The Russian Bania
History of the Great Russian Bath
BANNIK--THE SPIRIT OF THE BANIA | THE BIRTH BANIA | THE WEDDING BANIA | THE DEATH BANIA | HEALTH AND THE BANIA | THE BANIA AFTER THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
©1998 by Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
A Russian bathing scene by E. E Karnefeff, 1812.
From Sweat, copyright by Mikkel Aaland. All rights reserved.
The fact that Bania 43 could have been transported from Leningrad
(St. Petersburg) to Helsinki without locals knowing the difference
demonstrates the striking similarities between the Russian and
Finnish bathing styles. Because ritual, folklore, and even construction
of both baths are so similar it is safe to assume their development
has been parallel, although no records show when each culture
began sweat bathing. Considering all that northern Europe has
in common, it's no wonder: cold winters (even as far south as
Moscow, where the first frost comes in late September and continues
until April); thickly wooded forests that provide ample wood for
fuel and construction; and the hard-working peasant's dependence
on folk medicine.
No sweat bath in the world has been as well documented as the
Russian bath. Finnish sauna information is meager in comparison.
Early Russian chronicles commonly mention the bania, and when
European journalists swarmed to Russia in the centuries following
the Reformation, the Russian bath made exciting feature material
to send home. The Russians became reknown for their enthusiastic
bathing. In 1914, M. Hartea told the Finnish Museum Society, "In
Moscow the interest in bania is greater than here in Finland.
The Russians conquer us Finns as far as interest in the sauna
lf the history of the early 1900s had been different, if Russian
folklore hadn't been concealed behind a dense political curtain,
the bania might have become a household word in America instead
of the Finnish sauna.
The parallel development of the sauna and the bania applies only
to northwest Russia. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, all types
of sweat baths discussed in this book exist. In the southwest
the baths are fashioned after the Islamic and Roman models. Hypocaust
heating was found as far north as Kuybyshev on the Volga River.
Among the nomadic tribes of central and eastern Soviet Union,
portable sweat baths are used--much like the sweat lodges of the
North American Indians. Sweat bathing is so popular in the USSR
that even in areas where material shortages exist, as in the barren
areas of Siberia, the Soviet build sweats from turf or clay. Some
are dug into cliffs and given only a veneer of wood. These are
called laznva. The word itself suggests the origin of the bath
house as well as the means for entering it--lazit means to creep,
or to descend. In these primitive sweat baths there is only a
dirt floor covered with hay or straw. One of the most curious
forms of sweat bathing is the baking of the body in bread ovens,
a practice found throughout the USSR (more on that later).
The black bania of the northwest is the Russian equivalent to
the Finnish savusauna, while the white bania refers to concrete
baths in the cities. Because of the white bania, the Russian bath
is often thought of as a steam bath. Low temperatures and high
water concentration create steam, while high temperatures with
the same water concentration will not produce visible steam. Because
white banias were so heavily used by the urban Russians, it was
nearly impossible to maintain a high temperature. As a result,
steam filled the hot room. Travelers to Russia then brought back
word of these "steamy" Russian baths.
One of the earliest descriptions of the bania comes from the Russian
Primary Chronicle of 1113, in describing the missionary work of
the apostle, Andreas:
He descended from the hill on which Kiev was subsequently built,
and continued his journey up the Dnieper. He then reached the
Slavs at the point where Nogorod is now situated. He saw these
people existing according to their customs, and, on observing
how they bathed and drenched themselves, he wondered at them.
He went thence among the Farangians and came to Rome, where he
recounted what he had learned and observed.
'Wondrous to relate,' he said, 'l saw the land of the Slavs, and
while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses. They
warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after annointing
themselves with tallow, 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 upon themselves. They make of the
act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.'
