For centuries, the Russian banya, or bathhouse, has been such a common feature of the social landscape that its very ubiquity has rendered it all but invisible. The chronicler of life in late imperial Russia Vladimir Giliarovsky noted that ‘no literature addressed the banya … it was all in front of everybody’s eyes and nobody was interested in writing about something that everyone already knew’. Ethan Pollock’s compelling and imaginative study shows that because it has been a constant physical presence through the ages, the banya offers a fascinating prism through which to track the social and cultural history of Russia. From the earliest written records, it has been a place of paradox: a site of physical and moral rejuvenation but also of dirt, pollution and depravity.
In 15th-century Russia, a time when bathhouses were dying out in other parts of Europe, the banya remained a staple of everyday life for people of all classes. For foreign visitors to Russia, the persistence of bathing culture became a marker of ‘barbarism and licentiousness’. For Adam Olearius, a scholar who travelled to Russian in the 1630s, ‘to bathe in common, bodies bare’ was as typical of Muscovite life as ‘churches, ikons, crosses, bells; painted whores and garlic smells’. By the 18th century, however, western Europeans were rediscovering the bathhouse as a symbol of progress. Leading physicians began to herald its therapeutic benefits and Russians emerged from their banyas to a foreign chorus not of castigation but of approval.
When the Napoleonic armies swept across the European continent and generated a nationalist backlash in countries they invaded and conquered, Russians began to celebrate the banya as a symbol of national resilience. Educated Russians discovered in the humble banya the virtues of the common folk. In Alexander Pushkin’s epic