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.


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!

The tale of Moscow’s subway

Once upon a time, in the year of 1902, in a far-away land, there lived two brave men, Pyotr Balinski and Evgeny Knorre. Pyotr and Evgeny were two young, skillful engineers. One day, these two enthusiastic engineers told the fairy tale of a path to the world beneath daylight through an “underground metro” to the highly ranked people of Moscow: the Moscow City Duma. The Duma consisted of very wealthy rich men. They have never had to experience the traffic of their busy city and never had problems going anywhere. And, of course, they did not approve of the two young men’s foolish idea; Nevertheless, Pyotr and Evgeny did not back down. They persisted, and after five proposals, the Duma finally approved. Eventually, in the year 1935, the first metro opened.

That is, however, not even near the end of the tale of Russian underground life. When the doors of the subway first opened, it was like a gate into the most readily available and accessible transportation for the city’s population. Anyone trying to get to work and from school, in any weather and at any time, would now be enjoying their trips in a “luxurious palace for the people” instead of dirty buses and trolleys. The vivid images of Stalin, portrayed as mosaics and tile panels, covered the ceilings and walls of this new level of the Moscow city which was meant to be an ideological move to eulogize the young Soviet country.

The same artists that designed and created the original interior of this new underground world were the same ones to invent the mosaic icons for the St. Petersburg Church of the Savior of Blood.

Stalin's portrait as a mosaic in Moscow's metro

Stalin portrayed in mosaic form in one of Moscow’s metro stations


Bronze sculptures of workers, soldiers, and other every-day Soviet people are portrayed in 76 bronze sculptures throughout different stations. Any average person who will now be using the newly invented transportation will now have these wonderful works of art to relate to while they travel. There are even some small good luck charms incorporated into these sculptures for the superstitious travelers and other believers.

lucky dog in Moscow's metro

Rub the dog’s nose and have good luck!


The architecture took quite a few twists and turns throughout history ever since the first trains welcomed some daring passengers. This diverse history is exactly what makes Moscow’s subway as unique, abstract, and amazing as it is. With Stalin’s death in 1953, all of his art depictions were completely removed, the metro was renamed after Lenin and the images of Lenin completely replaced everything from the years past. In 1955, the metro went from its grand baroque style of the Stalinist era to the complete elimination of extravagance in design and construction, which was decreed by the Communist party: this ensured that everything built in that period, both above and below ground, was bland and boring. In 2002, the 30s and 40s architecture was reintroduced along with portrayals of book characters and scenes from popular authors such as Dostoyevsky.

Metro station

metro station

metro station
another view of an original metro station

The metro went from being merely an idea, a fairy tale, to 11km underground with 13 stations, to 300km with 12 lines and 182 stations, to monorail tracks, and now plans of over 120 more kilometers to be built.

The expanding underground world is also looking to become safer. The Moscow underground railways have been repeatedly bombed and attacked in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, numerous times in 2004, and 2010; along with smaller crimes and attacks happening monthly. The statistics are shocking. In hopes of alleviating such threats,  authorities are attempting to adopt new security technology. Just recently, news about VibraImage 7.5, a “new smart video surveillance system which automatically identifies potential threats, such as aggravated and distressed passengers” were reported on The Voice of Russia; this will hopefully help the city authorities prevent crime and terrorist acts which have been  killing thousands and scaring millions of people of this world.

Not only does the safety of the metro have a promising future, but designs of the new stations, additions, and renovations are making even me want to go back and re-visit. Some twitters link to the future of Moscow’s metro:



And, indeed, new designs of some of the new stations are quite “pretty” and do contain “badass hipsters”:

Farganskaya station project B

Ferganskaya station project B

Uhtomskaya poject B

Uhtomskaya project B

Okskaya project B

Okskaya project B

This isn’t the end of the story, either, and there’s always room for improvement, but for now, I’m going to leave it at that. And as the Russian folk tales usually end…

“They lived happily ever after

And that is my faithful tale’s end, while he who listened is my own true friend…”

Tea Time in Russia

Typically, people in the U.S. consider England to be the major tea drinking country in Europe, but in 2005 a study found that 82 percent of Russians drink tea daily.

(Interesting side note: evidence shows this is causing an iron deficiency among women and children. Tea contains tannins, which reduces iron absorption into the body).

Normally, black tea is the tea of choice for Russians, but green tea has been growing in popularity.

Tea drinking in Russia dates back to 1638 when Mongols introduced the drink to the area. Since then, most likely thanks to Russia’s cold climate, tea has remained a popular drink Russia.

In Moscow, there is even the Moscow Tea Museum. There, a “tea master,” hosts tea ceremonies for visitors. A team master is responsible for knowing how to prepare the water. Also, they need to know all about the six different kinds of teas – where they grow, how they are gathered and how they can influence people.

Most importantly, the tea master is in charge of creating the necessary tea atmosphere. The goal is to immerse the tea drinker in the ambience, and to create a strong emotional reaction while drinking the tea.

