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Etiquette in Russia

  • Bring a gift to the family who invites you to their home for dinner. A bottle of wine, cake, box of candy or bouquet of flowers are traditional. A small gift for the child is always appropriate.
  • If you bring flowers, make sure the number of flowers is uneven; even numbers of flowers are for funerals.
  • Do not shake hands or kiss across the threshold of the door step; this is traditionally bad luck.
  • Take off your gloves when shaking hands.
  • Be prepared to remove your shoes upon entering a home. You will be given a pair of slippers (tapki) to help keep the apartment clean.
  • When entering or exiting a vehicle the man steps out first so as to offer his hand to the woman whom he is accompanying.
  • On public transportation, give your seat to mothers with children, the old or infirm. People will admire you.
  • Men should offer to carry the parcels of women they are accompanying.
  • Check your coat, briefcase, or parcels at the front door of a restaurant, at theaters or any formal receptions.
  • Do not cross your legs with the ankle on the knee or put your feet on the furniture. It’s impolite to show people the soles of your shoes. When in the metro or sitting on the bus, don’t let your feet even come close to the seat.
  • For business people traveling to Russia, make sure that you have plenty of business cards, one side printed in English, the other in Russian. These can be printed quickly here.
  • Offer to share your snacks and cigarettes with those around you, especially on the train or at the office.
  • Be prepared to accept smoking.
  • Be prepared to accept all alcohol and food offered when visiting friends, and it can be quite a lot. Refusing a drink or a toast is a serious breach of etiquette. An open bottle must often be finished.
  • Be prepared to give toasts at dinners, etc. Be careful, the vodka can catch up with you.
  • Dress for the theater, check your coat and any large bags at the garderob. Be on time. Absolutely no photographs.
  • Be careful in complimenting something in a home. Your host may offer it to you.
  • Don’t put your thumb between your first two fingers. It is a very very rude gesture.


Women should be accompanied by a man in restaurants and in hotels.

Women are not supposed to be assertive in public, carry heavy bags if walking with a man, open doors, uncork bottles or pay for themselves in social situations (even if they do heavy construction work or work in warehouses and are quite healthy). This custom of relying on a man makes the man look good in public.


Business people dress conservatively with good shoes. Men should not take off their jackets without asking. Dress casually for dinner in someone’s home. In cold weather, wear a hat or old ladies will lecture you on your foolishness.


In Russian Orthodox Churches women should wear a skirt and cover their heads with a scarf or hat. Men should bare their heads.


  • Do not whistle inside or you will whistle away your money.
  • Never light a cigarette from a candle. It will bring you bad luck.
  • Never pour wine back-handed, it means you will also pour away your money.
  • Never pour wine back handed, it is impolite.
  • Black cats crossing your path are bad luck.
  • Women should not sit on the corner of a table lest they wind up single for the next seven years.
  • Women who sit on cold concrete or steps will catch an internal cold.
  • If you spill salt at the table you will be plagued by bad luck unless you throw three pinches over your left shoulder immediately.
  • If someone gives good wishes, or you talk about your good fortune, you must spit three times over your left shoulder and knock on wood to keep your good fortune.
  • If you leave something behind in Russia, it means you are coming back.
  • Before leaving on a long trip, sit quietly for two minutes.

Drinking in Russia

Tea was introduced in Russia by the Mongols in the 1600’s. It is the most popular nonalcoholic drink in Russia. Tea is consumed after meals and during a mid-afternoon break. It is not considered appropriate to drink tea with a meal. A majority of Russia’s tea is imported from India and Sri Lanka. One exception is tea produced in the Krasnodar region. At the time tea came to Russia, the nonalcoholic drink of choice was sbiten.

This was a brew created from hot water, herbs and honey. Tea bags are rarely used in Russia. Loose tea is brewed in a hot teapot or by using a samovar. A strong tea, zavarka, is produced, then poured into teacups or podstakannik; glasses with metal holders.

More hot water is added to create the strength the drinker prefers.

Samovar is a uniquely Russian appliance. The samovar is brewed tea. Older, non-electric samovars used hot coals, placed in a cylinder, to heat the water. Over the centuries, styles have varied from the basic samovar to very ornate, gold plated units.

Vodka is an alcoholic beverage, distilled by using water and pure grain alcohol. It is, typically, 40% grain alcohol with a strength of 80 proof. Vodka is clear in appearance and has no particular flavor, save that of the ethanol. The alcohol is the product of the fermentation of the starch and sugar found in grains. It is not known for certain when vodka was introduced. However, it was in existence during the days of Kiev Rus’ and, as such, was first produced by the Slavs in modern Ukraine. Vodka is not aged and rarely has added flavors. It is consumed with meals and is considered to enhance the flavors of Russian cuisine.

Russians enjoy toasting throughout meals, especially respond by downing a shot of vodka. Vodka is typically consumed neat or straight and not diluted with mixers. The shot is followed by eating something salty such as a pickle, herring or bit of sausage. While this routine is a treat for the pallet, the guest who is unaccustomed to this manner of drinking will soon find himself under the table!

