A group of stocky, middle-aged men huddle in a changing room, vaguely resembling a worn-out American steak house. The room smells of chlorine, fish, and dirty towels. It is not a good combination, but they don’t care. They are indulging themselves, as they do every week, in an undeniably Russian experience.
The established banya, which in Latin means to “chase the pain,” is older than Russia itself, dating back to the Slavic tribes that populated Central and Eastern Europe and before that to the public baths of Western Europe. But Russia has its own long standing banya history. Public bathhouses in Russia came about in the 19th and early 20th centuries as sanctuaries of hygiene in places that did not yet have electricity, heating, or plumbing. Under the Soviet Union, people who lived in communal apartments used banyas as a place to bathe.
In modern Russia, the banya has not lost its popularity, partly because of its supposed health benefits. Many Russians believe that the banya is particularly important for preventive maintenance of good health and balance in the body.
The Englishman William Tooke, a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, observed in 1799: “In general, the common Russian uses but few medicines; supplying their place in all cases by the sweating bath [banya], a practice so universal among them, and which has so decided an influence on the whole physical state of the people.”
At Seleznyovskiye Bani, one Moscow’s traditional bathhouses, the banya-goers have a routine, said Valentina Konareva, who has worked at the banya as a professional banschitsa for 22 years. She was hired at Seleznyovskiye to maintain the steam room during the Soviet Union.
“A lot of my life has passed by here,” she said solemnly. “Today is just another day for me. Nothing really ever changes here, not for me.”
In a corner dressing room, two well-dressed women sit on wooden benches, crossing and uncrossing their legs as they exchange their fashionable shoes for pink and black rubber sandals. It is part of banya etiquette, which is extensive and easy to get wrong. The women take off their street clothes and carefully hang them in their dressing stall. They wear nothing but their flip-flops, and perhaps a towel. There is no room for modesty here.
“Devushki,” yells Konareva in Russian. “Let’s go.”
The two women are Konareva’s only guests. They file out of their shared dressing room, wrapped in a sheet, and prepare for what will be one-part paradise, two-part nightmare. But, they are used to it. They come to Seleznyovskiye every Wednesday to cleanse and purify their bodies.
“It is part of our life. We can’t live without the banya,” said a blonde woman who didn’t mind being photographed, but would rather not give her name. “It makes you feel completely different.”
“In Russia historically the banya was used for special events like child birth or a wedding. Our ancestors believed that the bath cleared not only the body, but also the soul. The bath was also a sign of hospitality and respect,” said Elena Sokolova who is a spokeswoman at Sandunovskaya Banya, one of Moscow’s most famous.
Although the basic procedure in using the banya is centuries old, modern banya-goers have their own routines. The two women have come prepared with their own essential oils and homemade remedies, like a body scrub made of milk, coffee and honey.
“We make this all at home, and cover ourselves,” said the brunette as she rubs the brown paste all over her moist body. “We may not look that attractive, but when you are at the banya, it is not about that.”
Before entering the parilka, or sauna, the two women wash themselves with buckets of ice cold water and put on a scratchy felt hat to protect their head from over-heating. It is believed that before entering the sauna, it is useful and more hygienic to shower. Preparing the steam is next. It is a complex and arduous process, which aspires to be art. It involves cleaning and mopping the room. Then, in sweeping motion, the two frantically fan the room with a towel. In the corner of the room is enormous gas-fired furnace, covered by an iron door. One of the women pours water in the furnace, and within minutes sweltering air blows. It is time to cleanse.
For the first steam, the women use a mint herb in the water to magnify the effect of the banya experience. It is about 200 degrees Fahrenheit; they stay in the room for about ten minutes before the heat becomes unbearable. They run out of the steam room, dripping with sweat and yelling, "bozhe moi, bozhe moi," which means "My God" in Russian. In the wash room, they have buckets of ice cold water waiting for them. It is believed that after the heat phase, drenching oneself with cold water provides a desired contrast with the temperatures of the steam.
The two spend the next ten minutes relaxing in the wash room. They are wrapped in a sheet and look exhausted. But the ritual is not over. They repeat the procedure three times throughout the night. It is 7 p.m., and the women are on their last round, but now they have company. About ten women, from all over Moscow, have joined them in the parilka. They all sit naked on the wooden bench. No one speaks. They are sweaty, drained, and unlike the men, still sober. There is a tiny window in the center of the room, but it is still impossible to breathe. Fifteen minutes go by, and all of the women run out.
An integral part of the Russian banya experience is the thrashing with a venik – leafy branches and twigs, which are soaked in hot water to soften. “A traditional ritual in a Russian banya is the washing and beating with the venik,” said Sokolova. The preparation behind this is a whole art and cannot be done alone.” The beating is known to open the pores, improve blood circulation and intensify skin capillarity actives. The banschitsa at Seleznyovskiye had them for sale at the entrance, but none of the women had purchased one. The brunette said she doesn’t like to be beaten because it hurts.
After two hours of back and forth cleanses, they head towards the banya bar, where a waitress serves them anything and everything. Tonight, the group indulges in beer, kvas and fish. It is another typical evening spent in a Russian banya.
By: Diana Markosian