Veni, vidi… banyi?
Not your traditional formula – and I think even Julius Caesar would have been a little apprehensive before his first foray into a Russian banya.
For those unacquainted with this particular Russian tradition, a banya is somewhat similar to a sauna.
Well, true to some extent.
For any true Russian, banya is far, far more than this.
There is a vast disparity between the definition of “a banya” and the Russian concept of “banya“. Decidedly more than a wooden steam-filled box, banya is a part of ancient tradition – a place to meet, a place for deep, heartfelt outpourings, a place to drink vodka and have political debates with friends. It’s an institution.
However, banya is certainly something to be reckoned with. Legend links the roots of this tradition with the tale of Princess Olga. When a Slavic tribe murdered her husband, Olga avenged his death by inviting the leader of the tribe (who was now attempting to secure her hand in marriage) to discuss marriage arrangements, telling him “Wash yourself and come to me”. She then heated the bath-house, had her men lock the doors on the whole tribe and ordered them to set it on fire, burning everyone inside alive.
Somehow (and the explanation still remains a mystery to me) this gruesome tale became a beloved national pastime. And nowadays there is the added bonus of being whipped and lashed repeatedly by birch twigs.
The temperature in the banya is often about 100 degrees Celsius and, after doing their best imitation of some green beans in a sauce pan and steaming themselves a while, Russians then find the nearest supply of cold water (traditionally a snowdrift is most preferable but a bucket of ice or freezing water will also do) and jump/soak/rinse themselves in it.
Repeat as required to wash away the strain of a laborious day digging potatoes at the dacha.*
*Another cultural institution: a dacha is a house outside of the city (usually a small wooden cabin with little to no electricity) where the inevitable massive supplies of kapusta, ogurtsy, and yagody (cabbage, cucumbers and berries) are harvested, ready for pickling and jam-making to supply the family with vitamins and ward off scurvy in the long winter months. Essentially: a family’s banya is generally located at the dacha – and if you understood all the words in that sentence at least I can credit this blog post with some level of success.
Oh by the way, this all occurs completely, 100% naked.
So, when our lovely colleague, Zhenya, from the Perm City Administration invited Louise and I to her dacha for a night of banya, we decided it was our duty as cultural explorers and official Oxford delegation to accept the offer.
After an evening of munching cucumbers fresh from her vegetable patch, lying in a cloud of steam being thrashed by birch twigs, and giggling to ourselves in our ridiculous felt banya hats (to protect hair from the heat) shaped like Soviet military caps, I can confirm that all that’s needed for world peace in future international relations is a whole lot more banya.
However, for any unsuspecting foreigners and banya-beginners, I’ve decided to create a mini guide to bath house etiquette.
When participating in banya:
– Prepare your best politics chat (a long, heated – eh, see what I did there – debate on all the political regimes of history is likely to take place at some point).
– Come hungry and thirsty: banya involves swigging much beer (or vodka) and chomping through much smoked fish, shashliks (flame-grilled meats), and watermelon.
– Warm up your vocal chords. It’s a tradition to sing old Russian songs together while blasting yourself with 100 degree water vapour.
– Prepare to make new friends. Once you’ve banya-ed with someone, you’re bonded for life.
– Bring clothes.