IT HAPPENED TO BE Lenin’s birthday that fine spring morning in Leningrad as I hiked the streets searching for Bania 43. The hotel manager had given me a note in Russian, directing me to the bania. I had simply to show the note to anyone on the street and they would point the way. But Russians on the street weren’t eager to introduce a foreigner to their communal baths, which some consider a vestige of their peasant past. I handed the note to about 20 people who responded with gruff suspicion before I found Bania 43.
An old woman sat on the door sill selling veniks (bania switches). I pushed through double doors and found myself in a large hallway filled with barber shops and small kiosks. I moved with the crowd to the end where the sexes separated; women turned left and men fanned off to a staircase. Before I had climbed two steps the crowd had frozen in a long queue. My visa was too short to wait out that line so I brashly bounded up the stairs like a man with a mission. At the coat check counter I produced a handful of change from which the attendant plucked only 20 kopeks. Not a bad fee. I ducked into the dressing room hoping the long line of bathers behind me wouldn’t recognize me with my clothes off.
Entrance to Bania 43 in Leningrad.
I felt a tug at my shirt tail and heard a greeting in German. “Sind sie Deutsch” (Are you German?) I turned to face an unusually thin Russian. Feeling it wiser not to be German or American in a Russian public bath, I told him I was Finnish. His eyes lit up and he motioned me to join him. We hung our clothes on adjoining hangers and put our valuables and shoes in doorless boxes. He produced a bottle of light beer. We swigged together, then I followed him through a washroom and to the door of the hot room.
He asked if I was ready. I wasn’t sure. In Finnish baths a respectful Nordic calm governs bathing behavior, but here the bathers sounded like the rooting section of the Soviet basketball team during the closing seconds of their Olympic win over the Americans. Yells and screams exploded through the door. During a brief lull, I could hear men beating each another with veniks.
“Come in, it is good, da,” my bania comrade said, giving me the first Russian smile I had seen that day. Before he could open the door, a cherry red eight-year-old scurried out of the room with steam billowing from his back. He was over to water basins on the far wall like a shot, and began dousing himself.
Through the thick air of the steam room, I could make out some twenty bathers whipping each other with birch whisks. Like a scene from the Inferno, winter-white bodies wove together like ghosts in the clouded air. The Russians seemed to be trying to outshout hissing water as it was poured on the heater. This heater was wide as a truck and reached three meters to the ceiling. Inside glowed a massive load of round rocks, resembling cannon balls. The concrete walls and floor were treacherously slick. If I were to describe Bania 43 to a Helsinki Finn, I would say it was a replica of Sauna 26 on Alikishinverkatu. To a Californian, I would say it was similar to Finnilias in San Francisco, or the Albany steam baths. New Yorkers would find the bath at St. Marks Square a good likeness.
The scene inside Bania 43. (Re-drawn from author’s sketches.)
My comrade yelled something in Russian and the room fell quiet – all eyes focused on me. I had the uneasy feeling he was telling them I was a Finn and should be shown some real sweat bathing. A couple of men at the top of the platform motioned for me to join them as my friend yelled for more steam to accompany my climb. A few hands helped me up. I sat down quickly, ducked my head between my knees and hoped the searing steam collecting at that altitude would soon pass. The Russians began laughing and stomping on the platform. I never expected such raucous exuberance from the stoney faces I had seen on the street.
Another treat – out came the birch switches. I tried to refuse, but an obliging Russian, perhaps not understanding, went to work on me. Wap! The birch slapped across my back and drove scalding steam deeper into my skin. I thought “ouch” was a universal word, but the Russian ignored my cries until I was sure I would have welts for a week.
I had considered myself a seasoned sweat bather, but this was too much. I escaped outside into the washing room. My bania comrade had instigated a friendly competition between Finland and the Soviet Union of which I wanted no part. If the Russians can endure more heat than I, it’s no sweat off my back.
The Russian bania as depicted in the book, A Picturesque Representation of the Manner, Customs and Amusements of the Russian, 1804 by John Atkinson and James Walker.
The washing room held about 50 bathers gathered around several washing benches. The steam was not as dense as it was in the steam room. Each bather had a steel bucket with soap and scrubbing material that looked like bunched-up wood shavings. Everyone was busy washing himself or the person next to him, while the inevitable Russian line formed in front of the few showers.
I grabbed a bucket, filled it with water and began scrubbing my red, steamy body. Soon the relaxing effects of the bania softened my first impressions of the Russians. Their camaraderie in the bania was a dramatic contrast to their stoicism in the streets. I washed and dressed quickly. I still had three more banias to visit that day.