Another mention of the bania is found in the same Chronicle, in
the story of Princess Olga's revenge for the murder of her husband,
Prince Igor, by the Slavic tribe of Drevlians in 945 AD. The leader
of the Drevlians had hopes of marrying the widow Olga and sent
messengers to discuss the idea. "When the Drevlians arrived Olga
commanded that a bath should be made ready for them, and said:
'Wash yourselves and come to me.' The bath-house was heated and
the unsuspecting Drevlians entered and began to wash themselves,
after which Olga's men closed the bath-house behind them and she
gave orders to set it on fire from the doors, so that the Drevlians
were all burned to death."
In a 906 AD treaty between Russia and Greece, the Russians stipulated
that their merchants trading in Constantinople were not given
only "bread, wine, meat, fish and fruit, but also the opportunity
to bathe as often as they wished." Although the baths in Constantinople
were not like the bania, they would suffice in a foreign land.
In the early 1600s, a German librarian, Adamus Olearius, visited
Russia and gave this account of the bania in his book, Persian
Their baths are the only thing that have any resemblance of what
we call Gentile, in Muscovy (Moscow), tho' the Publick ones are
but very Indifferently fitted for that use. At Astracan I went
incognito into one of them, which was only parted from another
Room by a few Deal Boards, which being not well joyn'd, you might
with ease see all what pass's there; besides that there was but
one Door for Men and Women to go out or in, some of both Sexes,
who were pretty modest hiding their Privy Parts with a handful
of Leaves soak'd in Water, the rest appearing stark naked; nay,
some of the Women came in that posture to speak with their Husbands
in our Room, without the least sign of Bashfulness.
It is most surprising thing to see them come out of such an intense
degree of heat all of a sudden, and run into the cold Water, or
have it poured upon them; or in the Winter wallow themselves in
the snow, and so return into the stoves again; which we have also
observed several times in the Finlanders, who live in Livonia,
no other reason being to be assign'd for it, than a Custom, which
being turned into a Habit, they are not sensible of these opposite
Qualifications of Heat and Cold as other People are; for we made
this observation at Narva, That the Muscovite Boys of 8, 9, or
10 years of age would stand for half an Hour together bare-footed
upon the Ice, without ever complaining of Cold. The Germans who
dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they
strew Pine Leaves powder'd, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers
upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable
Scent. The Seats or Benches which are along the Walls placed one
above the other, that one may take what degree of Heat one pleases,
are covered with clean Sheets and Pillows filled with Hay; upon
these you lie down to Sweat, every one having a Servant Maid,
who only in her Smock, Rubs, Washes and Wipes you. As soon as
she comes in, she presents you with some Radish and Salt; and
if you be a particular friend, the Mistress of the House, or her
Daughter, brings you a composition of Wine and Beer, with some
crub'd bread, Limon Slices, Sugar and grated Nutmeg.
Olearius also described the luxurious banias of the Czar's Kremlin
benches upholstered with leather and thick pillows strewn across
the floor. Rather than jumping in a lake or tumbling in the snow
after bathing, a person of nobility would retire to a cooling
room with wall-to-wall mirrors and a servant waving stork-feather
From then until the turn of the 20th century, Russian bathing
was a favorite topic of visitors to Russia. Casanova in 1774,
Tooke in 1779, Porter in 1809, Cox in 1884--the list is endless.
Europe, having forgotten its own bathing past, became attracted
to the spectacle of whole villages bathing together, the extravagance
of the czars.
Bannik, the Spirit of the Bania
Medieval Europe had its bath house fairies, Finland's sauna was
the home for elves, the North American Fox lndians had Manitou
in their sweat lodges, and the Russians bania was the haunt of
Unlike other sweathouse spirits, the Russian Bannik had a mischievous
streak and rarely did anyone good. Bannik was described by rare
witnesses as an old man with hairy paws and long nails. He lived
behind the stove or under the benches and revealed himself only
when he was unhappy with the bath or if someone had been disrespectful.
