Maslenitsa

As some of you may know… this week it’s Maslenitsa Week in Russia (March 11th to March 17th).

Originally a Slavic pagan tradition, Maslenitsa (derived from maslo, meaning butter or oil in Russian) is still celebrated today but with different purposes. During pagan times, it was a sun festival celebrating the imminent end of winter and welcoming of spring. However, throughout the years much of these Slavic traditions were absorbed into the Eastern Orthodox religion. Therefore, from the religious point of view, Maslenitsa marks the last week before the arrival of the Great Lent, giving the last chance to soak oneself in the pleasures of dairy products and other worldly delights.

Given that Maslenitsa is the last week during which milk, cheese, and other dairy products are allowed, it is the perfect occasion to eat Russian pancakes, or blini. In addition, blini are considered to be a symbol of the sun, because of their warmth, round shape, and golden color! In the old days, pancakes were cooked from buckwheat flour, lending them a red color, thus their resemblance to the sun was even more apparent. Exciting fact, I know. So, technically it’s a feast of pancakes with butter, pancakes with caviar, pancakes with sour cream, pancakes with jam, and all that good stuff!!!

“An entire week dedicated to pancakes?”

Yes… now stop being fatties and read.

Maslenitsa also represents the last chance to dance and participate in a bunch of social activities that are not appropriate during the Lenten season. The following are paintings by the Russian artist Boris Kustodiev illustrating Maslenitsa as a massive celebration, old and young people having fun and enjoying the last of winter.

???? Maslenitsa Kustodiev 1916

We see a sunset painted in bright colors, a snow-covered town, with domes of churches and bell towers. At the fair, there’s a hectic carousel and a noisy crowd. At the front, there is a beautifully painted sleigh pulled by two horses, rushing at full speed.

In his paintings, Kustodiev always sought to convey the most beautiful and festive side of the Russian lifestyle, one filled with brightness, kindness, and joy. That is why time after time he chose to paint Maslenitsa, because it reunited people of different social classes, and made everyone equally happy… anxious for the spring that’s on its way… yet not ready to say goodbye to all those snowball fights and sleighs.

Perhaps a better portrayal of Maslenitsa is this fragment from the 1999 Russian movie The Barber of Siberia… uploaded to YouTube by the lovely Inna (me).

A traditional Maslenitsa weekly schedule includes a lot of different activities. Here is my abridged version:

On Monday it is crucial to make a Maslenitsa doll out of straw and dress it in old woman’s clothes. It is then placed on a pole and carried around while dancing. Tuesday is dedicated to entirely to fun and foolishness. There are clowns, performances, groups of friends driving around in sleighs, and men kissing passing women. Supposedly, all these activities aid in the matchmaking process and form couples to get married on the Sunday after Easter (traditionally the time for couples to get married). On Wednesday… pancakes are the center of attention. Enough said. On Thursday people are no longer allowed to work so the fun reaches its climax! It is also the day of fist fights, as shown in the video I attached above. Finally, Sunday is Forgiveness day. On this day, everyone asks for forgiveness… forgiveness by everyone for everything. It is also the day when the Maslenitsa doll is burnt in a bonfire, thus marking the official end of the Maslenitsa festivities…

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