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How the public baths worked in the Soviet period and how they were used.
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For a significant percentage of city dwellers in the Soviet period, the public baths were the place where they could wash with hot water. Tenants of overcrowded apartments frequently had no hot water at all (water had to be heated on the kitchen stove or with the wood-fueled water heater in the bathroom). Often enough the apartment didn't even have a bathroom; this happened when part of a large apartment was made into a separate communal one.

The baths were a very democratic place. A ticket cost the same as a loaf of white bread or a beer: 20 kopecks. (See The family budget). There were separate sections for men and women. Little girls went with their mothers and little boys with their fathers. Upon arriving, people would get undressed in a dressing room where there were benches to sit on; shelves and hooks on the wall above the bench were used for storing clothes. When they had taken off all their clothes, people grabbed their soap, their washing sponge ("mochalka"), sometimes a bunch of willow or oak twigs with leaves, and sometimes a small metal wash tub from home. Armed with all this, they went into what was called the "wash room." This was, as a rule, an impressively large room with tiled walls and either a tiled floor or simply a cement floor. There would be several shower heads along one wall; along another were huge faucets for hot and (separately) for cold water. People washed themselves on long, low benches.

People who came without their own wash basins—and lots of people did not bring them—first of all had to get a tin one that belonged to the baths. Everyone had to find a place on the bench. If the baths weren't very crowded, then finding a place wasn't a problem: overturned basins lay on the benches, and in theory you could even take two; one for your head and one for your feet. Once you had a basin, you went up to a faucet and rinsed it in very hot water, and then took some more very hot water and used that to rinse your place on the bench. Then you filled your basin with water of the right temperature for washing. You washed with your sponge, using water from your basin.

If there weren't any basins available, the would-be bather had to find someone who seemed to be finishing up and make sure that he inherited that person's basin and bench space.

If there were showers, they were used for a final rinsing after soaping or after leaving the "steam room." The steam room was smaller. It had several wooden "shelves" that looked like giant steps; people sat on them. The temperature was very high: around 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit). A few overheated sweaty people would have climbed onto the top shelf where they whipped themselves with their bunch of leafy twigs that had been doused in hot water. You didn't have to go to the steam room during every visit, but the tradition was widespread. People in the steam room were, of course, as naked as in the wash room, but some of them would be wearing special felt caps to protect their heads from the heat.

People in the baths did small favors for one another. For example, it would be perfectly acceptable to ask a stranger to scrub your back with a soapy sponge. People also asked each other to guard their wash basins.

Bathers brought their towels and soap from home. They could also, for a small sum, get soap at the baths and, by the more comfortable 1970s, also sheets that were used as towels. Men wrapped in sheets, vaguely resembling patricians of the declining Roman Empire, might sit in the dressing room for long periods, talking and eating sandwiches, eggs, and pickles that they had brought from home. Sometimes groups of friends went to the baths together. In their briefcases (men often carried large briefcases) they would have not only food, but also alcohol.

The baths often had other services attached to them: a hair salon, a kiosk for shoe repair. Nearby would be a kiosk where men would have a post-bath beer. Even people who had a bathroom and hot water in their apartments liked to go to the baths. For those who were careful about personal cleanliness, once a week was normal, although it wasn't unusual to find people who went once a month. It should be kept in mind that apart from the baths, the only way many people could keep clean was to wash with cold water in a communal kitchen. People made liberal use of perfume and eau-de-cologne (deodorants were unavailable until the very end of the Soviet era).

The baths were an important part of Soviet culture. The coming of communism proclaimed by Khrushchev was supposed to start with free public transport and free public baths.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Zoshchenko, Mikhail (1961). Scenes from the Bathhouse, and Other Stories of Communist Russia. Translated from Russian by Sidney Monas. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Click the image to see a larger version, uncropped and annotated.
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