Visa Acommodation Tours and excursions Useful information Gay scene Guestbook

The Lure of the Russian Banya

 As in other societies where public baths flourished, the Russian banya was originally a creature of necessity, not comfort: for centuries, it was the only place a Russian could go for a bath. Yet today, with a near-universal ability to bathe at home, the banya retains a strong hold on the Russian imagination. When in 2000, reporters asked President Vladimir Putin what he would be doing during the tense hours waiting for the presidential election results to be announced, he replied, "I'm headed to the banya." What makes this ancient ritual such a lure for even the most modern and sophisticated Russian?

A village-dweller often had his own banya, housed in a separate small building near his home, where he could bathe "privately" with family and friends. Russia's harsh climate also encouraged visits to the steamy-warm banya; but washing and warmth were not the only draws: peasant superstition also played a role in establishing the banya's long-standing popularity. It was believed that life's major transitions, moving from the known into the unknown, left the Russian soul vulnerable to evil spirits against which the ritual banya cleansing provided protection. Birth, marriage, and death were all accompanied by a visit to the banya, with childbirth itself often taking place there. A host of folk sayings testify to the spirituality of the banya experience: the banya washes away all sins (banya vse grekhi smoet), steamy spirit, holy spirit (dukh parnoi, dukh svyatoi), to wash in the banya is to be reborn (v bane pomylsya, zanovo rodilsya). Many towns built their own municipal banyas in the interest of public hygiene, especially following the emergence of factories. and the accompanying influx of workers to urban areas, in the 19th century. The workers retained their peasant banya traditions and flocked to the communal baths, which were "communal" in more ways than one: bathers were rarely segregated by sex into separate bathing areas. Later, the Bolsheviks, anxious about public sanitation in the disease-ridden aftermath of war, continued the proliferation of urban banyas. The Soviets built communal banyas across the country, and even published a book extolling the banya as a public health necessity and offering detailed instructions on how to build one. And this is a thing of national pride - the Russian bath house (banya). It used to be said that Moscow without baths is not Moscow: Today's most famous bath house - Sandunovskiye - were named in honor of actress and singer Sandunova who built moscow's best bath houses together with her husbend, in the beginning of the 19th century. Modern public bath houses have a dressing-room, a ticket office, a room for relaxation after a steam bath, a soap room to wash and to plunge in the swimming pool with ice-cold water, and a stem bath with a stove. There are sometimes also hairdressers and barbers, laundry, massage, and bars in a bath house.