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  • "Real Men Go to the Bania"Postwar Soviet Masculinities and the Bathhouse
  • Ethan Pollock (bio)

In earlier times real men went to riding school to prance on gelded horses, headed off to the firing range to shoot at the ace of diamonds, to fencing halls to fight with swords, to the English Club to do battle at the card table, or, in extreme cases, to the ballet. Today real men go to the bania.

El′dar Aleksandrovich Riazanov, Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Steam1

In the spring of 1945, as the Red Army approached Berlin, the Soviet writer and war correspondent Aleksandr Trifonovich Tvardovskii contemplated how to commemorate in words the various ways that Soviet men had contributed to the Great Patriotic War. As he noted in his journal, controversy swirled around the question of whether men who had seen combat at the front would have a greater claim to sacrifice and honor than those who had remained behind the lines. At first Tvardovskii had a hard time figuring out a context for discussing the issue. He wanted to bring it up as part of his ongoing and extremely popular poem Vasilii Terkin: A Book about a Soldier.2 But [End Page 47] the poem's eponymous hero was an everyman, not prone to political statements. Terkin both reflected a Red Army soldier's life and helped servicemen and civilians alike make sense of the war. Tvardovskii struggled to find a way to address the question of relative sacrifice while maintaining the folk rhythms that gave the poem its wide appeal. Then he noted in his journal on 19 March, "This morning I was spurred on by last night's bania to remember all the various banias where I had cleaned myself in the war, and I suddenly decided to write a chapter [of the Terkin poem] 'In the Bania.'" The Russian steam bath was ideal for his purposes:

[The bania is] half-fantastic, forgiving, and softening of the sharpness of the discussions and thoughts about who counts for what in war and what the differences are between this and that contribution. Since ancient times Russian people have spoken in the bania (I mean the village bania, the kolkhoz bania—not the commercial town bania) about strength, often about a specifically masculine strength, they have spoken in aphorisms, in exclamations, in short breaths.3

Tvardovskii, of course, was not the first writer to recognize the degree to which the bania—whether rural and traditional or urban and commercial—provided a useful setting for addressing questions of "who counted for what" in Russian culture. The bania had been a favorite setting for prerevolutionary Russian and foreign writers, artists, and poets.4 The bania's place in early Soviet culture was more ambiguous. On the one hand, it was associated with elements of the prerevolutionary Russian past that were anathema to the Bolsheviks and that they hoped to expunge. Urban banias, in their more elaborate incarnations, had been social clubs catering to the decadence of [End Page 48] elite society.5 Peasant banias were ideologically no better—their connection with ancient customs, folklore, and magic earned the disdain of the Bolsheviks who hoped to weed out rural backwardness. On the other hand, the bania was often the only place where the New Soviet Man could get clean after work. As such, it fit neatly into the new state's conceptualization of modern hygiene.6

The renewed emphasis on Russian culture as a central component of Soviet identity that emerged in the 1930s and blossomed during World War II set the stage for the bania's own triumphant return as a (Russian/Soviet) sacred space.7 Long associated with Russia but successfully Sovietized, the bania could serve many different functions to many different people.8 Not least of all, the state supported bathhouses as a necessary hygiene measure, and after the war it turned to building new ones. According to the Ministry of Communal Services of the RSFSR, the Russian Federation went from having 122,000 spaces in banias in 1946 to 131,871 spaces in 1953 and 464,566 spaces by 1964. This postwar bathhouse boom was mirrored in other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 47-76
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-30
Open Access
No
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