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#15 - JRL 7066
The Sunday Times (UK)
February 16, 2003
A life in the day: Maria Likhacheva, Moscow steam bath attendant
Maria Likhacheva, 71, is an attendant in the women's section of the Pokrovskie bani, a public banya (steam baths) in Moscow, where she lives.
Interview by Will Stewart

The alarm rings at 6am. I make a cup of black tea and a cheese sandwich and get ready to go to the banya. I work two days a week. I have no difficulty getting up when I'm at the banya. I'd miss it if I didn't go there.

Usually my partner, Mikhail, drops me off, or I'll take the metro or the bus. I must be there before 8am, when we open. It's a long day: the banya doesn't close until 10pm. Some people ask why I'm still working at my age - but how else can I find the money to eat? I'll keep working as long as my health allows.

By 8am there are a handful of people waiting, even in the dead of winter, when it can be -20C. The temperature in the steam room will be 90 to 100C, never mind the season. I put on my white overall, take the tickets from the women and look after jewellery. The men go to the banya downstairs. It's strictly segregated.

The cost is 120 roubles [2.30] for two hours. We're cheaper than pretty well any banya in Moscow. In Soviet times the cost was just 17 kopecks, but nowadays everything is more expensive, so you can't sit around comparing what you paid in the communist days.

The women go into the changing rooms, where they undress, wrapping a towel around them. They shower and go into the steam room, often wearing a felt hat to protect the hair and scalp from the intense heat. The steam bath is wood-lined - the smell is like birch wood - and they sit on benches, soaking in the heat. They usually stay in there for 10 to 15 minutes; any longer can be dangerous to the heart.

I make sure they have enough towels, and provide the birch twigs that we Russians use to beat ourselves with in the banya. Twigs used to be provided by the state, but now we have to buy them. So we sell them to the clients for 50 roubles [1] a bunch.

In the heat of the banya you sweat like mad, and a woman can lose one to three kilos in weight. The beating with the twigs is to rejuvenate the circulation. Then you jump in the ice-cold pool. The feeling is marvellous. Tensions are washed away. Your bad mood evaporates. You feel so clean.

The banya is a great tradition, uniting all Russians. It's also a social event. I have many regular customers; they bring food, and I sell beer or make them tea. Some women come here to escape their husbands. They feel they can unload their problems to me, about their marriages or children. We have a qualified masseur, Nikolai, and I arrange the appointments with him for the women.

At around 1pm, I retreat into the little room at the back, where I cook myself some lunch on the stove - perhaps okroshka, a hodgepodge soup made from kvass [a rye-based drink], potato, cucumber, onion, sausage, parsley, dill, sour cream and salt. Then I put on my white overall again and mop up around the banya.

Typically, we have around 20 to 25 women here. Sometimes it gets quiet and I read a book - usually love stories. I have a daughter, Irina, 45, from a previous marriage, and a grandson, Andrei, who is 21. My daughter is a teacher. Recently Andrei did his compulsory two years' military service. As does any babushka [granny], I worried a lot about him. I shared Andrei's upbringing with his mother: this is usual in Russia. He was posted to Dagestan, next to Chechnya, where so many have perished. Thankfully, he is now back, safely.

I've been working here since 1987, and before that I was an engineer at a secret defence plant. I'm sorry, I'm still not allowed to talk about that. But much has changed during my life. I was 10 when the great patriotic war started in 1941, and with my mother I was evacuated to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. It was cold and harsh, with limited food. We got by. Many families were hit harder. Papa was a scientist, so he didn't get called up to the front.

In my opinion, life is better now than, say, in Brezhnev's times. Back then, there were the endless shopping queues, and also all the bother with the party, having to conform and people watching you. That's all gone. Nowadays the only question is money. If you have enough, you're all right. I'm not well off, but I can get by. My state pension is 1,450 roubles [28] a month, and then I get 1,200 roubles [23] a month from my job.

I cook myself something, perhaps meat and potatoes, around 6pm. After cleaning up when the last woman comes out of the banya at 10pm, my partner is usually here to pick me up. It's nice to get into the fresh air after so long in the humid atmosphere.

We're usually home by 11pm. I make another cup of black tea, and we sit around chatting or watch some TV. I'm tired but not exhausted. We're in bed by midnight or soon afterwards.

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