A Russian steam sauna or bathhouse, which served as the primary form of hygiene and was considered a source of great pleasure and a cure of maladies.
According to the seventeenth-century account of Adam Olearius, "in all towns and villages, they have many public and private baths, in which they [the Russians] may often be found." Because it was warm and had an abundant water supply, the banya also served as a place for childbearing. While the word banya is a Latin borrowing (from banea ), the traditional Russian banya had Finno-Ugrian origins. The earliest written source to mention banya dates to the eleventh century and is made in connection to Novgorod. Archaeologists have also unearthed wooden bani (pl.) dating to the same period in the city. Masonry bani, built according to Byzantine traditions, were known in the southern Rus lands (in Pereyaslavl and Kiev) dating to the late eleventh century.
Medieval and modern accounts all agree about the practice of washing in the banya. After exposing the body to high-heat vapors, and consequently heavily perspired, people lashed their bodies with bundles of young tree branches (usually of birch) that had been soaked in boiling water, thus providing a massaging effect and anointing the skin with oils from the leaves. Following this, people often immersed themselves in cold water or snow and, thereafter, proceeded to wash with soap and water. Traditionally, bani in Russia were either private or public. Both types can still be found in Russia. Despite attempts by the Russian government (e.g., Stoglav of 1551, Elizabeth in 1743, and Catherine II in 1783) to separate women from men in the public bani, some city bani remained unisex as late as the early nineteenth century. The only separation of the sexes that occurred in these bani was in the dressing rooms.
Cross A. G. (1991). "The Russian Banya in the Description of Foreign Travellers and in the Depictions of Foreign and Russian Artists." Oxford Slavonic Papers 25:34–59.
Olearius, Adam. (1967). The Travels of Olearius in the 17th-Century Russia, tr. and ed. Samuel H. Baron. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
The Russian Primary Chronicle. (1973). Tr. and ed. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America.
Roman K. Kovalev