Updated: Oct 26, 2020
Before there was Russia, there was the banya. It existed before the emergence of the early Russian state, survived the Mongol invasion, persisted as Moscow united the Russian lands, prospered under Peter the Great’s campaign of Westernisation and gained renewed importance in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. It is one constant through centuries of change.
The medieval state to which Russia traces its origins emerged at the intersection of several different cultures. Kiev, its first great centre, sits on a trading crossroads between the Greek world of Byzantium to the south and Scandinavia to the north and absorbed influences from both. In the same way the banya is an amalgamation of different bathing traditions, drawing on the public baths of the Greek world and the earthy wooden sweat lodges of the north.
In “The Primary Chronicle”, a church text compiled by the monks in the 12th century, the writer described what he found when he visited what is now Russia and Ukraine: “I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they 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 on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."
Peter the Great enjoyed bathing, so his drive to modernize and westernise Russia never threatened the indigenous culture of the banya. When he founded St Petersburg in 1703, he authorised tax breaks to encourage the construction of bath houses and instituted a special chancellery to manage them and maximise tax. Peter was allegedly asked about the importance of doctors for the military and is said to have answered, “Not for Russia. The banya alone is enough”.