Often it was the newcomer who received his wrath. If Bannik became
angry, watch out! Bathers were known to have lost their skin and
had their bodies wrapped around the stove for loud singing, talking
or swearing in the bath--or simply for being a stranger. You were
wise not to lie or boast, and certainly not to have sexual intercourse
in the bath! Red hot rocks and boiling water have also been known
to be thrown by a displeased Bannik.
To protect yourself from the Bannik, etiquette required making
the sign of the cross before entering the bania, wishing your
comrades a good bath and, when leaving, wishing the Bannik a hearty
goodbye. Since the Bannik liked a clean room and bathed at least
once a week, cleaning and heating the bania were duties that could
not be neglected. The Bannik could control the quality of steam
and could transform harmless steam into deadly coal gas if he
The third or fourth round of bathing was always reserved for the
Bannik who liked to bathe alone in the dark. Soap, lye, and birch
twigs were left behind for him. And a little extra because the
Bannik sometimes invited his forest friends to join him--sometimes
the Devil himself.
You knew when the Bannik had his friends in by the purring noise
of their conversation. This was never a time to enter a bania
alone. However, if you were curious and wanted to see the bania
spirit, you had to go alone. You would step in with one leg and
at the same time take your cross off your neck and put it under
the heel of your left foot which symbolized your denial of God.
The Bannik might then reveal himself.
From time to time, Bannik expected a sacrifice. After an old bania
had been burned down and before a new one could be erected, a
black chicken had to be choked and buried under the building site.
Then, to assuage the rascal, salt was thrown over the stove during
the first heating of the bania.
The bania also housed benevolent supernatural forces. Witches
and sorcerers gathered in the bania to estahlish a link with these
superior powers and here, surrounded by the magic forces of the
bania, evil could be extracted from the body and the future prophesized.
The magical attributes of the sweat bath were the reason that
the critical stages of a Russian's life--birth, adulthood, marriage,
and death--were conducted in the bania. The moment a person moved
from the known to the unknown, they were vulnerable to evil forces
that could enter and consume the Russian soul. With proper ritual,
the bania's powers could be summoned to protect the Russian during
life's crucial transitions.
The Birth Bania
The bania was ideal for a Russian woman giving birth--if the Bannik
did not interfere. The midwife's job was not only to assist with
the birth, but also to keep the Bannik from interfering. One ruse
was to dip four stones from the oven in water and throw them into
a corner while muttering, "Into the corner with you stones! And
smack the Devil in the forehead!" If this was not enough to repel
evil, she scooped water from a bucket and lifted her hands to
her face. She then chanted, "Just as this water slides off my
arms, so should the evil eye slide off the servant of the Lord"
(then she said the name of the pregnant woman). After she had
scooped 27 handfuls of water and chanted 27 times, she took water
in her mouth and sprayed the mother. After birth, the woman beat
herself with birch twigs and washed herself. With help and support
from the old ones who had assisted in the birth, the mother went
through the same ritual with the new-born child.
Tereschenko, a 19th century Russian writer, wrote, "This custom
(of giving birth in the bania) was not only followed by women
of the Bojar (the nobility), but also among the Royal families."
The Wedding Bania
After the groom had lifted his new wife over the threshold of
the bania (a precaution taken because stillborn children were
buried there and the groom did not want his first born to suffer
the same fate), they undressed and tossed water on the rocks.
Outside, wedding guests threw rocks and pottery at the bania to
scare away the lurking Bannik. Among all the cries of "good luck!"
a guest might have cracked, "Remember a couple that sweats together,
stays together!" Whether or not sweating had anything to do with
creating a viable marriage, at least the Russian Church sanctified
it as one of the few permissible pagan rituals of the bania. The
purification ritual began the night before with both the bride
and groom taking separate banias.
