The "broom" from the sauna was made from birch branches. They have a strong astringent quality when they are soaked and then thrashed against your skin in the sauna. The first time I got to experience that in Moscow, my friends didn't tell me what to expect. Scared the crap out of me when a big bearded naked guy, who I didn't know, came at me with bear paws filled with birch branches.
They also told me to bring along my cleanest clothes as I'd be able to feel the difference against my skin. After a few trips through the sauna/cold pool and then a hot shower I'd have to agree.
Every Russian that I ever drank with, from the wealthiest to the poorest, told me that their vodka was the purest and it wouldn't give you a hangover....including the ones that were drinking moonshine transported in tanker trucks.
Loving the ride report and looking forward to the knobbie part!