One of the most popular Russian customs is visiting a bathhouse (banya). Vladimir Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary claims that the word banya is derived from the verb banit’ (to wash or clean with water). In the Russian bathhouse, people “wash and soak themselves in both the dry heat and steam vapours.” In the early eighteenth century, a traveller wrote: “Russians are as accustomed to washing in the bathhouse as they are to food and drink. They use the bathhouse as a form of treating any ailment.”

Traditional Russian bathhouses were built from wooden logs. The construction of stone bathhouses only began in the nineteenth century, when public bathhouses became widespread in the towns and cities. The inside of the bathhouse is divided into two parts – the changing room (predbannik) and the steam room (parilka). This layout still survives today.

The traditional procedure for visiting a bathhouse was established over the centuries. First of all, the men experienced the intense heat of the steam room, followed by the women and children. People also visited the bathhouse as a family.

Steaming was as important as washing. This was done with the help of birch besoms, which were used to beat the naked skin. Hot water was sprinkled onto the stove, often mixed with bread kvas or aromatic grass extracts.

The bathhouse was an important element in traditional wedding ceremonies. Pre-nuptial ablutions were held in the houses of both the bride and the groom, symbolising the purification of the marriage. Even the Russian aristocracy and sovereigns used the bathhouse during the wedding ceremony, both for washing and for banqueting.

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