Most Russians are just a generation or two away from the village. Larissa’s mom lived not far from Zaloza, our summer town, in Dobroa which no longer exists. She left to volunteer for the Red Army in 1941 and has since lived in Leningrad, now St Petersburg.
Even in the city she and Larissa kept some village ways. They went to the banya once a week. But many people want the village experience. Our neighbor Gennady said that his main interest in buying property here was to build a good banya.
We were lucky to have a working banya included in our purchase. It was built by Claudia, a widow who raised four sons on what was then a subsistence farm.
Last year Larissa had a new floor and bench made. This year she improved the bath veranda or cooling room, where people traditionally have tea after their bath. Now that space has a new floor and wood paneling to cut down on drafts.
Several years ago a mason, Volody, famous for his chimneys, took down one of our dilapidated
outbuildings. We had him look at the bath. Within a few days he had rebuilt the chimney and fireplaces and given us some expert advice. Shortly thereafter he fell back to alcoholic ways, and died a sorry death.
Much that is built here quickly looks old. People usually don’t have the time, money, or patience to build a good foundation, use finished materials, or paint. During the last ten years building techniques have improved, perhaps with an infusion of money.
Our house and banya look like something from the American prairie, but actually everything was built in 1988 and afterwards... with common sense, country wisdom, lots of nails and few expensive screws. Most things were fashioned from birch trees and held together with nails.
Claudia and her husband worked on the kalhoz, collective farm, in Zaloza along with our relatives. They were allowed to build on good land. The collective farms stopped in ‘91, although some cooperatives continue. People drifted away, others redoubled their drinking, and most of the land became idle. Young forests have replaced what were abundant fields.
Our relatives assumed control of the buildings and barn at the top of the hill, and Claudia and her husband farmed closer to the lake. Her husband gradually couldn’t use his hands, so what needed doing was done by Claudia and her sons.
She kept a cow or two, pigs, and chickens. She sold milk and eggs to neighbors if they were not too friendly with the competition, our cousins.
Our traditional banya looks like a forest log cabin with curtains in the window.
I am nearly six feet tall and the dimensions of the bath house are on the short side. It’s necessary to bend to get in the first door to the first room, and the second to the working banya. That door still has the charcoal crosses probably put there to keep out the mischievous Slavic spirit, Bannick.
Once inside the banya, it’s easy to brain yourself as the cross log is just 155 cm high (5 ‘ 1”). A low space is good for accumulating steam... but hard on my head!
First stop when you enter is the lower bench , so you can get used to the heat. Then you can move to the upper surface on which you may sit or lie, where we also keep basins of cold water to mix with scoops of hot from the cauldron.
We have three barrels of lake water, and a 60 cm diameter caldron heated by one of the two fireplaces. The other fire is to heat some large rocks, which when doused give off steam. The steam can result in 90% humidity, while the heat is often around 40-50 C.
This is a black banya. Earlier baths had no chimney but a hole in the roof, causing smoke to accumulate and stain the wood. White banyas refer to concrete baths in the cities.
Russians believe it is good to scrub your body with a machalka. For sensitive American skins it can be close to painful, but somehow invigorating! First lather up, then scrub, and then get splashed with pans of water, mixed from the hot cauldron and the cold barrels.
Larissa enjoys telling about one of my first trips to a banya, when I asked, half facetiously, if I should get in the steaming water.
Our neighbor across the way is in her 80’s. She finds it hard to accept that Americans do not regularly go to a banya... just shower with soap and usually don’t scrub their bodies.
Russian baths are once a week usually on Saturdays, showers in America can be used three times a day. So, who is really cleaner?
Some people in a banya apply pine oil or eucalyptus. Then they massage and lash each other or themselves with a swatch of leafy birch branches, the venik. It is soaked in a pail of hot water to make it soft and fragrant. It’s customary to eat radishes with salt while in the bath.
Then people make a run for the cold lake, roll in the snow, or just sit in the cooling room. Then back inside to do it all over again as long as you like! Five times is fairly usual for an average Russian.
Banyas can be good for you, but also can be dangerous if you have a condition. We no longer use the steam fireplace as it’s too much of a good thing for us.
Russians are crazy about the banya. A century ago it was commonplace for people to take a banya inside a large baking oven if the standard banya wasn’t available.
Mikkel Aaland wrote a book about his travels around the world to photograph and experience steam baths.
Mikkel Aaland, Sweat. The section on The Russian Bania is available online...
A recent book about steam baths from a woman’s point of view is still in print.
Alexia Brue, Cathedrals of the Flesh.
Many customs surround the banya at birth, marriage, and death. In older times people in villages were born inside the family banya, a warm private place to which the women repaired. Historical reports suggest that there were fewer still births among the Russians than other nationalities because of the efficacious effects of birthing in a banya.
The banya is an essential part of a Russian’s outlook. No one hurries through the process. Bathing should be a time of relaxation.
After the vigorous scrubbing with machalkas, rinsing, and beating with veniks, you come out sparkling clean, maybe pink, maybe bruised!
I read recently that in Soviet times the tourist hotels typically removed bath stoppers. Why? Russians could not imagine that people wanted to sit in their own washing water.
So next time in Russia, find a banya, and... C' Lerkeem Parum! с легким паром! Have a bath with light steam!
Have you had a banya? How did you like it? Were there machalkas, veniks, and radishes?
Who’s cleaner? Russians after banya or Americans after a typical shower?
Russians frown on drinking vodka in the bath, but a few beers is acceptable. Is it OK to drink alcohol while in a hot tub?
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