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What it’s like to visit a traditional Russian bathhouse in Moscow


A banya employee can give this massage, or friends can do it for each other.

To start, my masseuse spent a few seconds whooshing the branches around above my body, but not touching me. She then started dragging the branches up and down my body, which tickled.

Then came the whacking. Steadily and rhythmically, she brought the branches down with force up and down my body. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt. At one point, she had me bend my knees so that my feet were facing the ceiling and she could whack the sides of my legs and the bottoms of my feet.

After a few minutes, I was directed to turn onto my back and I saw that my masseuse was swapping places with another woman. My new masseuse indicated that I should place my hands over my chest. She continued the massage on my front.

It didn’t feel like any massage I’ve ever gotten before. Instead of a relaxing pressure on my muscles, I felt like the branch was exfoliating my skin. It was more invigorating than calming.


After the front of my body was thoroughly thwacked, the masseuse had me to sit up. She put an arm under my elbow and helped me stand up and walk down the stairs out of the steam room. That was the longest I’d spent in the sauna so far, and I felt a bit light-headed and weak in the knees.

The birch branch massage lasted about 15 minutes — but it wasn’t done yet.

Out in the shower room, I laid down on a table on my stomach, unsure of what was coming next. More whacking, but this time at room temperature?

Unexpectedly, the woman threw a bucket of ice-cold water over my entire body. I let out a little yelp. She threw another bucket of water, slightly warmer, and then a third bucket that was about room temperature. She had me turn onto my back and repeated the process.

Finally, my masseuse directed me to shower, which was fortunate because I had bits of leaves in places I’d never expected to find leaves.


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