What separates Russian tea culture from others is the brewing process. They use a two-step brewing process. The first step involves brewing a portion of dry tea in a small teapot. The second step involves pouring the brew into teacups, allowing each drinker to add as much or as little water as wanted (so each drinker can make their tea just as strong as they would like to).

The Pleasure and Pain of a Russian Ballerina

Since the Christmas season is here, many families will be purchasing Nutcracker tickets. Today a ticket to Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker is approximately $75 for average floor seats. I would not say this is terribly expensive, but it also is not terribly cheap, and it would make a nice Christmas gift. To see what cities the Moscow Ballet will be touring, visit their site.

As you can see from the video, Russian Ballerinas train their whole lives in hopes of one day being able to perform on a large scale in front of hundreds of audience members. They feel a rush of adrenaline when in front of such a crowd. This can be the equivalent of what a Broadway Star feels like when they finally get a lead role in a Broadway play.

Ballet has been a part of Russian culture for decades. Spectators from all around the world attend Russian Ballets to appreciate the beauty and grace in which these dancers perform. The original purpose of the ballet was to entertain the royal court, but there were areas called “райok” or “heaven” that consisted of wooden benches. These tickets were inexpensive and anyone who could afford one was able to watch.

This blogger comments on the techniques of pointe and what dancers could do to minimize pain. Yet this blogger, who is a ballerina training for a tour talks about the physical pain that dancers often times have to go through.

You are at a point where you cannot retreat, compromise, hesitate, you just have to go on and DO IT, overcoming yourself if necessary.

This ballerina lives in Moscow and her blog is like a journal about what goes on behind the scenes. She also discusses how everyone knows everything about each other behind the stage. I guess a great part of it is because the dancers spend all of their time together rehearsing.

News here travel faster than light –  you can trust the artistic director to know everything before it even occurs. Are you pregnant? In a new relationship? Planning to quit? Fractured your bone? He knows. Everyone knows. In fact, everyone has already formed an opinion about it and it is now old news.

This reminds me of a classic soap opera. I can see how their lives are hectic and how everyone knows everything about each other. I can see how it would get annoying to not only be around the same people all the time, but also for them to know your personal business. Outside of the physical demands ballerinas go through, there are obviously mental ones as well.

Russia: A Motorcyclists’s Haven

As an avid road tripper, I’ve seen many motorcyclists roaring down the highway, clad head to toe in leather and sporting the most enviable of hogs.  I would have never envisioned such a site on the streets of Moscow, but apparently  biking has become quite a popular hobby there. The Night Wolves are a motorcycle club that began in Moscow in the 1980’s. According to this article in the Times Europe, they used to be kind of rough at the beginning but have since developed, as the article says, “from social rebels to civic-minded entrepreneurs”.

I first heard about the organization when Russia Today featured a video of members roaring through Moscow streets.

In this video, it looks like the Night Wolves are more than just an organization, they almost seem like performance artists. They are shown doing motorcycle tricks amidst a backdrop of a stylish pyrotechnic display. Yeah, I’ve definitely never seen the Hell’s Angels do that. Their gatherings almost seems like some kind of fair, an event similar to a Renaissance Fair where, instead of dressing up like elven kings, the attendants wear leather jackets and elaborate tattoos.

Though their attire may look rough, they are reportedly model citizens. Members have started taking action in Moscow to create a larger biking community. According to the Times Europe article, in 2000 they partnered with the Irbit Motorcycle Company to design a bike similar to a Harley Davidson model, which they have named “The Wolf”

Igor Siletsky, a blogger for Voices of Russia, talks about how Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with the Night Wolves this past July. Putin, sporting a black leather jacket himself, went to visit their “club-house” and talked to the organization’s president, Aleksandr Zaldostanov. Apparently, Zaldostanov is referred to as “The Surgeon” since he actually was a surgeon before helping to found the Night Wolves in the 80’s. Siletsky points out how it was strange to see Putin hanging around with a crowd of bikers, but that it’s simply a testament to how the organization has changed from a group of rough-riding outlaws to active citizens. Russia Today also has an article about the encounter, citing friendly conversation between Putin and The Surgeon.

Vladimir Putin meets with The Surgeon of Russian motorcycle organization the Night Wolves.

Vladimir Putin meets with The Surgeon of Russian motorcycle organization the Night Wolves.

I originally thought to compare the Night Wolves to the Hells Angels. But, upon further research, I found that the two are vastly different. Although they both had rough beginnings, the Night Wolves have evolved into social servants. The Hells Angels, however, are still criticized for gang violence and criminal activity, as can be seen in this article from the Las Vegas Sun.

A more appropriate comparison to the Night Wolves would probably be American organizations that are registered with the American Motorcyclist Association. The members of these organizations usually ride their bikes for leisure and don’t necessarily adhere to the “biker lifestyle” of the Hell’s Angels. The Night Wolves gatherings also remind me of the Sturgis Bike Rally. Sturgis includes bike races and rides, as well as musical performances from the likes of ZZ Top.

