Friday, February 17, 2006

The Naked Experience of the Russian Banya

A Banya in Seattle is actually allowing coed nude use; see

The Russian banya: an essential guide

Yulia Boyle, Kyiv Post

February 16, 2006

KYIV, UKRAINE -- My American mother-in-law once found herself in a very uneasy situation: While visiting her son (my future husband) in Kyrgyzstan years ago, she was introduced to the invigorating experience of a Russian banya. However, with no understanding of Russian culture or the language, she found herself locked in a steamy room with a large, naked Russian woman who proceeded to undress her and beat her with a bunch of birch branches.

While to American tastes, such immodesty may appear inappropriate, uncomfortable, or even appalling, the genuine Russian banya experience can actually be amazingly enjoyable.

Like vodka and borshch, the popular Russian banya (or steam bath) tradition has been acquired by many other post-Soviet countries. The supposed medicinal qualities of all that steam and heat make a trip to the banya comparable to a visit to the doctor: People go there with the hope of improving their health.

Since ancient times its primary purpose was hygienic, but a trip to the banya reportedly also offers positive physiological effects. The air and temperature in a banya activate sweat glands and normalize the saltwater exchange in our bodies, increases metabolism and oxygen levels, eliminate toxins and improves blood circulation. Banyas have also played an essential role in local ceremonies such as weddings, births and even pre-funeral proceedings. Pushkin, Russia’s authority on just about everything, wrote “[The banya] is like a Russian’s second mother,” to whom people go for comfort, rejuvenation and spiritual renewal.

But don’t mistake the Russian banya for its Roman cousin. The main difference between Roman and Russian baths is that in the former the air is hot and dry and in the latter it is hot and moist, making it easy to breathe.

Russian banyas in Kyiv

There are several Russian banyas in Kyiv of both old and new varieties. But the general “mode of exploitation” of both is very similar.

How it works

After changing out of your clothes, you take a venik - a bundle of birch or oak tree twigs - and put it in a metal or wooden basin to be soaked in hot water for about 20 minutes. This procedure helps soften the leaves and twigs. Usually, veniks can be purchased onsite at most banyas (typically Hr 15 each). After a hot shower, you proceed to the steam room where you lay on a shelf and wait until you start to sweat. The higher you sit, the hotter the air and steam will be.

Exit and reenter the steam room every few minutes to cool down and rejuvenate. This procedure should be repeated 2-3 times as a good warm-up before using the venik. The venik is used to flog or beat the skin, improving blood circulation and intensifying capillary activity. Adherents of Russian banyas claim that venik leaves release a substance in them called “phytoncide,” which kills various germs.

After getting a good rubdown and working up a sweat you should pour ice-cold water on yourself, jump in a cold pool, or - for anyone really daring - jump in some snow. The procedure can be repeated for up to two hours. Banya aficionados suggest up to six such cycles.

Before going to a public banya in Kyiv, bring toiletries and flip-flops; wear a felt or wool hat to protect your hair; bring your own tea and other refreshments (they can also typically be bought in-house); take off all jewelry to avoid burns, and take a large towel or sheet to sit on or to cover yourself during cool-down sessions.


It can be difficult for regular ex-pats unfamiliar with the communal bath experience to fully appreciate such a place. Located right off of Independence Square, Kyiv’s Central Public Bath has a large common bathing area with lots of people, lots of steam and lots of healthy public floggings.

In 1743 Catherine the Great banned co-ed bathing, and local public baths remain true to this decree. Kyiv’s central banya has women-only days (Tuesdays and Saturdays) and men-only days (all other days except Mondays, when they close for the ubiquitous sanitation day).

Scary as it might be to imagine sitting naked in the same room and sweating with 15 to 40 complete strangers flogging each other, this is perhaps the only place in town that offers an original Russian banya experience, so it’s definitely worth a visit.



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