Last week I mentioned Russian baths in my post, which led me to think about the old craggy building on 10th Street in the Lower East Side. Established in 1892, the Russian Baths have served New York’s immigrant Russian community who sought out a little bit of their Soviet home. Today, the Russian Baths still remain and serve as a trip to Soviet Era Moscow.
The moment I stepped into the hot and humid tiled foyer of the Russian Baths, I immediately left behind my “normal” New York City life. The beautiful Ruskie who met me at the utilitarian front desk had an accent so thick I wasn’t sure if he was aware that he had left the homeland. The service at the Russian baths was not like other New York City spas. Unlike the normal greeting of NYC spas: the coddling, pampering, and “May I get you a water with cucumber and lemon?”, the Russian Baths had no frill experience and I found that weirdly refreshing. So many things in New York City comes with bells and whistles and that’s nice when I need a escape.
I stored my bags in the locker room that bordered dingy and wandered the maze of steamy rooms and baths. Everywhere I turned, from the locker room to the sauna, were Russian ladies in their naked glory scrubbing, brushing, washing, or relaxing. I was told that everyone had to wear bathing suits, but that rule was a hit or miss kind of situation. There was a sense of bodily comfort which seemed to be the hallmark of Russian community. Russians were always comfortable with themselves, and that’s a lesson New Yorkers and myself should learn.
From the saunas to the plunge pools, the Russian Baths operated much like I assumed the former Soviet Empire did: frank and always a bit to the extreme. Some rooms like the aptly named “Russian Room” were ferociously hot, ensured a good schvitz, and the only way to cool off was to dump frigid cold water on your heard (nearby sink provided). This practice may sound quite painful, but it actually felt rather good. Much like the Soviet Block, the Russian Room had a harsh exterior that was met with a comforting interior character. The “one toe in the pool to test out the water” method doesn’t work here; you have to be completely ready for a full figurative and literal emersion in the Russian Baths.
The Russian Bath’s “spa” menu didn’t read like the ones I became used to at Great Jones or Caudalie at the Plaza. Instead of a relaxing green tea facial, the closest service here was the Platza Oak Leaf treatment. The treatment sounded great: oak leaves contained an astringent that helped exfoliate the skin while removing any toxins. However, the treatment involved what the baths called a “scrub,” but in reality the scrub was more like a beat down with a broom made of jaggedly sharp oak leaves. Following the oak leaf beating, Victor (my favorite masseur) massaged the remaining knots and cracks out of my system. There was no light touch, and Victor was a strong man. I felt every inch of his strength as his fingers worked their magic across my back. What I lost in a zen like experience on the massage table, I gained the feeling that I never felt better.
The Platza treatment embodied the Russian bath experience for me. The harsh exterior made me doubtful of what the outcome would be. However, in the end the big beast of the Russian Baths knew the old school tricks to take care of me and made me feel better. I was intimidated at first, but I plan to go back there regularly. I’m pretty sure if you venture down to East 10th Street, you’ll feel the same way too.
Featured image courtesy of Robert Stolarik