Roman balnea gave a name to what was soon to become the great tradition of Russian banya. With the name came the spirit - for Russian people banya was far more than a way to bathe. Banya accompanied people throughout all important events of their life, and, according to folklore, was a source of miraculous healing as well as the home of supernatural powers. Bannik, a wayward domestic goblin of Russian folklore, was thought to haunt a banya to ensure that the traditions of bathing were followed to the letter.
One of the earliest descriptions of banya is found in the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113 describing the missionary work of Apostle Andrew among Slavs. He observed the curious bathing tradition of "lashing each other violently with young reeds". In fact, that was the origin of the modern venik platza, a revitalizing and rejuvenating massage technique in which leaves of different trees are used in massage for a great therapeutic effect.
The combination of harsh climate and fearless character of people resulted in the creation of another adventurous bathing ritual.
This is how it was described by one of the travelers, Adamus Olearius, a German librarian, who visited Russia in the early 1600s, "It is most surprising thing to see them come out of such an intense degree of heat all of a sudden, and run into the cold water, or have it poured upon them; or in the winter wallow themselves in the snow, and so return into the stoves again".
Banya was recognized as a public good in the young Russian empire. Peter the Great allowed every citizen of newly founded city St. Petersburg to build a banya free of taxes. Peter even instituted a special Chancellery of Banyas that would manage all public bathing facilities in the Russian capital. At the start of the 20th century, Russia boasted more than 300,000 banyas. William Took, a member of Emperor's Academy of Sciences wrote in 1779 in his notes: "Russians only know several diseases and most of them they can cure by simple measures and a diet. Women give birth easily, infant mortality is extremely low in comparison to other countries... quite often Russians use banya instead of medicine. And there is no doubt that this is a key to their great health and long lives".
Another English doctor, Edward Cantish, pointed out that a lot of serious diseases have a much lower mortality rate among Russians in comparison to Europeans. He explained this high resistance to diseases solely by frequent visits to banya. The personal doctor of Empress Elizabeth of Russia once said that he did not believe there is a single doctor who can reasonably doubt the great benefits of Russian banya.
The tradition of the extreme temperature contrast, the famous venik platza as well as its social aspect made banya the beloved topic of visitors to Russia. In 19th century Europe Russian culture in general and its steam baths were thought of with a hint of mystery and intrigue. Europeans were quick to connect the great strength and health of Russian people with their bathing traditions. Russian banya also served as the perfect middle ground between dry Finnish sauna and the extremely humid Turkish hammam.
The popularity of banyas grew consistently and even the King of Prussia was a regular client of the first Russian banya in Berlin that opened in 1818. As surprising as it may seem, Russian banya has been present on the northern US Pacific Coast for more than 200 years. First introduced by Russian colonists in the end of the 18th century, the banya tradition still remains and important part of life for many people in Alaska.