Somewhere in the last fifty years, the term “bathhouse” has taken on very negative connotations in America. It was therefore with much trepidation that I found myself venturing into a Russian banya, which a Russian friend described to me as something like a bathhouse, except naked men whip you with birch branches.
No offense to American bathhouse patrons, but this just isn’t my thing.
Nonetheless, one cold evening in Siberia I found myself stepping into an outdoor wooden hut so dense with steam that I could hardly see what I was getting into. The bad news is that there were indeed naked men lurking nearby with birch branches in hand; the good news is that the banya turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in Russia. And no, it didn’t involve any waxed or shaven men named Sergey.
A traditional Russian banya is basically a steam bath that has been a Russian custom for centuries. It is believed to help circulate the blood and clean the body of impurities. Birch branches used as flogging instruments bring the blood to the surface of the skin to further enhance the experience. It is a truly cleansing and purifying experience.
As you might expect, public banyas can be an intimidating experience-especially if your Russian isn’t up to par. Thankfully, the Kiev Post has provided us with an informative article on banya etiquette and what to expect. They also list a few of the more popular ones located in Kiev. I’d take them up on their recommendations; you don’t want to accidentally walk into a more western-inspired banya. Hey! Why are those birch branches made of leather!