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Comrades In Arm Curls

An American gym rat tours the Moscow fitness scene

I’m sitting in an oven. As soon as we wrenched the door away from its sweaty frame and walked in, I could feel the membranes in my nostrils begin to singe, as if I had snorted pure fire. I quickly learn to breathe through my mouth. Paul, my host, guide, and interpreter, has already reminded me to be careful where I place my hands, as the heat of the sauna can actually melt fingernails.

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The temperature hovers around 120 degrees with roughly 90% humidity—modest by Russian banya standards, but no small feat for a couple of uninitiated Americans. Paul tells me that soon the banschik—supervisor of the sauna—will come around and, in turn, beat each of us with a whisk made of birch branches. “You’ll lie facedown on the bench,” says Paul, sweat pouring o­ his face as he tries to speak calmly, “and he’ll hit you with the branches. Then he’ll have you turn over (so cover your privates), and he’ll do the front. Then he’ll hold the leaves over your face—breathe in. “Oh,” he says, “and you go first.”

Into The Red
I’ve been fascinated by Russia from the moment I (as a child) saw Ivan Drago knock Sylvester Stallone around in Rocky IV. (Never mind that the actor who played him was Swedish.) Russia, or, more accurately, the U.S.S.R., had the most badass flag in my Atlas—blood red, with a golden hammer and sickle clashing together. It was the largest country in the world, going neck and neck with the U.S. for the title of “most powerful.” And according to my grade-school buddies, it had “enough H bombs to blow up the world.”

“Cool!” I thought. “How could anyone not want to live there?” Especially someone interested in fitness, in which the country has always seemed to excel. In 1952, the Soviet Union entered its first Olympics, beginning a reign of dominance that saw it finish first in the total number of medals won in seven out of nine appearances. These included 473 gold medals between the Summer and Winter Games until 1991. (Modern-day Russia has continued to do well on its own, winning the third-most gold medals of any nation in the 2004 Summer Games.) As a result of this kind of athletic dominance, questions have always abounded as to how the Russians did it. Were they really a nation of supreme athletes? Was Soviet training superior to that of the West? The questions persist, since few outsiders have ever been allowed to peel back the iron curtain and see for themselves.

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