As I’ve watched the volatile situation in Ukraine over the past several weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one sure thing you can say about Russia: Russians are very predictable.
Of course, I say this kindly and respectfully; I never studied Russian history or culture, never lived there, and never traveled there. Plus, I stopped picking sides years ago when the press stopped reporting the news and started working on campaigns.
In all honesty, Putin does like to act up…about every five to six years it seems. Regress back to August, 2008–Russian forces invaded the Georgia region of South Ossetia–and the world was shocked that a civilized nation in the 21st century would actually stoop so low. Well, Russia has done it again, and the world is shocked…again. Well, I’m not shocked because…remember people: There is one sure thing you can say about Russia: Russians are very predictable.
I write this with a smirk on my face as I reminisce about my own time in Georgia. I went there in 2009 with a Commerce Department big shot to escort a group of American companies to Tbilisi. Call it a dog and pony show or just our trying to help the Georgian people recover, but the United States Government pretty much doles out an expensive show of goodwill every time something bad happens in another country, and the goodwill always plays out the same regardless of where you go. Foreign investment has become America’s biggest export; the United States Government is always first on the list when it comes to helping others and last for taking care of its own citizens; and, regretfully, I was part of the attack.
So this is how my time in Georgia played out. I busted my butt for a few days preparing for the delegation to arrive, and I busted my butt for a few more days while they were there. I call it kowtowing, but that doesn’t matter because there is always one day at the end to play before you fly home.
It just so happened that on my Thursday playday it rained all day like a monsoon had arrived in the Caucasus. So I put my heart and soul into the goodwill of the hotel staff and that was my biggest mistake–trusting people who apparently enjoy recommending “hellish” outings for innocent, free-loving Westerners.
So let me tell you about this hellish outing, cut right out of Google. “The banya is usually a wooden structure, somewhere in the village. The insides features a steam-room with bottom and top shelves and a wood-burning stove that is kept at temperature of above 200 degrees. The procedure also usually involves energizing beating with a venik, which is a bundle of either birch, oak, or eucalyptus branches bound together that you either use yourself or ask someone to massage all over your body. The banya also has many benefits for the health of the visitor, it not only cleans the body, but also heals; steam opens up the body’s capillaries, increases blood flow, and jump-starts the metabolism.”
Google shows pictures of normal-looking men and women sitting in a normal-looking sauna, smiling and enjoying themselves as they beat themselves with leafy branches. It’s a lie. It’s nothing more than a mean concocted excuse to torture non-Russians. I get it now.
So that playday in Tbilisi, Georgia, I had lunch with my colleague Carolyn, and at some point, between two Bloody Marys and lamb stew, we managed to talk ourselves into trying it. Two hours later, we walked in together, and Carolyn was taken away in one direction, and I was taken the opposite way.
Have you ever thought about how hot it has to be for your insides to begin cooking? I did that day. The dark and tiny sauna was, to say the least…hotter than hell. I was told to lie facedown with my head sitting on a wreath of ice-chilled eucalyptus branches. I enjoyed that…for about two seconds…before one of the sauna attendees started beating me with more eucalyptus branches. That ordeal lasted about a half-hour before I finally was told I could leave.
As I walked out, the sauna attendant, grinning from ear to ear, said to me, “You Georgian now.”
“Is that it? Is it over?” I asked, stumbling, barely able to talk and seeing double.
“No. You just started.”
I should have plotted my escape then, but I was gullible. In another room, I was told to lie down on a cold marble table where I was beaten with eucalyptus branches for thirty more minutes, facedown and face-up.
“Is that it? Is it over now?” I begged again as I climbed down from the table.
“No. Not yet,” a second sauna attendant said with an even heavier Russian accent. Even after so many years, everyone seemed to speak Russian and seemed to appreciate everything from the mighty Russian motherland. I called it the “gorilla in the room,” but regardless, by that time I should have had my guard up. But…I was still gullible as I let this innocent-looking person walk me over to another side of the room, yank my towel from me, and instruct me to stand still and not move.
So that’s what I did. I stood still and did not move…naked, in the middle of a cold room, watching a man with a rope in his hands. Two seconds later, he jerked the rope, and that’s when I looked up to see a thirty-gallon wooden water barrel tilting over and releasing ice-cold water on top of me.
“You Russian now,” the man said proudly and then escorted me to a quiet sitting area.
“Relax and enjoy yourself,” he said to me like that was even possible.
Relax and enjoy yourself, I cogitated. I was just violated and you want me to relax. How much did I pay for this anyway? In my head, I was converting Georgia laris to U.S. dollars.
Oh how I wonder what I looked like when I finally walked out. And then I saw Carolyn. You see, Carolyn is one of those Washington, D.C., up-and-coming loyal professionals. She was always perfect—didn’t matter when or where. Not one hair was out of place; her makeup was perfect, and she carried herself that way everywhere she went. But that day, after the banya…well…she was a hot mess.
“Are you okay?” I asked as she walked up.
“That was just wrong,” she said.
“Those damn Russians,” was all I could muster.
We were defeated and in pain, and we spent the rest of the day in the bar.
It was about nine months before I went back to another former Soviet republic. This time Latvia, the subject of my third political fiction Wiggle Rooms: A Tale of a Fallen Anchorite, and while I was minding my own business, being a responsible person, I was talked into doing another banya.
“The Baltics are different,” an American Embassy officer from Helsinki said. He was working in Latvia on the same project I was. We’d finished our work, he was taking a ferry back to Helsinki, and I was ready for my playday.
Before I make a long, hellish story short, I feel the need to make one last statement: There is one sure thing you can say about Russia: the Russians are very predictable…and so are their banyas.
I blanked most of it out, but the two lines…the same two lines I’d heard before…clearly came back to haunt me.
“You Baltic now,” the first sauna attendant said to me as I finished cooking inside a wood-burning stove.
“You Russian now,” another said to me as a wall of ice-cold water came down on top of me.
Now back to real time, real life, and the world we must live in together–it is odd how three simple words–“You Russian now”–is resonating again now that Russia has invaded another’s sovereign territory and is very unlikely to leave. In all honesty, we need to accept the truth even if it hurts and doesn’t fit in our post-Cold War world. Russia didn’t leave Georgia, and it probably will not leave Crimea. That said, it is up to all of us to understand Russia for what it is, accept what happened, and never let it happen again.
Just look at me; I did the banya two times before I learned my lesson. There will not be a third time.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing for Russia.
It’s a small world…so write about it.
D.A. (Dennis) Winstead
Award-winning International Author
Founder and Head of
Color Him Father Foundation