There are plenty of jokes about Russians and their consumption of alcohol, especially vodka. However, Russia’s problems regarding alcohol are no joking matter. The reality is that the average Russian consumes about a pint of vodka a day; or, one-half of a half liter. The reported fact that the average life expectancy of the Russia male is only 58 years, is attributed, to a great extent, to vodka.

Economics and supply and demand in modern Russia, have bred a multitude of bootleg distillers.

Samogon, or moonshine vodka, is peddled in alleys and by street vendors. Sadly, these products are distilled using ingredients and conditions that, far too often, produce fatal results. In 1996, it was estimated that anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 Russians were dying per year, from poisonous bootleg vodka. The obvious advice to the visitor is to not purchase vodka except from a reputable liquor store and to have a basic knowledge of the credible brand names. If you are invited to dinner, consider bringing the vodka. Not only will you have no need to worry as to its origins, but you will make a very positive impression on your host with this gift. By the way, a package of tea is, also, an appreciated present.

Mealtime in Russia

As in many cultures, the kitchen is the favorite or central spot of the home. Russia is not different. It is where families gather for meals, friends get together to chat over a cup of tea and welcomed guests feel the warmth of Russian hospitality.

Depending on where you are from, we refer to the three meals of the day differently. To most Americans, these are breakfast, lunch and dinner or supper. Russians start the day with breakfast or zavtrak. It is a hearty meal, unlike most Americans who either skip breakfast or just grab a quick bagel. A Russian breakfast will include a protein such as eggs, sausage, cold cuts and cheese. This is accompanied by bread and butter with tea or coffee. Hot cereals are particularly popular with mothers. Yes, Russian children get their first shot of energy from a hot bowl of oatmeal, just as most of us did! Cold, boxed cereal was introduced to Russia in the early 1990’s and is, generally speaking, found only in speciality stores.

Russians don’t have a meal called lunch. In fact, this was a generally not understood term until the early 1990’s. The second meal of the Russian day is taken about around 1 o’clock p.m. and is called obyed or dinner. This is the main meal of the day. Appetizers, or zakuski, highlight this meal. One can easily make the mistake of making a meal out of a selection from such delights as caviar ikra, pickles, smoked fish and various combinations of vegetables. Soup, or pyervoe, is a part of dinner along with the main course of meat or fish,vtoroye. The main dish is usually accompanied by a starch; potatoes, rice, noodles; and vegetables ; fresh or marinated. Finally, there is dessert!

Tretye might be cake, stewed fruit or chocolates. The evening meal is served around 7:00 p.m. or later. It is supper or uzhin. It is similar to dinner but without the soup and, often, dessert. One notable exception is, in the agricultural regions, field workers take their soup with supper and not with dinner.

Children and the elderly enjoy a mid-afternoon nap followed by a snack. Everyone, young and old, enjoys a nice cup of tea. It is the most common breakfast beverage. Orange juice is not a breakfast staple in Russia. Water or soft drinks may be served with dinner or supper. Americans would find it unusual to drink their cola at room temperature. Coffee and tea are offered at the end of these two meals. Of course, festive occasions and celebrations mean the presence of wine, vodka or cognac!

The Populace

Russians are and have always been very warm friendly people and they are generous and thoughtful hosts. Many are only acquainted with Western culture through television and film, and the chance to interact privately with a live representative of the great unknown is usually taken on with relish. It is common for people to invite you to their home where you may be wined and dined and married off to the youngest sibling.

Keep in mind that like other big cities St. Petersburg has its share of unsavory characters. You will undoubtedly notice (especially in hip bars, casinos, and clubs) large, scarred men in leather jackets with crew cuts, no necks, and calloused hands the size of basketballs. These are goons and should be left alone. The goon’s car of choice depends on his social status and his level in the goon heirarchy: rank-and-file goons cruise in black Lada four-door hatchbacks, up-and- coming goons have beat up early `80s Fords or muddy Mercedes Benzes with no license plates, and it’s best to refer to the ones in shiny new Mercedes 600s, BMW’s, or Jeeps as “your royal Goonness.

Note that Russia is an ethnic melting pot and pride in one’s ethnic identity is a growing trend, as the bloody civil wars in the south illustrate. The bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninist internationalism and the current economic hardships have likewise led to an awakening of national consciousness among Russians. This Russian national awakening manifests itself in an acute interest in versions of Russian history and culture stripped of ideological padding, as well as in a lot of finger- pointing in the direction of other nationalities as a way of explaining past and present problems. Since racial relations can be rather tense in this part of the world, try your best to be sensitive to Russians, Buryats, Tadjiks, Kalmyks, and the other 140 nationalities alike.

To use the term “Soviet” when you mean “Russian” is like asking a Canadian which state he’s from. “Soviet” is now only used as a derogatory adjective – Soviet hospital, restaurant, underwear – describing something prototypical of the Soviet era when efficiency, service, and style were unofficially banned.


