Banya Dialogs: Roman Borukhov and The Lanterns.

Banya Dialogues is a recurring section of The Banya Journal, where we talk to people who dedicated a significant part of their life to the banya movement. They explain their philosophy, experience, and understanding of the banya culture.

Zen-platza at Archimedes

I knew exactly what to expect. Venik, in a wave of hot air, was supposed to land on my upper back gently at first, quickly escalating to vigorous lashing. The rhythmic sound of platza and the sensation of twigs hitting my body would bring me to a kind of heat singularity where all I could think of was the desire to dip myself into the cold plunge

This is precisely what did not happen. Roman Borukhov, the St. Petersburg platza style practitioner, appeared to be more of a shaman than a platza master.

“First rule of platza, – he announced – minimize the contact of venik with the body!” Did I hear that right? Is it some sort of a Zen koan, in the spirit of “gateless gate” and “sound of one hand clapping”? To me, platza meant hitting someone with venik in a steamy room. Minimizing the use of venik seemed akin to saying that the first rule of enjoying steak is to become a vegetarian.

Roman was using the twigs to send waves of heat and aroma my way, barely touching me with leaves. Wave after wave, hot air enveloped me, quickly accomplishing the same goal as the platza I was used to. I was thoroughly heated up, but this way, it was done without fuss, with more intent, and with more space to experience the sensation of heat. Was I using venik the wrong way all these years?

“Second rule – rotate!” I turned to my side, and the process continued. It felt like a conversation, where the ideas were expressed through heat, while venik served as punctuation. I was thinking that if Moscow’s style of life is more physical and direct, St. Pete’s is poetic and creative and that life imitates not just art, but also platza (although one could argue that the two are related).

I’m sure there were more rules, but I had to get out: St. Pete’s steaming style was effective.

Enter The Lanterns

In 1871, a Russian scientist and merchant Mikhail Voronin opened a public bathhouse at the corner of River Moyka Bank and Fonarny (translated as “Lantern”) lane in St. Petersburg. The choice of location could have been considered risky – Fonarny lane had a reputation as a Red Lights Quarter of 19th century St. Petersburg.

Mikhail Voronin (1838 – 1903), Russian botanist and micologist, the founder of The Lanterns Banya.

Yet, Mikhail Voronin had a vision for this project that would make it stand out and, perhaps, change this disreputable neighborhood. He approached the famous architect Pavel Suzor with an offer to create a design for Voroninskie Public Baths, named after the founder. From the materials used (for example, cement from Portland that hardens with exposure to humidity) to the engineering innovations (such as marble pools and fountains with control over the water temperature and level), the creativity of Suzor and the scientific approach of Voronin were evident in every element of the establishment.

Voroninskie Public Baths functioned under this name until the 1930s. At the same time, the people called it The Lanterns after the street on which it was situated. The young Soviet State, hellbent on erasing evidence of the Imperial grandeur and its ambassadors, rejected both options, renaming the establishment to an anonymous “Banya No. 43.”

Banya No. 43 during the Soviet Period

Jazz, Rock, and Two Cold Veniks.

“I started coming to Banya No. 43 right after returning from the army in 1967. I became a regular in this banya until I came to the US in December 1990.”

Roman Borukhov, my Zen-platza-master and a professor at Lincoln University, was sitting across from me, ready to answer a few questions for the Banya Journal. When you talk to Roman, you immediately notice the unusual care with which he chooses his words. In his previous career as a simultaneous interpreter for the State Department, this would be a job requirement.

“I went to Banya No. 43 one or two times a week. This was where I acquired the basic skills of platza and venik preparation. I learned how and when to cut twigs, tie them together, soak them, and so on.”

I understand you have also taught other people. 

I was approaching maturity, less than fresh, so to speak. When new people would come that I ended up teaching.

What kind of people were regulars of Banya No. 43?

All of it was, in reality, connected to common interests such as jazz and modern music. Boris Grebenshchikov was my client. He would come on Wednesdays. Also, the whole art-group Mitki would come. Then, there was the connection to the Leningrad Rock Club. All in all, it was an enthusiastic circle of people focused on rock, jazz, and banya.

Here I need to offer some context.
Boris Grebenschikov, a musician and a founder of the cult rock band Aquarium, is a Russian version of Bob Dylan mixed with The Beatles in their experimentation phase peppered with anti-establishment aesthetics. A legend I and many of my peers grew up listening to.