History of the Great Russian Bath
The fact that Bania 43 could have been transported from Leningrad to Helsinki without locals knowing the difference demonstrates the striking similarities between the Russian and Finnish bathing styles. Because ritual, folklore, and even construction of both baths are so similar, it is safe to assume their development has been parallel, although no records show when each culture began sweat bathing. Considering all that northern Europe has in common, it’s no wonder: cold winters (even as far south as Moscow, where the first frost comes in late September and continues until April); thickly wooded forests that provide ample wood for fuel and construction; and the hard-working peasant’s dependence on folk medicine.
No sweat bath in the world has been as well documented as the Russian bath. Finnish sauna information is meager in comparison. Early Russian chronicles commonly mention the bania, and when European journalists swarmed to Russia in the centuries following the Reformation, the Russian bath made exciting feature material to send home. The Russians became renown for their enthusiastic bathing. In 1914, M. Hartea told the Finnish Museum Society, “In Moscow the interest in bania is greater than here in Finland. The Russians conquer us Finns as far as interest in the sauna goes.”
If the history of the early 1900s had been different, if Russian folklore hadn’t been concealed behind a dense political curtain, the bania might have become a household word in America instead of the Finnish sauna.
The Russian bania in 1761 as rendered by Abbe Chappe d’Auteroche.
The parallel development of the sauna and the bania applies only to northwest Russia. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, all types of sweat baths discussed in this book exist. In the southwest the baths are fashioned after the Islamic and Roman models. Hypocaust heating was found as far north as Kuybyshev on the Volga River. Among the nomadic tribes of central and eastern Soviet Union, portable sweat baths are used – much like the sweat lodges of the North American Indians. Sweat bathing is so popular in the USSR that even in areas where material shortages exist, as in the barren areas of Siberia, the Soviet build sweats from turf or clay. Some are dug into cliffs and given only a veneer of wood. These are called laznva. The word itself suggests the origin of the bath house as well as the means for entering it – lazit means to creep, or to descend. In these primitive sweat baths there is only a dirt floor covered with hay or straw. One of the most curious forms of sweat bathing is the baking of the body in bread ovens, a practice found throughout the USSR (more on that later).
The black bania of the northwest is the Russian equivalent to the Finnish savusauna, while the white bania refers to concrete baths in the cities. Because of the white bania, the Russian bath is often thought of as a steam bath. Low temperatures and high water concentration create steam, while high temperatures with the same water concentration will not produce visible steam. Because white banias were so heavily used by the urban Russians, it was nearly impossible to maintain a high temperature. As a result, steam filled the hot room. Travelers to Russia then brought back word of these “steamy” Russian baths.
One of the earliest descriptions of the bania comes from the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113, in describing the missionary work of the apostle, Andreas:
He descended from the hill on which Kiev was subsequently built, and continued his journey up the Dnieper. He then reached the Slavs at the point where Novgorod is now situated. He saw these people existing according to their customs, and, on observing how they bathed and drenched themselves, he wondered at them. He went thence among the Farangians and came to Rome, where he recounted what he had learned and observed.
‘Wondrous to relate,’ he said, ‘l saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day and actually inflict such voluntary torture upon themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.’
Another mention of the bania is found in the same Chronicle, in the story of Princess Olga’s revenge for the murder of her husband, Prince Igor, by the Slavic tribe of Drevlians in 945 AD. The leader of the Drevlians had hopes of marrying the widow Olga and sent messengers to discuss the idea. “When the Drevlians arrived Olga commanded that a bath should be made ready for them, and said: ‘Wash yourselves and come to me.’ The bath-house was heated and the unsuspecting Drevlians entered and began to wash themselves, after which Olga’s men closed the bath-house behind them and she gave orders to set it on fire from the doors, so that the Drevlians were all burned to death.”
In a 906 AD treaty between Russia and Greece, the Russians stipulated that their merchants trading in Constantinople were not given only “bread, wine, meat, fish and fruit, but also the opportunity to bathe as often as they wished.” Although the baths in Constantinople were not like the bania, they would suffice in a foreign land.
In the early 1600s, a German librarian, Adamus Olearius, visited Russia and gave this account of the bania in his book, Persian Travel Tales:
A black bania from the village Lugavsk, Krasnojarsk.
