Banya Dialogs: Mikhail Brodsky and Archimedes

For Dr. Mikhail Brodsky, the founder and owner of Archimedes, banya is a passion. Finding another person who knows more about the world’s bathing traditions than Mikhail is hard. This knowledge is based on experience: if a country has a custom of sweating and bathing, the chances are that Dr. Brodsky tried it. This love and understanding of banya are expressed in every detail of Archimedes. Even the name itself refers to the nickname given to Mikhail in a legendary Moscow banya Sanduny.

Dr. Mikhail Brodsky, founder and owner of Archimedes Banya.

Yet, it is more than that. Archimedes Banya is an amalgamation of the best ideas Mikhail collected and developed over the years, all dedicated to creating the best steam and social experience. I sat with Dr. Brodsky to discuss his understanding of banya and what makes Archimedes unique.

What main characteristics must a banya have to be called Russian?

The immediate answer is that the Russian banya needs to be a specific combination of humidity and temperature. But this answer alone won’t cut it. People from other cultures could rightfully suggest that they have saunas with the same temperature and humidity combination. So, I’d say that the main characteristic of a Russian banya, which makes it unique, is the stove. Without a Russian stove, it’s just a sauna, not an authentic Russian banya.

Stove is also featured in a lot of Russian proverbs and expressions. For instance, to start “from a stove” means to start from the beginning. This points to a special significance that this object holds in a culture.

A traditional Russian stove was a truly multifunctional tool: it was used for cooking, sleeping, even for washing (if banya wasn’t available).

In other sauna traditions, the steam is generated differently.

Exactly. In Aachen, Germany, for instance, they have a sophisticated contraption, a scale beam that lifts the heated stones from the fire, moves them in the air, and dips them in water.

Reminds me of the Native American tradition of Temescal, where the stones are heated first and then brought into a tent… But what is unique about the Russian stove? 

First, the Russian stove is massive, which allows for a more gentle heat. Smaller heating implements may get the room temperature to the same level. Still, the heat will be different – it will be overheated and dryer, a harsher heat, so to speak.

Second, it makes the steam different as well. The stove is constructed in such a way that allows for water to be added inside of it. In other saunas, water is usually added to the stones on top of the stove. As a result, the water immediately evaporates, and the steam stays at 212 Farenheit. In Russian banya, the steam passes through the stove, exiting into the room with a higher temperature. As a result, it rises to the ceiling quicker and then gently lowers. I think that this is why Russians wish each other “light steam!” At least I haven’t heard this expression anywhere else.

Third, the stove provides more than just heat. It also pulls the cooled-down air out, creating a constant flow (by the way, this is why the stove door always remains open). This is key because if you have 30 people sweating in a small room without ventilation, soon there will be no air to breathe.

How did you implement this in Archimedes? 

I have been to village banyas, big Russian banyas in Moscow, saunas in Germany, Japan, Korea, and more. I knew how excellent steam felt. It was clear that to create the best steam and overall banya experience, one needs to be able to control temperature, humidity, and airflow. Increasing the temperature and humidity is easy, but doing so while creating an airflow is tough: as soon as you start ventilating the room, the humidity drops, and if you don’t ventilate – everything becomes too wet. In Russian public baths, people are asked to leave the steam room for 15 minutes every one hour to air and dry the room.

To solve the problem, we created an entirely new solution: the humidity in Archimedes is controlled not only by adding water directly into the stove (a traditional way) but also with a steamer that injects a 212-degree steam mixed with air into the specially created pipe inside the stove. After going through the pipe, the mix of steam and air comes out overheated and enters the air circulation process. As a result, the new air continuously replaces the cooled-down air pulled out of the room through the stove. At the same time, humidity is maintained at a constant level.

The unique stove of the Archimedes Banya.

Yes, I recall that in Russian public baths, the banya process happens, as you described, with 15-minute pauses. 

In Archimedes, we don’t have to do it this way. We can also control both temperature and humidity by changing the air and steam proportion that enters the stove and by adding water in a traditional way.

What is the right way to add water to a stove? 

The idea is to spread the water over a larger surface. Therefore, the stove’s opening is also supposed to be larger and positioned at a significant height.

Why is that? 

If it’s on your level and you add the water, you can get burned by the steam that comes out. In Moscow Sanduny banya, Uncle Kolya, a veteran who lost one of his arms in World War II, taught me how to add water. He would position a 12-liter plastic bucket of water on his shoulder, run towards the stove, and throw the whole bucket in, catching the bucket with his arm at the last moment. It was remarkable! As his student then, I improved his technique: I’d throw the water together with the bucket. The trick was to throw it at a right angle so that the water landed on the surface of the stove first, momentarily evaporated, and shot the plastic bucket in the opposite direction.

Another question that I find to be interesting is the question of the protocol. How do you organize your banya experience? What do you start with? What comes next? 

In Moscow, a common approach was a so-called “doublet:” You heat up in the sauna, do a cold plunge, then return to the sauna. It is supposed to help you tolerate the heat and increase your body temperature further than one trip to the sauna could. I don’t think there is any point in doing this; it’s a way of tricking your body. Instead, I will go to the sauna for around 12 minutes, then a cold plunge, followed by a cooler steam room.

Why the steam room? 

There is less stress on the body in there. It is more relaxed.

What do you do after the steam room? 

I go outside and breathe some fresh air and hydrate.

How many sessions do you do per visit? 

It depends, around four or five.

How many times a week? 

Two times. This is not just physical, but also mental relaxation. After a visit to the banya, I feel better overall. If you go less than once a week, your body will not adapt to the rhythm and will benefit less.

Last week in the Banya Journal, I wrote about Russian village traditions of banya and its meaning. However, it seems that the practice of public bathing in Russia has something to do with Romans as well.

Of course! Russians got public baths from Byzantium, which then was mixed with the local tradition of banya, where people would heat up stones in dugouts.

The philosophy of the public bath is different from the village banya. Their function and tasks are different; they are constructed in another way. The public baths were a way for people living in the cities to wash. Although it was also crucial for villages, it had other functions, stemming from the fact that this was a sterile space suitable for childbirth, medicine, etc.

The Archimedes is, in a way, a mixture of a Greek-Roman tradition of public baths, Russian and Finnish tradition of steam, and a Russian-style stove.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome. The ancients took the social aspect of banya very seriously.

For the Romans, the social aspect of banya was vital. Is it the same for you with regard to Archimedes? 

It was the most important reason for me to create Archimedes! Clearly, I could build any banya I wanted for myself in my backyard. But the social aspect adds a feeling of freedom, which I value.

When I was leaving Russia, one of the people I knew said, “You’ll have everything except for the good view and friends.” And it stuck with me. As soon as I came to the US, I always tried to select places with a view. I did it for my own home and Archimedes as well – take a look at the beautiful view of the Bay from the rooftop!

The view of the Bay from Archimedes rooftop.

And, of course, I made many friends. Overall, I’d say I’ve proven him wrong.