The Russian Banya: A User’s Guide

Jennifer Butler

Image by Irina Derkacheva

Most visitors to Russia miss the most Russian experience of all: the banya, or bathhouse. Russia has had banyas since the twelfth century, but they were particularly popular during Soviet times, when communal living limited people’s access to a good long soak and, presumably, their sanity. Here’s a guide to how to find a banya and what to do there.

1  Locate

The simplest way to do this is to ask a Russian. Many are regular banya-goers, or at least know where their local banya is hidden. (In Moscow, visit the Sandunovsky banya; though it’s a little hoity-toity, it’s rightly the most famous in Russia.) Also, find out when you should visit: many banyas have men’s and women’s days.

2 Pay

Typical banya sessions are around 1 (odin chas) to 2 hours (dva chasa), and cost anything from 30 to 500 roubles. Either is a bargain. Pay at the kassa, where you can also buy veniki, birch twigs and leaves in a bunch. The kassa babushka wishes you s lyoch-kom parom (roughly: ‘may the steam be with you’) and you’re on your way.

3 Strip

First stop is a dressing room, where you’re assigned a chair, and a locker for your clothes (leave valuables with an attendant). Then strip. Towels are acceptable; tapochki (plastic flip-flops) are, for obvious reasons, mandatory. You can usually rent or buy them there.

4 Shower

Showering is essential. Don’t expect privacy, and if the taps are left running, don’t switch them off. The banya is not the place to worry about the earth’s limited resources. If you have veniki, put them in a bucket of hot water.

5 Steam

The sauna (parilka) is the core of the banya experience. Russian saunas are humid. In the northern cities, they’re an antidote to the dry climate. People sit, quietly chat, beat themselves or others and – most importantly – sweat. Stay no longer than 10 minutes.

(6 Beat)

After half an hour in hot water your veniki will be soft enough to use, and you can take them into the sauna. There, beat yourself gently with them. (Often a stranger will offer to beat you: refusal won’t offend.) Beating is not essential, but it is surprisingly nice and, if your veniki are well-soaked, painless. It also helps your circulation.

7 Dip

Some banyas have ice-cold baths or plunge pools made of wood or marble. Grit your teeth and take a quick dip: contrasting extreme heat and cold are key to achieving bliss, which banya-goers call kai-eef.

8 Repeat

A typical banya session consists of two or more repetitions of steps 5 to 7 – you’d may as well get your roubles’ worth.

9 Relax

After a few ‘rounds’, take a break. Sit in the dressing room drinking tea, snacking and applying moisturiser. Or just lie with your (rinsed) hot veniki on your face, taking in its birchy aroma.

10 Go forth

Afterwards, you’ll be in a pleasant stupor, your skin will feel smoother and cleaner than ever before, and you’ll feel ready to face Russia again. Just don’t operate any heavy machinery.

From Lonely Planet

Russia: travel books to read before you go

Moscow dos and don’ts

From other sites

Wikipedia’s banya article

Cyberbohemia – History of the banya

Artwork by Irina Derkacheva


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