Their baths are the only thing that have any resemblance of what we call Gentile, in Muscovy (Moscow), tho’ the Publick ones are but very Indifferently fitted for that use. At Astracan I went incognito into one of them, which was only parted from another Room by a few Deal Boards, which being not well joyn’d, you might with ease see all what pass’s there; besides that there was but one Door for Men and Women to go out or in, some of both Sexes, who were pretty modest hiding their Privy Parts with a handful of Leaves soak’d in Water, the rest appearing stark naked; nay, some of the Women came in that posture to speak with their Husbands in our Room, without the least sign of Bashfulness.
It is most surprising thing to see them come out of such an intense degree of heat all of a sudden, and run into the cold Water, or have it poured upon them; or in the Winter wallow themselves in the snow, and so return into the stoves again; which we have also observed several times in the Finlanders, who live in Livonia, no other reason being to be assign’d for it, than a Custom, which being turned into a Habit, they are not sensible of these opposite Qualifications of Heat and Cold as other People are; for we made this observation at Narva, That the Muscovite Boys of 8, 9, or 10 years of age would stand for half an Hour together bare-footed upon the Ice, without ever complaining of Cold. The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder’d, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent. The Seats or Benches which are along the Walls placed one above the other, that one may take what degree of Heat one pleases, are covered with clean Sheets and Pillows filled with Hay; upon these you lie down to Sweat, every one having a Servant Maid, who only in her Smock, Rubs, Washes and Wipes you. As soon as she comes in, she presents you with some Radish and Salt; and if you be a particular friend, the Mistress of the House, or her Daughter, brings you a composition of Wine and Beer, with some crub’d bread, Limon Slices, Sugar and grated Nutmeg.
Olearius also described the luxurious banias of the Czar’s Kremlin benches upholstered with leather and thick pillows strewn across the floor. Rather than jumping in a lake or tumbling in the snow after bathing, a person of nobility would retire to a cooling room with wall-to-wall mirrors and a servant waving stork-feather fans.
Exterior and interior of a Russian black bania in Novgorod. A. Heating oven or pile of stones. B. Dressing room. C. Sweating room. 1. Bania platform. 2. Low benches for washing and undressing. 3. Water and wash tubs.
From then until the turn of the 20th century, Russian bathing was a favorite topic of visitors to Russia. Casanova in 1774, Tooke in 1779, Porter in 1809, Cox in 1884 – the list is endless. Europe, having forgotten its own bathing past, became attracted to the spectacle of whole villages bathing together and the extravagance of the czars.
Bannik, the Spirit of the Bania
Medieval Europe had its bath house fairies, Finland’s sauna was the home for elves, the North American Fox Indians had Manitou in their sweat lodges, and the Russians bania was the haunt of the Bannik.
Unlike other sweathouse spirits, the Russian Bannik had a mischievous streak and rarely did anyone good. Bannik was described by rare witnesses as an old man with hairy paws and long nails. He lived behind the stove or under the benches and revealed himself only when he was unhappy with the bath or if someone had been disrespectful. Often it was the newcomer who received his wrath. If Bannik became angry, watch out! Bathers were known to have lost their skin and had their bodies wrapped around the stove for loud singing, talking or swearing in the bath – or simply for being a stranger. You were wise not to lie or boast, and certainly not to have sexual intercourse in the bath! Red hot rocks and boiling water have also been known to be thrown by a displeased Bannik.
To protect yourself from the Bannik, etiquette required making the sign of the cross before entering the bania, wishing your comrades a good bath and, when leaving, wishing the Bannik a hearty goodbye. Since the Bannik liked a clean room and bathed at least once a week, cleaning and heating the bania were duties that could not be neglected. The Bannik could control the quality of steam and could transform harmless steam into deadly coal gas if he wasn’t satisfied.
The third or fourth round of bathing was always reserved for the Bannik who liked to bathe alone in the dark. Soap, lye, and birch twigs were left behind for him. And a little extra because the Bannik sometimes invited his forest friends to join him – sometimes the Devil himself.
You knew when the Bannik had his friends in by the purring noise of their conversation. This was never a time to enter a bania alone. However, if you were curious and wanted to see the bania spirit, you had to go alone. You would step in with one leg and at the same time take your cross off your neck and put it under the heel of your left foot which symbolized your denial of God. The Bannik might then reveal himself.
From time to time, Bannik expected a sacrifice. After an old bania had been burned down and before a new one could be erected, a black chicken had to be choked and buried under the building site. Then, to assuage the rascal, salt was thrown over the stove during the first heating of the bania.
