So What's All the Fuss About a 'Russian Banya'?

Initial exposure to the "Russian Banya" concept may leave one making unfortunate associations, but upon closer examination will be found to be altogether innocent if not wholesome

This article from our archives was first published on RI in March 2016
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Originally appeared at Life in Russia


As we can see the Russian Banya is loved by every culture far and wide, the question is why is there such an attraction? In Russian folklore there is a story that the banya was inhabited by a spirit known as Bannik

<figcaption>Good for you</figcaption>
Good for you

Bannik was said to have the ability to predict the future. If one wanted to be consulted by him they would stand with one’s back exposed in the half-open door of the Banya. He would gently stroke one’s back if all boded well, but if trouble was in your future, he would strike your back with his claws.

In the reality of it all the Russian Banya is a quintessential experience that everyone should enjoy. It been around since medieval times, and was a staple for culture, health, and a place where even business affairs were held. It’s easy to imagine those who traveled the trade route from China to Europe must have taken advantage of the Banya considering the time they spent going from the far east to all points west, one can envision that even Alexander might have sat in one during his trek to India. It’s easy to see why it was a central part of the Slavic culture and not just a place for bathing and cleanliness.

Newcomers coming through Russia would be amazed by wooden Banyas where naked people warmed themselves to extremes, lashed themselves with – veniks. (branches from a birch tree). Afterwards they plunged into cold rivers and ponds to feel the revival of the soul. When Russian Princes arrived in Constantinople they made special arrangements for the use of local steaming rooms – and they were very particular about it.

Emperor Peter the Great was a fan of the Russian banya. When he founded St. Petersburg in 1703 he allowed everyone to building banyas without having to pay taxes on them. When he traveled to Paris in 1718 he ordered a banya be built for him on the banks of the Seine River in the center of the city.

Even now this ritual can be shocking to foreigners. At the first sight of a Banya some fear that they may be pushed into some mysterious sexual act. Far from it – a real banya has nothing to do with sex. It’s about staying fit and making your life longer. In modern times, however, people use banyas and saunas to hold real business talks – nobody feels the oppressive atmosphere of the office.

Better than sex

There is a story about an American who once came to the Russian banya . He was horrified to see Russian men in the Banya beating each other with veniks. He hastily closed the door and asked with his eyes turned to the ceiling: “Do I really want this?” “Yes” – answered the hospitable Russians.

They took him into the steaming room and worked his body with veniks for about three minutes. After that they made him jump into a pool of cold water. The American was pleasantly amazed: “You know, in some ways it is even better than sex,”he said.

As you have understood by now veniks are used to pump up the heat to give your body a good massage. It is considered very healthy, and despite the fears of many foreigners it has nothing to do with sex. However, some argue that the benefits and pleasure one gets from being beaten by a venik is just as good, if not better.

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