Records of the groom's night-before bania show more a cheerful,
drunken fling rather than a solemn ceremony. The bride-to-be's
bania was heated with birch, pine or Siberian cedar, but never
aspen for it was regarded as a sorrowful tree. During the bath
she was expected to use the engagement present from the groom-a
fresh birch whisk and a piece of soap. Her sweat was collected
by pouring milk over her body and then dough was plastered over
her. Later the dough was kneaded and made into bread and cakes
to be served at the wedding feast. The bride-to-be's sweat mixed
with vodka, wine, and grains were poured on the bania rocks to
enhance the scent. Honey and hops were added to give the bride-to-be
a rich sweet life.
Occasionally a poor peasant family would not have a regular bania,
but so important was the wedding bania that the household baking
oven would be used instead. Before all the cakes and breads had
been prepared, the oven was cleaned and the bride-to-be was shoved
in on a wooden platter. The door was sealed from the outside while
she sweated and washed alone.
A peasant's wedding is described by an Irish woman who visited
Russia in 1805:
The Bride elect dissolved in tears sat at the top of a Table (previous
to the bathing business) which was laid out with emblematic Fruits.
Presently after the Bridegroom presented her with her Toilet and
then disappear'd & was conducted to his bath by his Companions!
This Toilette consisted of every necessary article together with
Rouge & white paint. A group of girls then set up what sounded
like a sort of Requiem call'd Pesui Swad bachnia! (She goes on
to describe the song.)
We then attended her to the Bath with all her young Companions
amounting to between 30 and 40 Girls who assisted in undressing
her in the outer Chamber & then led her in a flood of tears naked
to the Bath. They then took off their own Cloaths-after scouring
her to their hearts' content danced round about in all their National
Dances, clapping their hands & drinking Wine which was dispensed
by another Eve who sat with a bottle in one hand and a glass in
the other, her long tresses falling down about her shoulders which
like all the others was the only Covering they could boast....
I believe we stay'd above an hour at the Bath which became the
most festive scene imaginable. They Colour'd themselves for the
sport in the most ridiculous manner and sang & danced like a Troop
of Bacchanals while the Bride continued mute and in a flood of
tears. At length she was conducted back to the House & again took
her seat at the Table while all her Companions sang (another song).
After several trifling ceremonies the whole affair ended in a
very handsome Supper, the next day the Couple was married . .
The Death Bania
Early Russian writers described the requium bania. To properly
prepare a Russian soul for its journey to the next land, a pillow
was stuffed with birch leaves and the coffin was sprinkled with
birch twigs. Ihe soul would then be equipped with a vennik for
banias in the afterlife. Once the coffin was buried, the grave
site was visited periodically and fresh venniks were left. By
bathing together after the funeral, mourners were assured that
the beloved soul would be warmed for its long journey. The communal
bath also affirmed their own lives and helped them overcome their
Forty days after death, the bania was again visited by friends
and relatives of the deceased. If a farmer died, his daughter
would sing this song while everyone was gathered in the bania:
Come my breadwinner and nourisher, my father,
Your orphans have heated the bania for you,
our nourisher, our father,
The lye is ready,
The spring water warm,
And a satin white birch stick is ready,
Comne nourisher, our father,
With no restraints or reservations,
Do not complain how the bania was heated,
or how you were prepared for,
Come promptly to us our father for a pleasant night,
We have intoxicating wine,
And we have distilled fresh brandy.
From a Christian point of view, the ritual of death bania was
an object of mockery, as an ancient chronicle testifies: " ...
but many people as a result from their blindness from evil place
milk, meat, eggs for the dead on holy Thursday. They make a fire
in the oven and toss water on the rocks after which they call
out, 'Wash ye spirits!' They even take forth shirts and towels
for the use of the dead. But the devil laughs at this stupidity
and sneaks in and rolls around in the ashes, leaving tracks like
a chicken. In this way they are deceived--the blind idiots. When
the people see the tracks in the ashes they say, 'Ah, the person's
spirit has come and bathed!' and then the devil laughs."
