Russian Bathhouse Drips with Old World Charm, Authentic Grit

BY ZACHARY SNIDERMAN

It costs $30 to spend the day at the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street…. Of course, it’s another $35 to be hit with sticks and twigs.

Phot by Zachary Sniderman

Photo - Zachary Sniderman

Opened in 1892, the bathhouse was taken over in 1985 by the Shapiro family, a collection of immigrants from then-Soviet Uzbekistan, Siberia and Ukraine. The business was passed down from papa David to his son Dmitry, who now co-manages the baths with his brother Jack.

Dmitry, jovial and drinking a bottle of water, jokes, “At 12, I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want a Russian Bath.’ ” But working there full-time after law-school, he realized that the baths were just simply more fun than being a lawyer. “You can steam… have a beer, have some borscht… It’s supposed to be fun.”

The bathhouse has five different types of steam rooms: Russian, Turkish, redwood sauna, aromatherapy and basic steam. There are other crucial amenities like the ice-cold pool, sun deck, licensed masseurs and ‘Anna’s Restaurant;’ a charming, ramshackle collection of chairs and tables at the entrance to the baths serving traditional Russian fare.

The Russian room is the real star of the bathhouse – a steam room specializing in intense dry heat (just under 200 degrees Fahrenheit) about the size of a large Buick. High stadium seating allows the truly insane to soak up more heat higher up, while newbies can stay near the floor to ease into the experience.

The idea of the Russian bath, or banya, is to alternate the dry steaming with dips into an ice-cold pool to stimulate circulation, and to stimulate conversation. “It’s a social setting,” Dmitry says. “We tried to bring over the spirit of the traditional Russian banya.”

Each floor of the bathhouse is full of voices. On the sundeck above the banya, two men in their forties are relaxing from a schvitz, the old-world term for sweating. Clad in bathing suits, Jack and Victor chat about the ‘Wednesday group,’ a set of regulars that go to the bathhouse weekly to drink beer and play backgammon. Victor is bald and muscular. Jack speaks with an Eastern-European accent. Neither feels comfortable giving their last names to a journalist intruding on their turf. Both men have been coming to the bathhouse for nearly 20 years.

Victor and Jack are interrupted by the arrival of Chris Gibson, a lanky 30-something.  Jack leaps up to hug Gibson while other groups on the deck shout hello like old friends. Gibson has been coming to the bathhouse for 16 years, and is also a member of the Wednesday Group. He plops down next to Victor, instantly at home.

“I walked past this place,” Chris says of his first time, “and thought, ‘What the fuck is this place?’” Jack laughs while other tables make good-natured jokes about what took Gibson so long to show up today and tease Victor for talking to a journalist.

Inside, and behind closed doors, ‘trained professionals’ perform the particularly Russian culmination of the banya: the ‘platza treatment.’ For platza, one of the bathhouse’s masseurs hits the client with fragrant branches, twigs, and leaves. The branches are usually birch, but Dmitry’s bathhouse uses oak because it’s more available.

More than simply whipping their customers, the banya’s platza (like everything in the bathhouse) is designed to stimulate blood flow and health. There is technique to it, though Dmitry concedes it is sometimes just “a bunch of Russian guys hitting each other.” It’s a lot of work but it sets the Russian baths apart from other spas. It feels like a warm, fragrant, manly slap across your whole body, and it actually does feel good.

Despite the recession, business has been good. The clientele is made up of a core of regulars plus a constant flow of tourists thanks to write-ups in guidebooks and features on the omnipresent Taxi TVs. But the baths were a community staple long before the attention, Dmitry says. “If you’ve ever lived in the [East Village], you’ve come to this place.”

While clients might be drawn in by the rich smell of Eucalyptus wafting from the door, Lev Solon, the front-desk manager, has found another reason to stay. Holding a visitor’s hands firmly in his, Solon, a 66-year-old Russian-turned-New Yorker, says the banya “makes you feel powerful.” Using the banya at 8 a.m. every morning invigorates and rejuvenates him throughout the day. “Now, I’m not tired, I go out to discotheque!”

Photo – Zachary Sniderman

Leave a Reply