The Russian Bania
The Spreading Influence of the Russian Steam Bath
©1998 by Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
The bath at St. Marks square in New York City, the oldest existing
bath in the
city constructed in 1913. Photo copyright by Mikkel Aaland. All
Unlike the Finnish sauna, Russian steam bathing in America has
been limited mostly to the Russian-Jewish immigrants and, for
political reasons, never became popular here. However, in Europe,
during the 19th century, Russia and her steam bath were greeted
with romance and intrigue. Europeans rarely failed to connect
bathing habits with the Russians' good health and sturdy constitution.
European appetite had been whetted.
In 1812, just when French rule over all Europe seemed imminent,
Napoleon suffered his sound defeat in Russia. Russian troops pushed
the French off their soil and chased them into Germany, where
they were welcomed as liberators of the German people. In 1815,
when Napoleon was trounced at Waterloo, the Europeans put thoughts
of war aside and turned to other,less taxing pursuits--bathing,
Since the Germans had the most intimate contact with the Russians,
they were the most enthusiastic converts to the bania. Russians
troops occupying Germany had been ingenious in building banias
with little material and short time. Banias sprang up in ruined
houses, spare rooms, and bombed-out factories. The Russians even
boasted that they could build a bania in one hour. The curious
Germans watched and soon began making their own.
The first public bania was opened in Berlin in 1818. The King
of Prussia said after visiting this bath, "The Russian people
are supposed to be strong and healthy, and for that reason, I
am sure that the dampbad (referring to the bania) is of benefit."
The concept of the Russian bath spread quickly. Soon after the
Berlin bath was opened the first German doctoral thesis was written,
examining the bath academically. It was entitled De Sudationibus
Rossicis by Gregorius. Within ten years, the Russian bath appeared
in more than twenty German cities, as well as Lyon, Paris, Vienna,
Though the Turkish bath competed with the bania, the popularity
of the Russian bath continued until about 1870 when the quick
showers, or the rainbaths as they were called, became popular.
Industrializing societies had little time for a Russian style
From 1880 to 1930 over three mil1ion Russians immigrated to the
United States, most of whom were Jews. They were often trapped
in large cities, in tenements with no baths, and compelled to
work in sweat shops--places where they worked long hours for low
pay--not bath houses. During those years, some of the more fortunate
immigrants were able to open their own bath houses in such cities
as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco--wherever a high
concentration of relocated Russian peasants existed. Much as the
sauna was to the Finnish immigrants, the Russian bath brought
back fond memories of the mother land and provided social centers.
Occasionally, Russian baths were combined with the Turkish baths.
Public bath owners say the Russians are always avid customers,
whether it was a "Russian bath," a "Steam bath," or a "Turkish
bath." Although most Russian baths are public, I've been told
there is a group of Molokans in San Francisco who still use the
bania in the backyard of a member's home. The Molokans are a fervent
religious sect from southern Russia who hold tightly to their
In Chicago, Russian baths were a safe meeting place for rival
gang leaders. Weapons are difficult to conceal on a naked body.
If the meeting resulted in reconciliation, the gangs would meet
upstairs for bagels, cream cheese and borscht.
In all my studies, I have yet to hear of "black banias" (Russian
version of the Finnish savusauna) in the United States. I suspect
this is because most Russian immigrants first settled in urban
areas where such structures were impractical.
The bania made a brief debut in the United States along the Pacific
coast and Alaska. In the early 1700s, Russian settlements sprang
up from the Aleutians as far south as Fort Ross, about midway
down the California coast. Aleutian Eskimos were introduced to
the bania by Russian traders and trappers and still use the Russian-influenced
In 1812, Fort Ross was fortified and dedicated to the Czar Alexander.
According to The Russian Settlement at Ross (1933), the Russians
brought their bathing customs with them. "Inside the stockade
were the commandant's house, soldiers and officers barracks. Outside
were blacksmith shops, a tannery, and eight baths... " However,
the Russian hold on the west coast was tenuous. Plagued by internal
problems in 1867, the Czar sold Alaska to the United States for
the bargain price of a million dollars. Except for the Aleutian
sweat houses, the Russian baths went home with the retreating
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