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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moving Beyond the Banya

Forget the Soviet banya, with its rickety showers, slimy tiles and stern bathhouse attendants armed with birch branches. Modern spas in Moscow offer relaxing treatments rooted in Russian traditions while pampering you head to toe with world-class service.

"The Slavic spa has roots in pre-Christian Russia," says Andrei Syrchenko, president of the International Spa School, and one of the people introducing Russian methods into the industry. "Unlike Catholic Europe, where taking care of the body was taboo, Russians paid great attention to their physical as well as their spiritual health. That's why the plague never had a chance to spread in Russia," Syrchenko said.

Many spas offer "Russian" programs that combine banya-type treatments with wraps, scrubs and massages based on old recipes. Spa specialists look into centuries-old works like the "Tale of Igor's Campaign" or the book of remedies written by Yevpraksia, granddaughter of Vladimir Monomakh; they go to rural villages and work with archeologists, all to reintroduce the spa treatments of old Russia into today's stressful Moscow environment.

One of these revamped old methods is buckwheat massage, a 17th-century treatment for "emptiness of spirit" and achy joints. Buckwheat grains are heated and poured into small cloth bags. The bags are used to massage the patient, the grains soaking up toxins and soothing the skin.

Honey is another natural ingredient frequently used in spa salons. Many salons offer honey massages, a painful but effective way to shed winter pounds. Honey is patted onto "problem areas" with open palms, which stick to the skin as with glue. Other treatments include scrubs with black salt from Kostroma, massages with frozen cream and wraps in milk-soaked linen cloth. City-Spa, which benefits from connections with the International Spa School, offers many of these procedures along with classic massages.

Vladimir Smirnov / Itar-Tass
It remains to be seen if new treatments will be as popular as steaming in the banya.
The strangest ingredient of them all comes from the Altai region and is made of deer antlers. Every spring, deer shed their antlers, which are then widely used in Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian medicine. Until recently, 90 percent of Altai antlers were exported to Korea, but in the 1990s, Russian scientists began to rediscover their high content of beneficial minerals and enzymes.

Some Moscow spas, like La Sante salon, use antler concentrate in a treatment called "cedar barrel" (see photo p. 11) The patient sits in a barrel made of 200-year-old cedar wood and receives a steam sauna treatment with the concentrate added into the steam generator. Unlike a regular sauna, the cedar barrel is safe for people with high blood pressure, since your head is outside the barrel while your body is comfortably steaming within.

"Cedar wood is considered to be the best kind of wood for sauna treatments, but it's too expensive to use for building whole sauna rooms," said Andrei Chernopyatov, a spa specialist at La Sante. "This procedure combines the healthful effects of both cedar and antler concentrate, which is traditionally used to cure fatigue and boost the immune system."

At La Sante, the procedure lasts a total of 40 minutes, including 15 minutes inside the barrel and an intermission for drinking tea with antler concentrate. The treatment is pleasant, unless you are prone to claustrophobia; the barrel has just enough space to sit and sweat comfortably on a small bench. The treatment will add a spring to your step for a couple of hours afterwards, even on an overcast Moscow day.

"Most successful spas now add the Slavic module, since people are no longer interested in Turkish hammam as much. They want something extra. There might also be political reasons for the fact that everything Russian is trendy now," said Syrchenko of the International Spa School. "Now Russian traditions are combined with top-notch spa service, where spa attendants will quote from Pushkin while making sure their clients are happy."


City Spa,
6 Nizhnyaya Ul., 257-7017 M. Belorusskaya Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

La Sante Spa,
29/5 Pyatnitskoye Shosse, 759-2211 M. Tushinskaya Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
A cedar barrel treatment costs 950 rubles and can be combined with a scrub or massage.

Spa Palestra,
4a 2nd Peschanaya Ul., (499) 157-4796, 157-4907, M. Sokol
Palestra offers a 3-hour-long "Russian SPA" complex with banya, honey wraps, and soap massage.

Wellness Prof,, 223-6026. This company sells cedar barrels to spas and individuals who want to install one at their dacha. A barrel costs 115,000 rubles. Besides antler concentrate, you can also add herbs to the special capsule in the steam generator.