Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Siberian Banya or Sauna

The banya is a fixture of every home in Siberia.  Apartment dwellers do not have the luxury but then, don't need it in the same sense.  The banya serves as sauna and bathroom for homes that do not have plumbing.  Bathroom as in bathing and washing, not to be confused with the toilet which is out back.

The banya is always in a separate building from the main house, at least partly for fire safety reasons.  Luda and Valerie's banya is just across from their house.  The first door was Luda's kitchen until they got plumbing and she moved it into the house, the old kitchen now serving as summer kitchen and store room.  The second door is to the banya. Theirs is a simple two room banya with a small entry room for dressing and for servicing the firebox (bottom) and the water reservoir (top) which you can see in the picture below. The green paint is over brick or concrete.

The fire in the banya was kept going almost all the time as the reservoir served as a source of hot water for washing clothes and dishes.  In winter, one made a quick dash across a cold yard, to a warm banya for morning washing up and teeth brushing, etc. When it was time for a bath or sauna and bath, the fire was revved up to heat the water, the room and the rocks as hot as you wanted to stand.  In the picture below (which is the back side of the picture above) you can see the construction of Valerie's system.  There is a pipe running from the fire box under the rocks to and through the brick chimney at the back. The rocks get hot.  You dip water from the reservoir and throw it on the rocks where it explodes in a cloud of steam.  Beside  where I was standing to take the picture is a wooden bench to sit or lie on while you steam yourself.

The wooden barrel is for cold water.  Once you are steamed as much as your lungs can stand (and it is a learned process) you take hot water from the reservoir and cool it from the barrel and give yourself a bath, ending with a cold water rinse.  The floor is wooden slats with good gravel drainage under it so splashing water around is not an issue, in fact it is expected.

The banya is wonderful.  You feel cleaner than just a shower but it is not as quick or as handy.  And it is NOT a place for unattended children or clumsy adults.

It certainly is part of Russian tradition though -идти в банё (ydti v banyo - go to the banya) is a polite way of telling someone to go to hell.


  1. When you're hot, you're hot. When you're not, you perhaps need to go to the banya.
    Interesting story BF. Thanks.

  2. How cool (ha)
    It looks like you would certainly be awake by the time you completed your morning "stuff".
    This is really quite interesting.

  3. Getting steam cleaned probably feels good on a cold winter day.

  4. I like this Russian tradition. Does one use soap in the banya?

  5. Snowbrush, as you can see it is simple to build. I am sure you can buy gas or electric versions that just heat the rocks for a sauna, then go to the shower for a final.

    DC, it feels good even on a summer evening.

    CD, yes, when you give yourself a bath, you use two basins of water, one for soaping yourself and one to rinse. A dipper is used to pour water over yourself.

    This is a very simple banya and typical. There are very fancy banyas designed for several people that include a dining area to eat and drink before during and after. Some have a "swimming pool" filled with cold water to jump in after you are steam cleaned. Some newer ones have showers so you can dispense with the basins.

  6. Did you know there is a method for picking the best rocks for the sauna stove?? The best ones are about fist sized and worn smooth by water.
    When working on a condo project in Seattle, I saw larger crushed rock on a sauna stove in the rec building. Told the foreman that you would have to wear a suit of armor to take a sauna. He said what the hell do you know about it. I just said my people invented the sauna!!!

  7. I was principal in a Yu'pik Eskimo village in south west Alaska for three years. Half of the village was Russian Orthodox and almost all the village homes had steam baths (few had plumbing.) At school we made steam bath houses as shop projects and sold them in the village, using the proceeds to buy lumber and supplys for the school shop.

    It was a win-win.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  8. When the Russians say Sauna they mean Finnish sauna, when they say Banya they mean their own version. Not sure of the difference, Kulkuri.

    Ol'Buzzard, very interesting about the village with half Russian Orthodox and all Bayas. Russia left a lasting legacy in Alaska.


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