Bonding in a Russian Banya

by Brendan Monroe

Bonding has long been evidenced in human and animal cultures. Wherever in the world you go, whether you're in a thriving metropolitan city with a population extending into the millions or a tiny village hamlet devoid of automobiles, bonding is sure to be taking place in some way. In many cultures this "relationship forming" takes place in public place. Bonding can of course occur anywhere with anyone, from unexpected experiences like the shared stress of being stuck at the back of a serpentine line at a government agency or a random chat request online (though be careful with those), to new acquaintances you meet during a study abroad program in Russia.

Bonding Moment in the Banya.
Bonding Moment in the Banya. Photo by Brendan Monroe

Bonding Across Cultures

If you're studying abroad in the United Kingdom bonding often occurs while drinking a pint and watching your favorite football team in a pub. During a study abroad program in Latin America perhaps it happens at the back of a taco stand or during a tango session. Opportunities for bonding while studying in Japan might pop up at a sushi or noodle bar, while sharing a joke among friends, and as an international student in Morocco it may happen through shared smiles over mint tea.

Perhaps bonding moments come in the sweltering heat, surrounded by burly Russian men who eagerly swap thermoses of tea and spoonfuls of jam with you; when you are united by the fact that you don't speak a common language, so you communicate by hitting each other's naked bodies with branches. If this sounds somewhat difficult to fathom, be assured that in Russia, and a handful of countries in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the practice is actually quite common.

The Key To Understanding Russia 

Russia is an interesting place in an array of ways. To the average Westerner, it can come off as downright unusual. While major Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg lie on the European side of the Europe/Asia divide, Russian culture is as far removed from anything you might remember from that trip you took to Europe last Summer. Yes, certain western institutions thrive or have recently taken root (Starbucks and McDonalds line Moscow streets too), but beyond a culture shared by the Big Mac, Russia is as different from the American way of life as Dan Brown is from Dostoyevsky.

Long mythologized and villainized, the key to understanding Russia and its people is the same as it is to understand anyone, you've got to bond. In Russia, this process could be called "The Banya Experience," because in Russia some of the most culturally immersive experiences occur beyond the cold streets and stern first impressions.

What is a Russian Banya?

To say that a Banya is like a sauna, is like saying that Russian Pelmeni are akin to Chinese Dumplings. Russian Banyas are scattered all over Russia and the former Eastern Bloc, and the tradition has existed since well before the Soviet Union was established. These steam baths have, overtime, become a kind of health club; while Russians swear to the Banya’s healing qualities, the truth is any desired health benefit is secondary to the social benefit of the Banya.

Sauna

What Happens in a Banya?

Public Banyas are generally separated by gender, largely due to the fact that the moment you step inside you're expected to strip down to your birthday suit.

Meet, Greet, & Eat

After getting over the initial awkwardness and exchanging introductions with newcomers, everyone clambers over to a long wooden table. The table is quickly dressed with an array of items, everything from thermoses of steaming Russian tea, jars of homemade jam, various dried meats and of course vodka, these are located in Russia after all.

If taking swigs of vodka and chasing it with herbal tea isn't experience enough, imagine doing it naked, while you are surrounded by a group of Russian men swapping war stories, from their experiences in places like Chechnya and Afghanistan. Though barely a word is comprehensible, you'll most likely find yourself nodding in time with their evident passion.

Sauna bench

Warm Up

Just when you begin to settle in and the “herbal tea” (or in more cases the vodka) has begun to relax you, you will be led up some steps to a small room, that could easily double as hell's waiting room. A stove in the corner of the room regulates the heat, which is never less than volcanic, and there is bound to be at least one sadist in the group who will, quite literally, try to bring things to a boil.

Massage Time

After you've had some time to sweat it out, you will be told to lie on a wooden slab pressed against the wall. Someone will then stand over you and begin sweeping two leafy branches over your body. Initially the branches won't make contact, instead merely contributing to hot air circulation, but when they do the fun will start. 

Sparing no strength, these birch or oak branches will be thrust against your every part. This is known as a venik massage, though it feels more like a punishment for crimes against nature. The rough hands of your instructing Russian masseuse will turn you over, so that each side of your body may be equally flayed and roasted. Slashing, biting branches will continue to rip into you, like something you’d experience in Dante's Inferno.

Completing the Experience

Once finished, and you are officially reddened and sweaty, you will descend back into the world only to have buckets of ice cold water dumped over you. Your heart may momentarily stop before you are able to allow yourself to be escorted back to the table at the starting line, where yet again spoonfuls of jam and shots of vodka are devoured.

Stepping out into the frosty night air, you will feel born again.

Every breath will bring with it the scent of leaves and mint. Despite not having exchanged an intelligible word with anyone the entire evening, you feel like part of the group among your new comrades. An understanding existing between all participants, and this "Banya Experience" during any study abroad trip to Russia, shall not be forgotten.