THE RUSSIAN BANYA
is well known, the famous Russian banya has been an essential part
of the Russian way of life since the beginning of time. It is also
absolutely evident that foreigners have always been deeply amazed
by the banyas of our distant ancestors. As the Arab scientist Ibn-Rusta
described it in the beginning of the tenth century: "Russians
often made dugouts where they lit a fire and brought the stones
to a great heat. When the stones were red-hot, people threw cold
water on them. As a result a hot steam filled and heated the dugout
and the temperature became so high that. As a rule, foreigners noticed
to their great surprise that the Russian banya differed a lot from
the antique baths of Byzantium where the thoroughly heated walls
warmed the dry air of the bathhouse.
The great effect of the Russian banya
is based on wet steam and in particular the banya with wet steam
has become the Russian tradition.
At that time the Russian banya looked like a small house with two
rooms: a kind of cloakroom and the banya itself. Traditionally,
Russians built their banyas on the bank of the river or lake in
order to have an opportunity to bathe in the cold water while they
are still piping hot. There were also a lot of public bathhouses
especially in the major cities of Russia. In most cases, foreigners
described in their travel notes these public bathhouses. For instance,
the Austrian ambassador, Baron Augustan Mairberg wrote in 1661:
"Sweating all over because of the high temperature of the banya,
Russians sweat it out and beat each other with a switch made of
twigs which is found in the Russian baths. Then they run out to
the river and bathe themselves. In winter when the river is coated
with ice, they rub themselves with snow, as if with soap, and return
to the banya as quickly as possible to warm themselves".
Eventually, Russians began to build real bath-palaces with magnificent
carpets, fountains, arched ceilings, marble swimming pools, and
apartments furnished in the Turkish style, so that everything reminded
one of the old Roman bathhouses. For example, the Voroninsky Banyas
enjoyed wide popularity among their many visitors. At their disposal
was a hydrotherapy section with a whole variety of different sanitary
treatments. There was also an excellent restaurant where the visitors
could spend their time after taking a steam bath. By the way, it
was also a great place for having a heart-to-heart talk, a kind
of club where people discussed the latest news over tea or drinking
beer or Russian kvass.
Being the Russian tradition, the Russian banya became an important
part of another famous tradition - the Russian wedding. After their
first night of marriage the newlyweds had to take a steam bath,
but strictly separately. In the tsar's family this tradition was
kept up to the Peter's the Great time. Among the Russian folk this
tradition was widespread up to the 20th century.
From the October Revolution in 1917 up to the time of perestroika
the traditional Russian banya has been losing its popularity, for
the new Russian banyas were designed not for the comfort of steaming
but only for increasing their capacity. At that time the Russian
government even made the working masses wash there but Russians
did it unwillingly because the new bathhouses looked very unpleasant
(they were too spacious).
These days the great Russian tradition is reviving again. Evidently,
Russians can't imagine their lives without the banya.
Concerning the bathing technology of the Russian banya, not only
is it different from, for instance, the bathing technology of the
Finnish sauna, it is considered to be one of the best in the world.
The point is that the heat capacity of the water is far more than
the thermal capacity of the air. That's why the Russian banya is
based on wet, but not very hot, steam. In addition, the heat regulation
of the human body in many respects depends on the relative humidity.
And exactly, the moist air of the Russian banya makes people perspire
freely. As a result, they feel far better than, for instance, after
taking a steam bath in a Finnish sauna. In order not to overheat
and to wash away the sweat, Russians practice frequent but short
periods of steaming in the Russian banya alternating with washing
themselves off with water. For this purpose Russians also use the
switches in the Russian baths that take up and brush off the sweat.
But it is worth using these switches only when you perspire freely.
By the way, some time ago Russians heated their banyas with the
help of an open flame. In other words, there was a special fireplace
for it without an up-take flue. That's why the walls of the banya
were always black. And that's why, after heating the banya in this
way, it was necessary to air it out quickly through the front door.
Only then would Russians enter the banya and take a steam bath,
the temperature was rather high and remained permanent for a long
time. Russians called this way of steaming "banya po chernomu"
(black banya). Nowadays this tradition is still to be found in Russian
Needless to say, the Russian banya is nothing without the switches
used in Russian baths. Usually, Russians make these switches from
birch and oak branches. The switches are used for massage and as
antiseptic remedy, they also have property of temperature control
and aromatization. There is also a nice tradition concerning the
switches. After taking a steam bath, Russians return home with their
switches in order to remove all doubts of their wives as to where
they had been.
It is absolutely evident that besides the hygienic function, the
Russian banya has a great medicinal effect. For instance, the banya
helps to keep in order the strong constitution and the human cardiovascular
system, respiration and respiratory systems supportive and connective
tissues. The banya eases nervous tension and overwork, and stimulates
the human circulation and circulatory systems.
So why don't you give it a try! Banyas can be found everywhere throughout
Russia. Who knows? It might even become a tradition with you!