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Without the Banya We Would Perish

A History of the Russian Bathhouse

Ethan Pollock

Publication Date - May 2022

ISBN: 9780197651674

360 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock

A sweeping history of the communal bathhouse, a space that has always been intertwined with Russian identity.


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.

Here, Ethan Pollock tells the history of this ubiquitous and enduring institution. He explores the bathhouse's role in Russian identity, following public figures (from Catherine the Great to Rasputin to Putin), writers (such as Chekhov and Dostoevsky), foreigners (including Mark Twain and Casanova), and countless other men and women into the banya to discover the meanings they have found there. The story comes up to the present, exploring the continued importance of banyas in Russia and their newfound popularity in cities across the globe. Drawing on sources as diverse as ancient chronicles, government reports, medical books, and popular culture, Pollock shows how the banya has persisted, adapted, and flourished in the everyday lives of Russians throughout wars, political ruptures, modernization, and urbanization.

Through the communal bathhouse, Without the Banya We Would Perish provides a unique perspective on the history of the Russian people.


  • The first English-language history of an institution at the heart of Russian identity
  • Retells the history of imperial Russia, the rise and fall of communism, and the emergence of post-communist Russia through a fascinating cultural lens
  • Engagingly written and draws on film, fine art, political cartoons, songs, and classic literature

About the Author(s)

Ethan Pollock is Professor of History and Slavic Studies at Brown University. He is the author of Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars.


"What does it mean to be clean? That is the fundamental question underlying Ethan Pollock's fascinating study of the Russian banya, or bathhouse. For Russians, getting clean is not merely about personal hygiene...As Pollock's book makes clear, the banya, with its emphasis on sociability and community, is more than a physical space. It is a state of mind, a place where one can 'find meaning in the world.'" -- Darra Goldstein, Times Literary Supplement

"As Ethan Pollock explains in his delightful, if sometimes nauseating, history of the banya, Russians take pride in this peculiar institution, which they long regarded as intrinsic to Russian identityâ.For Russians, the banya purges the soul." -- Gary Saul Morson, Wall Street Journal

"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 Russiaâ.Without the Banya We Would Perish is a nuanced and imaginative exploration of the tensions between salvation and perdition that have haunted Russia's history across the centuries." -- Daniel Beer, Literary Review

"In Pollock's account, the banya is an inarguably quintessential Russian institution, but also reveals perennial institutional dysfunction." -- Randy Rosenthal, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Pollock has produced a rarity: a work of solid scholarship that is also an elegant page-turner. It traces the history of the Russian steam bath all the way back to the Middle Ages, exploring how its image and function have shifted over time." -- Maria Lipman, Foreign Affairs

"Pollock tells the long story of the banya in chronological order, exploring countless nuances of social reality and artistic representation, gathering its recurring themes....In the whimsical epilogue, Pollock immerses himself in the illusion of the banya's timelessness. His friends are transformed, in his daydream, into the many historical figures, writers, and fictional characters invoked in the pages in between, all bathing with him in the parilka." -- Rachel Polonsky, New York Review of Books

"original and engaging ... this is a fascinating book that will be of interest to historians of culture and medicine of both the imperial and Soviet periods. The price point, the accessible style (minimal Russian and developed passages of historical context), and the interesting subject matter make it an affordable choice for undergraduate courses as well as graduate reading seminars. For historians of Russian culture, it is a welcome exploration of an ubiquitous practice." -- Tricia Starks, Russian Review

"Pollock immerses his reader in a deep, stimulating history of the Russian banya. The jury may be out on the banya's salutary effects on bathers' health, but there's no question that Pollock's book is a boon to Russian studies." -- Eliot Borenstein, author of Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism

"Sacred, inspiring, magical; or indecent, barbarous, and outmoded? Ethan Pollock's fascinating and vivid study of the banya answers-without the banya we would perish! Peopled with courtiers and warriors, doctors and literati, commissars and countless bathhouse attendants, this book entertains as it rejuvenates your senses." -- Dan Healey, University of Oxford

"In Ethan Pollock's creative telling, the long history of the Russian banya bubbles with insights on health, hygiene, faith, leisure, and the nation, among other topics. This is steamy history of the best kind! A wonderful book."--Willard Sunderland, University of Cincinnati

"In this bracingly original and eloquently argued book, Ethan Pollock traces the history of one of the few constants in Russia's turbulent past, the bathhouse, which survived Peter the Great's westernization and Lenin and Stalin's sovietization. Opening this book, readers encounter an intriguing cast of characters-from tsars and serfs to Scythians and New Russians-philosophizing, communing, and sweating together. Pollock's masterful storytelling highlights the banya's vibrant historicity, amid its constancy, and illuminates thousands of years of Russian history one steam-filled room at a time."--Alexis Peri, author of The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad

"Ethan Pollock takes us to the banya for a good long soak. His book follows the history of Russia's most beloved public institution from its steamy beginnings in the Slavic wildwood to the era of Gorky Park and beyond. With its emphasis on the banya in Russian literature, culture and the arts, this is a book with something for everyone. True banya lovers will regret only that there is not yet a waterproof edition."--Catherine Merridale, author of Lenin on the Train

Table of Contents

    Ch. 1. Older Even Than the Tsar
    Ch. 2."The Great Healer
    Ch. 3. Soot, Dirt, and Human Flesh Packed Together
    Ch. 4. Our People Love the Banya But Nothing Good Comes of It
    Ch. 5. The Onslaught of Civilization
    Ch. 6. Either Socialism Will Defeat the Louse or the Louse Will Defeat Socialism
    Ch. 7. Things Are Bad on the Banya Front
    Ch. 8. Here Nobody is Naked, There is No Need for Shame
    Ch. 9. The Banya . . . .Is it Necessary?
    Ch. 10. In the Banya I Changed My World View