The bania also housed benevolent supernatural forces. Witches and sorcerers gathered in the bania to establish a link with these superior powers and here, surrounded by the magic forces of the bania, evil could be extracted from the body and the future prophesied.
The magical attributes of the sweat bath were the reason that the critical stages of a Russian’s life – birth, adulthood, marriage, and death – were conducted in the bania. The moment a person moved from the known to the unknown, they were vulnerable to evil forces that could enter and consume the Russian soul. With proper ritual, the bania’s powers could be summoned to protect the Russian during life’s crucial transitions.
The Birth Bania
The bania was ideal for a Russian woman giving birth – if the Bannik did not interfere. The midwife’s job was not only to assist with the birth, but also to keep the Bannik from interfering. One ruse was to dip four stones from the oven in water and throw them into a corner while muttering, “Into the corner with you stones! And smack the Devil in the forehead!” If this was not enough to repel evil, she scooped water from a bucket and lifted her hands to her face. She then chanted, “Just as this water slides off my arms, so should the evil eye slide off the servant of the Lord” (then she said the name of the pregnant woman). After she had scooped 27 handfuls of water and chanted 27 times, she took water in her mouth and sprayed the mother. After birth, the woman beat herself with birch twigs and washed herself. With help and support from the old ones who had assisted in the birth, the mother went through the same ritual with the new-born child.
E. Karnefeff, 1812.
Tereschenko, a 19th century Russian writer, wrote, “This custom (of giving birth in the bania) was not only followed by women of the Bojar (the nobility), but also among the Royal families.”
The Wedding Bania
After the groom had lifted his new wife over the threshold of the bania (a precaution taken because stillborn children were buried there and the groom did not want his first born to suffer the same fate), they undressed and tossed water on the rocks. Outside, wedding guests threw rocks and pottery at the bania to scare away the lurking Bannik. Among all the cries of “good luck!” a guest might have cracked, “Remember a couple that sweats together, stays together!” Whether or not sweating had anything to do with creating a viable marriage, at least the Russian Church sanctified it as one of the few permissible pagan rituals of the bania. The purification ritual began the night before with both the bride and groom taking separate banias.
Records of the groom’s night-before bania show more a cheerful, drunken fling rather than a solemn ceremony. The bride-to-be’s bania was heated with birch, pine or Siberian cedar, but never aspen for it was regarded as a sorrowful tree. During the bath she was expected to use the engagement present from the groom – a fresh birch whisk and a piece of soap. Her sweat was collected by pouring milk over her body and then dough was plastered over her. Later the dough was kneaded and made into bread and cakes to be served at the wedding feast. The bride-to-be’s sweat mixed with vodka, wine, and grains were poured on the bania rocks to enhance the scent. Honey and hops were added to give the bride-to-be a rich sweet life.
Occasionally a poor peasant family would not have a regular bania, but so important was the wedding bania that the household baking oven would be used instead. Before all the cakes and breads had been prepared, the oven was cleaned and the bride-to-be was shoved in on a wooden platter. The door was sealed from the outside while she sweated and washed alone.
A peasant’s wedding is described by an Irish woman who visited Russia in 1805:
The Bride elect dissolved in tears sat at the top of a Table (previous to the bathing business) which was laid out with emblematic Fruits. Presently after the Bridegroom presented her with her Toilet and then disappear’d & was conducted to his bath by his Companions! This Toilette consisted of every necessary article together with Rouge & white paint. A group of girls then set up what sounded like a sort of Requiem call’d Pesui Swad bachnia! (She goes on to describe the song.)
We then attended her to the Bath with all her young Companions amounting to between 30 and 40 Girls who assisted in undressing her in the outer Chamber & then led her in a flood of tears naked to the Bath. They then took off their own Cloaths-after scouring her to their hearts’ content danced round about in all their National Dances, clapping their hands & drinking Wine which was dispensed by another Eve who sat with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other, her long tresses falling down about her shoulders which like all the others was the only Covering they could boast....
I believe we stay’d above an hour at the Bath which became the most festive scene imaginable. They Colour’d themselves for the sport in the most ridiculous manner and sang & danced like a Troop of Bacchanals while the Bride continued mute and in a flood of tears. At length she was conducted back to the House & again took her seat at the Table while all her Companions sang (another song).
After several trifling ceremonies the whole affair ended in a very handsome Supper, the next day the Couple was married . . .
