What Is a Russian Banya?

bunch of green birch twigs in sauna, closeup view

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A Russian banya is a type of a steam sauna that is usually heated in a stove. An old tradition that has existed in Russia for centuries, steam bathing is considered to be good for relaxation and health, as well as a way to spend time with friends, family, or even colleagues. It is still very popular in Russia.

Key Takeaways: Russian Banya

  • Russian banyas are a type of steam bath.
  • Banyas have been long associated with good health, relaxation, and a way to socialize that bypasses the usual boundaries, creating an atmosphere of openness and friendship.
  • As a symbol of hospitality, guests were always offered a banya experience.
  • "Black banyas" were banyas where large stones were heated in open flames.
  • "White banyas" had stone stoves with chimneys.
  • Veniks are besoms made of dried tree or herb branches.
  • Modern banyas often include a steam room, a washing room, and an entrance room.

Origins of the Russian Banya

The first mentions of a banya appear in "The Primary Chronicle," also known as "The Tale of Bygone Years" (Повесть Временных Лет - POvyest VRYEmennykh LYET), which is dated from around 1113 and covers the history of the early Slavs from the biblical times until the time of its writing.

Early Slavs used their house stoves as the first banyas. The stoves were at least 1.5 meters deep and about 0.5 meters wide (5 ft. by 1.6 ft), often large enough to accommodate several family members. After cooking, the Slavs cleaned out the inside of the stoves and lined them with hay and straw before getting in and enjoying the remaining warmth. A bucket of water was placed inside and the bathers sprinkled the water onto the ceiling of the stove, creating the steam.

In a Russian Banya, 1916. Artist: Tikhov, Vitali Gavrilovich
In a Russian Banya, 1916. Artist: Tikhov, Vitali Gavrilovich. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Eventually, purpose-built banyas appeared. At first, these had no chimney and the warmth was achieved by heating large stones in an open flame. Once the desired heat was reached, windows and doors were opened to let the smoke out before the banya was ready to be used. This type of bathing was called по-черному (paCHYORnamoo), "black banya," due to the amount of smoke and soot that remained on the walls and ceiling.

Later on, stone stoves with exhaust pipes began to be used, which prevented the smoke from gathering inside. This style of bathing was referred to as по-белому (paBYElamoo), "white banya."

During the cold months, people came out of the heat straight into the snow and rubbed it on their skin to cool themselves down before going back in. Banyas were often built on a riverbank so that bathers could jump into the water to cool down.

Although Russian banyas are thought to be tough to bear, in reality, the temperature is lower than in a Finnish sauna and is maintained at around 60° to 90° Celsius (140° - 195°F), with the humidity kept at 50-90%, which makes it more similar to a Western steam room. It is the additional element of being lashed with a venik—a bunch of tree branches—that creates the impression of the Russian banyas as being particularly strenuous.

Man in Russian Banya
A man in a banya beats himself with 'veniks', (birch branches). These are used to help fan the heat down from the ceiling and also to increase the circulation. Dean Conger / Getty Images

How to Use a Banya

A banya usually has a hot or steam room (парная - parNAya, or парилка - paREELka), a washing room, and an entrance room (предбанник - pryedBANnik).

Visitors take a hot shower and dry their skin completely before entering the steam room. Felt hats are used to prevent the head and hair from overheating. After 5-10 minutes and once the body is hot, you can cool off in the washroom using cold water, then go back into the heat. Visitors usually repeat this several times until they feel fully relaxed. On the second or third visit to the steam room, visitors can use a venik to lash themselves on their arms, legs, back, and chest, or ask someone else to do it for them.

Snacks and hot herbal tea is often served in the entrance room where you can relax with your friends between visits to the hot room.

Russian
The interior of the Russian banya with bath accessories. vubaz / Getty Images

How to Use a Venik

A venik is a besom made of tree or herb branches. The most common ones are made out of birch, juniper, oak, eucalyptus, nettle, and pine. If the venik is made of dried branches, then it is placed in hot water at the beginning of the banya session for 10-15 minutes. When it is ready, the venik is used to lightly lash the body, massaging it and releasing essential oils from the plants. The water left from soaking the venik is then used to rinse the hair and skin.

Russian Banya Etiquette

Modern Russian banyas are divided into men and women areas. Swimwear is not used and everyone gets completely naked, wrapping themselves with towels instead.

It is customary to exchange light lashings with friends or other guests using the veniks unless there is a professional banya worker—банщик (BANshik)—who takes that responsibility.

Cultural Significance

Banyas were so essential to the Slavic way of life that most people had their own family banyas, which they built next to their houses. Whole families and even villages bathed together, men, women, and children in the same area. Any guests or visitors were offered a banya as a symbol of hospitality. Saturdays were bathing days and most families heated their banyas at least once a week, on Saturdays, and often several times a week.

In Slavic mythology, banyas were inhabited by a spirit called the bannik, thought to be moody and sometimes evil. Specific rituals, including gifts and offerings, were often employed to soften the bannik's heart. Banyas were considered to be a magical place where fire, earth, water, and air elements came together, creating a cleansing and spiritual experience.

In contemporary Russia, many people still go to the banya once a week. The ritual is also popular with celebrities, businessmen, and politicians who often socialize in the banyas. Many public banyas, such as the famous Sandouny, provide private rooms and lavish feasts to their guests, making a banya visit a special experience. In Russia, banyas have been long associated with good health, relaxation, and a way to socialize that bypasses the usual boundaries, creating an atmosphere of openness and friendship.