A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths
By Bryon MacWilliams
Published by Northern Illinois University Press
In 1996 Bryon MacWilliams left the relative stability of the United States for the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, and stayed. Over the course of nearly twelve years he reported on academe and the sciences for the world’s leading publications, and sought out the best baths, or banyas, everywhere he went. His story of Russia through the lens of its bath culture–the most Russian thing there is–begins on a frosty Sunday morning in a gypsy cab traveling to a bathhouse in Moscow, where the steam is conjured by an out-of-work carpenter named Grisha who takes on MacWilliams as a kind of apprentice, allowing him into an otherwise closed world through which MacWilliams sees himself, and Russia, with different eyes. The Russian bathers insist, only half-jokingly, that the American is a spy.
Writing in a highly engaging style, MacWilliams travels the country to convey the breadth of banya culture and what it means to steam, a process–at once a simple cleansing and a deep purification–that awakens the body and quiets the mind, generating waves of good feeling akin to an endorphin high. Each chapter of this splendid book is an episode–spanning from several hours to several days–from the Far North, Moscow, the Ural Mountains, the Solovetsky Islands, and a southern stretch of the Volga River. General readers and scholars alike will be enchanted with this unforgettable portrait of a people and a millennia-spanning tradition.
Bryon MacWilliams is an American writer who reported extensively from Russia and the former Soviet Union from 1996 to 2008. He was the Moscow correspondent for the U.S. weekly newspaper The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has reported for The New York Times, Newsweek, Nature, Science, and other publications. This is his first book.
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