Monday 7th March marks the first day of Maslenitsa (Масленица), a week-long feast with a rich and fascinating history which is celebrated by Russian communities all over the world, and of course in the Motherland herself. But what are the customs associated with Maslenitsa, and more importantly, what should you eat with your pancakes?
Maslenitsa is thought to be one of Russia’s oldest feasts, dating from the 2nd century AD, before the arrival of Orthodox Christianity 600 years later, and as such it was originally a pagan festival to celebrate the arrival of spring. Perhaps given the infamous harshness of the Russian winter it is not surprising that Maslenitsa’s popularity has prevailed despite restrictions on celebrating it in public during the Soviet era.
Today, Maslenitsa can be seen as the Russian Orthodox equivalent to the feast day of Shrove Tuesday which is celebrated by most other Christian denominations. The Christianisation of medieval Rus’ meant that Maslenitsa became an opportunity to indulge in more luxurious goods such as eggs and butter before the start of Lent, traditionally a period of fasting or abstinence which is known as Velikii post (великий пост) in Russia.
As such, Maslenitsa has also been a period of great merriment and fun within the community, with families coming together not just to eat together, but also to play in the snow and sing and dance in colourful traditional costumes. This is still a part of Maslenitsa celebrations today and Russians often paint bright rosy cheeks on their faces! Other strange traditions include fist fighting and dancing bears – although most of the time this is just a keen volunteer in a furry costume. In Pskov, a city in north west Russia, they even have their own mascot for Maslenitsa, Tsar Blin, a jolly pancake-like figure who presides over all the celebrations in the city.
Of course, Maslenitsa wouldn’t be quite the same without the pancakes, or blinis (блины) in Russian. Traditional blinis, today a quintessentially Russian dish, are descendants of ancient flatbreads and appear very similar to French crêpes. However they can be made with some ingredients we may not be quite used to putting in our pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, such as honey, buckwheat flour, sour cream and even potato! Their significance as part of Maslenitsa celebrations dates back to its pagan origins, when they were eaten due to their round shape which symbolised the sun and its pagan deity, Volos. If you want to eat your Maslenitsa blinis like a true Russian, try them with sour cream, mushrooms, jam, or simply with butter.
Maslenitsa’s history is also reflected in its name. Its significance as a period for eating luxury goods before abstaining from them during Lent can be seen in its derivation from the Russian words for butter, or maslo (масло), and week, or nedelya (неделя), and as such it is sometimes known as Butter Week. Formally, Maslenitsa has also been called Myasopusta, stemming from the words мясо (myaso, or meat) and пусто (pusto, or empty), as traditionally Russians were not supposed to eat meat during the week of the feast.
In typical fashion, Russians go all out for Maslenitsa, so rather than restricting themselves to enjoying pancakes on just one day, they enjoy them throughout the week’s festivities, and so each day of Maslenitsa has a different focus of celebration and reason to eat pancakes with different members of the community. The schedule for pancake eating goes as follows: on Monday the first blinis are given to the poor, as traditionally only the rich could afford to start making their pancakes this early in the week. On Tuesday people take to the streets to sledge and play in the snow, so it is traditional to offer pancakes to your neighbours at your front gate as everyone goes out to join the fun. On Wednesday married people visit their mothers-in-law to eat pancakes with her, and on Thursday children go from house to house asking for pancakes, much like the Halloween custom of trick-or-treating. On Friday men invite their mother-in-law to their house for a special dinner, and on Saturday women invite any sisters-in-law they have over for the same purpose – a traditional belief in Russia supposed that this was an opportunity to reduce animosity between the women, and if she was single for the sister-in-law to meet a husband from another of her host’s guests!
The final day of Maslenitsa sees a ceremonial burning of an effigy of Lady Maslenitsa, who represents winter, before the congregation all bow to each other and say, “God will forgive you.”. These acts symbolise the cleansing of sins before Lent, and also bring together the pagan and religious history of the feast in its final moments.
Russian communities in the UK will be holding their own celebrations to mark Maslenitsa, but there are plenty of events happening in London throughout the week which will be open to the public. We hope you can make it along to some of them to learn more about Maslenitsa, or at least use this week as an excuse to indulge in plenty of pancakes!
By Elizabeth Rushton