At the bathhouse: Municipal reform and the bathing commons in late imperial St. Petersburg

24 May 2019

This paper seeks to explore a variant model of hygienic modernity exemplified by late imperial Russia. It describes commercial bathhouses in St. Petersburg as a kind of urban ‘quasi-commons’, and examines the interplay between their cultures and practices and attempts by the city government to subject them to scientifically and technologically progressive regulation. This interplay reveals a social and political order that contrasts sharply with the ‘liberal’ form of governmentality at work in the bathhouse movement in the West. The failed implementation of the Petersburg Bathhouse Ordinance of 1879 is emblematic of the city government's systematic attempt to secure public health and shape citizens through the regulation of bathing institutions. In contrast to the West, however, commercial bathhouses in imperial St. Petersburg were well-established institutions, rooted in a rural tradition of common bathing, whose provision of ‘livelihood qualities’ extended well beyond bathing and ablution. Furthermore, the city government's autocratic approach to funding reforms and its paternalistic view of bathhouse visitors contrasted with the municipal bathhouse movement in Victorian England, for example. Over almost four decades of negotiated non-compliance, amendments to legislation, unsuccessful petitions, and subtle adaptations by owners and attendants, commercial bathhouses retained their place in the city. The drive to extend governmentality to the city's commercial bathhouses was ultimately abortive, as legislation passed to launch reforms failed to elicit the support of the stakeholders whose cooperation would have been essential for its implementation. The renegotiation under legislative pressure of the terms of cooperation among urban bathing's stakeholders thus belies the supposedly general trend in bathing from the communal to the private or municipal during the period.