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”.
By the late 18th century Western visitors to Russia were beginning to take a scientific interest in the health benefits of traditional bath houses. Antonio Sanches, a foreign doctor at the Russian court during the reign of Catherine the Great, published a study in 1777, in which he explained the therapeutic and prophylactic advantages of regular bathing and called for the state to administer and regulate the industry in the interests of public health.
In the early 19th century Sanduny, perhaps the most famous Russian bath house of all, was built. For a few kopeks Muscovites could enjoy a basic steam in the lower tier, while the rich could splash out much more on the private rooms and extravagant interiors of the upper tier.
Giliarovsky, the celebrated chronicler of late Tsarist Russia later wrote that, “Not a single Muscovite abstained from the banya. No one – not a master of trade, not an aristocrat, not a poor man, not a rich man…”
The Bolsheviks disdained Russia’s tsarist past and strove to eradicate its influence. However, they also understood the role the banya could play in transforming the life of the population. Moreover, the aftermath of the revolution not only brought civil war, famine, but a public health crisis. Lenin famously declared that, “Either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism”. Personal hygiene became a matter for the state.
The construction of modern bath houses served political and metaphorical purposes. People demanded and needed to be able to wash and public banyas could cleanse society of the capitalist pollutants that had accrued under tsarism. Despite the Soviet endorsement of banya as the epitome of hygienic modernity, the state failed to build enough and never succeeded in transforming bath house culture into something purely functionary.
The Soviet Union could be said to have ended in the banya. In August 1991 hardliners from the Soviet elite gathered to sweat and to discuss the removal of Mikhail Gorbachev. Their plan fell apart when they failed to have Boris Yeltsin arrested and support coalesced around him. Two months later Yeltsin met with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belorussia to agree the decentralisation of the USSR that the coup had been designed to prevent. Yeltsin celebrated in the banya.
The collapse of the USSR brought privatisation as well as a resurgence of the banya as a unifying and positive symbol of Russianness. Here was something that predated the Soviet and tsarist period and which could be celebrated. Politicians used it to signal that they remained close to their fellow Russians. Yeltsin steamed together with foreign leaders like Helmut Kohl and Putin uses his love of the institution to signal his patriotism, health and wholesomeness. He claims to have rescued a treasured metal crucifix from the ashes of a country banya that had burnt down in the 1990’s; the image the perfect alloy of his love of country and church.
For anyone interested in reading more about the history and role of the banya in Russian society, we recommend “Without the Banya We Would Perish”, a brilliant study by the US academic, Ethan Pollock. Copies are available to browse in the lounge and to buy at reception.