Ukrainian culture isn’t all about vodka!
…Ok, it’s a big part of it, but when you’re not gathered around a table full of food in a celebratory toast, what is there to do? To answer this question, we took one afternoon to experience a very old part of traditional Russian culture- the banya, or sauna.
Our trip to the Russian banya was a family affair. Five adults and two kids, we all piled into the car and drove to the local bath house.
A true Russian banya experience follows a customary procedure of sweating in a sauna, jumping into a pool of very cold water, and relaxing from the whole event with some refreshments before doing it all again.
I find it hilariously Russian that a supposedly relaxational trip to the spa includes sweating to death, an ice bath, and drinking tea. In that order.
The Russian sauna offers a slightly different experience from an American spa or even a Korean bathhouse. An American spa functions almost like a salon, where you pay for specific cosmetic and relaxation services. A Korean sauna is largely a communal experience, where you relax in large heated rooms with other members of the opposite sex.
While a Russian sauna isn’t a private, transactional experience like an American spa, it’s not exactly public like a Korean bathhouse. Russian saunas are part of an ancient culture and are built more or the less the same as they have been for millennia, consisting of a small sauna room, a small pool full of cold water, and a place to relax, just enough space for a small group of bathers.
Much like a Finnish sauna, Russian banyas were traditionally constructed outside. Ours was a more modern construction, with entirely indoor facilities, but decorated in kitschy wall murals and wood paneling to portray the traditional outdoor setting.
Because the sauna gets so hot, a bizarre, felt hat is worn throughout the experience to protect the head from the intense heat. I kept taking mine off only to be scolded by Nikita’s uncle, a banya purist.
The Russian sauna itself is essentially a hot box, and heated by wood fire. Even though we were in the middle of the city, large, troughs outside the building burned firewood and pumped the dry heat into the sauna via pipes.
The interior of the sauna is similar to a dry sauna or Finnish sauna, with wood slatted surfaces for sitting and lying down. It’s small, dark, slightly claustrophobic, and intensely hot of course.
Once you’re ready to start the ritual, you can pour some water over burning hot rocks to engulf the room in steam and work up a sweat.
Russian banya tradition mandates that you get slapped with dried, hot branches.
Called venik, dried out bunches of leafy branches, from oak or birch, are brought into the banya, soaked briefly in a bucket of hot water and used as part of a massage. While there’s more of a method to it than just slapping an unsuspecting bather with a bunch of leaves, it’s one of the stranger things I’ve experienced in Russian culture.
Nikita’s uncle was not only eager to show us an authentic Russian banya experience, but adamant that the venik massage be done properly, to stimulate the circulatory system and enhance the banya experience.
The massage takes place inside the sauna, and traditionally not on your first go around of sweating and cooling off. While lying face down on the benches, your masseuse will shake the venik over your body, to wet your skin a little bit with hot water. They will then lightly slap your skin with the wet venik, starting from your upper back and working to the extremities, pausing to press the venik into your body at the chest, stomach and thighs.
The branches themselves are fragrant, and not at all prickly or thorny, and are pleasantly warm. The massage felt a little weird at first, but gradually became very soothing.
After the massage, you’re sufficiently prepped for a dip into icy water.
The Ice Bath
After getting a traditional venik massage with oak branches, Nikita’s uncle shook me awake and herded me out of the boiling dry hut and straight into a pool of cold water.
While the thought of jumping into near ice-cold water terrified me, I realized that it’s something you’re not meant to think about. After sweating for what seems like an eternity in the sauna, possibly being slapped and whipped with hot, wet branches, you emerge delirious and stumble blindly into a pool of freezing water.
The shock of going from extreme heat to extreme cold in a matter of seconds is by no means healthy for your cardiovascular system, but it sure does feel amazing. The jump in should submerge your entire body and literally shock it from feeling anything.
The cold pool is not a breath of fresh air per se, it’s still noticeably, horribly cold, so I hurried out as soon as I could. But the feeling of bodily euphoria after getting out was pretty incredible, and lasted at least a few minutes afterward.
For the past few days, I’d been suffering from a mysterious stomach illness, leaving me nauseated and weak for the better part of the day. There was only some much authentic Russian banya experience my body could take, and after about an hour I fell asleep in the sitting room. Nikita however, excited at his first time in a banya in a few years, did the whole experience at least three times, and attempted to try his hand at a traditional venik massage with oak branches.
Banya customs are the only Russian ones I can remember which don’t include drinking alcohol. Despite that, we ended up drinking local beer and eating salty snacks of salt-cured fish and crispy dried dark bread.
Time seems to stop when you’re in the banya, or at least go by at a different speed. While we only rented the facilities for a 3 hour session, all of the ritual and relaxation was so removed from the activity of everyday life that it felt like being transported to another period in time.
Perhaps it’s because the three of us, the Americans, simply weren’t used to blocking out solid hours of time to explicitly indulge in relaxation and bodily rejuvenation. It’s a shame there’s not anything comparable to a Russian banya in American culture, where saunas are more an indication of a fancy gym membership, and “spas” often come down to pampering for mostly cosmetic reasons. A lack of emphasis on personal health, or peaceful relaxation is a cornerstone of contemporary American culture, and attempts are usually in the form of fitness routines, fad diets and cosmetic beauty treatments.
Experiencing other cultures is the best way to understand your own, interestingly enough. American life blurs by in a massive machine of capitalist expansion, while Russian culture still holds onto slower-paced traditions, like the banya and the dacha.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that when we’re back in the region we’ll be frequenting more banyas to relax and get a dose of authentic Russian traditional culture. And of course, if you have a chance to go to a Russian bathhouse, there are a few in the United States, we highly recommend it!