Just imagine a hut where the temperature is about 100℃ (212°F). A whole family sits inside, until their skin becomes extremely red. Then, they beat each other with a bunch of birch branches, after which they all run out and jump into the snow. This crazy scene is actually a very ordinary thing for a Russian. It’s banya time!
The Russian banya has nothing to do with the extremely humid and wet Turkish hammam or extremely dry Finnish sauna. Actually it’s something in between, with rather humid air in which one should actively sweat.
A banya was usually a hut with two rooms - one for changing and another for bathing and steaming. People would prepare banya in advance, heating it properly with wood. At the same time, the banya stove could also be used to warm up water in buckets or tubs.
After sweating in the steam room, people used to wash themselves using tar soap and then pour warm water over themselves. Sometimes, kids were washed in small baths and adults used that water again. Usually, women and kids would use the banya before men - until it got too hot.
The first banyas as separate buildings were heated in the “black” way. The stove of such banyas didn’t have a chimney pipe and, as a result, all the smoke went inside the room. The doors would then be opened and, after the smoke dissipated, people would go inside. All the walls inside would be covered with a layer of black soot. Then, “white” banyas appeared that already had a chimney pipe.
The banya has been one of the essentials of Russian life since the very old times. And it wasn’t just about bathing and washing oneself; it was also a ritual. Peasants used to go to the banya once a week, mostly on Saturdays. This way, they would wash themselves after the working week and, at the same time, get ready for Sunday church.
Birch or oak brooms were prepared in advance. The broom is a very important banya accessory. It is used not only for beating (which is actually just an intense massage, not a punishment). Just putting brooms into a steam room adds a nice aroma, while waving a broom around intensifies the steam and heat.
The most important person in a public banya is the bath attendant. This person arranges all the procedures, takes care of good steam and is the best at the birch broom “massage”. They also help people wash and pour water over themselves.
Many Russians who live in country houses or have dachas, usually build another small wooden hut for a banya. Those who don’t have such a pleasure of a personal banya, visit the public ones, which every Russian city has.
You can find multiple ones in any Russian town. In St. Petersburg, there is the famous Yegorovsky (Kazachy) banya, a five store complex opened in the late 19th century by a rich merchant named Efim Egorov. It was an extremely luxurious place with a richly decorated interior. Such a banya visit wasn’t cheap, but it had several options for visitors of any class. For wealthy guests, there were private changing rooms and bath rooms.
The most famous Moscow banya is Sanduny. It looks absolutely gorgeous and looks more like a palace than a banya.
In Soviet times, visiting the banya was still something special. On the weekend, there was a waiting line for many banyas. And it was a whole ritual to choose and buy a good birch broom before the visit.
At the same time, the main purpose for having a banya was lost - most city residents had hot water and bathrooms in their apartments and could wash at home. However, the banya was a place for socializing and people spent more time in the hall, drinking tea or beer, eating and chatting, rather than in the steam room.
Drinking alcohol in the banya is very unhealthy, due to the heavy load of high temperature on the cardiovascular system. However, the banya became a bar regardless and many people used it as an excuse to escape the house and have a drink.
The most famous Soviet movie, ‘Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!’, immortalized the image of the banya as a place for heavy drinking. The main character goes to the banya with friends to “clean up” before New Year’s Eve… And ends up waking up in another city!
By the way, women and men always used separate public banyas. Some had female rooms, while others operated for women on certain days. Very small kids would go with their mothers, while older boys would go with their fathers.
These days, people consider the banya akin to spa procedures and appreciate its healing effects. The skin becomes softer, one feels reborn and some people believe that the banya helps to stay fit and even lose some weight!
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