SHROVETIDE OR MASLENISTA is a celebration of the end of winter and the start of spring. It has a tradition that goes a long way back, but to an outsider like me, it’s simply a time for partying and feasting on blinis or Russian pancakes.
Blini is an essential part of the celebrations. Being “warm, round and golden”, it symbolises the sun, much welcome during the cold winter. Russians eat their pancakes with fillings such as sour cream, butter, jam, minced meat, cottage cheese, fresh berries, mushrooms, salted fish and even caviars. They have them with coffee, tea and even vodka.
Two other essentials of Maslenista are bears and bonfires.
It was said in the past, “bears and their tamers would perform at Maslenista and both would be served large quantities of vodka, ending in a wresting match between them in which the bear wins”. At the end of the festive event, an effigy of a straw/paper woman that represents winter is burnt to signify the bidding of farewell to winter.
Maslenista is a cheerful and colourful holiday in Russia though it didn’t appear to be so in the old days. It was a day of remembrance of the dead, and the burning of the feminine effigy signified her funeral! Over time, Russians turned the sombre event into a festival to include merry pastimes – such as troika and horse-riding, singing, and also the storming of a snow fortress troika – that lasted a week long.
For the Christians, Maslenista marks the last week before the typically 40-day long Lent fasting period that precedes Easter.
Today Maslenista is a huge event that draws locals and tourists. The Moscow City Committee for Tourism organises the annual Blini Week Maslenitsa in numerous locations across the capital. Its 2007 promotional leaflet said: “… Russian people really like to feast. And all the Russians are sincerely happy when the severe winter ends, the nature awakens, the sun warms the earth and the long-awaited spring comes. A day, or two, even three won’t be enough to celebrate it – it takes a whole week for the Russians to enjoy the farewell of cold winter thoroughly! That’s why it’s called “Wide Maslenista” – seven days of impetuous fun, reckless pleasures and solar mood, a great pleasure for both body and soul! That means sleigh rides, celebrations, fairs and show-booths, taverns full of people and sheer joy for all!”
During our stay in Moscow, we needn’t go far in search of Maslenista festivities. We had a taste and feel of Maslenista, first in M’s school that held the event on 3rd March 2006, followed by our building management on 4th March 2006 which sent out this invitation: “We would like to invite you to Winter Farewell Party, on Mac 4, 12-2pm in our Park. We will offer you traditional Russian food (hot pancakes, shushlik, strong and soft drinks and entertainment (folk music and games).”
The following year 2007, spring evidently arrived earlier as Maslenitsa was celebrated by M’s school as early as 14th February, while our building management held it over the weekend of 17th February.