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The Joy of Sweat

In Russia, inviting a new neighbor to a sauna is the preferred way to break the ice

Author Daniel Allen Illustration Marc Rosenthal

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ST, PETERSBURG – “Birch or oak?” asks Sergei Lesukov, holding up two twiggy bundles resembling tiny brooms. “Birch is good for aches; oak helps lower blood pressure. If your body is in a bad way, I can always beat you with both.”

It’s early morning in the St. Petersburg suburb of Toksovo, and Lesukov, a retired teacher, is strolling the grounds of his dacha wearing nothing but a Hawaiian beach towel. I’ve recently rented the cottage next to his, which apparently means that I just have to try out his banya.

“The hotter the stones, the more steam we make,” he says, piling Altai cedar into a small stove. “The more steam, the more we sweat.”

At 55, Lesukov is hirsute, fit, and good-humored—all qualities that he says can be put down to his daily sweat. “Just look how wrinkle-free I am!” 

Apart from therapeutic benefits, banyas play an important social role in Russia. Vladimir Putin is a devotee, recently recounting a tale in which his sauna caught fire with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder inside.

“They break the ice,” says Lesukov, “and tell me if I’m going to like a new neighbor.” With this, he leads me to a low wooden bench, a bundle of birch twigs in hand. “Think of it more like a gentle massage,” he says with a grin. 

My eye is drawn to a neat row of empty bottles, and I suggest that maybe we could skip straight to that part of Lesukov’s daily routine.

“First timers don’t get to drink vodka,” he says solemnly. “We don’t want you passing out on the lawn.”

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