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History of Russian Bath

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Apostle Andrew wrote in 1113:
"Wondrous to relate, I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses. They warm themselves to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. They then drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. 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."

Going to bania is a very old Russian custom. From medieval limes it was popularly seen as a national institution, and not to bathe in one at least three times a week was practically taken as a proof of foreign origins.

Most villagers in Russia had a bathhouse, usually some way off from the rest of the houses in the village, where possible near water. The bathhouse had its own resident sprite, the bannik, the most hostile of the Russian domestic goblins, and was not a place to visit alone. The bannik was envisaged as a naked dwarf or a little old man. The proper time for people to use it was the five or seven hours before the midday . Only three or two bathing sessions were safe, after that it was Devil's turn and no peasant would go in after the third session or after the sundown. A site of former bathhouse was considered to be unclean, even evil and new houses were not built there.

Every noble household had its own steam house. In towns and villages there was invariably a communal bath, where men and women sat steaming themselves, beating one another, rolling around together in the snow. Because of its reputation as a place for sex and wild behavior, Peter the Great attempted to stamp out the bania as a relic of medieval Russia and encouraged the building of Western bathrooms in the palaces and mansions of St. Petersburg . But, despite heavy taxes on it, noblemen continued to prefer the Russian bath and, by the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every palace in St. Petersburg had one.

Going to the bathhouse often was, and is regarded as a way of getting rid of illnesses - it was called the "people's first doctor'"(vodka was the second, raw garlic the third). There were all types of magical beliefs associated with it in folklore. To go to bania was to give both your body and your soul a good cleaning, and it was the custom to perform this purge as a part of important rituals. Bathhouse was the place for the ritual pre-marriage bathe and for the delivery of babies. It was warm and clean and private, and in a series of bathing rituals that lasted forty days, it purified the mother from the bleeding of the birth which, according to the Church and the popular belief that held to the idea of Christ's bloodless birth, symbolized the fallen stale of womanhood. The records about the seventeenth-century Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich mention that when tsarina (his wife) went into labor, she was taken off to the bathhouse, where she remained with only her midwife and female attendants until her child was born.

The bania's role in prenuptial rituals was also to ensure the woman's purity: the bride was washed in the bania by her maids on the eve of her wedding. It was a custom in some places for the bride and the groom to go to the bath house before their wedding night. These were not just peasant rituals. They were shared by the provincial nobility and even by the court in the final decades of the seventeenth century. This intermingling of pagan bathing rites with Christian rituals was equally pronounced as Epiphany and Shrovetide ('Clean Monday'), when ablution and devotion were the order of the day. On these holy days it was customary for the Russian family, or whatever social class, to clean the house, washing all the floors, clearing out the cupboards, purging the establishment of any rotten or unholy foods, and then, when this was done, to visit the bath house and clean the body, too.