It turns out you don’t have to buy thousand-dollar tickets, endure security and fly more than 12 hours to journey from San Francisco to Moscow—you can simply visit Archimedes Banya in the Bayview.
The tastefully austere gray palace at 748 Innes Ave. could have been airlifted from Novgorod or Novosibirsk: the apathetic front desk attendants, the socialist-realist murals in shades of gray and yellow, the disorientingly dark-walled tavern full of pelmeni and borscht.
But the most authentic component is the banya process, one that includes steam rooms so hot they glue contact lenses to eyeballs, a plunge pool so cold it feels like melted ice and bundles of birch branches (venik) with which you can beat your fellow bathers.
It works like this: You check in at the front desk, where you receive a bathrobe and a bracelet that serves as your locker key, and descend to the only space separated by sex in the sprawling complex. There, you change out of your clothes and retrieve the black plastic sandals and two crisp white towels waiting for you in your locker.
The majority of bathers don’t choose to wear a swimsuit, so as you move into the banya itself, you are greeted by skin—lots and lots of it.
After showering, you move into the Russian sauna, or parilka, which distinguishes itself by combining a high temperature with humidity that can be continuously upped by splashing water onto a stove clad with handmade tiles from Russia. A frigid cold plunge beckons sweaty bathers as they emerge glassy-eyed from the saunas, the cycle of alternating hot and cold allegedly a miracle cure (and broken up with breaks for beer and snacks in the upstairs lounge).
“If you can talk, it’s not hot enough,” said one bather, repeating a saying he learned from Archimedes owner Mikhail Brodsky, whose name is tossed around as if he's a guru on the top bench thronged with bare bodies. It is a Russian tradition as old as the banya itself to wear a woolen cap to protect your ears from the extreme heat (Russian babushki have also advanced other rationales, such as protecting your hair and not allowing the steam to escape your body).
The naked arrangement can lead to some awkward moments. Offering a courtesy grin to a man emerging from a pool whose hardware is at eye level leaves you wondering about unintended connotations. A friendly chat with someone new can abruptly have heightened meaning when you recognize you are naked, talking to a stranger who is also naked.
In a world full of nearly always-clothed bodies, it’s overwhelming to see so many body parts, especially since the men typically outnumber the women 9 to 1—and 9 out of 10 bathers choose to forgo clothing.
But something happens as you move through the banya cycles and your eyes adjust to the steam. Bodies are simply bodies, and the chatter starts to seem like what it is: casual. Plus, you are beginning to feel amazing, more relaxed than you can remember. A condition some have nicknamed “banya brain” has set in.
There’s a tile in the hallway of steam rooms at Archimedes depicting a kerchiefed woman with plump breasts beating the back of an old man with that bundle of branches. “Banya is the second life,” the image reads in Russian, attesting to the centrality of the bathhouse in Russian culture.
The banya is where business deals are done, as Viggo Mortensen immortalized for Western audiences in Eastern Promises. There’s nowhere to hide a weapon, and no way to wear a wire. You reveal your tattoos, which in the Russian criminal underworld declare allegiances and even your biography. It’s where the world turns topsy-turvy and begins anew, as in the film Irony of Fate, which is shown every New Year’s Eve in Russia. In the movie, lovers accidentally exchange partners after a bathhouse visit, thanks to identical-looking communist-bloc buildings.
“It’s the idea that you open up your pores and sweat out all the evilness, all the nastiness,” said Ethan Pollock, author of Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse and a professor of history at Brown University.
“The banya is a social space that speaks to a Russian sense of leveling, of egalitarianism, and people’s outside identity is stripped bare,” Pollock said.
In a world where we are constantly distracted, there’s a modern-day magic that happens at the banya, a contemporary parallel to that historic past. Freed from devices and with nothing to do but talk, you shed your props in the same way it’s been done for centuries throughout Russia. You lose your hang-ups and your concerns, your worries draining out of your oh-so-open pores.
You’ll find languorous bodies scattered throughout the Archimedes complex that spans four levels and includes a cafe, spa, TV room and roof deck: bathrobed men snoozing on extra-wide easy chairs, beer drinkers stretched out in the café, bodies lounging beside the lukewarm pool.
But the banya can also be brutal.
“Bend over and brace your legs,” the bathhouse assistant said while preparing for an aromatherapy treatment on a recent Friday. She clutched bundles of birch and oak branches meant to improve circulation and increase heat. The bodies on the top bench instantly complied, and the woman—in a black midriff top and short shorts—walked down the row, beating the bare back of each bather.
She alternated between three scents—peppermint, bergamot and beer citrus—flexing her abs as she stood on the top and hottest bench to whip a towel through the air (a move that ups the temperature and steam even further that another bather nicknamed the “Misha-copter” in honor of the bathhouse owner).
“Happy Friday!” she called out, and the sweaty bathers burst into applause.
The sauna can be an endurance competition.
“Good ideas come to you when you’re sitting naked in a bathtub,” said Brodsky, the owner and founder of Archimedes, referring to the bathhouse’s namesake, a Greek mathematician who discovered the law of buoyancy while in his soaking tub.
Brodsky himself received the nickname Archimedes at the famed Sanduny Baths in Moscow as a banya-obsessed Ph.D. student. Brodsky had first tried the banya when he was 19 years old in Western Siberia and was immediately hooked.
“I am the Archimedes of the 21st century,” Brodsky said, noting they are both applied mathematicians. To most people in the bathhouse, Brodsky is simply “Misha,” the ruler of his bathhouse kingdom. In case there is any doubt, he sports a gray bathing cap that says “Boss.”
He came to California in 1989 to work as a research professor at the University of California Berkeley and spent 11 years there before opening his bathhouse on New Year’s Eve in 2011 after more than a decade of work to realize his dream. He moved on from Berkeley to become the president of Oakland’s Lincoln University, where he still works today—while also visiting the banya twice a week.
“The steam gives you energy and invigorates you,” he said, pointing out that at 72, he had just played a soccer game. He has become a student of world bathhouse cultures, and Archimedes represents not only the Russian tradition but a blend with Turkish and Finnish styles (there is a dry sauna and a traditional steam room on-site).
Archimedes continues to expand its offerings, with comedy nights and brunches, clothing-optional rooftop yoga and international bathhouse tours. Most importantly, the banya is a social place, Brodsky said.
It’s also the only co-ed clothing-optional bathhouse in the world, according to him.
“Everyone said it was crazy, that there was no way we could do it,” Brodsky said. “But San Francisco allowed it.” It’s one of the few differences from the Russian banya, where women are always separated from men.
“You need to shock with a marketing tool,” he said. “And it’s worked.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org