Usually, we tell you about all the great things there are in a Russian banya, turning a blind eye to its “dangers”. This time we’ve decided to discard all pretences. The Russian tradition of going to a public banya may not always be just about “relaxing” and “washing”.
No, my friend, this is not a metaphor. Active use of the brooms or besoms (made from leafy birch, linden and alder branches, as well as other medicinal plants) is perhaps the main feature that distinguishes the Russian banya from its foreign equivalents, e.g. the Finnish sauna. The broom is not an accessory on the wall in the changing room, it is a working tool. Without the broom, the banya is not the same.
They say that brooms can beat any stresses or depression out of you, that they kill bacteria and that after a good banya “your whole body is ringing” (whatever that means). To this end, public banyas offer the services of specially hired people, who literally beat clients with brooms (often they are also “banya attendants”). A banya attendant knows exactly how hard to hit and has long stopped reacting to clients’ screams and moans. All you need to do is to lie down on the bench and let the attendant take care of everything else.
Do you want to spend several hours naked in the company of strangers, all sweating together? No? But if you want to go to a public banya, this is what you will have to do. No shorts. No bikinis. But you can wear a special little hat. It protects the head from overheating.
This is all that you have, and, possibly, all that will be available at a public banya. Even if you decide to wear a towel around your waist (and, yes, you will look like an insecure nerd), there will be no way of hiding from everybody else’s nudity. Russians are not particularly bothered by all this nonsense over shyness and personal space; they will be naked, and they will be everywhere it is required. You will see all types of human shapes. Possibly, just a few centimeters from your face!
Which takes us directly to the next point. Public banyas are not a place where benches are wiped with antiseptic after every visitor (do such places exist at all?). Who might have sat on the same bench before you? Is this little puddle on the bench water or sweat? Have these brooms already been used on someone, or am I the first? If you are concerned about these matters, it is best to go straight to the shower. The public banya is not for the squeamish.
There are people who love to keep things hot, who, even if they find themselves in hell, would say: “Seems a bit chilly here, time to turn up the heat!” - and would seemingly endlessly throw more water on the hot stones (that create the banya steam). These lovers of extreme experiences are regulars at the banya, and when an ordinary mortal is already dying from the heat, they are always “just warm”. Entering the steam room, they immediately begin to raise the temperature by flapping their towel, thus spreading the burning-hot air, while throwing water into the stove and turn this closed space, where the temperature is already 90-95 degrees, into a “torture chamber” for everyone else.
Unfortunately, these characters are frequent visitors to the public banya, so it is difficult to avoid them. All that everybody else can do is put up with them, and test oneself for endurance, or retreat from the steam room as soon as physically possible.
The Russian banya in itself is great. However, a visit to the banya with Russians is a survival quest, a damn ritual with a bunch of other, smaller, rituals. True, if you are a Russian in a Russian banya, you can choose whether to do all this or not. But if you are a foreigner whom Russians have invited to the Russian banya, you are stuck. Russians will want to show you everything that is meant by the right visit to the banya. Dry, smoked fish (stockfish) - as the best possible delicacy; beatings with the brooms (of course); jumping into the snow or into a barrel with ice cold water straight from the steam room; pouring ice cold water over your head; contests to see who will last the longest on the top bench (which is the hottest, as heat rises). All these things can be dangerous, so we advise you to be firm and refuse any seemingly strange suggestions that will keep coming!
Below are several cautions for the Russian banya that should be taken seriously:
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