Gifts are also given in order to grease wheels – whether it is to get a seat in a restaurant that is “booked solid,” a train ticket, or an office on Nevsky Prospekt. This type of gift is also known as a bribe and is a part of day to day existence. Seventy-four years of communism did too much of the working populace”s motivation what neutering does to a cat”s sex life – it”s as if their incentive to do anything but make your life difficult was surgically removed – so these little tokens serve to open all kinds of otherwise shut doors. The appropriate bribe depends on what you are trying to accomplish. A dollar or a bottle of something should conquer a doorman; on the other hand, anyone wishing to rent the Hermitage for a private party may need to give a little more. Note that the influx of consumer goods has outdated many of the old clich bribes. For instance, whereas in the old days a pack of Marlboro would stop traffic and a carton would get you a fat public works contract, nowadays they are available on every street corner and so their bribe value has greatly diminished.

Tipping was abolished after the Revolution together with good service and it will take some time for the populace to get back into both these habits again. You can do your part by tipping whenever the service merits it; rest assured that this will not bankrupt you. As to the question of whom to bestow your generosity upon, tip as you would if you were in your home country – the doorman, the cloakroom attendant, the waiter, the bartender, the cat, etc. Tour guides, drivers, and other people who spend more than a little time with you should also be tipped or presented with something.

Smoking would appear to be almost mandatory and Western visitors will most likely be aghast at Russians’ tolerant attitude towards it. Restaurants and cafes seem to feature two sections – smoking and chain smoking. Russian cigarettes are particularly foul smelling and the cheaper the brand the more pungent the aroma. The most popular revolting smelling brands you’ll encounter here are Stewardess, Kosmos, and the thoroughly repulsive, unfiltered Belomorkanal. Asking someone near you to put out a cigarette is unlikely to be met with acquiescence. Smoking is not permitted on public transport, although there are a variety of other scents, particularly during the summer, which produce more or less the same effect.

Although sexism in all its manifestations is being stamped out in the egalitarian West, its vestiges are still quite ingrained in this culture. It is considered proper for men to do such things for women as hold doors open, pour their drinks and serve their food first, assist them in and out of vehicles, light their cigarettes (even if it means rubbing two sticks together), and help them put on and take off their coats. Likewise, there exists a pretty firm concept of the difference between “women’s work” (everything) and “men’s work” (hammering a couple of nails here and there in between bottles of vodka). Most Russians understand that we have different customs and attitudes and won’t be offended if we don’t do the above things.

Russian Bania

The fact that Bania 43 could have been transported from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to Helsinki without locals knowing the difference demonstrates the striking similarities between the Russian and Finnish bathing styles. Because ritual, folklore, and even construction of both baths are so similar it is safe to assume their development has been parallel, although no records show when each culture began sweat bathing. Considering all that northern Europe has in common, it’s no wonder: cold winters (even as far south as Moscow, where the first frost comes in late September and continues until April); thickly wooded forests that provide ample wood for fuel and construction; and the hard- working peasant’s dependence on folk medicine.

No sweat bath in the world has been as well documented as the Russian bath. Finnish sauna information is meager in comparison. Early Russian chronicles commonly mention the bania, and when European journalists swarmed to Russia in the centuries following the Reformation, the Russian bath made exciting feature material to send home. The Russians became reknown for their enthusiastic bathing. In 1914, M. Hartea told the Finnish Museum Society, “In Moscow the interest in bania is greater than here in Finland. The Russians conquer us Finns as far as interest in the sauna goes.”

lf the history of the early 1900s had been different, if Russian folklore hadn’t been concealed behind a dense political curtain, the bania might have become a household word in America instead of the Finnish sauna.

The parallel development of the sauna and the bania applies only to northwest Russia. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, all types of sweat baths discussed in this book exist. In the southwest the baths are fashioned after the Islamic and Roman models. Hypocaust heating was found as far north as Kuybyshev on the Volga River. Among the nomadic tribes of central and eastern Soviet Union, portable sweat baths are used–much like the sweat lodges of the North American Indians. Sweat bathing is so popular in the USSR that even in areas where material shortages exist, as in the barren areas of Siberia, the Soviet build sweats from turf or clay. Some are dug into cliffs and given only a veneer of wood. These are called laznva. The word itself suggests the origin of the bath house as well as the means for entering it–lazit means to creep, or to descend. In these primitive sweat baths there is only a dirt floor covered with hay or straw. One of the most curious forms of sweat bathing is the baking of the body in bread ovens, a practice found throughout the USSR (more on that later).

The black bania of the northwest is the Russian equivalent to the Finnish savusauna, while the white bania refers to concrete baths in the cities. Because of the white bania, the Russian bath is often thought of as a steam bath. Low temperatures and high water concentration create steam, while high temperatures with the same water concentration will not produce visible steam. Because white banias were so heavily used by the urban Russians, it was nearly impossible to maintain a high temperature. As a result, steam filled the hot room. Travelers to Russia then brought back word of these “steamy” Russian baths.

One of the earliest descriptions of the bania comes from the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113, in describing the missionary work of the apostle, Andreas:

He descended from the hill on which Kiev was subsequently built, and continued his journey up the Dnieper. He then reached the Slavs at the point where Nogorod is now situated. He saw these people existing according to their customs, and, on observing how they bathed and drenched themselves, he wondered at them. He went thence among the Farangians and came to Rome, where he recounted what he had learned and observed.

