The Russian banya, or steam/bath house, is not traditionally thought of as the most sophisticated type of bathing. Traditions of bathing were, alas, almost lost in the Soviet times. However, as we learn from old texts, it was a fine art, a profound science even. The use of natural scrubs, soap massages was masterful, especially in the houses of boyars and merchants. The old believers who cherished the ancestors’ ways, preserved these bathing traditions, carrying them way into the end of the 19th century. In his novel, “In the Forests”, Melnikov-Pecherski, an expert of the old believers and their lifestyle, meticulously describes the bathing process.
“…The bathhouse was large, bright and spacious, with lime tree sweating benches that were replaced almost every year. <…> As he walked into the bathhouse, Patap Maksimych was struck with wonder: the benches in the dressing-room were covered with felt pads with white sheets upon them; the floors were covered with felt and fragrant hay also covered with sheets. The sweating shelves inside the steam room were covered with thick layers of mint, savory, sweet clover, costmary and other fragrant herbs. There were bath besoms lying on the benches, and bowls with fluffed soap and large birch-bark baskets filled with heated kvass (rye beer) with mint. Many bath cloths, lime bast and chunks of kazan’ egg yolk soap were laid out on a special table. <…> Two hefty fellows used up four bath besoms on Patap Maksimich while he was melting in delight and shouting: “Steam it up, sons!” The fellows splashed the kvass on the hot cobblestones jar after jar and smacked him hard with the bath besoms, hot as fire. Suddenly, Patap Maksimych jumped off the sweating-bench and ran out of the steam room. Flinging the front doors open, he jumped into a snow pile. The snow burned his overheated skin, and with a loud laughter Chapurin started rolling in the snow. A couple of minutes later he ran back into the steam room and straight on the sweat bench. “Smack it harder!”, he shouted with all his might, and the boys began to hit him with besoms harder than before. Patap Maksimych rolled in the snow three times, drank a whole jug of kvass, a dozen besoms were used up by the hefty boys, before he was fully content…”
From “In the Forests”, Andrei Melnikov-Pecherski, 1871-1874
Translated by Lyubov Zolotova
Photo: “The Russian Venus”, a painting by Boris Kustodiev