Health and the Bania
Pushkin wrote in 1832, "The Russian does not change his clothing
on a journey, and when he reaches his destination, he is like
a pig himself. Then he takes a bania--the bania is like the Russian's
second mother." The Russian arrives home from a long trip bone
weary and with smells of the barnyard on him. He goes to his second
mother for rejuvenation, warmth, and a bath. She restores him
to a state of glowing health.
In Russia, sweating and health are virtually synonomous. From
1877 to 1911, more than 30 medical dissertations were published
in Russia about the healing powers of the bania. Even today the
attitude of the bania as a panacea is found in remote villages
where the traditional folk medicine prevails.
In the 1700s and 1800s, visitors to Russia usually appreciated
the healing powers of the bania, and the Russians' repute as some
of the hardiest peoples was spread throughout Europe. The Englishman
William Tooke, a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at
St. Petersburg, observed in 1799: "There are but few peculiar
diseases prevalent among the Russians, and against most of them
they know how to guard themselves by simple diet and domestic
remedies. The women everywhere bring forth (give birth) with great
facility, and usually in the bathrooms; the number of still-born
children is therefore, in comparison with other countries, extremely
"In general, the common Russian uses but few medicines; supplying
their place in all cases by the SWEATING BATH, a practice so universal
among them, and which has so decided an influence on the whole
physical state of the people...
"It is not to be doubted that the Russians owe their longevity,
their robust state of health, their little disposition to certain
mortal diseases, and their happy and cheerful temper, mostly to
the baths ..."
Fourteen years later, Edward Kentish, a physician to the Bristol
Dispensary in England, wrote: "All exanthematic diseases are abated
by bathing: consequently, then, the small-pox; and if this dreadful
disorder be actually less fatal in Russia than in other countries
this phenomonon needs not to be attributed to any other cause
than their great use of vapour Baths. Doctor Sanchez appears to
be of the same opinion, from what he has said on the small pox,
and other eruptive diseases. He likewise observes that all indispositions,
arising from violent exercise, producing chills, with all the
attendant bad consequences; that inflamations of any part of the
body, even if attended with external or internal tumours, and
fever; may be successfully combatted by the Russian Baths: also
in all chronic diseases, arising from excesses of eating and drinking
and the gratifying of other inordinate pleasure, which debilitate
and ennervate both the body and mind, the attentive physician
will find considerable aid in the use of the Russian Baths ..."
Sweat bathing was so important in Russia that if a regular bania
was not at hand, a person would climb into a cooking oven. This
was common in southern Russia, but also occurred in the north
and in Finland as well. A St. Petersburg man wrote this description
of oven bathing in 1856:
The bather creeps into the oven when it is quite hot, usually
after bread has been baked. He spreads an even layer of straw
on the oven floor. Taking with him a birch whisk that has been
soaking in hot water, a pail of water, beer and some linen rags,
the bather enters and calls to those outside to seal the opening.
With the rags he splashes water on the walls, and with the birch
he beats himself, especially in those places where he itches.
When the procedure is completed, he creeps out of the oven and
pours cold water over himself. Then he retreats into the house
where he finds a bench on which to rest. If, by any chance, he
still itches, he creeps back into the oven and takes a second
or sometimes a third bath. Poor elderly people and those who have
dirty jobs, such as chimney sweeps, painters, dyers, and so on,
bathe in the oven bath. It is not at all unusual for the attendant
to a sick person, with the best of intentions, to have fired up
the oven so hot that the invalid died from the heat. During one
year in the 19th century over 300 such accidents were noted in
one of the provinces.
As you can see, the spacious ovens made excellent sweat baths
for the single bather; however, the social character of such baths
were lacking, so the Russians prefered the communal bania. Nevertheless,
occasional edicts and taxes were imposed on the bania bathers,
but as a rule in Russia, neither the laws nor the lawmakers lasted
too long. During the 17th century, a decree prohibited the use
of the bania during the summer by all except the nobility, the
infirm, or the pregnant. Ostensibly enacted to reduce the danger
of fire, the law was rescinded two years later in 1649. During
the reign of Peter I, a special bania tax bureau was created to
collect a duty from all bania-operating farmers--the charge was
double what they already paid. During this same time, farmers
in the Moscow area were required to donate 3,000 bathing whisks
for the Kremlin's private banias. But, since the bania was recognized
as a pacifier for the masses, those in power were careful not
to push the peasants past the limits of loyalty. Generally, the
bania was encouraged throughout the realm, and the presiding noblemen's
responsibility was that every village in their domain had enough
banias for the people.
