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Russian banyaAs is well known, the famous Russian banya has been an essential part of the Russian way of life since the beginning of time. It is also absolutely evident that foreigners have always been deeply amazed by the banyas of our distant ancestors. As the Arab scientist Ibn-Rusta described it in the beginning of the tenth century: "Russians often made dugouts where they lit a fire and brought the stones to a great heat. When the stones were red-hot, people threw cold water on them. As a result a hot steam filled and heated the dugout and the temperature became so high that. As a rule, foreigners noticed to their great surprise that the Russian banya differed a lot from the antique baths of Byzantium where the thoroughly heated walls warmed the dry air of the bathhouse.

The great effect of the Russian banya is based on wet steam and in particular the banya with wet steam has become the Russian tradition.
At that time the Russian banya looked like a small house with two rooms: a kind of cloakroom and the banya itself. Traditionally, Russians built their banyas on the bank of the river or lake in order to have an opportunity to bathe in the cold water while they are still piping hot. There were also a lot of public bathhouses especially in the major cities of Russia. In most cases, foreigners described in their travel notes these public bathhouses. For instance, the Austrian ambassador, Baron Augustan Mairberg wrote in 1661: "Sweating all over because of the high temperature of the banya, Russians sweat it out and beat each other with a switch made of twigs which is found in the Russian baths. Then they run out to the river and bathe themselves. In winter when the river is coated with ice, they rub themselves with snow, as if with soap, and return to the banya as quickly as possible to warm themselves".
Eventually, Russians began to build real bath-palaces with magnificent carpets, fountains, arched ceilings, marble swimming pools, and apartments furnished in the Turkish style, so that everything reminded one of the old Roman bathhouses. For example, the Voroninsky Banyas enjoyed wide popularity among their many visitors. At their disposal was a hydrotherapy section with a whole variety of different sanitary treatments. There was also an excellent restaurant where the visitors could spend their time after taking a steam bath. By the way, it was also a great place for having a heart-to-heart talk, a kind of club where people discussed the latest news over tea or drinking beer or Russian kvass.
Being the Russian tradition, the Russian banya became an important part of another famous tradition - the Russian wedding. After their first night of marriage the newlyweds had to take a steam bath, but strictly separately. In the tsar's family this tradition was kept up to the Peter's the Great time. Among the Russian folk this tradition was widespread up to the 20th century.
From the October Revolution in 1917 up to the time of perestroika the traditional Russian banya has been losing its popularity, for the new Russian banyas were designed not for the comfort of steaming but only for increasing their capacity. At that time the Russian government even made the working masses wash there but Russians did it unwillingly because the new bathhouses looked very unpleasant (they were too spacious).
These days the great Russian tradition is reviving again. Evidently, Russians can't imagine their lives without the banya.
Concerning the bathing technology of the Russian banya, not only is it different from, for instance, the bathing technology of the Finnish sauna, it is considered to be one of the best in the world. The point is that the heat capacity of the water is far more than the thermal capacity of the air. That's why the Russian banya is based on wet, but not very hot, steam. In addition, the heat regulation of the human body in many respects depends on the relative humidity. And exactly, the moist air of the Russian banya makes people perspire freely. As a result, they feel far better than, for instance, after taking a steam bath in a Finnish sauna. In order not to overheat and to wash away the sweat, Russians practice frequent but short periods of steaming in the Russian banya alternating with washing themselves off with water. For this purpose Russians also use the switches in the Russian baths that take up and brush off the sweat. But it is worth using these switches only when you perspire freely.
By the way, some time ago Russians heated their banyas with the help of an open flame. In other words, there was a special fireplace for it without an up-take flue. That's why the walls of the banya were always black. And that's why, after heating the banya in this way, it was necessary to air it out quickly through the front door. Only then would Russians enter the banya and take a steam bath, the temperature was rather high and remained permanent for a long time. Russians called this way of steaming "banya po chernomu" (black banya). Nowadays this tradition is still to be found in Russian villages.
Needless to say, the Russian banya is nothing without the switches used in Russian baths. Usually, Russians make these switches from birch and oak branches. The switches are used for massage and as antiseptic remedy, they also have property of temperature control and aromatization. There is also a nice tradition concerning the switches. After taking a steam bath, Russians return home with their switches in order to remove all doubts of their wives as to where they had been.
It is absolutely evident that besides the hygienic function, the Russian banya has a great medicinal effect. For instance, the banya helps to keep in order the strong constitution and the human cardiovascular system, respiration and respiratory systems supportive and connective tissues. The banya eases nervous tension and overwork, and stimulates the human circulation and circulatory systems.
So why don't you give it a try! Banyas can be found everywhere throughout Russia. Who knows? It might even become a tradition with you!

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