James Larkin has been building banyas in Russia for over 20 years
In 1993, James Larkin, who was a student at the prestigious Brunel University in the UK, came to Russia for the first time. He knew right away that he belonged here, and couldn’t stop thinking about how to move to Russia. Three years later, he moved to Krasnaya Polyana with the idea to create a retreat where people could recover. Banyas continue to be his passion today, and James has been building them for the past 20 years. It turns out that a foreigner who was born in London is just the kind of person who can fully appreciate the magnificence of a Russian steam room. This romantic from the Foggy Albion who is truly in love with our country talked to Capital Ideas about how Russia taught him to take responsibility for all of his decisions, what real banya culture looks like, and why it’s helpful to occasionally feel like a dot.
James, why banyas? It’s so perplexing – a foreigner comes to Russia from London, and starts teaching Russians how to hang out at the banya!
I ended up in a banya for the first time in 1993. I came to visit a Russian friend, and he took me to his parents’ house in the village. The banya was built by his dad. It was very simple and built completely out of wood. When we walked in, it was very hot, the steam was very thick, it was like a Russian extreme sport. I remember we used bath brooms, and I thought it was such an odd tradition to beat each other with bath brooms. This was the first time I saw a place where men go to suffer so they can feel better once they walk out and dunk themselves in cold water. Of course, it’s a very pleasant feeling in the end, and your body feels great.
I had another experience later, when I was invited to a banya by the river. it’s a completely different feeling, when everything around you is so beautiful – just nature and silence. And that’s where I realized that the banya is a cleansing procedure, that it opens up the mind and soul through the body.
Is this why you decided to stay here?
Partially, it didn’t happen right away. I came to Russia for the first time in 1993, then in 1995, and then at the end of 1996 – that’s when I decided to stay and live here. My Russian friend and I wanted to set up a retreat at Krasnaya Polyana where people would be able to come as tourists, complete with hiking routes, yoga, and vegetarian food. Krasnaya Polyana looked different back then, it was a very picturesque but abandoned place in Sochi. I was inspired – it was really beautiful, totally wild nature. But nobody in Russia had ever heard of retreats before, it was a tough time, there were a lot of wooded areas, and we weren’t able to implement the idea.
People came, but there weren’t a lot of them. So we decided to build a small banya, to attract more clients. But this wasn’t a regular banya, like everywhere else. We had our own rules – absolutely no alcohol. We wanted people to take care of their health, both physical and spiritual, so that they would leave with a sense of inner peace. We got so into it that we learned just about everything there was to learn about steam rooms.
How did you manage to keep clients from running in the other direction once they learned there was no alcohol?
Actually, a lot of my Russian friends said this would never work in Russia. For Russians, the banya is a place where you can hang out with your friends, drink, and relax. Nobody would come and pay money for this, they told me. But they were wrong, totally wrong! We had more and more clients, and those who were displeased at first ended up thanking us later and came back again with their friends.
It turned out that our small banya could make a profit, and we started growing. By 1999, we were making good money and I ended up staying at Krasnaya Polyana for 18 years.
Unbelievable. You came to Russia in ‘93, these were really horrible years for our country, and you decided to stay anyway. What were your impressions like?
My friend really wanted me to see Russia exactly the way it was during that time period. But he said that it’s possible everything will change every soon and it will never be this way again. And he was right. For example, I remember Moscow with absolutely no street advertising. It was a completely different atmosphere, a completely different city, and I witnessed it. The center was harsh, but clean, and we lived somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I remember there were giant holes in the roads, up to 4 meters in depth. There were fences, and abandoned equipment that was overgrown by trees.
It was very post-apocalyptic. I was very impressed, and more surprised than scared. I stared at this in disbelief. I hadn’t seen anything like this before, and never saw anything like it after.
I think the thing that impressed me the most was relationships between people, the friendships. As a person who came from the West and had completely different values, the absence of materialism was completely new to me.
Do you feel like there are differences between people in London and Moscow now? Or has it all blended together so much that there is no difference?
At a fundamental level, we’re all the same – we all want love, security, and happiness. I think that people in Russia are braver, in spite of the fact that there are more obstacles and dangers here, and they’re more open. In the West, people often close themselves off, they try to stay cool. In Russia, things change all the time. If I leave for a month, things are different when I come back. In the UK, a whole year can go by and things stay the same. There are advantages to this, because people have the opportunity to grow, to develop their business. Here, how are you supposed to invest in things if everything will be different tomorrow?
I guess with your personality it’s easy to live like this, since you stayed?