The Church often accused the bania as a hot bed of sin and loose
morals. But cries from the Church were usually muffled by the
clergy's own promiscuous bathing habits. Such flagrant hypocrisy
leads one to believe that the Russians took the Church seriously--at
least until the 19th century. Ivan the Terrible called a church
meeting in the 1500s to discuss lax mores. At this meeting Ivan
asked, "In the city of Pskow, men and women, and monks and nuns
are bathing together without the least shame and in the same room.
Should this custom be forbidden when we consider that according
to the laws of the holy father, not even a married man and his
wite be permitted to bathe together?" The clerics, somewhat red-faced,
confessed that, yes, indeed, if'it is unholy for men and women
to bathe together, it certainly is wrong for monks and nuns to
Catherine of St. Petersburg issued the following edict: " ...
especially in those rooms which are meant for women, no men may
be allowed in except employees (of the bania), artists and doctors
who wish to study and improve themselves in their art." As you
can well imagine, dillettantes of the arts and medicine flourished,
and coed bathing continued.
When Robert Porter visited Moscow in 1809, he found coed bathing
quite popular. In a letter to a friend in England he wrote:
The spirit of investigation led us to the foot of the hospital,
where we found a couple of baths prepared for the reception of
bathers. These purifying reservoirs being the hot-baths, consisted
of low wooden buildings with small openings in their sides, whence
issued a thick muddy stream, flowing from the first washings of
the natives and in which they still laved their grease-encrusted
bodies as they sallied forth to enjoy the cooling waves of the
river. As we approached these cleansing elevations we beheld the
waters that rolled from under their foundations filled with naked
persons of both sexes who waded or swam out from the bath in great
numbers, without anv consideration of delicacy or decency. From
motives of gallantry we posted ourselves opposite the ladies,
the better to observe the grace and nymph-like beauty of their
groups. To say that they did not blush would be to belie them;
for certainly their skins were of the brightest pink: but it was
a spontaneous glow; not the sensitive Rush of shame; for they
look around with all the sang froid of females fully apparelled.
And in this Eve-ish state, with a wooden pail in one hand, and
a huge bunch of umbrageous birch twigs in the other, they descended
the steps into the river. Picture yourself with nearly a hundred
naked naiads, flapping, splashing, and sporting in the wave with
all the grace of' a shoal of porpoises!
The famous Giovanni Casanova, was especially surprised by the
Russian attitude toward nudity. In 1774 he visited Moscow accompanied
bv Zaira, a woman he had bought f'or 1000 rubles in St. Petersburg.
He wrote, "In May, Zaira had become so beautiful I decided to
take her along on my trip to Moscow. On Saturday I went with her
to the Russian bath. There were thirty to forty people there,
all of them quite naked. But since no one looks at anyone else,
one does not have any f'eeling of' being observed naked. This
lack of' a f'eeling of' shame comes from a kind of inborn innocence
which these people have."
The Bania after the Russian Revolution
Shortly after the Revolution, Lenin's government and the Bureau
of Health began providing communal banias in all parts of the
country. The Russian book, Why Banias are Necessary Both in the
City and in the Country, and How to Build One, published in 1920,contained
plans for banias that could hold from five to twenty-six bathers.
One of the early concerns of the new government was sanitation.
