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18 November 2018

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With Light Steam

A personal journey through the Russian baths
By Bryon MacWilliams (NIU Press, $24.95)

There are few things as immutable to Russian culture as the banya. The banya, adages tell us is “an entire philosophy,” “communion,” “life.” The banya is, in fact “everything.”

In Moscow and Muscovites, Vladimir Gilyarovsky begins his exhaustive ethnological description of Moscow’s banyas by noting that “The banya was the one place that no Muscovite avoided. No master tradesman, no grandee, no poor man, no rich man could live without the commercial baths.”

MacWilliams, newly arrived in Moscow in the mid-1990s, soon found he could not live without banyas. He was sucked into the bathing subculture, ostensibly seeking to understand the mysterious culture of Russia through the rite that is the banya.

Yes, there is plenty of talk here about steaming techniques, eucalyptus leaves, felt hats and hidden rituals, but the broader focus of the book is on one man’s decade-long quest to observe Russian culture through the lens of this most Slavic of traditions. Often very frank (this is a PG-13 read at least) and open, With Light Steam is a personal and engaging look at a side of Russian life that few westerners can claim entry to or experience in.

MacWilliams travels the breadth and depth of Russian following his passion for the banya, from the Solovetsky Islands, where Gulag prisoners once bathed in bitter cold, to “field banyas” in Siberia, showing the lengths some will go to exercise this millennial-old custom. And traveling with him is a joy. He is a refreshingly self-deprecating, easy-going traveler and a superb storyteller. This is a book not to be missed.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2014