“Wondrous to relate,” he said, “l saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after annointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they 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.”

Another mention of the bania is found in the same Chronicle, in the story of Princess Olga”s revenge for the murder of her husband, Prince Igor, by the Slavic tribe of Drevlians in 945 AD. The leader of the Drevlians had hopes of marrying the widow Olga and sent messengers to discuss the idea. “When the Drevlians arrived Olga commanded that a bath should be made ready for them, and said: “Wash yourselves and come to me.” The bath-house was heated and the unsuspecting Drevlians entered and began to wash themselves, after which Olga’s men closed the bath-house behind them and she gave orders to set it on fire from the doors, so that the Drevlians were all burned to death.”

In a 906 AD treaty between Russia and Greece, the Russians stipulated that their merchants trading in Constantinople were not given only “bread, wine, meat, fish and fruit, but also the opportunity to bathe as often as they wished.” Although the baths in Constantinople were not like the bania, they would suffice in a foreign land.

In the early 1600s, a German librarian, Adamus Olearius, visited Russia and gave this account of the bania in his book, Persian Travel Tales:

Their baths are the only thing that have any resemblance of what we call Gentile, in Muscovy (Moscow), tho’ the Publick ones are but very Indifferently fitted for that use. At Astracan I went incognito into one of them, which was only parted from another Room by a few Deal Boards, which being not well joyned, you might with ease see all what pass”s there; besides that there was but one Door for Men and Women to go out or in, some of both Sexes, who were pretty modest hiding their Privy Parts with a handful of Leaves soak’d in Water, the rest appearing stark naked; nay, some of the Women came in that posture to speak with their Husbands in our Room, without the least sign of Bashfulness.

It is most surprising thing to see them come out of such an intense degree of heat all of a sudden, and run into the cold Water, or have it poured upon them; or in the Winter wallow themselves in the snow, and so return into the stoves again; which we have also observed several times in the Finlanders, who live in Livonia, no other reason being to be assign’d for it, than a Custom, which being turned into a Habit, they are not sensible of these opposite Qualifications of Heat and Cold as other People are; for we made this observation at Narva, That the Muscovite Boys of 8, 9, or 10 years of age would stand for half an Hour together bare-footed upon the Ice, without ever complaining of Cold. The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powdered, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent. The Seats or Benches which are along the Walls placed one above the other, that one may take what degree of Heat one pleases, are covered with clean Sheets and Pillows filled with Hay; upon these you lie down to Sweat, every one having a Servant Maid, who only in her Smock, Rubs, Washes and Wipes you. As soon as she comes in, she presents you with some Radish and Salt; and if you be a particular friend, the Mistress of the House, or her Daughter, brings you a composition of Wine and Beer, with some crub’d bread, Limon Slices, Sugar and grated Nutmeg.

Olearius also described the luxurious banias of the Czar’s Kremlin benches upholstered with leather and thick pillows strewn across the floor. Rather than jumping in a lake or tumbling in the snow after bathing, a person of nobility would retire to a cooling room with wall-to-wall mirrors and a servant waving stork-feather fans.

From then until the turn of the 20th century, Russian bathing was a favorite topic of visitors to Russia. Casanova in 1774, Tooke in 1779, Porter in 1809, Cox in 1884–the list is endless. Europe, having forgotten its own bathing past, became attracted to the spectacle of whole villages bathing together, the extravagance of the czars.

Bannik, the Spirit of the Bania

Medieval Europe had its bath house fairies, Finland’s sauna was the home for elves, the North American Fox lndians had Manitou in their sweat lodges, and the Russians bania was the haunt of the Bannik.

Unlike other sweathouse spirits, the Russian Bannik had a mischievous streak and rarely did anyone good. Bannik was described by rare witnesses as an old man with hairy paws and long nails. He lived behind the stove or under the benches and revealed himself only when he was unhappy with the bath or if someone had been disrespectful. Often it was the newcomer who received his wrath. If Bannik became angry, watch out! Bathers were known to have lost their skin and had their bodies wrapped around the stove for loud singing, talking or swearing in the bath–or simply for being a stranger. You were wise not to lie or boast, and certainly not to have sexual intercourse in the bath! Red hot rocks and boiling water have also been known to be thrown by a displeased Bannik.

To protect yourself from the Bannik, etiquette required making the sign of the cross before entering the bania, wishing your comrades a good bath and, when leaving, wishing the Bannik a hearty goodbye. Since the Bannik liked a clean room and bathed at least once a week, cleaning and heating the bania were duties that could not be neglected. The Bannik could control the quality of steam and could transform harmless steam into deadly coal gas if he wasn’t satisfied.

The third or fourth round of bathing was always reserved for the Bannik who liked to bathe alone in the dark. Soap, lye, and birch twigs were left behind for him. And a little extra because the Bannik sometimes invited his forest friends to join him–sometimes the Devil himself.

You knew when the Bannik had his friends in by the purring noise of their conversation. This was never a time to enter a bania alone. However, if you were curious and wanted to see the bania spirit, you had to go alone. You would step in with one leg and at the same time take your cross off your neck and put it under the heel of your left foot which symbolized your denial of God. The Bannik might then reveal himself.

