The steam bath was known in Old Russia among Slavic peoples as early as in the 5th—6th century AD. Everyone used bath: princes, the noble, and common people.
Apart from its functional use, bath was essential for various rituals. For example, bath was a must on the eve of wedding and on the day after wedding, and going to bath was a special ceremony.
The history of Russian bath goes back to the Scythian tribes who lived in the territory of Russia and used steam and hot water. About 800–900 years ago, towns of Rus, Volga Bulgaria and some other European countries had stone bath houses, where local traditions were combined with oriental. In 1090, Ephraim, Bishop of Pereslav and later Metropolitan of Kyev, ordered to build a big stone bath house. Ruins of five stone bath houses were found in the place of former Bolghar, the capital of Volga Bulgaria in the 9th-14th centuries.
However, most people used wooden baths.
The original design of the Russian bath was a wooden hut with a low ceiling and a stone stove. It had a high bench for sweating and a low bench for bathing. The stove had no chimney (black banya or smoke banya).
The smoke was ventilated out into the door and the vent hole in the wall above the bench. When the fire died, the door and the vent hole were closed and the bath was let to "stew" for some time until the walls got hot enough and charcoal burned up. After extinguishing the rest of charcoal with water, the door was kept open for a short time to ventilate the coal gas out. Water was heated on the stove in clay pots, and later in tin buckets when they came into use.
In a separate pot aquas alkaline ash (an alternative to soap) was prepared, while another pot was used for artemisia or other herbal solutions with disinfecting and healing properties. Ladles, pails and buckets were used for bathing, and wooden barrels for storing cold water. People undressed and dressed in a non-heated dressing room.
Adam Olearius, a famous German traveller, described the Russian bath session of the 17th century as follows: “Lying on the benches, they tell to beat them and rub skin with a hot birch whisk (venik)... when they grow red from heat and staying inside becomes unbearable, they run out naked, both men and women, and pour cold water on themselves, while in winter, they run out of banya to roll in the snow and rub skin with snow as with soap, and having so cooled down they return to the hot banya. Since their banyas are usually built near rivers or springs, the bathers rush from the heat right into the cold water”. Olearius narrates that “in all towns and villages, they have many public and private baths, in which they [the Russians] may often be found”.
N. Kostomarov, a renowned historian, writes in his essays on the lifestyle and morals of the Russian people in the 16th-17th centuries that the bath was an essential need at home both for hygiene, cure and some kind of pleasure.
The first scientific work dedicated to the Russian bath was the work by Antonio Nunes Ribeiro Sanches, a Portuguese physician, who had served in Russia for a long time.
His book titled “About the Russian steam bath as it helps to invigorate, rehabilitate and revitalize the human body” was published in many countries including in Russia in 1774.
He believes that the utmost benefit of the Russian bath is that steam is supplied every 5 minutes helping to sanitise the bath environment.
Russian public and private baths differed not only in size, but in the interior. In some baths, steam rooms were separated from bathing rooms. Apparently, that was the type of baths built in the 17th century by the order of tzar Alexis of Russia.
19th and early 20th century was a transition to the “white banya” , which, unlike the “black banya”, had a stone oven with a chimney. Wood in such bath could also be burned during a bathing session, with less fire risk and no ash deposits on walls and ceiling. In some, the oven was installed in the dressing-room or a separate room. In others, steam was produced by a steam boiler, and hot water by a hot water boiler installed in the boiler room.
Sanduny and Central bath houses were the most popular Moscow's old luxury baths. The contemporary Sanduny baths built in 1896 with 28 rooms (27 of them with a steam room) replaced stone baths built in 1806 by the Sandunovs, the then famous actors of the Petrovsky Theatre (now the Bolshoi Theatre). The old Sanduny baths were built with comfort and luxury, for example, they had rest rooms with mirrors and soft sofas.
Russian baths attracted many foreign guests from East and West. They were astonished with the Russian tradition of dipping in an ice-hole after a hot bath, dousing with cold water and rubbing with snow.
These are the methods Russians have always used to build up resistance to diseases. Such exercises helped Alexander Suvorov, the great Russian commander, to strengthen his health and stay fit for the hard military life until a very old age.
Banya in Russia has always been and is a part of lifestyle. With quite a cold climate, Russian steam bath with its stone oven have heated and cured many diseases. Every location, even every family had its own bathing traditions.
Some people cleaned themselves with soap before the steam room, some just poured water on themselves, others preferred to sweat well before bathing. During the World War II, baths helped soldiers to fight diseases.
They used everything that was at hand for their improvised baths: dug-outs (as the ancestors had done), carriages or buses. They could make an oven from a large artillery shell casing, without brick or stone.
The bath was a real healer for soldiers.
In present days, apart from steam rooms, bathing rooms, shower rooms and swimming pools, a bath house also offers various therapy services, comfortable rest rooms, cafeteria and everything needed for rehabilitation and leisure.
Although contemporary baths in big cities are different from those our predecessors used, they have the same healing effects on the body as the traditional baths.