“The banya is a negative event, a burden in the convict’s life. The dream of getting clean in the banya is an impossible dream,” writes Varlam Shalamov in his collection of stories, Kolyma Tales.
Shalamov survived for seventeen years in the camps of Kolyma, in the Far East. There, more than three million people died between 1931 and 1953 in more than a hundred camps spread across an area six times the size of France.
It was only one stop in the Soviet Gulag archipelago.
There, as in most prison camps, the banya was a source of dread.
“How can this be?” writes Shalamov. “Is it possible that a human being, no matter what state of deprivation he might be reduced to, will refuse to wash himself in the banya and free himself from the dirt and sweat that cover his body with its festering skin diseases? Can it be that anyone would refuse to feel cleaner, if only for an hour?
“There is a Russian phrase: a person may be referred to as ‘happy as if he just came from the banya.’ Indeed, the phrase accurately reflects the physical bliss experienced by a person who has just washed himself. Can it be that people have so lost their minds that they do not understand, do not want to understand, that life is better without lice than with them?”
Prisoners were given an hour to undress, wash, and dress. All the time they were chilled by drafts from doorways and cracks in walls. A hundred men could be forced into space intended for fifteen. Each person was given one basin of hot water, which he cooled with chunks of ice that stuck to the fingers.
While he washed valuable scraps of clothing – foot rags, spare mittens – were likely to be stolen. Outer garments were collected and steamed separately in an attempt, always unsuccessful, to kill lice. Dirty underwear was collected, and replaced with clean underwear – a seemingly innocuous procedure that, according to Shalamov, generated tremendous anxiety and humiliation.
“I felt a strange and terrible pity at seeing adult men cry over the injustice of receiving worn-out clean underwear in exchange for dirty good underwear. Nothing can take the mind of a human being off the unpleasantnesses that comprise life. Only vaguely do the convicts realize that, after all, this inconvenience will end the next banya day, that their lives are what’s ruined, that there is no reason to worry over some underwear, that they received the old, good underwear by chance. But no, they quarrel and cry….
“The spiritual ups and downs of a convict’s life have shifted to the point where receiving underwear form a small dark window leading into the depths of the banya is an event that transcends the nerves. Having washed themselves, the men gather at the window far in advance of the actual distribution of underwear. Over and over again they discuss in detail the underwear received last time, the underwear received five years ago at Bamlag [another camp system in the Far East]. As soon as the board is raised that closes off the small window from within, they rush to it, jostling each other with their slippery, dirty, and stinking bodies.”
The accompanying sounds, Shalamov writes, could be summed up by the Russian expression: “To shout as if in the banya.”
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, too, writes about prison banyas in the ninth chapter of Notes from the House of the Dead.)