Sweating it out in hot pursuit of a spanking good story

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The Independent Online
I do not believe I have ever interviewed anyone while we were both naked, and I am certain I have never done so in sweltering heat while gently lashing myself with a small brush of birch leaves. I shall not do so again.

At the time it seemed like a good idea. Was it not possible, we reasoned, that the Russians would pull the same trick as the British at the last general election and, in interview after interview, swear blind they would vote against the government, only to do the opposite?

As tomorrow's Russian parliamentary elections approached, was it not imperative, then, to seek the public's views in the one place where there are no secrets, where they sweat out their hangovers and stew over their money worries, their marital guilt, and all the other tangled problems of their troubled lives? Was it not time for a trip to the banya?

Disrobing in the 100-year-old Sandunovski banya, Moscow's oldest baths, a former haunt of Chekhov's, is a little like stripping off in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. If you are not overawed by the beautifully painted stucco work of the hallway or the ornate stone staircase, then you will be by the tall ante-room, clad entirely in dark carved wood and lit by stainedglass windows, where you prepare for the baths themselves.

The well-muscled men, wearing tattoos and gold chains, are also fairly intimidating. These days the mafia are the cardinals of modern Russia. Here, Moscow's wealthier males are to be found sitting around in booths, wearing nothing but a sheet wrapped around their waists, like a toga. The already-cleansed drink vodka and beer, eat lunch brought to them on a trolley, order up a manicure in a nearby cubicle or watch the television at the end of the room. The uncleansed gingerly unveil and set off for the baths themselves, passing into a large tiled room to pick up their birch leaves, and on into the steam room itself.

Thus it was that a colleague and I found ourselves standing in intense heat, wearing nothing but a pair of rubber slippers. We had declined the offer of a small felt hat, much like a tea-cosy, which Russian males like to wear in the baths to protect their hair from the near- scalding heat. In a refreshing sign of Russia's embrace of capitalism, one slipper bore the Adidas logo, the other was emblazoned cheerfully with the word "Nike".

It is not uncommon for journalists to display nervous habits while interviewing strangers. We click our pens or doodle, waiting for a story to unfold. In the absence of either pen or notebook, the only socially acceptable apparatus at hand was the birch broom. Aficionados of the banya beat themselves with these during their steaming in the belief that this opens the pores.

"What [thwack] do you think [thwack, thwack] will happen [thwack, thwack, thwack] in the elections?" Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack . . . As the welts rise, so does the heat. Ten minutes is the maximum even the most dogged interrogator can stand before setting off, at headlong speed, to plunge into the green waters of the nearby swimming pool, surrounded by classical colonnades and overlooked by a statue of Venus.

"I spit on the elections," said a young man, dripping with sweat. And he did. "It's all your fault. You should have come to our aid in 1918, then none of this would have happened." He spat again. "There is no one worth voting for and it won't make any difference who I vote for anyway [spits]. Forty-three parties and no one to vote for! [spits] And what does it matter to you in the West. You can live there and write about us, but it is we who have to live through it [spits]."

Outside, Nikolai Nesorov, 60, a government worker, with a boxer's nose and a crewcut, was eating fish and drinking vodka, with a beer chaser: "We need a man like Stalin to help us out of this dead-end, but I don't see anyone like him. Gorbachev - he's a prostitute. Zhirinovsky [the extreme nationalist leader] - well, pfffff [he waves his hand dismissively]." He planned to vote Communist.

Back in the changing-room, Yuri, a mustachioed man of about 35, had a question.

"Are you spies?" he demanded, seeing that - although still almost naked - we had our notebooks out.

Some people apparently labour under the belief that the British security services will pretty well go to any lengths to winkle out information.

"What we need in all the countries around us is democracy," he continued, satisfied that neither of us was from MI6. "It will weaken them - whilst having less democracy here. Then we will be strong."

One of the keenest banya fans is Boris Yeltsin. When politics goes wrong, he retreats to the baths with his bodyguard and close friend, Alexander Korzhakov. Rumour has it that the Kremlin elite can tell who's in or out of favour by the order in which they are allowed to birch the presidential back.

It took a lot of sweat and tears to reach this conclusion, but I can now say this with confidence: if our visit to the baths is any guide, come Monday, Mr Yeltsin may well be seen heading for the nearest steam room.