The Death Bania
Early Russian writers described the requium bania. To properly prepare a Russian soul for its journey to the next land, a pillow was stuffed with birch leaves and the coffin was sprinkled with birch twigs. The soul would then be equipped with a venik for banias in the afterlife. Once the coffin was buried, the grave site was visited periodically and fresh veniks were left. By bathing together after the funeral, mourners were assured that the beloved soul would be warmed for its long journey. The communal bath also affirmed their own lives and helped them overcome their grief.
A Russian couple, laden with birch veniks and other bathing implements. – G.G. Perov 1866.
Forty days after death, the bania was again visited by friends and relatives of the deceased. If a farmer died, his daughter would sing this song while everyone was gathered in the bania:
Come my breadwinner and nourisher, my father,
Your orphans have heated the bania for you,
our nourisher, our father,
The lye is ready,
The spring water warm,
And a satin white birch stick is ready,
Come nourisher, our father,
With no restraints or reservations,
Do not complain how the bania was heated,
or how you were prepared for,
Come promptly to us our father for a pleasant night,
We have intoxicating wine,
And we have distilled fresh brandy.
From a Christian point of view, the ritual of death bania was an object of mockery, as an ancient chronicle testifies: “ ... but many people as a result from their blindness from evil place milk, meat, eggs for the dead on holy Thursday. They make a fire in the oven and toss water on the rocks after which they call out, ‘Wash ye spirits!’ They even take forth shirts and towels for the use of the dead. But the devil laughs at this stupidity and sneaks in and rolls around in the ashes, leaving tracks like a chicken. In this way they are deceived – the blind idiots. When the people see the tracks in the ashes they say, ‘Ah, the person’s spirit has come and bathed!’ and then the devil laughs.”
Health and the Bania
Pushkin wrote in 1832, “The Russian does not change his clothing on a journey, and when he reaches his destination, he is like a pig himself. Then he takes a bania – the bania is like the Russian’s second mother.” The Russian arrives home from a long trip bone weary and with smells of the barnyard on him. He goes to his second mother for rejuvenation, warmth, and a bath. She restores him to a state of glowing health.
Russian bather emerges from a sweat bath in an oven, clasping his venik. – Toni Vian
In Russia, sweating and health are virtually synonymous. From 1877 to 1911, more than 30 medical dissertations were published in Russia about the healing powers of the bania. Even today, the attitude of the bania as a panacea is found in remote villages where the traditional folk medicine prevails.
In the 1700s and 1800s, visitors to Russia usually appreciated the healing powers of the bania, and the Russians’ repute as some of the hardiest peoples was spread throughout Europe. The Englishman William Tooke, a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, observed in 1799: “There are but few peculiar diseases prevalent among the Russians, and against most of them they know how to guard themselves by simple diet and domestic remedies. The women everywhere bring forth (give birth) with great facility, and usually in the bathrooms; the number of still-born children is therefore, in comparison with other countries, extremely small...
“In general, the common Russian uses but few medicines; supplying their place in all cases by the SWEATING BATH, a practice so universal among them, and which has so decided an influence on the whole physical state of the people...
“It is not to be doubted that the Russians owe their longevity, their robust state of health, their little disposition to certain mortal diseases, and their happy and cheerful temper, mostly to the baths ...”
Fourteen years later, Edward Kentish, a physician to the Bristol Dispensary in England, wrote: “All exanthematic diseases are abated by bathing: consequently, then, the small-pox; and if this dreadful disorder be actually less fatal in Russia than in other countries this phenomenon needs not to be attributed to any other cause than their great use of vapour Baths. Doctor Sanchez appears to be of the same opinion, from what he has said on the small pox, and other eruptive diseases. He likewise observes that all indispositions, arising from violent exercise, producing chills, with all the attendant bad consequences; that inflammations of any part of the body, even if attended with external or internal tumours, and fever; may be successfully combated by the Russian Baths: also in all chronic diseases, arising from excesses of eating and drinking and the gratifying of other inordinate pleasure, which debilitate and enervate both the body and mind, the attentive physician will find considerable aid in the use of the Russian Baths ...”