From time to time, Bannik expected a sacrifice. After an old bania had been burned down and before a new one could be erected, a black chicken had to be choked and buried under the building site. Then, to assuage the rascal, salt was thrown over the stove during the first heating of the bania.

The bania also housed benevolent supernatural forces. Witches and sorcerers gathered in the bania to estahlish a link with these superior powers and here, surrounded by the magic forces of the bania, evil could be extracted from the body and the future prophesized.

The magical attributes of the sweat bath were the reason that the critical stages of a Russian’s life–birth, adulthood, marriage, and death–were conducted in the bania. The moment a person moved from the known to the unknown, they were vulnerable to evil forces that could enter and consume the Russian soul. With proper ritual, the bania’s powers could be summoned to protect the Russian during life’s crucial transitions.

The Birth Bania

The bania was ideal for a Russian woman giving birth–if the Bannik did not interfere. The midwife’s job was not only to assist with the birth, but also to keep the Bannik from interfering. One ruse was to dip four stones from the oven in water and throw them into a corner while muttering, “Into the corner with you stones! And smack the Devil in the forehead!” If this was not enough to repel evil, she scooped water from a bucket and lifted her hands to her face. She then chanted, “Just as this water slides off my arms, so should the evil eye slide off the servant of the Lord” (then she said the name of the pregnant woman). After she had scooped 27 handfuls of water and chanted 27 times, she took water in her mouth and sprayed the mother. After birth, the woman beat herself with birch twigs and washed herself. With help and support from the old ones who had assisted in the birth, the mother went through the same ritual with the new- born child.

Tereschenko, a 19th century Russian writer, wrote, “This custom (of giving birth in the bania) was not only followed by women of the Bojar (the nobility), but also among the Royal families.”

The Wedding Bania

After the groom had lifted his new wife over the threshold of the bania (a precaution taken because stillborn children were buried there and the groom did not want his first born to suffer the same fate), they undressed and tossed water on the rocks. Outside, wedding guests threw rocks and pottery at the bania to scare away the lurking Bannik. Among all the cries of “good luck!” a guest might have cracked, “Remember a couple that sweats together, stays together!” Whether or not sweating had anything to do with creating a viable marriage, at least the Russian Church sanctified it as one of the few permissible pagan rituals of the bania. The purification ritual began the night before with both the bride and groom taking separate banias.

Records of the groom’s night-before bania show more a cheerful, drunken fling rather than a solemn ceremony. The bride-to-be’s bania was heated with birch, pine or Siberian cedar, but never aspen for it was regarded as a sorrowful tree. During the bath she was expected to use the engagement present from the groom-a fresh birch whisk and a piece of soap. Her sweat was collected by pouring milk over her body and then dough was plastered over her. Later the dough was kneaded and made into bread and cakes to be served at the wedding feast. The bride-to-be’s sweat mixed with vodka, wine, and grains were poured on the bania rocks to enhance the scent. Honey and hops were added to give the bride-to-be a rich sweet life.

Occasionally a poor peasant family would not have a regular bania, but so important was the wedding bania that the household baking oven would be used instead. Before all the cakes and breads had been prepared, the oven was cleaned and the bride-to-be was shoved in on a wooden platter. The door was sealed from the outside while she sweated and washed alone.

A peasant’s wedding is described by an Irish woman who visited Russia in 1805:

The Bride elect dissolved in tears sat at the top of a Table (previous to the bathing business) which was laid out with emblematic Fruits. Presently after the Bridegroom presented her with her Toilet and then disappear’d & was conducted to his bath by his Companions! This Toilette consisted of every necessary article together with Rouge & white paint. A group of girls then set up what sounded like a sort of Requiem call’d Pesui Swad bachnia! (She goes on to describe the song.)

We then attended her to the Bath with all her young Companions amounting to between 30 and 40 Girls who assisted in undressing her in the outer Chamber & then led her in a flood of tears naked to the Bath. They then took off their own Cloaths-after scouring her to their hearts’ content danced round about in all their National Dances, clapping their hands & drinking Wine which was dispensed by another Eve who sat with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other, her long tresses falling down about her shoulders which like all the others was the only Covering they could boast….

I believe we stay’d above an hour at the Bath which became the most festive scene imaginable. They Colour’d themselves for the sport in the most ridiculous manner and sang & danced like a Troop of Bacchanals while the Bride continued mute and in a flood of tears. At length she was conducted back to the House & again took her seat at the Table while all her Companions sang (another song).

After several trifling ceremonies the whole affair ended in a very handsome Supper, the next day the Couple was married . . .

The Death Bania

Early Russian writers described the requium bania. To properly prepare a Russian soul for its journey to the next land, a pillow was stuffed with birch leaves and the coffin was sprinkled with birch twigs. Ihe soul would then be equipped with a vennik for banias in the afterlife. Once the coffin was buried, the grave site was visited periodically and fresh venniks were left. By bathing together after the funeral, mourners were assured that the beloved soul would be warmed for its long journey. The communal bath also affirmed their own lives and helped them overcome their grief.

