Russian Massage Therapy History

Russian massage has a long history, having been used by monks, folk medicine healers, and medicine women for centuries.  The first recorded form of manual therapy was done by the ancient Slovaks (ancestors to the Russians) at Russian-style baths called  bania (sauna), using branches of a birch tree, steam rooms, and hot and cold baths. The bania is still in use today.

At the end of the 18th century, pediatricians Drs. S. G. Zibelin (1735-1802) and N.M. Ambodik (1744-1812), thought it absolutely necessary to use manual therapy for the proper development of infants, so Russian infant massage was born.

An internal medicine physician, Dr. M. Y. Mudrov (1776-1831), is responsible for bringing the classical form of massage to Russian medicine. He believed that in treatment of any illness, manual therapy and movement are necessary for getting well.

Although used as a part of folk medicine for centuries, manual therapy or massage was not studied or used “scientifically” in Russia until 1860. The catalyst came from the interest of French physicians in hands-on treatment protocols. Russian society, which was heavily influenced by the French at the time, found it easy to adapt new French practices which included physical rehabilitation.

In 1882, a Russian physician by the name of Zabludovsky wrote a thesis on “The Principles of Massage on Healthy People”.   His paper and research were not well received due to the theory that massage was strictly for sick people.  While continuing his research, Zabludovsky published 100 more studies on massage, and later created the title “Russian Massage”.  He advocated the use of massage in therapy and developed a list of indications and contraindications.

During the early and mid 20th century, esoteric aspects of healing and was considered unacceptable to the atheistic, Communist regime. The system of Russian Healing Massage was distorted and “edited”, no longer allowed to mention energy and esoteric aspects of Russian massage tradition or the true origins of Russian healing arts. Most of the names of those who carefully carried forth ancient techniques were lost.

Manual therapy was used extensively during World War II as a part of complex rehabilitation treatment of the wounded. And in the 1950’s, the Russian Government set funds aside for its internationally competing athletes.  This was the beginning of extensive massage-related research that still continues today. When the rest of the world started studying more “advanced” forms of rehabilitation therapy (electrical stimulation, ultrasound, infrasound, etc.), Russian physical medicine did not stop its use of massage therapy in the treatment of patients or its research into the effects of massage.

Russian Massage was virtually unknown in the U.S. until the 1980s when Russian physiotherapist, Zhenya Wine, immigrated to the U.S.  She said that massage was a part of almost every treatment Russian patients and athletes received during inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation, and that it is based on more than 150 years of extensive research in Russia and the Soviet countries. Massage in Russia is prescribed like medications are in the U.S., she said.

Russian athletes still acknowledge the instrumental role massage plays in their performance and recovery, and most of them will tell you massage has prolonged their athletic ability. This has been a reason sometimes given as to why Russian athletes were so dominant in world competition in so many sports during the last half of the 20th century.

Massage is considered a scientific modality in Russia.  Every coach, physician, nurse, trainer, psychotherapist, etc. must take massage courses as part of their training.  Massage has been integrated into the medical field; working hand in hand with traditional medicine.  It continues to be heavily supported by the medical community and plays an important part in almost every physiotherapy treatment protocol for musculoskeletal, neurological, internal, cardiovascular and many other dysfunctions.

Aside from the medical use of massage therapy in Russia, there are many practitioners who still practice an ancient tradition of bodywork which includes not only physical but bio-energy strokes and techniques. This esoteric tradition in Russia has been passed down through generations but, as mentioned, was not welcome during the Communist regime when bio-energy techniques were often integrated into old traditional massage systems.