Vertical Tabs

Steam swirls against your skin. Sweat drips from your pores. Snippets of Russian float in the heavy air. Kak dela. Nichivo. Zdrastvooyte. This is Red Square Spa.

In operation since 1906, Red Square has been a staple of Wicker Park for over a century. Over the years, its ownership has changed hands and modern additions—a spa, a restaurant, bar—have been made. But it still has retained traditional elements of the Russian bathhouse: the banya (sauna rooms), the cedar benches, the banny venik (bundles of twig branches with leaves).

Yet, even with 100-plus years under its belt, Red Square is a relatively new development within the larger history of Russian baths. That’s because the tradition that Red Square is steeped in is an old one, over 1,000 years, in fact.

The first written mention of Russian baths came in the oldest surviving Russian chronicle—the Tale of Bygone Years, dated 1113 AD—in the record describing events of 945 AD. The same chronicle provides an account of the baths from Saint Andrew’s perspective, which he gave after his travels in the land inhabited by different Slavic tribes who later lived in and around an early Slavic state called the Kievan Rus.  Andrew is rumored to have said that, amid all of his travels throughout Russian and Slavic lands, the Russian bath stood out as the most marvelous object he had encountered.

Although Andrew’s account was written over two millennia ago, his description of the bath is still vivid and lively to the modern reader.  In 6 AD, he described the baths as a wondrous place where heat, relaxation, and pain intermingled. He wrote,

 Wondrous to relate, I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young twigs and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not  a mere washing but a veritable torment.

A veritable torment. That’s pretty strong language coming from a man who would later be crucified.  Yet the pain—and ecstasy—of the bath is still as central to the bath as it was in Andrew’s days.

The lashing that he’s talking about is what some bathers do with supple twigs and bundles of young tree branches called banny venik. This is something familiar to Professor Valentina Pichugin’s Russian 301 students, who visited Red Square in November through Chicago Studies’ Course Connections Program. 

Pichugin’s student Natalie Yaw, a third year chemistry major, described the difference between reading about the baths in her Russian Civilizations course and experiencing it firsthand. Yaw said, “You can read about a dry steam room that’s 200 degrees, but when you get there and you step into a room that is 200 degrees Fahrenheit, that is absolutely something else. It was insane.”

She went on to describe how in Russia, bathers typically go outside and jump in the snow after sitting in an especially hot room. In Wicker Park, of course, this wasn’t an option, but Red Square has adjusted to Chicago by having ice-cold buckets of water and an emergency shower which bathers can hop into when the heat gets to them. She said, “When you’re reading about someone jumping out of a sauna and rolling around in the snow, you’re like, ‘That’s. . .  crazy—who would do that?’ But then when you are at 200 degrees, you’re like, ‘That sounds amazing. If there was snow here, I would do it.’” Visiting Red Square made the texts she’d read come to life in a visceral way, making the “crazy” things she’d read about seem intensely sane.

Joshua Heath, a master’s student in the Divinity School and another of Pichugin’s students, added, “It was initially kind of overwhelming. It is incredibly hot, it is incredibly hot.” He went on, “It’s a bit of a shock to the body at first, but . . . as you kind of repeat the process it actually becomes very, very, very relaxing and very calming.”

This is exactly what Pichugin wanted—for students to experience bath culture and come to their own conclusions about it. Whether their impressions be positive or negative didn’t matter all that much; it was the experience and the immersion of it that was most important.

Pichugin elaborated on her goal of having students visit Red Square, saying, “I’m basically trying to . . . show them the way to go past stereotypes. Because we all have stereotypes when it comes to other cultures.” She went on, “If you’re from a small town in America, or, not very small, but a not very culturally diverse town in America, you’ll come to Chicago like, ‘Bathhouse, are you serious?’” But after visiting Red Square, Pichugin said, students are able to formulate their own opinions—firsthand accounts, not blanket stereotypes or ideas—on what they think about Russian bathhouses, testing if their stereotypes hold or if they don’t. 

Pichugin went on to describe how bathers’ experiences are supposed to be driven by what they feel comfortable with, not by external pressures or fellow bathers. Even if a bather blisses out in a hot or cool pool of water, she shouldn’t urge her friends to do the same. A bather’s experience is meant to be tailored to what she feels like doing on any given day.

She also emphasized that the visit to the bathhouse wasn’t simply a field trip. Instead, it was an experiential learning opportunity, a technique which is central to her approach to teaching. For Pichugin, it’s far more important that students use language in context, in situations that students might encounter if they travel to Russia or areas in which Russian is spoken.

In fact, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature (DSLL) at the University works closely with Chicago Studies to create opportunities which allow language to come into context. A small department, DSLL integrates its curricula into other aspects of the University through cross-listed courses, public events, and a study abroad course, “Russian Civilizations,” based out of Paris. The Russian bath experiential learning trip, along with another trip during the winter quarter, is part and parcel of the department’s effort to have Russian language students engage with Russian culture. 

The visit to Red Square also allowed Pichugin’s class to explore the Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village area. Yaw described how she and some of her classmates passed a handful of Polish grocery stores on their Blue Line commute to Red Square, stopping on their way back so that one of her classmates could pick up frozen pierogies. There was also a theater nearby, about which Yaw said, “I’d like to look into the theater and go back because that would be really cool, if they put on shows that are in English. It was really cool to see a new neighborhood and check it out a little bit.”

The visit to Red Square, then, connected Pichugin’s students with a tradition steeped in at least two millennia’s worth of history and with an area that’s come into its own over the past 150 years. In a way that is uniquely Chicagoan, Red Square and its surrounding communities unite the past and the present, allowing us all a taste into an ancient tradition—and a bite of a delicious, albeit frozen, pierogi.

February 20, 2018