Weston Hall got a new look last Thursday when a Russian steamhut, or bania (BAHN-ya) went up on the front lawn. The real action was on Friday and Saturday, though, when over a hundred students and a few brave faculty spent time steaming inside the structure and rolling in the snow on the lawn.
This event was the brainchild of Visiting Assistant Russian Professor Ian Helfant. “I’m always looking for creative ways to get students to study Russian,” Helfant said, “and it occurred to me that if I got them together in a Russian bania with a temperature of about 110-degrees and a lot of steam I’d be half-way there.”
Professor Helfant has been pursuing this project since before Fall classes began, when the portrayal of a bania in a video of Siberian whitewater rafting got a good response. Early on he mentioned the idea to Dean Murphy then pursued logistics and funding. Although Helfant was the organizer of the project, he is quick to acknowledge the help he received from others on campus. The CUL, ARC, College Council and Outing Club all gave financial support, and Helfant lauded the work of the Buildings and Grounds Crew who constructed the temporary structure.
Professor Helfant especially praised the enthusiasm and creativity of Building Maintenance Supervisor Thomas Mahar. Helfant credits Mahar for “crucial innovations” in bringing the project to fruition. The heavy-duty plastic over scaffolding was Mahar’s design, for instance, and a second radiator was the work of the construction staff when it appeared the temperature would not go above 90-degrees with the original one-radiator design. Steam came directly from the campus steam vent.
All these efforts paid off, however. 118 students signed the register inside Weston Hall, and one participant guessed another thirty at least missed the register. Helfant considers the event a success, although he was disappointed with the low faculty attendance. Notable exceptions were Professor Pedraza and Outing Club Director Scott Lewis. Lewis and his wife Bernice were the very first to visit the bania.
Ms. Lewis, who teaches a winter study on songwriting afterwards said she wished she could enjoy a bania experience every day, and described it very positively: “We rolled in the snow and waved to people on route 2; they didn’t wave back. I was warm all day afterwards.”
Her husband revealed his WOC loyalties by reflecting that the bania “expands people’s ideas about winter and how much fun it can be, that you don’t just have to be cooped up insideA lot of cultures relate to winter in different ways and this is one interesting and fun way: beating each other silly and then getting steamed. It gives new meaning to getting steamed.”
Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, focusing on the cross-cultural experience of the bania and the therapeutic fun of the experience, especially the traditions of flagellation with leafy branches and periodic rolls in the snow. German Teaching Assistant Markus Mooslechner noted that the bania was “Not only a physical experience; there’s way more to ita social get together, and a spiritual thing.”
Rolls in the snow were a favorite of participants. Chrissy Fletcher ’01 said she and her friends did this four or five times. “At first it hurt . . but then it was really cool. Everyone kept saying it was good for your skin, but it was just really cool because it was something we’d never done before.”
Senior Bill Kelsey was somewhat less enthusiastic about this aspect of the bania experience, however. “People were into it,” he said, “but the snow was colder than I thought. I thought it would be refreshing, but it was just frigidly cold. Maybe more vodka would have helped with that.”
Professor Helfant also admitted that lack of alcohol was one of the necessary limits to the authenticity of this bania. “We had to make some concessions — bathing suits, for example. We also went without the Vodka and beer. Instead we had hot spiced cider and Russian Pirozhki (a Russian pastry with filling).” Sophomore Igor Polenov also provided a variety of Russian songs. Helfant said that Polenov arrived Friday mid-morning, “took in the scene” and immediately ran off for his guitar and amplifier, “in typical Russian fashion.”
But despite some concessions, Helfant seemed pleased to have given students some flavor of Russian culture. “The Russians are a very sensual people and they’re comfortable with forms of contact and proximity that we Americans aren’t used to. For example I saw two Russian soldiers in Moscow walking down the street holding hands. In the Bania we tried to follow Russian tradition by whacking each other with laurel branches. The Russians use Birch branches, but as I said, we had to make a few concessions.”
Mooslechner, whose home is in Salzburg also focused on the beating, “you whip yourself and that’s good for your skin. We have this tradition at home — whips free your spirit of ghosts and bad influences. It doesn’t only clean your skin, it frees your spirit. A Catharsis, I think that’s the thing.”
Chrissy Fletcher ’01 had a less spiritual take on the beating: “At first I thought , ’This is kind of S&M!’ . . . but it wasn’t as twisted as everyone thought.” Virginia Pyle ’00, who made the trek to Weston from Old I in a swimsuit two times on Saturday, described the branch beating as “The best part, really cool,” but also “had a hard time with it — it’s hard to beat other people.”
The preference for being beaten over beating seemed to be a consensus among students interviewed, but all those who participated raved about the steamhut. One student who didn’t make it to Weston seemed to have less enthusiasm, however. Matt Garin ’01 said that “Pretty much all I knew was it was a bunch of guys getting in the steam, then running around getting their balls frozen off.” No students are known to have been admitted to the health center as a result of this ailment.
And as for Professor Helfant’s stated goal of attracting students to the Russian program? Fletcher said that she had been virtually unaware of the Russian program at Williams before this event but now would consider taking a class with Professor Helfant. Helfant notes that, “I know that Williams isn’t traditionally a big language school, and students are often intimidated by Russian, but they shouldn’t be. We teach almost entirely in Russian from day one, because we believe that the students will come to feel comfortable in the language and adept at using it this way.” He says that the difficulties with this approach can “be minimized by creative teaching.”
One example of this kind of teaching may have come with Helfant’s “total physical response” method in the bania.
“So once I had twenty [students] at my mercy I began the total physical response. I would say a command in Russian and do it at the same time; they would do the same. I started with sit down, stand up, raise your right hand, turn around . . . the worst moment for me came when I sat down directly on the steam vent. I stood up immediately without saying ’stand’ in Russian and since my command of Russian swear words is not quite as expansive as it probably should be, I just pretended it hadn’t happened.”
It is doubtful that anyone walked away from the weekend bania event with a new command of the Russian language, but Helfant certainly managed to earn the attention and respect of a large portion of campus for himself and the Russian program. The extraordinarily positive student response has created talk of a repeat showing of the Williams College bania, perhaps during Winter Carnival. As for that though, Helfant says, “I do have some teaching to take care of.”