Sweat bathing was so important in Russia that if a regular bania was not at hand, a person would climb into a cooking oven. This was common in southern Russia, but also occurred in the north and in Finland as well. A St. Petersburg man wrote this description of oven bathing in 1856:
The bather creeps into the oven when it is quite hot, usually after bread has been baked. He spreads an even layer of straw on the oven floor. Taking with him a birch whisk that has been soaking in hot water, a pail of water, beer and some linen rags, the bather enters and calls to those outside to seal the opening. With the rags he splashes water on the walls, and with the birch he beats himself, especially in those places where he itches. When the procedure is completed, he creeps out of the oven and pours cold water over himself. Then he retreats into the house where he finds a bench on which to rest. If, by any chance, he still itches, he creeps back into the oven and takes a second or sometimes a third bath. Poor elderly people and those who have dirty jobs, such as chimney sweeps, painters, dyers, and so on, bathe in the oven bath. It is not at all unusual for the attendant to a sick person, with the best of intentions, to have fired up the oven so hot that the invalid died from the heat. During one year in the 19th century over 300 such accidents were noted in one of the provinces.
As you can see, the spacious ovens made excellent sweat baths for the single bather; however, the social character of such baths were lacking, so the Russians preferred the communal bania. Nevertheless, occasional edicts and taxes were imposed on the bania bathers, but as a rule in Russia, neither the laws nor the lawmakers lasted too long. During the 17th century, a decree prohibited the use of the bania during the summer by all except the nobility, the infirm, or the pregnant. Ostensibly enacted to reduce the danger of fire, the law was rescinded two years later in 1649. During the reign of Peter I, a special bania tax bureau was created to collect a duty from all bania-operating farmers – the charge was double what they already paid. During this same time, farmers in the Moscow area were required to donate 3,000 bathing whisks for the Kremlin’s private banias. But, since the bania was recognized as a pacifier for the masses, those in power were careful not to push the peasants past the limits of loyalty. Generally, the bania was encouraged throughout the realm, and the presiding noblemen’s responsibility was that every village in their domain had enough banias for the people.
The Church often accused the bania as a hot bed of sin and loose morals. But cries from the Church were usually muffled by the clergy’s own promiscuous bathing habits. Such flagrant hypocrisy leads one to believe that the Russians took the Church seriously – at least until the 19th century. Ivan the Terrible called a church meeting in the 1500s to discuss lax mores. At this meeting Ivan asked, “In the city of Pskow, men and women, and monks and nuns are bathing together without the least shame and in the same room. Should this custom be forbidden when we consider that according to the laws of the holy father, not even a married man and his wife be permitted to bathe together?” The clerics, somewhat red-faced, confessed that, yes, indeed, if it is unholy for men and women to bathe together, it certainly is wrong for monks and nuns to bathe together.
Catherine of St. Petersburg issued the following edict: “ ... especially in those rooms which are meant for women, no men may be allowed in except employees (of the bania), artists and doctors who wish to study and improve themselves in their art.” As you can well imagine, dilettantes of the arts and medicine flourished, and coed bathing continued.
The Russian bania in 1845 by Daman-Demartrait.
When Robert Porter visited Moscow in 1809, he found coed bathing quite popular. In a letter to a friend in England he wrote:
The spirit of investigation led us to the foot of the hospital, where we found a couple of baths prepared for the reception of bathers. These purifying reservoirs being the hot-baths, consisted of low wooden buildings with small openings in their sides, whence issued a thick muddy stream, flowing from the first washings of the natives and in which they still laved their grease-encrusted bodies as they sallied forth to enjoy the cooling waves of the river. As we approached these cleansing elevations we beheld the waters that rolled from under their foundations filled with naked persons of both sexes who waded or swam out from the bath in great numbers, without any consideration of delicacy or decency. From motives of gallantry we posted ourselves opposite the ladies, the better to observe the grace and nymph-like beauty of their groups. To say that they did not blush would be to belie them; for certainly their skins were of the brightest pink: but it was a spontaneous glow; not the sensitive Rush of shame; for they look around with all the sang froid of females fully appareled. And in this Eve-ish state, with a wooden pail in one hand, and a huge bunch of umbrageous birch twigs in the other, they descended the steps into the river. Picture yourself with nearly a hundred naked naiads, flapping, splashing, and sporting in the wave with all the grace of’ a shoal of porpoises!
The famous Giovanni Casanova, was especially surprised by the Russian attitude toward nudity. In 1774 he visited Moscow accompanied by Zaira, a woman he had bought for 1000 rubles in St. Petersburg. He wrote, “In May, Zaira had become so beautiful I decided to take her along on my trip to Moscow. On Saturday I went with her to the Russian bath. There were thirty to forty people there, all of them quite naked. But since no one looks at anyone else, one does not have any feeling of being observed naked. This lack of a feeling of shame comes from a kind of inborn innocence which these people have.”