Forty days after death, the bania was again visited by friends and relatives of the deceased. If a farmer died, his daughter would sing this song while everyone was gathered in the bania:

Come my breadwinner and nourisher, my father,
Your orphans have heated the bania for you,
our nourisher, our father,
The lye is ready,
The spring water warm,
And a satin white birch stick is ready,
Comne nourisher, our father,
With no restraints or reservations,
Do not complain how the bania was heated,
or how you were prepared for,
Come promptly to us our father for a pleasant night,
We have intoxicating wine,
And we have distilled fresh brandy.

From a Christian point of view, the ritual of death bania was an object of mockery, as an ancient chronicle testifies: ” … but many people as a result from their blindness from evil place milk, meat, eggs for the dead on holy Thursday. They make a fire in the oven and toss water on the rocks after which they call out, ‘Wash ye spirits!’ They even take forth shirts and towels for the use of the dead. But the devil laughs at this stupidity and sneaks in and rolls around in the ashes, leaving tracks like a chicken. In this way they are deceived–the blind idiots. When the people see the tracks in the ashes they say, ‘Ah, the person’s spirit has come and bathed!’ and then the devil laughs.”

Health and the Bania

Pushkin wrote in 1832, “The Russian does not change his clothing on a journey, and when he reaches his destination, he is like a pig himself. Then he takes a bania- -the bania is like the Russian’s second mother.” The Russian arrives home from a long trip bone weary and with smells of the barnyard on him. He goes to his second mother for rejuvenation, warmth, and a bath. She restores him to a state of glowing health.

In Russia, sweating and health are virtually synonomous. From 1877 to 1911, more than 30 medical dissertations were published in Russia about the healing powers of the bania. Even today the attitude of the bania as a panacea is found in remote villages where the traditional folk medicine prevails.

In the 1700s and 1800s, visitors to Russia usually appreciated the healing powers of the bania, and the Russians’ repute as some of the hardiest peoples was spread throughout Europe. The Englishman William Tooke, a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, observed in 1799: “There are but few peculiar diseases prevalent among the Russians, and against most of them they know how to guard themselves by simple diet and domestic remedies. The women everywhere bring forth (give birth) with great facility, and usually in the bathrooms; the number of still-born children is therefore, in comparison with other countries, extremely small…

“In general, the common Russian uses but few medicines; supplying their place in all cases by the SWEATING BATH, a practice so universal among them, and which has so decided an influence on the whole physical state of the people…

“It is not to be doubted that the Russians owe their longevity, their robust state of health, their little disposition to certain mortal diseases, and their happy and cheerful temper, mostly to the baths …”

Fourteen years later, Edward Kentish, a physician to the Bristol Dispensary in England, wrote: “All exanthematic diseases are abated by bathing: consequently, then, the small-pox; and if this dreadful disorder be actually less fatal in Russia than in other countries this phenomonon needs not to be attributed to any other cause than their great use of vapour Baths. Doctor Sanchez appears to be of the same opinion, from what he has said on the small pox, and other eruptive diseases. He likewise observes that all indispositions, arising from violent exercise, producing chills, with all the attendant bad consequences; that inflamations of any part of the body, even if attended with external or internal tumours, and fever; may be successfully combatted by the Russian Baths: also in all chronic diseases, arising from excesses of eating and drinking and the gratifying of other inordinate pleasure, which debilitate and ennervate both the body and mind, the attentive physician will find considerable aid in the use of the Russian Baths …”

Sweat bathing was so important in Russia that if a regular bania was not at hand, a person would climb into a cooking oven. This was common in southern Russia, but also occurred in the north and in Finland as well. A St. Petersburg man wrote this description of oven bathing in 1856:

The bather creeps into the oven when it is quite hot, usually after bread has been baked. He spreads an even layer of straw on the oven floor. Taking with him a birch whisk that has been soaking in hot water, a pail of water, beer and some linen rags, the bather enters and calls to those outside to seal the opening. With the rags he splashes water on the walls, and with the birch he beats himself, especially in those places where he itches. When the procedure is completed, he creeps out of the oven and pours cold water over himself. Then he retreats into the house where he finds a bench on which to rest. If, by any chance, he still itches, he creeps back into the oven and takes a second or sometimes a third bath. Poor elderly people and those who have dirty jobs, such as chimney sweeps, painters, dyers, and so on, bathe in the oven bath. It is not at all unusual for the attendant to a sick person, with the best of intentions, to have fired up the oven so hot that the invalid died from the heat. During one year in the 19th century over 300 such accidents were noted in one of the provinces.

