In my wild and crazy youthful days at BYU, I once considering writing a satirical essay entitled, “An Immodest Proposal.” This was in the midst of the frequent debates regarding short-length, single-strap backpacks for girls, and tight t-shirts. The proposal was that BYU require all students to be nudists. This would have had many benefits: the lustful would quickly have to overcome their tendency to lust or face immediately public embarrassment; we would all much more quickly come in line as regards the healthful living prescriptions of the Word of Wisdom/; and you would avoid seeing pride creep into the community as a result of rich and sumptuous attire. Sadly, it remained only an idea in my head and was never fully written or published.
I mention this because I have recently learned that the one place in my life where I was part of widespread nudity has, in the interim, been closed to missionaries. I speak, of course, of the Russian bath-house, or banya. Many cultures have their traditional bath-houses and each its own “ritualistic” approach to the bath-house. In Russia, one sits in a dry sauna that is very, very hot for as long as one can stand it. Then, you take a dip in a bath filled with freezing cold water. While it sounds terribly unpleasant, it really is quite refreshing (and to hear certain people tell the story, one could get a “banya buzz” from doing it).
Of course, you did all of this in the nude. In Russia, which has roughly European mores regarding nudity, there are many public bath-houses. In these anyone can walk in off the street and start undergoing the banya process. They are segregated to some degree (most will allow coed private parties, but aside from that there are men’s days and women’s days with sex appropriate attendants). Nonetheless, you could potentially find yourself mingling with the literally naked masses if you so desired.
Generally speaking, missionaries valued banyas first and foremost as sites for baptisms. We had no fonts in Russia when I was there and banyas were the only places (aside from rivers and lakes) where baptisms could take place. Missionaries would rent the banya for a private party, get there a little early to make sure there were no naked dawdlers at the baptism, attempt to solemnize the area by replacing the vodka ads with pictures from the Gospel Art Kit, and start playing hymns on the tape recorders. Of course, renting the banya itself could be a dangerous proposition. In my first area, my trainer was looking for a new banya for a baptism, because the one we usually went to was out of our area and relatively expensive. So he made an appointment for us to scout out a local banya. What the receptionist failed to tell him was that we would be attending on a “women’s day” and that they didn’t think they would have to shut the place down to give us a tour. So we were ushered into the common sauna area where we were shocked by a sea of pink female flesh. I have never again given my shoes such intense scrutiny.
The secondary use to which missionaries put the banya was bathing. Every now and again, a group of missionaries would pool funds and go to a banya. Once again, this was a strictly segregated gathering: only missionaries and only elders or sisters. Once again, everyone was naked. This was not merely a matter of conventionality. As one modest/unlucky elder discovered, wearing wet clothing in the banya actually makes it hotter where the cloth touches flesh. However, in the banya, I think that there are other equally important reasons for the universal nakedness. As someone who has always been uncomfortable with my body type, it was strange how little I thought about my looks (or the looks of the other missionaries) in the banya. We were all vaguely pink (there were few missionaries of color in my mission), we were all sweaty and smelly, and we were all just there. That’s all you can really do in a banya: just be there. It is way too hot to attempt anything else.
It was a way to take the strangeness and otherness of Russian culture and become a part of it. Our mission wasn’t a particularly easy mission (although it was, apparently, easier than the typical Western European mission). Our Mission President frequently offered general counsel on combating depression. Sitting in a banya with your fellow missionaries made you a brotherhood in a way.
I was saddened to hear that counsel has been given to LDS missionaries in Russia to stop going to banyas. I don’t know the reasons for the revised counsel and I am sure that there were good ones. I just remember that my own reasons for going were good, too. As a stranger in a strange land, it can be reassuring to note that your companions are as lost, sweaty, and naked as you are. It can make them your friends.