The medieval state to which Russia traces its origins emerged at the intersection of several different cultures. Kiev, its first great centre, sits on a trading crossroads between the Greek world of Byzantium to the south and Scandinavia to the north and absorbed influences from both. In the same way the banya is an amalgamation of different bathing traditions, drawing on the public baths of the Greek world and the earthy wooden sweat lodges of the north.
Peter the Great enjoyed bathing, so his drive to modernize and westernise Russia never threatened the indigenous culture of the banya. When he founded St Petersburg in 1703, he authorised tax breaks to encourage the construction of bath houses and instituted a special chancellery to manage them and maximise tax. Peter was allegedly asked about the importance of doctors for the military and is said to have answered, “Not for Russia. The banya alone is enough”.
Giliarovsky, the celebrated chronicler of late Tsarist Russia later wrote that, “Not a single Muscovite abstained from the banya. No one – not a master of trade, not an aristocrat, not a poor man, not a rich man…”
The Bolsheviks disdained Russia’s tsarist past and strove to eradicate its influence. However, they also understood the role the banya could play in transforming the life of the population. Moreover, the aftermath of the revolution not only brought civil war, famine, but a public health crisis. Lenin famously declared that, “Either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism”. Personal hygiene became a matter for the state.
The Soviet Union could be said to have ended in the banya. In August 1991 hardliners from the Soviet elite gathered to sweat and to discuss the removal of Mikhail Gorbachev. Their plan fell apart when they failed to have Boris Yeltsin arrested and support coalesced around him. Two months later Yeltsin met with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belorussia to agree the decentralisation of the USSR that the coup had been designed to prevent. Yeltsin celebrated in the banya.
The collapse of the USSR brought privatisation as well as a resurgence of the banya as a unifying and positive symbol of Russianness. Here was something that predated the Soviet and tsarist period and which could be celebrated. Politicians used it to signal that they remained close to their fellow Russians. Yeltsin steamed together with foreign leaders like Helmut Kohl and Putin uses his love of the institution to signal his patriotism, health and wholesomeness. He claims to have rescued a treasured metal crucifix from the ashes of a country banya that had burnt down in the 1990’s; the image the perfect alloy of his love of country and church.