As you can see, the spacious ovens made excellent sweat baths for the single bather; however, the social character of such baths were lacking, so the Russians prefered the communal bania. Nevertheless, occasional edicts and taxes were imposed on the bania bathers, but as a rule in Russia, neither the laws nor the lawmakers lasted too long. During the 17th century, a decree prohibited the use of the bania during the summer by all except the nobility, the infirm, or the pregnant. Ostensibly enacted to reduce the danger of fire, the law was rescinded two years later in 1649. During the reign of Peter I, a special bania tax bureau was created to collect a duty from all bania- operating farmers–the charge was double what they already paid. During this same time, farmers in the Moscow area were required to donate 3,000 bathing whisks for the Kremlin’s private banias. But, since the bania was recognized as a pacifier for the masses, those in power were careful not to push the peasants past the limits of loyalty. Generally, the bania was encouraged throughout the realm, and the presiding noblemen’s responsibility was that every village in their domain had enough banias for the people.

The Church often accused the bania as a hot bed of sin and loose morals. But cries from the Church were usually muffled by the clergy’s own promiscuous bathing habits. Such flagrant hypocrisy leads one to believe that the Russians took the Church seriously–at least until the 19th century. Ivan the Terrible called a church meeting in the 1500s to discuss lax mores. At this meeting Ivan asked, “In the city of Pskow, men and women, and monks and nuns are bathing together without the least shame and in the same room. Should this custom be forbidden when we consider that according to the laws of the holy father, not even a married man and his wite be permitted to bathe together?” The clerics, somewhat red-faced, confessed that, yes, indeed, if’it is unholy for men and women to bathe together, it certainly is wrong for monks and nuns to bathe together.

Catherine of St. Petersburg issued the following edict: ” … especially in those rooms which are meant for women, no men may be allowed in except employees (of the bania), artists and doctors who wish to study and improve themselves in their art.” As you can well imagine, dillettantes of the arts and medicine flourished, and coed bathing continued.

When Robert Porter visited Moscow in 1809, he found coed bathing quite popular. In a letter to a friend in England he wrote:

The spirit of investigation led us to the foot of the hospital, where we found a couple of baths prepared for the reception of bathers. These purifying reservoirs being the hot-baths, consisted of low wooden buildings with small openings in their sides, whence issued a thick muddy stream, flowing from the first washings of the natives and in which they still laved their grease-encrusted bodies as they sallied forth to enjoy the cooling waves of the river. As we approached these cleansing elevations we beheld the waters that rolled from under their foundations filled with naked persons of both sexes who waded or swam out from the bath in great numbers, without anv consideration of delicacy or decency. From motives of gallantry we posted ourselves opposite the ladies, the better to observe the grace and nymph-like beauty of their groups. To say that they did not blush would be to belie them; for certainly their skins were of the brightest pink: but it was a spontaneous glow; not the sensitive Rush of shame; for they look around with all the sang froid of females fully apparelled. And in this Eve-ish state, with a wooden pail in one hand, and a huge bunch of umbrageous birch twigs in the other, they descended the steps into the river. Picture yourself with nearly a hundred naked naiads, flapping, splashing, and sporting in the wave with all the grace of’ a shoal of porpoises!

The famous Giovanni Casanova, was especially surprised by the Russian attitude toward nudity. In 1774 he visited Moscow accompanied bv Zaira, a woman he had bought f’or 1000 rubles in St. Petersburg. He wrote, “In May, Zaira had become so beautiful I decided to take her along on my trip to Moscow. On Saturday I went with her to the Russian bath. There were thirty to forty people there, all of them quite naked. But since no one looks at anyone else, one does not have any f’eeling of’ being observed naked. This lack of’ a f’eeling of’ shame comes from a kind of inborn innocence which these people have.”

The Bania after the Russian Revolution

Shortly after the Revolution, Lenin’s government and the Bureau of Health began providing communal banias in all parts of the country. The Russian book, Why Banias are Necessary Both in the City and in the Country, and How to Build One, published in 1920,contained plans for banias that could hold from five to twenty-six bathers.

One of the early concerns of the new government was sanitation. During the Revolution, hygiene was neglected, and disease spread rapidly. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1970 mentions bath houses as disinfectant stations:

The construction of bath houses in USSR is carried out according to standard layouts accommodating 5 to 300 people in the cities and 10 to 50 people in settlements and rural localities. Depending on their arrangement, bath house may be classified as ordinary, disinfection center type or combination bath house; buildings furnished only with showers–known as shower baths–which are sometimes installed in summer pavillions are also built. Modern bath houses may have swimming pools, rooms for physical therapy, and disinfection chambers. So-called steam rooms, in which the temperatures reach from 40 to 50 degrees Celsius and the relative humidity is approximately 90%, are also widespread. In some bath houses there are separate rooms with dry heat. The layout of the bath house depends on its purpose.

In bath houses of the disinfection center type, which are intended for sanitary processing, the bathers’ dirty clothes are disinfected and clean underwear is issued. During the Great Patriotic War, bath trains, dugout baths, and protable shower installations were widespread.

As in Finland, industrialization had an effect on bathing practices in the Soviet Union. On the one hand the demographic shift from the rural to the urban settings carried strong traditional influence to the cities. The bania was so ingrained to the peasants’ lifestyle, that when families moved to the city they took bania customs with them. However, this migration created densely populated cities and acute housing shortages. With basic living room, kitchen and bedroom at a premium, the communal bania was placed low on the construction industry’s priority list. An American journalist visiting Moscow in 1965 described the state of affairs in Helsingin Saunomat, Finland’s largest newspaper. “In Moscow there are constant complaints that the old banias are not maintained or repaired, and no new ones are being built. The Russians enjoy their steam bath as much as the Finns enjoy their sauna. Even before 8:00 AM when the bania doors open, the customers are queued up outside the bania, and the queue lasts until closing time.” Even though the demand is great, the Soviets have concentrated their construction energies in housing projects and industry. This accounts for the fact that no new banias have been built in Leningrad or Moscow since World War II.

