The Russian bathhouse (banya sg. or bani pl.) reveals hidden details of Russian culture. Bani are not only places where Russians go to clean themselves of the average sweat or dirt accumulated throughout the day, but are the ideal locations to cleanse the soul. Going to a banya is a significant part of Russian spirituality, historically and socially. Bathing in a bathhouse is ritualistic. Contemporary bani are regarded more for aesthetic or health reasons, along the lines of a modern spa or health center. Bani are also popular gathering places for friends to relax and chat.
However, the spirit of the banya and its original use (cleansing) remain integral to Russian culture, whether consciously or subconsciously.
The banya is accessible to everyone and is a place of gathering. Though some bani are privately owned, most are communal and open to the public, requiring only a nominal entrance fee. The communal bani give people the option to rent a private room for a group, if desired. Regardless of wealth and status, all Russians choose to bathe in bathhouses; both regular townsfolk and famous leaders alike follow the tradition of bathing in these public venues. One bathhouse in particular, the “Coachman’s Banya” or more commonly known as yamskie is particularly significant in Saint Petersburg’s history because both Lenin and Dostoevsky bathed there. This banya was established in 1859 and is located on Dostoevsky Street. The timing of the visit to the banya matters. In the yamskie bani, for example, Thursdays are the worst days for bathing, both in the day and in the night. Also, in general, bani are favorite destinations for Russian mobsters to drink and chat. Fights and murders in bani often occur on Thursday nights, according to militia detectives. Tensions can also thrive in bani due to the availability of alcohol on site. Indeed, although many bathhouses are traditional, new versions have been added to expand the bani functions, such as bars. Though drinking is allowed, people should not to go to bani drunk, with a hangover, or on a full stomach. Dehydration is expected when sitting in the saunas of the bathhouses.
Several films fictionalize the life and practices, and potential dangers, of the banya, such as The Irony of Fate or Enjoy your Bath, Eastern Promises, and The Thief. In The Thief, for example, directed by Pavel Chukhrai, the protagonist takes his girlfriend’s son to the bathhouse to teach and train him to be confident in his own skin. In bani, boys become men and girls become women. A banya provides a “magical” environment where one can transform completely, immersed in traditional and modern belief. On the other hand, Eastern Promises (2007), directed by David Cronenberg, shows that bani can be used as places for business dealings and resolutions. In the Soviet romantic comedy film The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath, directed by Eldar Ryazanov, the protagonist’s life is affected by a bathhouse. The protagonist celebrates what seems to be the love of his life – his possible future wife – by accepting his friends’ invitation to bathe with them. Everyone becomes drunk, naturally drinking vodka. This is the classic, popular usage of a banya; it is a place where the average Russian goes to relax and socialize, share their secrets and bond, as cleverly depicted in the film. The film warns that the happenings in the bathhouse may also affect one’s life outside the bathhouse. The main character gets on a flight to Moscow, unintentionally. This film plays on the irony, fate, and transformation that result from getting drunk in a bathhouse. The protagonist ends up with the true love of his life.
Bani are symbols of the death of the old, unclean self, and the birth of a new, purer self. Those who are imprisoned enemies of the state, such as those in the Trubetskoy Bastion, experienced a similar, though harsher purification process. The inmates were only allowed to bathe twice a month in the Trubetskoy banya. The guards would take them one at a time on Fridays or Saturdays and watch them bathe. The guards were there to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide or, of course, attempting to escape. The building is divided into four rooms: the entrance or foyer, the changing room (corner Dutch stove included), the washing room (tinned copper bathtub included), and the steam room (stove included, shared with the entrance room). The prisoners received fresh underwear before bathing and the Neva River supplied fresh water through a duct. Before 1904 (when electricity was put in), oil lamps provided the bathhouse with heat and light. The bathhouse was notorious for the prisoners for being both the place where they cleaned themselves but also the place where they would be placed in irons and transported to hard labor camps.
As for the free folk (and for modern day), traditional bani are simple pleasures. These public bathhouses are open to all genders (though segregated) and do not discriminate between age, but have separate floors for each sex; there is no “mixed-bathing.” The only exception to this is in private rooms, which must be rented separately. When one goes to a banya, he/she will be provided with a sheet, to be used in the sauna. However, there are plenty of other necessities. Towels, shampoo, sandals, and hats are required. All visitors bring these items with them, or buy them at the facility.
Another item that is offered for sale in a banya is the vennik , a “leafy bunch of birch twigs” or “prickly juniper twigs.” Bathers beat each other lightly with these branches in the steam room. This practice is intended to opens up “the skin’s pores and enhance blood circulation” (The Rough Guide, p. 382). In Rancour-Lefferiere’s “Born in a Bania,” the flagellation of birch twigs on a person creates a feeling of unbearable pain. Respectively, the birch trees do the same to the people in bani: giving them pain and pleasure, a “dash of masochism,” according to one journalist (Smith, p. 182).