During the Revolution, hygiene was neglected, and disease spread
rapidly. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1970 mentions bath houses
as disinfectant stations:
The construction of bath houses in USSR is carried out according
to standard layouts accommodating 5 to 300 people in the cities
and 10 to 50 people in settlements and rural localities. Depending
on their arrangement, bath house may be classified as ordinary,
disinfection center type or combination bath house; buildings
furnished only with showers--known as shower baths--which are
sometimes installed in summer pavillions are also built. Modern
bath houses may have swimming pools, rooms for physical therapy,
and disinfection chambers. So-called steam rooms, in which the
temperatures reach from 40 to 50 degrees Celsius and the relative
humidity is approximately 90%, are also widespread. In some bath
houses there are separate rooms with dry heat. The layout of the
bath house depends on its purpose.
In bath houses of the disinfection center type, which are intended
for sanitary processing, the bathers' dirty clothes are disinfected
and clean underwear is issued. During the Great Patriotic War,
bath trains, dugout baths, and protable shower installations were
As in Finland, industrialization had an effect on bathing practices
in the Soviet Union. On the one hand the demographic shift from
the rural to the urban settings carried strong traditional influence
to the cities. The bania was so ingrained to the peasants' lifestyle,
that when families moved to the city they took bania customs with
them. However, this migration created densely populated cities
and acute housing shortages. With basic living room, kitchen and
bedroom at a premium, the communal bania was placed low on the
construction industry's priority list. An American journalist
visiting Moscow in 1965 described the state of affairs in Helsingin
Saunomat, Finland's largest newspaper. "In Moscow there are constant
complaints that the old banias are not maintained or repaired,
and no new ones are being built. The Russians enjoy their steam
bath as much as the Finns enjoy their sauna. Even before 8:00
AM when the bania doors open, the customers are queued up outside
the bania, and the queue lasts until closing time." Even though
the demand is great, the Soviets have concentrated their construction
energies in housing projects and industry. This accounts for the
fact that no new banias have been built in Leningrad or Moscow
since World War II.
Mrs. Markov, an elderly Russian living in Los Angeles, was an
enthusiastic bania user before she immigrated to the United States
27 years ago. "I was a child during the Revolution. There was
so little time to relax then. Those were hard times for Russians.
But, thank God for the bania, old people would spend hours in
the bania. It was like a club where they could relax their minds
and souls and briefly forget the world around them."
Politics was a sensitive subject for Mrs. Markov and whenever
my questions strayed from the bania she would protest and say,
"Let's talk about the bania--everybody loves the bania."
"At least we were healthy during the Revolution. Hard work made
us that way. We wove sandals from bark and made our own matches.
Eskimo life and Russian life were the same during the Revolution.
Good physical labor is one thing I miss here in the United States.
If I walk to the store, people look at me as if I were crazy.
And no banias. If I want a steam bath, I have to take a taxi several
miles north and I can't afford that. In Russia, there was always
a bania nearby."
I asked Mrs. Markov if children are still born in the bania. "During
the winter, it was the only warm and isolated spot. If a woman
couldn't get to a bania she delivered her baby on top of the baking
When I asked if black banias were still used in the country she
replied, "Yes, of course." The last time she saw one was summer,
1941. "The black bania was small and well insulated with moss
so it would be easier to heat during the winter."
Mrs. Markov could not believe men and women bathed together. I
showed her an old painting and she said " That must have been
far north. I never heard of men and women bathing together in
the bania, especially today. Russians can be prudish, you know"
And, what about the spirits. do people still believe in them?
"Spirits, hummm, there used to be a strong belief in the bania
spirits, but I think Russians are more educated now and don't
take them seriously as they once did. But, listen, you go to a
black bania some evening, after everyone has left and you sit
in the sooty-black, hot bania, ancl when the wind starts blowing
and the logs creak, you tell me if you don't imagine supernatural
beings bathing along with you."
I remarked about the Russians' good health and Mrs. Markov broke
out in a big grin. "If I could give any advice to your Americans,
I would say. that if you are feeling sick, take a hot bania, drink
a little vodka, and by all means, be happy! That is the Russian,
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