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Of Russian origin: Banya

Depiction in the mid 1920s of a rural banya by Russian artist Boris Kustodiev: Russian Venus. Russian Venus by Boris Kustodiev

Originally banya is a steam bath with a stove. Nowadays any type of bath or sauna is usually called banya in Russia and other former USSR countries.

The word banya is of Greek origin. It means “cleansing of a body with the help of steam.” Some linguists believe the word takes roots from the Latin balneum — “something that makes pain and sadness go away.” 

Never-ending healthy story

According to the Ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus in the 5th century BC, baths appeared in different cultures at about the same time. Some folks bathed in lakes and ponds with cold streams; others made steaming rooms with either dry or humid air.

Russia has developed one of the most unique bathing traditions in the world. The notion of a steam bath has long been part of the Ancient Slav culture. Newcomers to the land were amazed by wooden steam houses where naked people warmed themselves to extremes and lashed themselves with tree branches - veniks. Afterwards they plunged into cold rivers and ponds to feel the revival of the soul. When Russian Princes arrived in Constantinople they made special arrangements for the use of local steaming rooms – and they were very particular about it. 

Emperor Peter the Great was a fan of the Russian banya. When he founded St. Petersburg in 1703 he allowed everyone to building banyas without having to pay taxes on them. When he traveled to Paris in 1718 he ordered a banya be built for him on the banks of the Seine River in the center of the city.

Banyas were often associated in Russia with a healthy way of life. In 1733 authorities gave a special order to build “a healing banya.” They warned the owners to keep prices low to make it available to as many people as possible. This differentiated Russia from many other European countries; in France, for example, going to the bath was a privilege of the rich.

Even now this ritual can be shocking to foreigners. At the first sight of a steaming room some fear that they may be pushed into some mysterious sexual act. Far from it – a real banya has nothing to do with sex. It’s about staying fit and making your life longer. In modern times, however, people use banyas and saunas to hold substantial business talks – nobody feels the oppressive atmosphere of the office.

The interior of a typical Russian banya The interior of a typical Russian banya

A banya a day keeps the doctor away

The high temperature in the steaming room (or parilka) is extremely good for your health. Excessive heat stimulates sweating, which helps eliminate unwanted substances inside our body – including bacteria.

Sweating releases excess water from the body and opens pores. It makes the skin softer and fresher. It enhances blood circulation and improves the work of the kidneys. A massage with venik – a bunch of dried branches tied together – doubles the effect. Please note that you should not hit the person with venik very hard, especially if the temperature is above 90 degrees Celsuis as you may burn their skin.

Banya professors” – people that go to the banya every week – recommend lying in the parilka during the massage with venik. In this way all parts of your body will feel the same temperature. If you stand or sit, the heat is distributed unevenly, which may cause various heart disorders. Most veniks in Russia are made of birch and oak, but in southern parts of the country eucalyptus venik is also very common.

Views on the usual “banya procedure” differ. Some people go to the steaming room without taking a shower first in order to sweat naturally. Others prefer to take a shower and scrub their bodies before steaming. These are just two ways to open the pores. After a good sweat it is customary to plunge into a cold-water tub or splash around in cold water in a lake or river. Some people plunge into a pile of snow in the winter. This is usually the end of “round one.”

After a fifteen-minute pause to relax and drink tea comes “round two.” Inside the steaming room a small amount of water is splashed onto the rocks inside the heater – in most cases some herbal solutions or extracts are added to make the smell more pleasant and enjoyable. Then comes “venik time” – people start beating one another with bundles of tree branches to cause even more sweat.

“Round three” is not for novices. It will take a few visits to the banya to build up to it. After you finish your banya process you may wash your entire body with soap or you may choose to have a professional soap massage or peeling massage with honey, salt or coffee grains. In any case, be prepared to hear that this type of method will keep you healthy for a great number of years. And after the process is over many Russians will say to you: “S lyogkim parom” (literally, “congratulations with the easy steam.” In fact, it means, “We hope that you’ve enjoyed your bath.”

Photo from talks.guns.ru Photo from talks.guns.ru

 My banya is my fortress

Here we have to differentiate between public and private banyas. For those who lived in apartment blocks, public banyas used to be one of the cheapest places of leisure. However, for people who lived in wooden houses or in places without any facilities, the banya was (and still is) a weekly routine procedure. Modern public banyas are usually big buildings with lots of sections that differ in price and comfort. Private banyas are usually smaller. As a rule, they are made of wood and are usually part of a private house or dacha.

There’s no answer as to which banya is better: public or private. Of course, you can heat your banya the way you personally like it. But in public banyas you can meet other “fans” of this pastime and you can learn a lot from them – even if the banya building looks old and ugly from the outside.

There are usually three sections in Russian banyas: a steaming room, a washing room and a room used for rest and recreation. The latter is called predbannik (pre-bath). It is first place you go – here you undress and after you’re done with your steaming session, you can relax and have a cup of tea. 

The washing room in traditional banyas has a series of sinks and taps. There are basins with two handles that are called shaika. You fill them with water and use them to wash right after you spring out of the steaming room (in many banyas now there are also showers and small pools of water to serve this purpose). There are special shaikas to put your venik in – its leaves should be soaked through before use. Some banyas use water from the steaming room tank, which is heated by a stove. Thus you can have both cold and hot water in your banya.

The steaming room is the “heart” of the process. Inside there are wooden benches. One of the walls is occupied by a big stove that heats the water in the tank. In between the firebox and the water tank there’s a “rock chamber” – water is thrown onto the heated stones to produce extra steam once you are inside. To enjoy the process fully you have to enter the steaming room when the stove is hot. In public banyas some experienced people usually let newcomers know exactly when to enter the steaming room.

There is a tendency to use electric heaters now instead of wood-burning chambers. Most people prefer it the old way although technically, electric heaters produce positive ions and wood-fired heaters give you some negative ones. Don’t ask Russians about ions though – most of them haven’t heard about these particles since they studied elementary physics at school.

There are two types of banya – “black” and “white.” In a “black banya” (po-chernomu), the smoke escapes through a hole in the ceiling. On the way it darkens the banya's interior wood. This type of banya is becoming extinct – people think it is outdated and not that pleasant. In “white banyas” (po-belomu) there are pipes to vent the smoke away. 

Russian men like it hot – the temperature in the steaming room may easily exceed 100 degrees Celsius (200 degrees Fahrenheit). It is recommended to wear a special felt hat to protect your head from the intense heat. Another “accessory” is a piece of cloth for sitting on the hot benches.

Where to get the experience

If you are in Moscow, go to “Sanduny.” This is a famous block of banyas in the center of the city. It was founded in the 19th century. The management is very particular about collecting the best there is in the art of banya – and after you’ve finished – you’ll have a chance to taste authentic Russian food in the restaurant.

Some city banyas around the country are not that bad – just be sure to take a Russian as a guide to all these procedures that may seem mysterious at first glance. In many cases you will be offered to taste some alcohol (beer or even vodka). It’s better to avoid it during steaming. If you feel like drinking, do it afterwards.

But remember: to enjoy the whole process make sure that your heath condition is in order – don’t go to the banya if you have problems with your blood pressure or if your veins are very sensitive.

Written by Oleg Dmitriev, RT