Bathing in bani can perhaps be regarded as a Russian sport. The term “sport” here can be defined as a healthy activity, physically challenging (due to the temperature contrasts) and at the same time, enjoyable. Bani are places where Russians go to be cured when they are sick, are in a state of depression, or are merely “feeling heavy.” During the Soviet era, when the state was secularized, the belief of the “power” of bani shifted from spiritual healing (such as ridding oneself of sins) to health concerns (such as healing oneself). Churches were often converted into health centers. For example, the Lutheran Church “Petrikirche,” located on Nevskii Prospect in Saint Petersburg, was made into a swimming pool during the Soviet Union. Even the Communists felt the need for another pool; they put sport before religion. The “Palace Bridge Spa and Wellness Center” in Saint Petersburg provides an excellent example of a contemporary banya, intended for sport and fitness. During my stay in Russia, my host-father, a sports medic, recommended me to go to the banya. I agreed, but had no idea what I was expecting. As at any regular swimming facility, there were separate locker rooms for men and women. At the facility, I showered and slipped on my swimsuit. Showering is a necessary step before going into any banya. The shower (dush) is the basic wash. When I entered the main room, I was amazed to find a paradise, an oasis in Saint Petersburg’s busy city life. There was a main pool with a gazebo in the center, with water shooting out like waterfalls from
the sides. All around were several other pools: three “hydromassage” jacuzzis, one still hot-pool (thermo bath), and one ice-cold pool (cryo bath). However, before dipping in any pool, it is traditional to sit in a sauna. The first sauna I sat in looked like an oven; it was dark inside with a red glow. There was a metal pot in the back and a bucket of water on the side. In order to start steaming the room, the bucket must be used: one scoops up water with a large spoon and flings it into the steamer pot. The sauna reminded me of Baba Yaga’s hut. My host-father said that ten minutes in the sauna is enough to break a good sweat. After five minutes, I felt like I was going to die; it was unbearably hot for me. Fortunately, I survived. Surrounding the main pool, there are several rooms: a Russian Log Sauna, Sanarium, Caldarium, Steam room, Hammam, Cave sauna, two Finnish saunas, and an ice room. Besides the main section (the pools and saunas), there is a Thann spa (where you can get a message) and fitness center/gym (where you can use cardio and/or weight machines and/or take group lessons of Yoga, Pilates, or Zumba).
Bani are always used for health-related purposes. Russians prefer to use natural medicine than man-made ones and would go to bathe in bani before considering going to see a doctor in the hospital. At the yamskie bani, I hesitated before plunging myself in the icy-cold pool, and a local Russian lady told me that it would kill every disease. She also held her hands as if in prayer and explained that it was almost like baptizing and renewing oneself. On that note, I stepped into the pool. It felt cold and punishing. At first, I could hardly bring more of myself other than my ankles into the water, but I forced submersion. The cold pool was symbolic of enduring punishment to prove that, no matter how harsh the situation, strong will will help you bear it. After coming out of the cold-pool, I felt like a new person, someone who could overcome the human body’s and mind’s primal rejection of cold water. I felt refreshed and thankful that I went in, in the first place. Many Russians bathe in bani to rid themselves of
sins in the act of flailing (and hurting) oneself with the birch branches (symbols of life). Some believe that if one does not feel pain in a bathhouse, it is not worth bathing. Though many Russians are Orthodox Christians, the spiritual beliefs of the uses of bathhouses are not necessarily affiliated with Orthodoxy.
Paganism remains at the roots of Russian superstitions, as the roots of Russian superstitions remain in the bani. Various scholars have written about the spiritualistic aspects of the bathhouses. One describes the banya as having the power to clean “not only the body, but the soul” by removing guilt, a power emanating from the suffering of physical pain. Another writes of withstanding fear in the banya, a strength derived from the power of natural spirits (banniki). These evil spirits of the bathhouse are notorious for causing people pain, such as pouring boiling water on them, suffocating them in the steam room, or strangling them (Fredrick, p. 1) or or “peeling away a person’s skin (Ivantis, p. 60). Banniki were not always considered to be bearers of negative traits, but were also believed to have predictive abilities. Bathhouses provided girls and young women the opportunity during the Yuletide season to consult the bannik about their futures. Even men could consult the bannik . There were only two ways to interpret the bannik’s answer: a soft touch to the back would symbolize a good future and a clawed attack to the back, a bad omen.
Mothers used the bani for different reasons. In a traditional wooden cottage, mothers would take their babies into the kitchen oven, after steaming it, and place their sick babies inside. The steam of the kitchen-banya would cure any illness that the baby had. On the other hand, laboring women would go to a bathhouse to give birth. However, the mothers would also bring a priest because these spirits were known to snatch unbaptised babies. If a priest was not with them, then the mothers would watch the child very carefully. Interestingly, Slavic peasants avoided bringing Christian icons or crosses for fear of offending the spirits. Instead, peasants would leave offerings of soap, water, and/or fir branches. The significance behind the ritualistic bathing comes from the Russian “dual-belief system” (dvoeverie). This dual-belief system is a mixture of Orthodox and Pagan ideology and superstitions. Bani are respected by all Russians. To the superstitious, they are mysterious places where the bannik lurks. To the religious, they are holy places used to heal oneself and repent. To the athletes, they are fitness and spa centers. To the social, they are gathering places for mobsters and friends alike, destinations for celebrating any occasion. All in all, the banya is a momentous part of Russian culture and should not be ignored or taken for granted by tourists.