With deep cultural associations that date to pagan times, the steam bath or banya was once an integral part of Russian rural life; however, with increased urbanization, banya has become a rarity. Today, its primary function has changed from an essential tool of personal hygiene to a social institution that aims to provide entertainment and opportunities for social interaction. Traditional Russian banyas had an accompanying set of particular practices including the shapka or felt hat, venik (birch, oak, or eucalyptus branches used to increase blood circulation), and aromatherapy. Taking the steam was seen as a social activity, a cure for common ailments, and a form of personal hygiene. In the Soviet Union, banyas ceased being private spaces and became a common area where individuals had an opportunity to engage in conversation, drink tea, and even conduct business transactions. In post-Soviet Russia, it became common for the mafia to use banyas as meeting places so as to avoid police or FSB surveillance. After 2000, many banyas in Russian cities either closed or became health spas and beauty centers. The Sandunovskie banyas in Moscow are an example of a traditional establishment that now also includes swimming pools, superb restaurants, and luxurious spa treatments.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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