The Russian Banya, the famous sauna of the Russians

Since ancient times, steam baths or "banya", as they are called in Russia, were the place not only for cleansing the body, but also for the purification of the soul. People thought that Banya helped kill evil spirits.
La tipica banja russa
La tipica banja russa

Since ancient times, steam baths or "Banja", as they are called in Russia, were considered the place not only for cleansing the body, but also for purification of the soul. People thought that Banya helped kill evil spirits, because it united all four elements in one place: fire, water, air and earth.

There is a common opinion that the Russian banya is the oldest "steam bath" (sauna) in the world as mentioned in some 11th century manuscripts. The Slavic peoples were pagans, they believed in the power of water and fire. On the other hand, however, there is the belief that the tradition of steam baths was brought to Russia by the Finno-Fungal peoples. It is quite possible to believe in this explanation because of the famous Finnish sauna which is known to be a real cure.

Traditionally, the Russian bania is made of wood, preferably coniferous. It usually has two rooms, one of which is a kind of dressing room while the other is where the "steam bath" takes place and has wooden shelves on which to sit and an oven. Saturday has always been considered "banya day".

There have always been two ways of making banya: "the black way" and "the white way". In the first the oven is built right inside the room where the "steam bath" takes place and all the steam, and smoke filling the room, only comes out through the open door. People pour water and also the traditional Russian drink "kvass" onto the stones, to get more steam. In the second way "the white way" the smoke goes out through a special duct.

The Italian travelers of the 16th century noticed the promiscuity of men, women and children in the banya, and observed with amazement that in the cold and long season of the Russian winter the citizens very willingly went "all naked" to wash themselves in the banya, with "debauchery and freedom”, without any shame, and children could see the men and women completely naked!

At the same time, Giacomo Casanova, in his Memoirs of the Trip to Russia, wrote that "the Muscovites do not have bad intentions" despite the custom of washing all together. The Russians often came out of the banyas outside and rolled in the snow or took a bath in the icy waters of a river or lake, and then return to the banja.

Of course, nowadays, if you want to participate in the traditional Russian banya, it is best to go to rural Russia. There is no better banya than in the Russian province! If you go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, you can visit famous banya places that have a very long history.

La tradizionale banja russa
La tradizionale banja russa

There are some rules that apply when visiting the traditional Russian banya.

The temperature should not be less than seventy or eighty degrees centigrade. Meanwhile the humidity should be fifty to seventy percent. First, the body should be warmed up slowly. So, you should start by sitting on the lowest shelf where there is not as much steam. Then, after some time, move up, where there is more steam.

When the body is warmed up properly, it's time to start using "the broom". It is usually made of birch (it can also be oak or lime) and should be heated with the utmost care. People participating in the banya must whip each other with this broom, to promote peripheral blood circulation, in the subcutaneous tissue, in the muscles and joints, after going out to throw themselves on the snow or dive into the icy water, in order to temper the body.

You must always remember not to stay inside the bath for too long due to the rather harsh impact that the vapor can have on the human organism, especially when it is not used to it. It is much better to visit the banja from time to time to enjoy the purification of the heart, soul and body in a gradual and correct manner.

The master of the bania sprinkles water on the stones, increasing the quantity of hot steam and begins his work. Thanks to the rise in temperature, the guest has freed himself, through sweat, of toxins, salts and metabolic waste and therefore we move directly to the more energetic beatings and frictions, gradually increasing the pace.

The higher you lift the twig, the more you take in hot steam, which will create a pleasant contrast with the brushing of your body with a twig soaked in icy water. The sensation is inexplicable and unforgettable. After warming up, we proceed with a further shower, herbal tea, fruit and total relaxation. The sensations after the treatment are of lightness, purity and rebirth.

The environment of the Russian banya is different from that of the traditional sauna: when you have a classic Finnish sauna session, there is silence and peace, but in the Russian banya, when the master enters and begins his ritual, everything changes. The client, from the euphoria, is unable to hold back his emotions and sounds of pleasure, comments and sometimes even small cries of joy are released; you let off steam, you unload your emotions and also all the nervous tension accumulated during the working days.

The master himself sometimes does the work by singing because the ritual is also fun! The pleasure is inexplicable for those receiving the treatment, a spectacle for those around and fun for the master... everyone will have their share of pleasure!

The Russian banya in Moscow
The Russian banya in Moscow
The traditional Russian banya in Moscow

The famous writer and scholar Giliarovsky made a remark in the book Moscow and Muscovites: “Moscow without a banya - it is not Moscow”. At the beginning of the century the Sandunov, Oruzheinye and Domnikovskie banyas were famous throughout Russia. Interesting that the founders of the Sandunov Banja were the actors: the Sandunov family.

After the great success of their banya, the very rich merchant Khludov built the entire Tsentralny complex in Moscow in 1833, which was called the Chinese Banya by Muscovites, since the complex was located on China Street.

When talking about Moscow, you should definitely visit Sanduny, this is the main bany of the city with more than two hundred years of history. It dates back to 1808 and is located on the corner of Neglinnaya Street and Sandunovsky Street.

The building is an architectural monument, so some people often say that it looks like a museum. If you want to go somewhere not so ancient, you can try the Seleznyovskiye bany which has been known since the mid-nineteenth century, or the Krasnopresnsnskie bany which is the main competitor of the Sanduny bany.

Prices for famous sights are usually the same: from 1200-1500 rubles to more than 2000 rubles for two hours. But there are always cheaper alternatives, for example: Vorontsovkiye bani on Taganka in the historic center of Moscow, Varshavskiye bani, Astrakhanskiye, Kalitnikovskiye or Lefortovskiye.
La banja russa a San Pietroburgo
La banja russa a San Pietroburgo
The traditional banya in St. Petersburg

Even today in St. Petersburg, in the Venice of the North, there are historic banjas, in the past frequented by crime bosses and famous exponents of the artistic and cultural world. At number 17 on Vasiliovsky Island there is one of the most famous banye in St. Petersburg. Entry to this authentic Russian sauna, with its large steam room and enormous stove, costs the same as a bus ticket.

In the women's area there are 60 lockers, a concierge, bouquets of flowers and two rooms for massages and pedicures. Here the only man you can meet is the masseur, who tells all his clients about the good old days, when he worked for the Spartak football team.

When you are in St. Petersburg, visit the Yamskiye banya famous for being one of the favorite places of the great Russian author Dostoevsky and the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. It is located on Dostoevskogo Street, and the price for the service ranges from about 300 rubles to more than a thousand rubles.

Bania is much cheaper in St. Petersburg than in Moscow. It is also possible to visit the Mytninskiye banya on Mytninskaya Street, the main competitor of the Yamskiye banya, it is more expensive and is considered the first public banya in St. Petersburg.
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