The two accompany me into the steam room, grabbing wooden boards and buckets filled with soapy water in which their veniki are soaking. They buy them from an elderly man in the neighborhood, who collects birch branches from upstate and sells them as veniki from his home. He charges $12 each, which represents a small savings compared to the going rate at Russian Baths. Leonid also brings his own soap -- the special, unscented green soap that is used with the veniki. He says it is getting harder and harder to find, and he is down to his last two bars. Other items in Leonid and Isaak's plastic bags are shampoo, razors, and gloves that they bought at a dollar store, used for handling the venik.

In a few minutes, we emerge from the steamy cave and collapse in the plastic chairs. Leonid asks me if I am familiar with the saying "s lyogkim parom." Literally meaning "with easy steam," it is a standard banya phrase expressing the hope that the listener will experience the healthful benefits. I notice that Isaak's back is covered by what looks like red webbing, the mark of the venik. "Red is better than black and blue. And white!" he quips. I ask him what he means. "White is when you have passed away!" he explains. "Red is much better."

Isaak cuts into one of two apples that he has removed from his plastic bag. He takes out what looks like an old utility knife to cut it, and offers me some. Then I ask about changes in the city's banyas. Leonid says, "The banya has nothing to do with money," but I've seen evidence to the contrary. The banya business is a business, and especially lately, money seems to have more to do with the New York's Russian bath houses than ever. More money in the pockets of patrons, more money invested in the banya by owners.

Leonid is a network engineer for J.P. Morgan Chase, and he doesn't really have to worry about the entrance fees here. After leaving Chisinau in 1990, he worked through 14 exams, he says, in order to get two computer certifications. Now he has some expendable income. But all that is beside the point, he tells me. He comes to the banya for the banya. "Even if people didn't have money, they would come here," he says.

Perhaps there is a touch, on Leonid and Isaak's part, of habitual thriftiness -- a possible leftover from the Soviet Union. But maybe this is the way to show true understanding for, and appreciation of, the banya. The two friends have certainly been at it long enough to know what it's about, and how best to enjoy its unique physical and social power. The banyas of New York, signposts of an immigrant community that helped shape the city, appear to be changing. Leonid and Isaak can't deny that much. But they don't have to. The banya will accommodate them, too.

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