“This train is on fire and we have nowhere to run” sang Grebenshchikov, perfectly capturing the feelings of a generation (you need to switch on the closed captioning for English translation).

Leningrad Rock Club was an attempt by the Soviet government to create a highly sterilized version of rock music that was seeping through the Western border. It was supposed to be supervised and controlled by KGB. Yet, one good thing about rockers – at least then – was that they were notoriously difficult to control. As a result, the Leningrad Rock Club became a base for rebellious young bands, bringing the audience to oppose the Soviet regime.

The final scene from the cult film “Assa” (1987) featuring rock-band Kino, the stars of the Leningrad Rock Club and the authors of the rebellious anthem of the generation.

Why would people come to Banya No. 43?

Everyone was attracted to our passion and enthusiasm for the steam. Likely, many people did not understand the importance of banya for health. Yet, the cultural and social aspect was very highly valued. The people understood the value of such communication. Archimedes has the same ideology, which is very good. 

Yes, I think it is pretty clearly the philosophy of Archimedes – banya as a social club. How did the Banya No. 43 club function?

Usually, after the end of the banya procedures, we would set the table. Beer was brought in, although people rarely overindulged. There was a kitchen, and they cooked things like a rotisserie chicken. All of it was pretty affordable, by the way. 

We also followed each other activities outside of banya. I would collect all kinds of English-language literature. Grebenschikov shared a book on shamanism with me. He was always attracted to metaphysical literature. We were exchanging literature on yoga; it was really becoming popular.  

The core group – the regulars – was about 5 to 12 people. We always celebrated birthdays together. Those close to rock music and Kolya Vasin celebrated the birthdays of members of The Beatles. 

Another side note.
Kolya Vasin was a true eccentric. His occupation can be described as “Beatles-ologist,” the number one fan of The Beatles in the Soviet Union. He petitioned the city of Leningrad (a Soviet name for St. Petersburg) to be renamed Lennon-grad. I met him in 2010, and we spent an hour listening to his description of the John Lennon Temple of Peace and Love that he was planning to build. Jokes aside, through his “Soviet hippie” passion for The Beatles, he contributed more than many Western politicians ever could to the dissolution of the USSR by popularizing the message of freedom, love, and peace.

What is the philosophy behind the St. Petersburg-style platza?

St. Petersburg’s school presupposes minimization of contact of venik with the body at first. Venik is mainly used as a fan. The tactile aspect – touching the body with venik – is added later, culminating at the end of the experience. Also, rotating the client is critical to cover the whole surface of the body. 

Additionally, there are several modes of St. Petersburg platza. For instance, one popular approach included switching several veniks soaked in cold water. Platza masters change as well. The insatiable client exhausts the first platza master, who then calls in the reinforcement, which arrives with cold veniks. The process continues, heating the client further. If this is not enough, the third platza master comes in with new cold veniks bringing the client to an absolutely ecstatic state. 

Why cold veniks?

It cools a person down and allows them to experience heating up a bit longer.

Can you offer a piece of advice for people who come to banya?

I owe banya a certain amount of resilience. If you consider that I am 80, you can see the effects of banya on me. 

From my perspective, the most crucial advice about banya is to have a system. Don’t do it haphazardly, not just for New Year’s. You have to have a system and come regularly. 

Also, hats off to Dr. Brodsky [the founder of Archimedes Banya]. He told me before the year 2000 that he would build a banya. And he did it. When Archimedes opened, it had no analogs anywhere in the US, and I’ve been to many places across the country. Now, perhaps, there are some similar establishments…

Archimedes must have played a role in expanding the banya movement.

Definitely! But a lot of them still don’t come close to Archimedes. 

By the end of the 1990s, Banya No. 43 was considered derelict and was eventually closed in 2006. This was the end of the story for Banya No. 43, but surprisingly, the beginning of a new life for The Lanterns. After a decade of reconstruction works funded by a group of investors, the banya was reopened under the nickname given by the people. The restoration of the original interior of the banya was done in a very thoughtful manner and with a lot of respect for the history and material aspects of the tradition.

The Lanterns restored: Historic cast-iron water taps and alongside modern materials.

It remains to be seen if the new version of The Lanterns can also re-establish the spirit of banya as a social club, described by Roman Borukhov. What is clear – and selfishly beneficial – is that this spirit is alive and well in Archimedes, and the St. Pete’s banya tradition continues to flourish in San Francisco.

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