The Bania after the Russian Revolution
Shortly after the Revolution, Lenin’s government and the Bureau of Health began providing communal banias in all parts of the country. The Russian book, Why Banias are Necessary Both in the City and in the Country, and How to Build One, published in 1920, contained plans for banias that could hold from five to twenty-six bathers.
One of the early concerns of the new government was sanitation. During the Revolution, hygiene was neglected, and disease spread rapidly. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1970 mentions bath houses as disinfectant stations:
The construction of bath houses in USSR is carried out according to standard layouts accommodating 5 to 300 people in the cities and 10 to 50 people in settlements and rural localities. Depending on their arrangement, bath house may be classified as ordinary, disinfection center type or combination bath house; buildings furnished only with showers – known as shower baths – which are sometimes installed in summer pavilions are also built. Modern bath houses may have swimming pools, rooms for physical therapy, and disinfection chambers. So-called steam rooms, in which the temperatures reach from 40 to 50 degrees Celsius and the relative humidity is approximately 90 percent, are also widespread. In some bath houses there are separate rooms with dry heat. The layout of the bath house depends on its purpose.
Two Russian bania designs from 1920.
Unlike the black bania, they have chimneys to carry off the smoke.
In bath houses of the disinfection center type, which are intended for sanitary processing, the bathers’ dirty clothes are disinfected and clean underwear is issued. During the Great Patriotic War, bath trains, dugout baths, and portable shower installations were widespread.
During World War II bania were installed in Russian military trains.
As in Finland, industrialization had an effect on bathing practices in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the demographic shift from the rural to the urban settings carried strong traditional influence to the cities. The bania was so ingrained in the peasants’ lifestyle, that when families moved to the city they took bania customs with them. However, this migration created densely populated cities and acute housing shortages. With basic living room, kitchen and bedroom at a premium, the communal bania was placed low on the construction industry’s priority list. Even though the demand is great, the Soviets have concentrated their construction energies in housing projects and industry. This accounts for the fact that no new banias have been built in Leningrad or Moscow since World War II. An American journalist visiting Moscow in 1965 described the state of affairs in Helsingin Saunomat, Finland’s largest newspaper. “In Moscow there are constant complaints that the old banias are not maintained or repaired, and no new ones are being built. The Russians enjoy their steam bath as much as the Finns enjoy their sauna. Even before 8:00 AM when the bania doors open, the customers are queued up outside the bania, and the queue lasts until closing time.”
Mrs. Markov, an elderly Russian living in Los Angeles, was an enthusiastic bania user before she immigrated to the United States 27 years ago. “I was a child during the Revolution. There was so little time to relax then. Those were hard times for Russians. But, thank God for the bania, old people would spend hours in the bania. It was like a club where they could relax their minds and souls and briefly forget the world around them.”
Politics was a sensitive subject for Mrs. Markov and whenever my questions strayed from the bania she would protest and say, “Let’s talk about the bania – everybody loves the bania.”
“At least we were healthy during the Revolution. Hard work made us that way. We wove sandals from bark and made our own matches. Eskimo life and Russian life were the same during the Revolution. Good physical labor is one thing I miss here in the United States. If I walk to the store, people look at me as if I were crazy. And no banias. If I want a steam bath, I have to take a taxi several miles north and I can’t afford that. In Russia, there was always a bania nearby.”
I asked Mrs. Markov if children are still born in the bania. “During the winter, it was the only warm and isolated spot. If a woman couldn’t get to a bania she delivered her baby on top of the baking oven.”
When I asked if black banias were still used in the country she replied, “Yes, of course.” The last time she saw one was summer, 1941. “The black bania was small and well insulated with moss so it would be easier to heat during the winter.”
Finnish tourists in front of a black bania between Novgorod and Moscow, 1976.
Mrs. Markov could not believe men and women bathed together. I showed her an old painting and she said, “That must have been far north. I never heard of men and women bathing together in the bania, especially today. Russians can be prudish, you know.”
And, what about the spirits. Do people still believe in them? “Spirits, hummm, there used to be a strong belief in the bania spirits, but I think Russians are more educated now and don’t take them seriously as they once did. But, listen, you go to a black bania some evening, after everyone has left and you sit in the sooty-black, hot bania, and when the wind starts blowing and the logs creak, you tell me if you don’t imagine supernatural beings bathing along with you.”
