Russian Baths Offer Respite From Bitter Winters In Russia, the legendary fierce winter starts to seem endless around this time of year. That helps explain Russians' abiding love for a central part of life: the sauna baths Russians call the banya, which have their own traditions and customs.

Russian Baths Offer Respite From Bitter Winters

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We offer you a few moments of pleasure now. In Russia, the fierce winter starts to seem endless around this time of year, which helps explain the abiding love Russians have for the sauna baths they call the banya.

NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer paid a steamy visit and has this report.

GREGORY FEIFER: It's freezing and overcast in Central Moscow. The sidewalks are dangerously icy and bundled pedestrians hold looks of grim determination. It's to escape such drudgery of daily life that people come to banyas such as this one, the Donskiie Baths, housed in a brick building that looks just like any other from the outside.

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FEIFER: The facilities are single-sex. Inside the men's section, you first enter a large room filled with high-backed benches. Disrobed men are sprawled all over them, drinking tea or vodka between sessions in the steam room. Everyone's in very good humor.

Under the Soviet Union, the banya fulfilled an important social function by providing the millions living in crammed communal apartments a place to bathe. This banya has kept its prices low so ordinary Russians can still afford to come here regularly, and the place looks a little old and drab.

After undressing, you get a sheet to wrap around yourself and head into the baths. The main room has showers and benches with tubs of water. Some people are washing, others getting ready to enter the hallowed center of activity. I've just come into what's called the steam room. It looks a lot like a sauna only it's bigger and not as dry because ladles of water are thrown into a furnace. People here are sitting on wooden platforms or beating each other with birch branches, which may sound masochistic, but feels a lot like a massage.

The banya has all sorts of traditions and customs. An employee called a banshik stokes the furnace. Some banshiks have their own fan clubs — groups of people who come the same time every week when he's on duty.

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A banshik opens the furnace to throw in ladles of water. He maintains a certain amount of steam, often infusing it with mint, eucalyptus and other scents. Heading out after a session, Gennady Novitsky says attending the banya takes practice.

Mr. GENNADY NOVITSKY: (Through Translator) It's a whole science. You use the birch leaves to draw the steam close and open your pores. That helps you sweat out the poisons.

FEIFER: After the scorching hot steam room, you jump into a small pool of freezing water. It feels like being stuck with needles, and you become lightheaded. Afterward, you head back to the steam room and repeat the routine several times. Novitsky says the absolute feeling of relaxation erases all the concerns of daily life, including its hierarchies.

Mr. NOVITSKY: (Through translator) There's no such thing as a general in a banya, everyone's equal here.

FEIFER: Nikolai Ablov is in charge of the pipes and boilers. He says the banya routine is as necessary for Russians as eating and drinking.

Mr. NIKOLAI ABLOV: (Through translator) They say church purifies the soul, and the banya purifies the body.

FEIFER: Little has changed about the banya since Soviet days — except the prices. It's $10 at the Donskiie baths, and many consider that a lot. But elsewhere in Moscow, people pay hundreds.

A bell rings on the door of Moscow's oldest and fanciest banya, near the Kremlin. The gilded Sanduny baths were built for nobles in the 18th century and said to have been frequented by the likes of Pushkin and Tolstoy. The main room has an ornate gothic wooden ceiling and mosaics depicting idyllic scenes of the Black Sea.

Water feeds into the lavish pool, surrounded by marble pillars. Deputy Director Nikolai Demidov says people no longer come here to scrub clean.

Mr. NIKOLAI DEMIDOV: (Through translator) It's the ultimate in relaxation. Our clients want fewer people to jostle them, so they demand we charge higher prices.

FEIFER: But back inside the downscale Donskiie baths, Gennady Novitsky says it doesn't matter where you go to the banya.

Mr. NOVITSKY: (Through translator) When you emerge on the street afterward, you feel so light you could float away.

FEIFER: Novitsky recommends a couple shots of Vodka to bring you back to Earth.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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