I like adventure, but sometimes it’s a bit much. Right now, I probably wouldn’t be able to make it under the same conditions I had to deal with when I got here 20 years ago. Doing business here is like an extreme sport. You can’t rely on anything here, you can’t count on anything – that’s what life is like here. You always have to think about what might happen, and there are always a ton of options at any given moment. But this teaches you to take responsibility for everything you do.
What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered?
The biggest problem, which still exists to some extent today, is how quickly the laws change. The law should give business the opportunity to develop, but in 1996 it basically created ways to drain people of money. Back then, it was easier to reach an agreement with the mafia – they kept their word, while the laws always changed. Of course, it’s a lot better now.
Is business going well?
Of course there is some decline due to the overall economic situation over the past couple of years. But overall things are going well, and I’m seeing progress. Over the past three years, we’ve designed around 15 banya complexes, and 5 of them have been built.
Do you think there is a lot of potential for foreign business in Russia? What kind of advice would you give your compatriots?
There is a lot of potential, in spite of everything. Russia is a very wealthy country, there are are a lot of natural resources, and a lot of land that can be used to grow organic produce. There are strong farming traditions here, and I see a lot of potential for development in this area.
The first piece of advice I have is to learn the language. A lot of people come here, live here for 10 years, and still can’t speak Russian well. But you can’t become part of the culture and be successful without it. It’s even more important in Russia than in other countries to meet people, to find friends, to develop friendly cooperation with people who are in a similar line of work. This is very effective.
My second piece of advice is to find a good lawyer. This is important in any country, but it’s especially important here.
Your wife is Russian. Does she help you? Would you say you have a family business?
Yes, we got married a year ago, and we’ve been living together for five years. She’s an architect and sometimes helps me with sketches, and occasionally with the accounting. A family business can be tough, working together can lead to conflicts, but the upside is that we get to spend a lot of time together. We often go on business trips to France, London, the US, and of course it’s more fun together.
Could you tell us about your plans? You don’t have any banyas of your own now. Would you like to open some?
I do design and development for banya complexes. Sometimes we do the construction, and sometimes we even make the stoves. But actually there is a complex that my team designed and partially built, and my partner and I plan to develop it in the near future. Aside from a banya and pool, there is a floating capsule (a sensory deprivation chamber) – this is my latest hobby. I’ve been experimenting a lot lately, and this turned out to be an effective way to enhance the effect you get in a steam room. People get scared a lot or become claustrophobic, but this actually isn’t a fear of a closed space or the dark, but a fear of being alone with yourself. They just don’t know what to do without the constant presence of noise, images, sensations, and smells. After a good session in a steam room, people are in a very specific state of mind, and even their biochemistry is a bit different. And if you go into an isolation tank right away, you have the opportunity to exist outside of your body, in complete weightlessness, like a small dot. Then, your body has access to a major resource for recovery.
You still feel your body for the first few minutes. If something is tight, like your muscles or back, you feel it even more, and there is no information that comes in from other parts of your body. It’s like turning up the sound. You’re really sensitive to pain, but if you just spend some time observing it, your muscles relax and it disappears completely. The other thing is the constant thoughts running through your head, like constant captions on a TV screen. They can be pleasant or unpleasant, there are emotions attached to them and you may feel some fear. If you just observe it like these aren’t your thoughts and let them float by, the emotions disappear as well. And finally, you reach a kind of spiritual relaxation.
Do you like feeling like a dot?
It’s rare, but it’s very helpful. It’s very important for people today, because there is a lot of information to process, and it’s increasingly more complex. It’s hard to keep track of what’s real and what isn’t. The world we’ve imagined captures so much of our attention that we stop seeing what’s happening in front of our very own eyes. We’re used to always doing something, always changing something, achieving something. To stop doing all of this is a very interesting experience. Some people go to India or the the Himalayas to experience this, but you really don’t need to go anywhere…
But really, just like 20 years ago, I dream of building a retreat center, so that people and their families can come through the door and enter a different world where they can find a new level of peace, happiness, and care.
And no cell phone service, right? If we’re talking about giving up things we’re dependent on.
It probably would be difficult to force people to leave their mobile phones at the door, but if we managed to convince people to avoid alcohol at the banya, this may work as well. Maybe we’ll have areas without cellular or internet service. At the very least, we can have all of this in a separate room that is so cold that people can’t be in there for longer than 5 minutes. So it would be there if someone has to make an emergency phone call or check their email. It’s a good business idea.
Would this be in Russia or are you considering moving to other countries?
I can’t say for sure that I’ve settled down once and for all, but Russia is home for me. I still really like Krasnaya Polyana, so maybe one day the stars will align and I’ll open a business there again. But actually, it doesn’t have to be in Sochi. The important thing is mountains, and to not be too far from civilization.