I remarked about the Russians’ good health and Mrs. Markov broke out in a big grin. “If I could give any advice to your Americans, I would say that if you are feeling sick, take a hot bania, drink a little vodka, and by all means, be happy! That is the Russian way.”
The Spreading Influence of the Russian Steam Bath
Unlike the Finnish sauna, Russian steam bathing in America has been limited mostly to the Russian-Jewish immigrants and, for political reasons, never became popular here. However, in Europe, during the 19th century, Russia and her steam bath were greeted with romance and intrigue. Europeans rarely failed to connect bathing habits with the Russians’ good health and sturdy constitution. European appetite had been whetted.
In 1812, just when French rule over all Europe seemed imminent, Napoleon suffered his sound defeat in Russia. Russian troops pushed the French off their soil and chased them into Germany, where the Russians were welcomed as liberators of the German people. In 1815, when Napoleon was trounced at Waterloo, the Europeans put thoughts of war aside and turned to other, less taxing pursuits – bathing, for example.
Since the Germans had the most intimate contact with the Russians, they were the most enthusiastic converts to the bania. Russians troops occupying Germany had been ingenious in building banias with little material and short time. Banias sprang up in ruined houses, spare rooms, and bombed-out factories. The Russians even boasted that they could build a bania in one hour. The curious Germans watched and soon began making their own.
The first public bania was opened in Berlin in 1818. The King of Prussia said after visiting this bath, “The Russian people are supposed to be strong and healthy, and for that reason, I am sure that the dampbad (referring to the bania) is of benefit.”
The concept of the Russian bath spread quickly. Soon after the Berlin bath was opened, the first German doctoral thesis was written, examining the bath academically. It was entitled De Sudationibus Rossicis by Gregorius. Within ten years, the Russian bath appeared in more than twenty German cities, as well as Lyon, Paris, Vienna, and Prague.
Though the Turkish bath competed with the bania, the popularity of the Russian bath continued until about 1870 when the quick showers, or the rainbaths as they were called, became popular. Industrializing societies had little time for a Russian style bath.
From 1880 to 1930 over three million Russians immigrated to the United States, most of whom were Jews. They were often trapped in large cities, in tenements with no baths, and compelled to work in sweatshops – places where they worked long hours for low pay – not bath houses. During those years, some of the more fortunate immigrants were able to open their own bath houses in such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco – wherever a high concentration of relocated Russian peasants existed. Much as the sauna was to the Finnish immigrants, the Russian bath brought back fond memories of the mother land and provided social centers.
Occasionally, Russian baths were combined with the Turkish baths. Public bath owners say the Russians are always avid customers, whether it was a “Russian bath,” a “Steam bath,” or a “Turkish bath.” Although most Russian baths are public, I’ve been told there is a group of Molokans in San Francisco who still use the bania in the backyard of a member’s home. The Molokans are a fervent religious sect from southern Russia who hold tightly to their faith.
The bath at St. Marks square, in the Ukrainian and Polish sector of New York City, is the oldest existing bath in the city. It was constructed in 1913 after James Fenimore Cooper vacated the building. This bath is divided in a Russian section which uses three tons of hot rocks to heat the wood-paneled room, and the Turkish section which is heated by a series of radiators running around the porous concrete walls. The bath is open every day but is closed briefly every three years so the rocks in the Russian room can be replaced and the walls re-paneled. In Chicago, Russian baths were a safe meeting place for rival gang leaders. Weapons are difficult to conceal on a naked body. If the meeting resulted in reconciliation, the gangs would meet upstairs for bagels, cream cheese and borscht.
In all my studies, I have yet to hear of “black banias” (Russian version of the Finnish savusauna) in the United States. I suspect this is because most Russian immigrants first settled in urban areas where such structures were impractical.
The bania made a brief debut in the United States along the Pacific coast and Alaska. In the early 1700s, Russian settlements sprang up from the Aleutians as far south as Fort Ross, about midway down the California coast. Aleutian Eskimos were introduced to the bania by Russian traders and trappers and still use the Russian-influenced sweat house.
In 1812, Fort Ross was fortified and dedicated to the Czar Alexander. According to The Russian Settlement at Ross (1933), the Russians brought their bathing customs with them. “Inside the stockade were the commandant’s house, soldiers and officers barracks. Outside were blacksmith shops, a tannery, and eight baths... “ However, the Russian hold on the west coast was tenuous. Plagued by internal problems in 1867, the Czar sold Alaska to the United States for the bargain price of a million dollars. Except for the Aleutian sweat houses, the Russian baths went home with the retreating Russians.