by Ethan Pollock
When so much in Russia has changed, the banya remains. For over one thousand years Russians of every economic class, political party, and social strata have treated bathing as a communal activity integrating personal hygiene and public health with rituals, relaxation, conversations, drinking, political intrigue, business, and sex. Communal steam baths have survived the Mongols, Peter the Great, and Soviet communism and remain a central and unifying national custom. Combining the ancient elements of earth, water, and fire, the banya paradoxically cleans bodies and spreads disease, purifies and defiles, creates community and underscores difference.