I think it would be a great idea if the organizers of Sturgis invited the Night Wolves to participate in the rally. Or at least the U.S. government could invite them to give some helpful tips to the Hell’s Angels on how to be model citizens.

What’s Lurking Beneath Moscow?

The cartoon above depicts Moscow Metro chief Dmitry Gayev putting up a sign in the subway that translates to, “Checked, no ghosts!”

Like most cities that have a subway system, Moscow’s Metro has its share of urban legends.

The ones about paranormal activity in the Moscow Metro appear to be so prevalent that Gayev had to publicly dispel these rumors. In this Russian news article, he says (roughly translated)

The Metro is a very boring organization… there are no ghosts here, or anything like that. I’ve worked in the subway for 18 years and I have not seen any… At night, I have shouted “Where are you, dear?” and nobody has been found.

As Halloween draws near, let’s take a look at some Moscow subway tales that have had the Russians so spooked. Which one is the most popular?

After briefly surveying Russian blog entries such as this translated post, the winner seems to be the Ghost Train. It’s centered around a completely empty train that appears once a month after midnight, driven by prisoners who died while working on the construction of the subway.

This translated post lists more stories, including the Preobrazhenskaya Square Station, which is “built on the bones of the dead” – a huge cemetery, and rumored to be haunted by priests that were killed by Bolsheviks.

The post also mentions a tribe that lives underground, of people who once descended into the ground and has since lived there in the darkness.”

Russian blogger Anastasia Carroll gives an overview of the history of the mystique of the Moscow underground in her post here.

The Moscow underground is one of the most mysterious areas of Russia. The labyrinth under Moscow was started in XV century in the reign of Ivan the Terrible. He dug Russia along and across. Some tunnels led to the neighbor principalities hiding in their bosom mysterious stories and unrevealed facts and maybe treasures of Russian ancestors.

She also mentions diggers, who have explored the underground and have found deep dungeons, neolithic caves and “pilot objects that the diggers don’t want to talk about because they don’t have enough information.” It seems like these diggers are similar to what Americans call urban explorers.

In the second post of this series, Carroll talks about legends that these diggers have brought back to the surface. One of them is mutants – giant rats, ducks with fish skin, and weird insects.

They have also have brought back a fair share of ghost stories.

While exploring the tunnels underneath the Sklif medical institute, diggers have claimed that they encountered a ghost of a woman that appeared from a concrete wall. In an attempt to escape, one digger hit his head badly and they took him upstairs to the hospital. While waiting for the doctor, they were shocked to see on a wheelbed the body of the woman whose ghost they had just seen. She had died 30 minutes ago when the diggers were still underground.

I’ve never heard of ghosts in the subway during my eight year stay in New York City, but there is a widespread urban legend of the Mole People, which echoes the Russian underground tribe I mentioned earlier. The 1993 book by Jennifer Toth, The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels underneath New York City depicts vivid and harrowing images of individuals and communities living underneath the NYC subway system. A debate has been raging on since. Here’s an article from The Straight Dope that gives a pretty fair account on both sides.

The article ends with,

Parts of Toth’s book are true, parts of it aren’t, and you take your chances deciding which are which.

There are also stories about about people being attacked by giant killer rats in the NYC subways. I have personally witnessed an abnormally sized rat the size of a cat scurrying across the subway tracks. Luckily, it ran away instead of savagely biting off a chunk of my arm, but it fit the physical description pretty well. So, yeah, it’s most likely that parts of the rumors are true, and parts of them aren’t.

Lay Down Arms and Play Music!

Spasskaya Tower International Military Music Festival

Russia's Honor Cavalry Escort performs in Moscow

Spasskaya Bashnya!

Today marks the third day of Russia’s Spasskaya Tower International Military Music Festival in Moscow (official festival website)

The festival, which began this past Saturday, will run until the 10th (Thursday). It will showcase 24 different bands and musical performances, including 16 units from Russia and performances from China, India, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, The United Kingdom, Finland and France.

Military music has become a unique part of Russian history, it first began when Ivan IV organized the Order of the Big Palace to oversee Russian military bands in 1547.

But aside from military music, the festival will showcase classical, folk and popular music acts. Mireille Mathieu, a famous French singer who is popular among Russians, performed at Monday’s closing ceremony and will appear throughout the festival. The Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko will also perform.
The festival looks like it will be a spectacle for both the eyes and ears. Held in the majestic Red Square, it will be the site of some of the best marching band performances this year I’m sure. I watched a video of a performance by the Central Military Band of Russian Ministry of Defense at the 2007 festival, and, aside from playing the music beautifully, the band’s formation is so astoundingly precise!

An American festival similar to the Spasskaya Tower is the Virginia International Tattoo in Norfolk, Virginia which began in 1997. It features musical units from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. This year’s festival will be held April 30th through May 2nd.