How to sweat in a banya

Sweating in the Russian banya: the somewhat different sauna experience. Banya: this is the name of the Russian sauna. It differs from the Finnish variant, which is better known in this country, in some respects, but it is no less traditional. Here we explain what makes the banya so special.
The Siberian bathhouse with a long history

The Siberian bathhouse with a long history

The origins of the Russian sauna go back to Siberia, the coldest region of the former Tsarist Empire. Its essence lies in the need of people to clean their bodies – in times when not everyone had their own bathroom. Therefore, bathhouses were built in Siberia, where the population could meet this need. Often the banya consists of several rooms: usually there are three. There is a room for changing, a bathing room for cleansing, which is also often used as a resting room, and of course the room where sweating is allowed.

It is not known exactly when the Russians invented their banya. However, descriptions of the banya exist in Russian literature since the early 19th century. Similar to the Turkish hamam, this bathhouse served, and still serves, to maintain contact and communication. It was not uncommon for agreements to be made and business deals to be approved here – or simply for the daily events of the village to be debated.

What are the special features of the banya?

In contrast to the Finnish sauna, the banya is quite conservative. This bathing and sweating house is still strictly separated by gender. Either one sweats after the other, or at certain fixed times, or there are generally different rooms for the sexes. The sweat house has always been housed in wooden houses. Nowadays, it is mostly found in log cabins. It is heated with a wood stove.

The temperature is usually at least 70 to 80 degrees Celsius, but can reach up to 100 degrees Celsius. Infusions are very common. Hot water or ice is mixed with essential oils and poured onto the hot stones of the sauna heater. The humidity rises sharply. The rest of the sauna process is very special, but also very healthy.

This is the procedure of a banya visit

First, the body is cleaned in the washing room. This includes a normal shower with soap, shampoo, or shower gel. Then you pour cold water over yourself, followed by warm water. If you go to a traditional banya, the water is provided in buckets. Modern facilities have showers. Then you go to the sweat room. There are several benches. You sit down on them in the classic banya attire, i.e. with a banya cap on your head, which may seem a bit strange to newcomers.

These caps are made of felt, often not very nice to look at, but they protect the head from the intense heat. The body is wrapped in a linen or cotton cloth. There is always a sauna master or a sauna mistress. They coordinate the sauna sessions, give instructions, and operate the sauna heater.

What is a Wenik?

The Russian sauna has another special feature. A wenik, a birch broom soaked in water, is used to beat the body during the sauna session. This is not painful, because the birch broom, when soaked, has a smooth effect. The birch broom spreads a pleasant birch scent and the gentle strokes promote blood circulation in the skin. Sometimes essential oils are added to the water in which the birch broom soaks.

The social aspect of the Russian bathhouse

Russians not only like to sweat, they also like to be among people. Therefore, the Russian bathhouse – especially in rather sparsely populated areas – often also fulfills the claim of a village pub. People meet here with friends and neighbors. That is why people do not limit themselves to just one sauna session. Normally, there are several saunas in a row.

Due to the high heat, it is of course not possible to stay in the sweat room for more than about ten minutes at a time. That’s why there are always rest rooms or even restaurants attached, where you can relax and sit together between sauna sessions. Russians like to drink beer or vodka together and eat together. Stag parties are also celebrated here with great pleasure.

Ирония судьбы: the Russian Dinner for One

Because Russians love their sauna tradition so much, the quintessential Russian cult film was made in 1975 with Ирония судьбы, which translates as Irony of Fate. A group of young men celebrates shortly before the wedding of one, bachelor party in a Moscow sauna area. They drink a lot and the next morning the groom wakes up in the wrong apartment and in St. Petersburg, the wrong city.

The reason: In Russia, all prefabricated buildings were made of the same prefabricated parts, and even the street names were the same everywhere. In addition, there were standardized doors and locks, and the keys fit several times. In Russia, the film is traditionally watched on New Year’s Eve, even today, and a lot is drunk accordingly.


The Russian sauna (banya) is an old tradition that originated in Siberia. It is a place for purification, relaxation and socializing.

The banya is usually a wooden house with three rooms: a changing room, a washing room and a sweating room. The sweat room is heated with a wood stove and can reach up to 100 degrees Celsius. In the banya, sweating is traditionally done with a birch broom (wenik). The wenik is soaked in water and then beaten on the body. This has a cleansing and relaxing effect.

A visit to the banya is not only a physical experience, but also a social one. In the banya, people gather with friends and family to sweat, talk and laugh. The banya is a place of relaxation and conviviality that is highly valued in Russia.


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