What is unusual about Russians?

  • Every country has its own appropriate and not appropriate topics: something one may or may not talk about. Russia is not any different.
  • People here may ask you very personal questions about your life, earnings, and relationships – something you may be not quite prepared to answer. Try not getting angry and do not shy away: they are sincere and just do not know that you are not used to such types questions. What is strange though is that people would not talk or would avoid conversations about their body or the way it functions. Women in an open conversation should avoid mentioning anything related to solely their problems. Very often not only in talks with men but with the not quite known female as well.
  • Complete strangers, mostly the senior generation, often offer unsolicited advice on a wide range of topics usually having to do with health. Be tolerant with them and view them as it is a part of culture.
  • Never kiss your girl on her forehead. Kissing someone on their forehead is reserved for funerals. Kissing a loved one at the funeral reception is a tradition.
  • Never send even number of roses. Even numbers are reserved for death and considered bad luck if someone gives you an even number while you are alive.
  • Exchanging money with retailers. It’s a tradition for you to hand the money to the cashier but do not expect the cashier to count the money back to you or offer to hand you back your money. Russians receive your money and return your change to a small trey where you can count your money.
  • It’s a Russian tradition to drink! Anytime is a good time to justify a drink or two. Its customary to go to a friends house for a routine visit and have a drink. Holidays or special events usually warranty everyone showing up to the party with a bottle or two.
  • If you get married in Russia it’s a tradition for the brides mother to hand you and your bride a loaf of bread at your wedding reception. Whoever can take the largest bite becomes the head of the household. Usually this is to the man’s advantage.
  • Take off your shoes before you enter a house (residence). Russians do not wear shoes inside the home except for house shoes. Even if you are going to someone else’s home you will still need to remove your shoes before you enter their home. Most Russians have several pair of guest shoes at their home for visitors. If they do not have enough extra house shoes for guests it’s normal to enter the room without shoes.

Customs and traditions

On the plane or in the arrivals hall of the airport you will be requested to fill in a customs declaration form. You are advised to declare all the currency that you bring into the country and on the back any particularly valuable items that you are carrying, such as very expensive jewellery items. If you have more than $1500 in cash, you should go through the red “to declare” channel and get your customs form stamped by a customs officer (especially if you are intending to leave Russia with a large amount of cash). If not, then you may proceed through the green channel. However, in any case be sure to keep your customs declaration form as you may be asked for it when leaving the country.

On leaving, if you have less than $1500 you may progress through the green “nothing to declare” channel. It is illegal to take more than $1500 out of the country without a special certificate.

If you buy an original piece of art, icon (normally never allowed for export), balalaika (other than the toy type mass produced ones) or similar object, make certain that you get a legitimate(!) receipt and a signed and stamped certificate (no less legitimate too!) to say that it is not an antique for customs purposes. The frequent problem may be to be able to tell the right certificate from the bogus one: Do not buy it then, unless you really want to run the risk of ultimately losing it at customs.

Food in Russia.

If you are staying with a Russian family and eat what the other members of your host family eat, you will most likely have a bit more food with calories and fat rather than what you have back home. Very often, when it is winter or early spring, there won’t be a lot of fresh vegetables or fruits in your daily meals, but rather sausage, bread, soups, plenty of potatoes and dairy products.

A main meal in Russia will usually consist of soup, perhaps some salad and a main meat/vegetable dish followed by tea. Russians drink a lot of tea, usually often with no milk but with sugar, sometimes lemon. It is customary to have something sweet with tea, such as biscuits, cake, jam (eaten by the spoonful!) or sweets.

There are vegetarians in Russia. Not too many, probably though. Being one is not hard: your environment will be tolerant to your choices.

Eating out in Russia can cost a lot of money if you choose to eat in the centre of a city in Western style restaurants. Check out the prices first. There are however many other places to eat although these are best found with someone who knows their way around and the language.

Healthcare in Russia

If you have stomach problems or have caught a cold, you won’t have great difficulties buying medicine to treat them while in Russia. A pack of 10 tablets against stomach ache or cold (provided being Russian made) should not cost you more than 20-40 Roubbles.

If you have more serious problems, it is wise to know somebody, who is Russian and who can take you to a doctor, the one he or she knows, who in one’s turn will assist you for either free of a token of payment. No insurance helps much in Russia, strictly speaking.

Religion in Russia

The Russian society is generally tolerant towards various religions. Buddists, Christians, Muslims, Jews – all of them practice their religions freely and very often live just across the street. When in Russia, one most of the time has the feeling of a wide acceptance of other’s values and should not worry too much if he or she will not be properly understood from the values and perceptions point of view.

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