Traditional types of bathhouses include Turkish (Eastern) baths, Russian banyas and Finnish saunas. These types of bathhouses differ by their temperature and humidity levels. Turkish baths are usually the coolest and the most humid. Finnish saunas are usually hot and dry, and the Russian banya (Russian bath) is in between with 60C and 40% humidity. In addition to these differences in physical properties, baths have important cultural differences. Russian banya goers use bundles of twigs for massage. The twigs help warm the body thoroughly and render a biochemical effect on the body.
Many people who have visited Russia, recently and many centuries ago, noted the Russian banya as a custom that left a lasting impression on them. The seventeenth century German scholar and traveler Adam Olearius, Baerholz, Peter the Great’s servant, Olivier Bruenel, a Belgian merchant, and Antonio Nunes Ribero Sanchez, a Spanish doctor who treated Empress Elizabeth Petrovna all described the Russian banya in their memoirs. They described the custom with surprise and awe and noted that Russians loved steam-rooms, rolling around in snow and bathing in ice-holes.
Banyas are mentioned in many historical anecdotes, literary works and academic research.
The first public banyas were built in Russia in the 18th century by order of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. The banyas belonged to private citizens. They were usually one-story buildings on the bank of the river. Like village banyas, urban banyas were heated by wood. Each banya had a changing room, a soaping room, and a steam room.
All Russians went to banyas because they loved being clean and enjoyed the process. Banyas were prescribed to treat almost all kinds of illnesses. Alexander Suvorov, the great Russian military general, who was born weak and sickly, used exercise and cooling to grow up strong and powerful. He served a good example to his troops. When he went to the banya Suvorov could withstand great heat, and then ordered ten buckets of ice-cold water poured over him. He used to tell his soldiers: “A military man must love frost and heat, draught and rain”.
Much has been said and written about the medical benefits of the Russian banya. One historian noted that “as soon as any Russian feels ill, he drinks some vodka with garlic or pepper, follows it with a piece of onion, and then goes to the banya”. Going to the banya has to this day remained one of the most pleasant ways to look after your health.
The Russian banya has traditionally been known for its miraculous revitalizing properties. After leaving the banya people often say “I feel ten years younger”. Research studies have confirmed the great effect of the banya on one’s health.
The Russian banya has one distinct and unique property: the so-called heat wave, produced as the water is poured on hot stones. The heat penetrates the skin massaged with birch twigs and renders a major revitalizing effect on the body. Pouring concentrates of various herbs on the stones helps treat many conditions, such as respiratory diseases. Alternating cold water showers and visits to the steam-room, which helps warm up and cool the body time after time is a great exercise for blood vessels. We don’t need to tell you why banyas are good for you; you just need to go there.
After any celebration Russians headed out to the banya. Before her wedding, the bride would eat her breakfast and then invite her friends to the banya. The newlyweds would go to the banya once again one day after their marriage: such was the custom. When guests came, a steam bath was prepared for them as well. Mothers would give birth in the banya. Especially dear guests were invited to the bathhouse after a long trip to show the hosts’ respect. In one history book we read about the custom of Russian tsars to invite foreign ambassadors and guests to the banya. Enemies were often invited too, but with a totally different purpose. For many centuries banyas served as meeting places where people came together to talk. The topic of the banya has been widely reflected in folklore art, anecdotes and chastushkas (Russian limericks). Folk wisdom hails the Russian banya as “one’s second mother”, “a place that steams your body and brings you health”, “a place that sets you straight and makes you sound”. Making a good banya was equaled to “tuning a good music instrument”.
The Russian banya is famous for its steam, so making steam becomes an important part of the process. The stove is a crucially important element. If the steam-room is heated more than 40C before the water is thrown onto the stones, this banya is not good. After the water is splashed on the stones, the steam will be too hot and the twigs will go dry almost as soon as in the sauna. The steam is produced by throwing water onto the stones. The hotter the stones, the smaller are the particles of the steam, making the steam drier and hotter at the same time. When we say “drier”, we don’t mean lack of humidity; the drier steam is pleasantly warm and will not scald your throat when you inhale it. To make the stones hotter while keeping the steam-room relatively cool, the stones are heated inside the stove, which constitutes a major difference between the Russian banya and the sauna. The stove door is opened only when the water is added onto the stones. The walls of the stove must heat only minimally, unlike in the heating stove.
The banya stove must heat only the stones on which the water is thrown. Usually the stove is fired from the entrance room so the larger part of the stove is located outside the steam-room, with only the door of the stove facing the inside of the bath so that water could be added. A good Russian banya would have the maximum difference between the air temperature and the temperature of the stones so that the steam consisting of smallest possible water particles could be produced.
Traditionally Russian village banyas come in two major types.
The so-called black banyas have an open furnace that heats not only the stone but the walls of the banya as well. The smoke from the furnace escapes via the door or an opening in the ceiling. Usually the banya includes a bed of hot stones and a cauldron for hot water. The banya is heated with wood, preferably, of deciduous trees (such as birch). When the steam-room is heated wrongly, the air in the banya becomes bitter, the inside walls become smoky and dark. However, the smoke also helps disinfect the room.
So-called white banyas come in various forms. The white banya has a stone, brick or metal stove with a water tank. Heating the white banya requires more wood, but the banya itself is easier to keep up. Modern individual steam-rooms are set up as white banyas.
There’s yet another type of a steam-room, and very few people have ever tried it or even heard about it: it is set up inside a Russian stove. This steam-room can be set up in any rural home, and back years ago it was one of the most popular varieties, especially in the steppe. The stove was heated, the cooked food was removed. Water was then heated in cast-iron caldrons. All the ashes were removed and the embers were set aside in the corner. Rye straw was placed on the hot bricks, and a wooden bucket with hot water was placed inside the stove. Then you climbed into the stove taking care not to touch the hot walls so as not to soil yourself with ashes. If the stove was tall enough you could sit up; otherwise you would lie down and use birch twigs to give yourself a hot massage after pouring some water or kvass on the walls to produce fragrant steam.
A history book describes how Russians would bathe their old in the Russian stove: “When someone is old or sick and cannot climb into the stove himself, he is placed on the board and moved inside, and then someone else climbs in too, to help wash the sick man”.
The Russian banya has long been recognized the world over. Many people who try it just once come back again to enjoy the great and reliable way of staying healthy, fit, vigorous, and high-spirited. To this day linguists argue whether the Russian word banya” came from the Greek phrase for “driving away pain and sadness”.