Russian Banyas - Cleansing the Body
"Banya" or the Finnish word "Sauna" have been around in Russia for many centuries, even though the word Banya is of Italian origin. The word came part of the Russian language during the second part of the 19th century with the "westernization" of the banya's design. Today, what is considered a sauna in the West is similar to what can be found in Russia and largely in the villages and in central, non-western Russia. Even though there are western similarities the Banya etiquette has not been changed to the Western sauna style.
The Russian Banya has been around for a long time and has existed in the territories inhabited by people of Slavic origin before even the creation of Russian states found in Herodotus' writings. The historian tells the myth about Hercules and tells of strong, mighty men who bathed and used these banyas. They would build the banyas themselves by first building a hut, covering it with felt and then placing a large tub containing red-hot stones inside it. They then took hempseed and threw it on top of the stones, which Herodotus tells made the vapor so hot that no Hellenic bath from Greece could compare to the Russian Banya. The ancient Slavs would cleanse themselves using the Russian sauna after burying their dead, whereas women would use the Banya to cleanse and beautify their bodies.
When Slavic tribes were conquered by stronger tribes they would pay tribute by using whisks made from a variety of branches with leaves in the Banya. Nestor, the great Russian chronicler, wrote a book telling of how the Apostle Andrew traveled to Novogorod and saw people bathing in wooden saunas. They were naked and happily beating each other with whisks so as to wash themselves, and then afterwards pouring ice-cold water upon themselves.
Under the rule of Prince Oleg, the Russians took over Constantinople and with that accepted a few ideas from the West, including medical knowledge from the Orthodox Christians. Pechora Monks used the saunas to heal the sick and Prince Vladimir called them an institution for the disabled. From there the banyas became known as one of the first medical institutions in Russia, which opened up the opportunity for the Monks, who are considered the more educated amongst the rest of the population, to further medical research.
All over the world the Russian Banya has become well known. After Napoleon defeated the Russian Army many Russian baths were built in different Western European countries. In fact, this idea started before in London and New York with the 18th century steamhouses a la Russe. A German doctor of medicine wrote that due to basic hygiene rules not being applied many Germans were effected by epidemics as opposed to the small villages in Russia, which had good hygiene and sanitary institutions due to the Banyas.