So here we are again at Maslenitsa, or (variously) Shrovetide, Butterweek, Pancake Week, or Cheesefare Week, depending on who is trying to explain/ translate the phenomenon.
And YES, I KNOW that the west is probably making their pancakes on a different date, only for one day, and that Lent starts straight after on a Wednesday. Not only is there a difference between the Orthodox church’s calendar and everybody else’s to account for when Easter falls, but there is also a difference in the way it counts Lent.
Now Mama has, over the years, gotten used to the idea that she is going to be making or eating pancakes, or rather Russian pancakes called blini, for a whole week rather than just the one evening.
She has, at various times, found herself planning whole feasts involving just the one basic dish and as many things to put into them as Pinterest can imagine; competing in competitive blini making with actual Slavs; trying to fend off her mother in law when she pops round with approximately 42 000 blini that need to be eaten now so she can make 84 000 fresh tomorrow; trying to get the Russians around her to appreciate a squirt of lemon and a sprinkling of sugar as a filling despite the fact that for some reason this is the ONE thing Russians don’t seem to add to pancakes; and standing in windy London park in the drizzle with her Mother in Law, having a pancake themed picnic, the widest possible variety of fillings (including sweetened citrus), whist engaging in blini oneupmanship.
But she was nevertheless a bit taken aback when she returned to Moscow after ten years of living away, to find that Maslenitsa has now also achieved the status of determinedly celebrated revived folk festival. There is bunting. And everything.
Of course, Mama is obviously no stranger to bonkers traditional practices.
She has to explain Guy Fawkes Night to foreigners every year after all, a conversation that goes something like this: yes, we do burn a puppet of a man, seemingly alive, to celebrate the time we dragged him through the streets behind a well fed horse, hanged him to almost dead, cut his genitals off, disemboweled his living body, and then cut him into four pieces and sent him to different part of the country as a warning to others. You can make your own guy! Well, children used to anyway. And then they went round the streets begging for money with it! We also set off fireworks. It’s a family holiday! You should definitely go to one of the displays. There’s a village in the south of England that chucks politicians and celebrities on the fire! It’s very cool, they even have burning crosses and everything. Why? Oh, well it was essentially an anti Catholic holiday, so probably that. But we’ve stopped burning effigies of the pope now even though they still have banners saying Down with Popery, so you should be OK.
And it’s not like living through a Russian winter doesn’t beg for a bit of celebration when it is coming to an end.
Or rather the beginning of the end of winter because anyone sending Mama photos of snowdrops, crocuses, green grass and themselves enjoying the fresh smells of spring in a light anorak on Shrove Tuesday will get short shift as she marches through the likely blizzard. Actual spring is a good month off yet. Possibly two, depending on when Maslensitsa is this year
Admittedly this sort of festival is usually done by non-Christian observers a bit closer to the spring equinox. But it’s not like there isn’t precedent for mucking about with religious rites according to the whims and obsessions of the age.
Especially as, who knows, in a short time, all this may be less certain, what with global warming and all. Perhaps pacifying the old gods is not such a silly idea after all.
Thus the round, slightly golden and glistening blinis become sun symbols, just as the were, apparently, at sun encouragement festivals of the past. The effigy constructed at the beginning of the week and burnt at the end to remove bad things from the world, is said to represent Lady Maslenitsa, or the death/ rebirth wintertime goddess Marena, depending on just how pagan you want to get. In central Europe she is drowned (or burned and then drowned, which all sounds a bit 17th century to Mama), but the similarities are there.
Of course, some people will tell you that pancakes are all about using up food before the Christian Lenten fast. This was something that confused small Mama a lot in 1970s Britain. I mean, yes, fasting, but quite what was so fabulous about eggs, flour and butter she was not sure. As compared to, I dunno, meat, biscuits and apples.
The explanation is this: the Eastern Orthodox fast, unlike the modern day Anglican one, is strict and effectively turns observers vegan. But not at once. In preparation for the full fast, the week of Maslenitsa is supposed to be meat free. But eggs, butter and oil can still be eaten. See? Pancakes now make sense!
Interestingly, along with dubiously resurrected pre-Christian rituals, the other thing that has made a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia is the observance of Lent. It’s a very dry January sort of impulse, as far as Mama can tell, and not particularly related to how religious a person actually is. Still, following the fierce dietary requirements of the fast is definitely a thing. So coming to Russia in this period if you are vegan is something to seriously consider as restaurants have special alternate Lenten menus at this time which should cater to your every need. Look for the phrase ‘postnoye menu’ (постное меню).
