Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Ethan Pollock's "Without the Banya We Would Perish"

Ethan Pollock is Associate Professor of History and Slavic Studies at Brown University. He is the author of Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars.

Pollock applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Everywhere experts turned, banyas [Russian bathhouses] were failing to serve the functions now envisioned for them. Increased contact with the peasantry contributed to doctors’ skepticism about rural banyas. The “ignorant peasants” simply could not be trusted to forego dangerous practices and learn to integrate modern medical know-how into their ablutions. Urban banyas were often no better, but for different reasons. Profit-seeking owners, poorly paid and syphilitic workers, decrepit and filthy buildings, and a dangerous mix of various social strata, each seemingly drawn to the banya for different unhealthy reasons, all undermined the banya’s potential....

Experts understood that spending time in damp, poorly ventilated spaces with ubiquitous and filthy objects (such as towels, couches, sponges, and laundry in various states of wash) while in close proximity to dozens if not hundreds of other human beings whose bodies housed parasites was not so good for public health.
Page 99 of Without the Banya We Would Perish addresses one of the central themes of the book – the persistent tension between everyday practices and expert prescriptions for proper behavior. For centuries, Russians in the countryside and in cities made a weekly habit of going to a steam bath (banya). They went for spiritual renewal, physical rejuvenation, and communal bonding. By the second half of the nineteenth century, Russian medical professionals began to see the banya, at least in principle, as a ready-made institution that could help rid the population of contagions. Yet when these experts examined the actual banyas of the Russian empire and confronted what bathers were doing in them, they were aghast. Clients shared sponges and buckets, bathhouse attendants (banshchiki) ignored prohibitions on bloodletting and sex, and banya owners shirked on basic upkeep and even sought to make profits on the very behaviors doctors found abhorrent. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they quickly adapted the medical, instrumentalist view of the banya. The people did not necessarily follow suit.

The book deals with a number of other themes (communal identity, sexuality, politics, and cultural continuities across social and political divides) that are not featured on this page. But page 99 provides a very good browser’s shortcut to the book. In this case, Ford Madox Ford was more or less right.
Learn more about Without the Banya We Would Perish at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue