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Visiting the modern Hammam in Ankara and lstanbul
Early Greek and Roman Batths
Mass Bathing in the Balnea and Thermae
The Islamic Hammam is Born
The "'Turkish Bath" Visits Europe and
Private Sweat Bathing Cubicles


A Visit in the Dead of Winter
History of the Nordic Bath
Sauna in Europe
Sauna in Japan
Sauna in America


Joining Running Foot in a Navajo Sweat

A Guest at an Oglala Sun Dance Ceremony
History of Sweat Lodges
Hot Rock Sweat Lodge
Direct Fire Sweat Lodge
Sweating Without a Sweat Lodge
Origin of the Temescal
The Temescal Today
The Sweat Lodge Joins the Modern World


A Boisterous Bath in Leningrad
History of the Great Russian Bath
Bannik, the Spirit of the Bania
The Birth Bania
The Wedding Bania
The Death Bania
Health & the Bania

The Bania after the Russian Revolution
The Spreading Influence of the Russian Steam Bath


Sauna & Health
Heating & Cooling the Inner Body
Positive Effects of Negative Ions
Spirits of the Sweat
Social Sweating







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 rights reserved.

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, for example.

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, and Prague.

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 bath.

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 faith.

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 sweat house.

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 Russians.