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Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan. July 05, Can we read it as a symbol of harsh Russian life, or does it speak more to a mentality -- a "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality -- and the importance of having a thick skin?

The "banya," or Russian bath house, with its leafy birch batons, known as "veniki," begs the curious outsider to make it into metaphor. But to the modern Russian, as to his grandfather and his grandfather's grandfather, the banya is simply an essential part of being.

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It is pharmacy, spa, and social club -- a place to open the pores, relax the muscles, and strengthen friendships. It has been the site of many a business deal, too, but more often it's a place to forget about problems and to give in to ritual: A cup of tea or a shot of vodka are the equally soothing codas, and the effect of it all is something like a post-massage high.

But can a pillar of Russianness be transplanted to America? Even as the banya is quintessentially Russian, people are carriers of culture, and as they move, their institutions often follow. Today, there are nearly a dozen banyas, or spas with elements of the banya, in New York City.

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The oldest dates fromand in the newest, the paint has barely dried. All of the city's banyas, with the one 19th-century exception, were built since -- a reflection of the two most recent swells of Russian immigration to the United States. About half of the immigrants who came in these waves settled in New York, which has the largest population of Russian immigrants in the country. They are the ones who built the banyas.

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But in recent years, the city's banya landscape has changed. New, modern banyas have sprung up and others have undergone significant face-lifts.

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Some offer imported cakes and others provide caviar body wraps. Many have, to one degree or another, become less "Russian" -- or at least not the same kind of "Russian" that the city's original banyas stood for.

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The immigrant community that produced the originals is behind the recent trend as well. Your opinion Show comments Loading comments New Feature Alert Signup Widget.

Then She Was Found Dead. The Week In Russia: The Life Of Russian Women. 20 years I've been hearing about steam room hook ups - and I don't get it.


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