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Surviving a Russian Bachelor Party

Rule #1. Don’t throw the party in your own apartment.

I broke this rule, partly because I was taken by surprise. I went with several of my friends, including Sasha and Anya, to see the first showing in Irkutsk (Russia) of Return of the King. We were all interviewed by one of the local TV stations, that being the second time I’ve been interviewed for TV since coming to Irkutsk.

But that’s not what the story is about. This story is about the bachelor’s party that nearly destroyed my apartment building. After the movie, Sasha said, “Anya and I would like to tell you that we’re getting married a week from Saturday…

What, aren’t you going to congratulate us?” We were all too shocked to speak, not so much by the “getting married” part – they’ve been dating for years – but by the “week from Saturday” part.

I should have expected our mutual friend Dima to call the next day to ask about throwing the bachelor’s party at my place. As usual, I was a little hesitant. Granted, the New Year’s party had been a blast (, but afterwards the whole place had been covered in inches of food crumbs and spilled vodka. The girls at the party insisted on cleaning everything up before they left, but obviously they would not be at the bachelor’s party.

There was no place else to have the party, though. I’m the only one of my acquaintances to live alone (e.g., not with my parents). So on Sunday I agreed. The party was scheduled for Tuesday.

The beginning of the party went all right. By tradition, a Russian bachelor’s party always starts with a trip to the banya, a Russian bath house resembling a sauna.

What’s the difference between a banya and a sauna? The air in a banya is very, very humid, whereas a sauna is dry. A banya is also supplied with birch sticks, which you take turns hitting each other with. On the weekend, I usually see skiers returning from the forest with branches they’ve collected for the banya.

Finally, banyas are without exception clothes-less affair. Around here, people often wear swimsuits at a sauna. 

My girlfriend tells me that her conception of a bachelor’s party did not previously involve a bunch of naked boys beating each other with tree branches.

In any case, those planning this party decided to go to a sauna instead. Just that week my neighbor Tatiana had been telling me that many of the banyas in town have closed because of competition from saunas.

I’ve never been to a sauna in the States, so I can’t say how they differ. We rented the entire suite of five rooms for three hours. The suite included a main room with tables, benches and couches, where all the drinking was done (beer is also a traditional part of a trip to the banya … or to anywhere else in Russia, for that matter). There was the sauna itself – a hot wooden room – and another room with a swimming pool. The water was perhaps the greenest I have ever seen. (Yes, everyone swam. After enough time in a sauna, you’re ready to jump into anything as long as it’s cool and wet.) The last two rooms contained the shower and the bathroom.

As always, plenty of guitar singing

Having the whole place to ourselves was great fun. I discovered why I always thought that Russians don’t swear. Russian boys do not ever swear in front of Russian girls. Left to themselves, they have a surprisingly broad vocabulary! Now, I do as well. Other than swearing, drinking beer, and sweating in the sauna, the crowd attempted to perfect their back flips in the swimming pool, fought water fights, and fulfilled the traditional duty of trying to talk to Sasha out of getting married. He, on the other hand, tried to talk everyone into getting married (not part of the tradition).

So far, so good. At 9 o’clock, the party moved to my place. We set to work cooking pelmyeni (Russian dumplings), making sandwiches and reheating roasted chicken. The reason Russians can pack away so much vodka and beer at a party is that they put away an equally impressive amount of food. In fact, the Russian language even has words for food you eat with beer and a different phrase for food you eat with vodka.

All might have been without incident, had I remembered Rule #2.

Rule #2. Do not combine alcohol with fire.

Before the fire

A Russian party is not a party without at least a few games. One guest, Nick, brought along a game he insisted we try. To try it at home, what you need is a big bowl of water, several small bowls of rubbing alcohol and a lighter. Everyone sticks their fingers in the alcohol. Then one person lights their fingers on fire and touches the hand of the person next to him. As soon as that person is lit, the first can extinguish himself in the water.

I was still sober enough not to play. I photographed. It all went pretty well until somebody stuck their flaming hand into the alcohol instead of the water. Attempts to put out the resulting bonfire only spread it around the kitchen.

No, I do not have any pictures. I was to busy watching my home go up in flames.

Luckily, the fire burned itself out, leaving behind as evidence only a few melted plastic plates and scorch-marks on my kitchen table.

Other than the fire – or maybe including the fire – the party was a typical Russian party. Russian parties desperately need to be imported to the States. When I describe American parties, Russians say, “You mean you just stand around and talk?”

Besides the sauna, the cooking, the eating, the drinking and the fire, this party also involved a lot of guitar playing and singing. Also, as is typical, it ran until around noon the next day. Somehow I had completely forgotten that parties here run through the next day (or two), and I had to wake up early to call and cancel my morning guitar lesson.

The aftermath

Right after the fire had burned out, my friends had tried to reassure me that there was never any danger. Most of them are chemistry majors, they said, and had everything under control. However, a week later I was chatting with one of them about the party, saying that I had enjoyed it all except the part where I thought I was going to have to find a place to live. He said, “Yah, we were all pretty scared.”

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