Maslenitsa, another Russian festival you’ve probably never heard of

Out with the old and in with the new! The celebratory burning of The Maslenitsa doll symbolizes the end of a harsh winter and the coming of a fruitful spring.

Out with the old and in with the new! The celebratory burning of The Maslenitsa doll symbolizes the end of a harsh winter and the coming of a fruitful spring.

Mass consumption of thin, buttery, crepe-like pancakes. Folklore and traditional costumes. Drinking, singing, and dancing. Sleigh rides and snowball fights. The burning of a scarecrow-like figurine dressed in women’s clothing.

What’s not to love, right?

These activities are all characteristic of an annual Russian festival called Maslenitsa (roughly translated to Butter Week/Holiday).

This holiday has roots in both paganism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity and is celebrated the week before Great Lent begins. For people who are avid believers in the Orthodox religion, this is the last week that they can consume any type of meat, fish, dairy, or eggs, as it is forbidden for the entire length of Great Lent.

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Freshly fried blini stacked high!

Because of this religious tradition, it’s not a surprise that, arguably, the most important part of Maslenitsa is the mass consumption of blini. Blini, or blitzes, are ultra-thin, crepe-like pancakes made from mixing flour, eggs, and milk (recipe to follow). These blini are then fried in butter, stacked on top of each other (with more butter in between the layers), and are then stuffed or served with a wide range of options like meats, cheeses, potatoes, mushrooms, sour cream, jams, caviar, etc. The possibilities are endless. The blini is supposed to be a representation of the sun, hence why they are the top choice for a festival celebrating the coming of springtime.

Sounds delicious? It is. Blini are an absolute Russian staple and every family makes them differently, whether it’s using kefir (a fermented milk drink) instead of milk, using buckwheat flour instead of white or wheat flour, or mixing a bit of sunflower oil into the batter itself to make the flavor a bit richer (a personal favorite of mine, yum!).

Okay, where were we again? Oh yes, Maslenitsa. Although the blini take center stage, there is so much more to the holiday. In ancient Slavic mythology, Maslenitsa was celebrated to signify the end of winter and the blossoming of springtime (hence the pagan roots). The burning of the lady scarecrow made out of straw is supposed to symbolize the awakening of spring and all of its life-giving glory. And, like many other Russian holidays, especially ones occuring during the winter months, celebration always includes a nice shot of vodka (or 6) or a cup of medovukha (a honey-based alcoholic drink similar to mead) to keep you warm.

Celebrating the Russian way--with lots of vodka.

Participants keep warm in the snowy climate by sipping some vodka.

When Maslenitsa was celebrated during the time that the entirety of Russia was still known as Kievan Rus, young single guys would ride around on sleighs in order to be on the lookout for beautiful single girls. This apparently made the matchmaking process easier and paved the way for these new couples to marry on Krasnaya Gorka (translated as the Red Hill holiday, the Sunday after Easter).

I wish that I could include some warm childhood memories of the celebration of Maslenitsa from my childhood in Russia, but, it just so happens that Maslenitsa was vastly not celebrated during the entire length of the Soviet regime and for many years afterward. Russians now celebrate Maslenitsa by keeping old traditions and introducing new ones into the mix. A fellow blogger, Olga Arakelyan, writes that in some modern Maslenitsa celebrations, people are invited to write down their worries on a piece of paper and stick them on the Lady Maslenitsa so that when she is burned, so are your troubles!

According to the “Voices from Russia” blog, Moscow’s Gorky Park will feature a Maslenitsa festival this year. However, Eileen from “From Russia With Love” states that she has not seen any large city-wide celebrations in her current city (and my hometown) of Rostov-On-Don. She believes that the larger celebrations tend to be in the rural areas rather than metropolitan cities.

Traditional Russian songs, festivals, etc. are making a comeback in recent years and the celebration of holidays like Maslenitsa are a fun and unique way to celebrate Russian culture.

All bundled up, a group of Russian kiddos getting ready for a sleigh ride.

All bundled up, a group of Russian kiddos are getting ready for a sleigh ride.

Maslenitsa doesn’t just occur in Russia, however. Every year, Mizzou’s very own Nicole Monnier, the director of Undergraduate Studies in Russian, holds a “blini night” in her home in order to celebrate this delicious holiday with the Russian community and Russian studies students of Columbia. This year, she says, she will be expecting about 50 people.

I was going to include a recipe for my very own version of blini, but upon realizing that I never use precise measurements when I make these (I prefer to simply throw the ingredients in the bowl and taste-test the batter to make sure it’s the perfect consistency and right contrast of salty and sweet), I have decided to include a link to a recipe instead.

Whether you’ll be burning a scarecrow on a Russian field or simply frying up some blini in your 9×8′ Columbia kitchen and stuffing them with fried potatoes (me), I hope you find a way to celebrate this ancient holiday. Приятного аппетита!