The Russian massage that's not for the faint-hearted

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Media captionRussians have been going to banyas for more than 1,000 years - now people in Britain can too

As leisure activities go, you would imagine that lying naked on a wooden table while two topless Russian men hit your back with bunches of oak leaves would only appeal to a very specialist group of enthusiasts.

Yet while such a prospect would make most of us run a mile, this is in fact a traditional massage method in Russia.

Called a "venik" massage, the oak bunches are first softened in warm water. And rather than being whacked on your back in anger, they are gently and rhythmically applied.

It is a popular treatment in the thousands of steam bathhouses, or "banyas", across Russia.

The massage, which takes place in a sauna room set at a temperature of 70C, is said to boost circulation and prevent premature ageing of the skin.

And after the treatment has finished you are supposed to immediately jump into a plunge pool of cold water.

You might think that such an unusual massage would struggle to be successfully exported from Russia, but the co-founder of the first banya in London says that two years after opening, almost half of its customers are non-Russians.

Launching the banya, called Banya No.1, was the dream of entrepreneurial Russian ex-pat Ksenia Bobkova.

The 37-year-old has lived in the UK for more than 20 years after moving from St Petersburg to study law at Edinburgh University in 1994.

Image caption Ksenia Bobkova has lived in the UK for two decades

After graduating from Edinburgh she has had a successful career in finance in London, first working at a large commercial law firm, and then co-founding a new investment company.

Yet as much as Ms Bobkova says she has always enjoyed living in the UK, the one thing she really missed was regular trips to a banya.

Strategically placed towel

After dreaming of opening London's first banya for more than a decade, Ms Bobkova says that in 2012 "the circumstances came together" to enable her to finally start work on it.

Firstly, she realised that more and more Russians were now living in London, which she hoped would make a banya commercially viable, and she had built up enough savings to launch the business.

Image caption Visitors to Banya No.1 can wear their swimming costume

Then she found the right building, and two other UK-based Russian investors came on board.

After a year of construction work, including importing a traditional banya stove from Russia, the bathhouse opened its doors in 2013.

"When we wrote the business plan, we certainly focused on the fact that the Russian-speaking community in London had grown substantially over the past 15 years," she says.

"But after we opened we soon discovered that London is so international, and that people who live here are so open to new experiences, that almost half our customers are non-Russian."

Image caption After the massage, people are urged to jump into a tank of cold water

Customers - both male and female - who don't want to strip naked can instead wear their swimming costume, or a strategically placed towel. And for people who wish to avoid the oak leaves, Scandinavian-style, hands-based back massages are also available.

After the massages, people are encouraged to stay and relax in a lounge or rest area, where they can order traditional Russian food.

While Ms Bobkova is reluctant to discuss how financially successful the banya is, it is often full, and typical visits cost £100 per person. And she now plans to open more branches.

'British ethics'

Running the banya is a world apart from Ms Bobkova's main job of helping to lead investment firm Fusion Asset Management, of which she was a founding partner in 2004.

The business invests millions of pounds globally on behalf of large institutions, and has a sister office in Moscow.

Image caption Ms Bobkova has set up the banya with two other Russian ex-pats, including Andrei Fomin (left)

While the original six founders included one Englishman, an American and a Frenchman, it is now owned and run by three London-based Russian ex-pats.

Ms Bobkova says that she likes working in the UK, because she values what she describes as "British fair play" in business.

"Without comparing specifically to Russia, what is very fundamental in British business ethics is this concept of fair play," she says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ms Bobkova was born and raised in the Russian city of St Petersburg

"[Doing business in the UK means] you can trust people, and people will generally not try to squeeze you too much. In the UK both sides get a fairly allocated share of the profit, rather than one gets all, and the other gets nothing."

In terms of her day-to-day style as a boss she says that while she has high expectations of staff, it is a point of principle that the 20 people at the finance firm don't have to work late nights or at weekends.

"Nothing in the world is so important that it needs to be done at the weekend," she says.

Dual nationality

In addition to the two businesses, Ms Bobkova is also a co-founder of a networking organisation for Russians living and working in London.

Image caption Ms Bobkova has had a successful career working in finance in the City of London

Called Russians in the City, and with 2,300 members, it holds quarterly events, such as drinks parties, or polo matches and skiing trips.

The organisation has since opened a sister branch in Switzerland, with other ones due to open in New York and Dubai.

A UK passport holder, and previously married to a British husband, Ms Bobkova says that Russians in the City allow her to maintain the Russian side of her identity.

"I'm British in that I have lived here for 20 years, but I'm also obviously Russian," she says.

"There are different categories of immigrants. Some are so integrated that they almost deny where they came from, while at the other end, some people don't integrate at all.

"I'm somewhere in the middle, I'm fully integrated, I went to a British university... I speak English.... but I also like my Russian heritage, which I nurture through the bathhouse and through the network."

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