Of course, Mama, as a professional manipulator of people, admires the fasting system as a means not only of purifying your soul, but as a way of getting a population of freedom deficient serfs through times of scarcity and harsh climate conditions.
Which brings us to the final point of Maslenitsa, and that is social engineering.
Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox church is not just for Lent, but a pretty year round thing. It is noticeable that there is a continual waxing and waning of quite how extreme you are supposed to go. Mama is particularly impressed by the very careful leavening of the longest 40 day fast by the occasional allowance of the odd bit of butter every second Sunday (or something), which she considers a particularly masterful understanding of human nature’s inability to keep up a hair shirt mentality for too long.
Or perhaps that a society built along rigidly prescriptive lines with no let up is not such a desirable thing.
It does mean that Eastern Orthodox Lent has to be longer to meet the 40 days requirement. Which is why even when Maslenitsa falls the same time as Pancake Day, Easter does not. Yes, despite knowing the reason for this, it does make Mama’s head hurt at times.
The week of Maslenitsa itself, in fact, was itself an exercise in society-approved letting off steam, celebration and general joie de vivre. Just as Christmas, Easter and other random holidays were and, frankly, are today.
So each day had its own brand of ritualised bonding opportunities for people stuck living together in small right knit rural communities. Or ritualised anti-neighbour aggression in the case of the bare knuckle fighting (300 dead on one historically memorable year in Moscow. Puts the argument over who borrowed whose lawnmower firmly into perspective). Much is made of the need for Mothers in Law to entertain Sons in Law to blini and vice versa. Sisters in Law also have to spend time together and attempt to get along. And there is a whole Sunday of asking for forgiveness.
There is also the day when young men are allowed to kiss any girl they fancy, so let’s just take a moment to disapprove of that and feel superior to our neanderthal forebears.
However, the idea behind it is clearly to have a socially approved relaxation of the normal rules of fratinisation (don’t) in order to facilitate moves towards marriage as soon as Lent and Easter are over (obviously one does not get married in Lent. What would one eat?).
Mama applauds, in fact, the idea that there is some kind of need to actually gain the female half of the partnership’s acceptance of your decision to wed her and some time period for her to think it over. And also notes that the narrative of men being instigators and women passive accepters of passion is not a thought process which has moved on as much as you might expect in the last 500 years or so.
Not that she thinks it’s an appropriate tradition to resurrect today. And to be fair, nobody seems to be suggesting it, or the fist fighting, or live bear-related festive theatre. Or importing Granny so Papa can stuff her with pancakes.
Although there is this.
Moscow-city-government-sponsored fun, big and small, therefore is definitely well within the spirit of the holiday, even if it generally starts the weekend before Maslenitsa proper and reaches a culmination in the final Saturday and Sunday, to fit with a more modern working life pattern.
Fairly reliable places to find things happening will be Tverskaya Street and Manedzh Square, just off Red Square. Or VDNH, the Soviet and now Post-Soviet exhibition space. Kolomonskoye Park in the south will have something on, as might Gorky Park, and the Slavic theme park of the Ismailovo Kremlin.
You can also go outside Moscow, and Mama thinks Maslenitsa tourism might be a growing thing. Everyone loves a good bonfire, amirite?
Expect street theatre, and lots of people dressed up in traditional outfits, something faintly pagan, or with folk overtones.
There will almost certainly be live music. And games. Also hands on activities with villager overtones for the urbanites to dabble in. Mama never thought she’d be standing in a queue to wait to have a go at sawing wood, but then it happened.
Masterclasses will involve paint, with a reckless disregard for the messiness I am fully capable of bringing to such activities. Increasingly, a Marena, Lady Maslenitsa building competition may be happening.
And of course, you will be able to get blini. This year my Intrepid Big Brother tried pine cone jam in his, which he recommends, although Mama notes that anything smelling strongly of pine is mostly reminiscent of the stuff you use to clean the bathroom with.
And on the Sunday, or possibly Saturday, because one should never let tradition get in the way of a well scheduled event, we watch the winterwoman go in in flames. Well, you can. Mama thinks that the One True Bonfire is that lit on 5th November and has not got up the enthusiasm to track that part of the festivities down yet.
If you are lucky, you might catch some other fire related show. This, says Mama, is what we should contemplate doing as our Saturday job in a few years. She just shelved books in a library and pulled pints in a haunted pub. We are less keen currently, but it was a pretty thrilling end to our Maslenitsa weekend.
Happy blini hunting, and a safe and purified journey into Easter.
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