Russian banya: weird and wonderful

RT sheds light on the famous Russian bath-house tradition aiming to cleanse the body and leave you feel young and refreshed.

The banya, or bath house, is a cross between the Finnish sauna and the Turkish bath. It is cooler than the former and drier than the latter.

One of the earliest descriptions of the banya goes back to 1113. Every rich household used to have one, while in towns and villages there was invariably a communal steam house. According to ancient chronicles, the first foreign visitors to Russia found the cult of the banya quite shocking.

“They warm their wooden bath houses to extreme heats, then take young reeds and lash their bodies,” the chronicles go. “Then they drench themselves with cold water. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.”

Sounds quite scary indeed! Although you can go to a banya without leaving the capital, you can also get an authentic countryside experience – for example, near the ancient town of Suzdal 200 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

“Banya is a huge part of Russian culture,” Igor Kekhter, director general of “Hot Springs” resort, told RT. “In ancient times, if a new house was constructed, the first thing they built was a banya. People used to live there, women gave birth there and bread was baked there too.”

The work principle is quite simple: the steam room has a stove with smoldering stones; water is poured onto them to produce hot, dense steam and temperatures will often exceed 90 degrees Celsius.

Once you have built up a good sweat, the hot and cold contrast becomes all-important. Traditionally, people jumped in a nearby lake or rolled in the snow in winter. Then there is the “flogging” – a massage with a bunch of birch or oak twigs, called “venik”, soaked in water.

“Every professional has their secrets of how to soak a venik properly,” steam room attendant Oleg Lebedev told RT. “I say the water has to be warm – not too hot and not too cold. A massage with a venik relieves stress and is very good for skin.”

Far from being a voluntary torture, the banya ritual has always been known for its healing powers.

“If you go to the banya regularly, the excess of salt is removed from the body, which is good for the kidneys,” steam room attendant Galina Barinova told RT. “You give yourself a great cleansing. And banya is good for everyone, from tiny babies to the elderly.”

After all the sweating and beating, when you emerge feeling ten years younger, you will certainly promise yourself to come back.

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