The Russian bania and Finnish sauna have striking similarities in bathing styles. Everyone who visit bania notes that ritual, folklore, and even construction of both baths are very similar. So, we can assume that their development has been parallel, as there are no historic records showing when each culture began sweat bathing.
Considering what is common for both cultures we should mention the climate - cold winters (even as far south as Moscow, where the first frost comes in late September and continues until April); thickly wooded forests that are used to provide fuel and construction for the sweat bath ; and the hard-working peasant's dependence on folk medicine.
Early Russian chronicles say about the bania. The Russians became famous in Europe for their enthusiastic bathing after the European journalists had swarmed to Russia in the centuries following the Reformation. In 1914, M. Hartea told the Finnish Museum Society, "In Moscow the interest in bania is greater than here in Finland. The Russians conquer us Finns as far as interest in the sauna goes."
One of the earliest descriptions of the bania comes from the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113, in describing the missionary work of the apostle, Andreas. He tells about the Slavic wooden bath-houses. He describes the special way they take the bath. He wondered how they warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. He says, they lash themselves so violently that they hardly escape alive. After that they drench themselves with cold water. And such a procedure revive them. Apostle Andreas tesss about the Russians that they think nothing of doing this every day and actually inflict such voluntary torture upon themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.
The same Chronicle delivers another mention of the bania - the story of Princess Olga's revenge for the murder of her husband, Prince Igor, by the Slavic tribe of Drevlians in 945 AD. The leader of the Drevlians wanted to marry the widow Olga and sent messengers to discuss the idea. But Olga met them in a specific way. When the Drevlians arrived Olga commanded to prepare bath for them, saying they should wash themselves and then they would speak. They were closed in the bath-house and Olga gave orders to set it on fire from the doors, so that the Drevlians were all burned to death."
In the threaty between Russia and Greece of the year 906 AD, the Russians stipulated that their merchants trading in Constantinople should be given not only "bread, wine, meat, fish and fruit, but also the opportunity to bathe as often as they wished" to suffice in a foreign land.
In the early 1600s, a German librarian, Adamus Olearius, visited Russia and gave the smart account of the bania in his book, Persian Travel Tales. He also described the luxurious banias of the Czar's Kremlin benches upholstered with leather and thick pillows strewn across the floor. Rather than jumping in a lake or tumbling in the snow after bathing, a person of nobility would retire to a cooling room with wall-to-wall mirrors and a servant waving stork-feather fans.
And now until the turn of the 20th century, Russian bath was a favorite place to visit and the fafourite topic to speak. Casanova in 1774, Tooke in 1779, Porter in 1809, Cox in 1884 and many other famous names, the list is endless. Europe, having forgotten its own bathing past, became attracted to the spectacle of whole villages bathing together, the extravagance of the czars.