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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Banya: Bizarre Ritual's Naked Truth

Vanya is addicted to the banya. Tuesday is the sacred day. If he did not have his steam bath every Tuesday, he says he would shrivel up and die.


And now he has got me hooked on this bizarre Russian ritual too.


I used to go the banya occasionally but not as often as I went to the sauna when I worked in the Nordic countries. I liked the freedom there. The Finns were so open that they used to hold mixed press conferences in the sauna. There was nothing sexual about it, they said. It was quite normal to interview the speaker of parliament, dressed only in a towel.


But when I came to Moscow, I got the impression the Russians were more prudish. They made men and women bathe separately. I was especially disappointed to discover that the beautiful pool with stained glass windows at the Sandunovskiye Baths was for men only.


Through Vanya, however, I have discovered that families or mixed parties can steam themselves together in Russia. You just have to pay to hire a cubicle all to yourselves or have connections. Vanya, a scientist now working as a driver, cannot afford the 200,000 ruble ($41) average hire charge, but he is lucky to have a brother-in-law, Tolya, who belongs to a sports club.


Late in the evening, when the sportsmen have all gone home, Tolya opens the banya to his family. His wife, Larissa, goes, together with Vanya and his 9-year-old son Danil. This winter, I have joined them quite often.


"Go to the banya regularly and you will never need a doctor again," declares Vanya. "The heat draws all the poisons out of your body and leaves you new as a baby. It cures everything, even chronic ailments."


Doctors might argue with that. For example they generally say the banya, with its shocking leap from the steam room to the icy pool, is not good for people with weak hearts.


But it certainly relieves the colds and coughs which are an inevitable part of the Russian winter and this dangerous season of thaw and more snow.


In days gone by, the banya was essential for personal hygiene and even now some country people rely on it. "I grew up in a wooden house and we had no bath at home," said Vanya. "But we had the banya once a week. The whole of Saturday was set aside for it. We knew there was no work or school next day so we could enter into the experience completely.


"While in the banya, you should resist the temptation to quench your thirst. Afterward, you should drink tea and rest. You will sleep like a log."


Bathing with Vanya and his family has certainly sharpened my appreciation of the Russian tradition. In summer they collect birch fronds so they always have a good stock of veniki, or branches, with which to lash themselves. They throw beer and eucalyptus oil on the hot stones to scent the steam and, jumping into the icy pool, they roll in the snow. "It's better than any cream for your skin," says Vanya.


The best part is that it has brought us closer together. We have been friends for a long time, but even with your oldest Russian friends, as a foreigner you sometimes feel certain barriers. But nothing matters in the banya, where all are leveled in nakedness.