How were your pancakes this year? In the UK we’ll have consumed them on Shrove Tuesday but in Russia, limiting this sweet treat to just one day just can’t be done.
In Russia, the week-long festivities are known as the Maslenitsa, which has its origins in an ancient Slavic holiday and Pagan festival celebrating the end of winter. In Russia, it precedes Great Lent, an important date in the Russian Orthodox calendar. As well as eating an almost obscene amount of pancakes, people burn straw effigies. They take the form of a doll, made of straw and branches and dressed in colourful attire. This is the Maslenitsa figure, which represents the winter cold. The act of burning it marks a farewell to winter and the welcoming of spring. As you can imagine, that’s something that makes people very happy.
In Moscow this year, with plenty of snow still in the ground, Kolomenskoye Park was transformed with a run for sleigh rides. Visitors had the chance to try their hand at archery or even play croquet as people would have done in the Russia of the tsars. In Tverskaya Square demonstrations of craft skills such as embroidery, ceramics, wood painting and even bread-baking were showcased. St Petersburg more than held its own with seasonal concerts and and ice mountain for slides in the shadow of the famous Peter and Paul Fortress.
But of course sledding and snowball throwing work up an appetite and one which could only be satisfied with pancakes. In Russia, they’re known as blinis and their circular shape symbolises the sun. Packed with butter (you might hear locals speak of “Butter Week” as maslo means butter) they can be topped with sour cream, jam, berries or – most decadently – caviar.
Pancake week is also a time to spend with family. Each day has different traditions: games on Monday, blini-making on Tuesday and on Wednesday it’s common for people to visit friends and relatives, taking gifts of blinis to share. Horse-riding is the focus on Thursday as villagers attempt to drive away winter on horseback. Friday has the nickname of “Mothers-in-Law Evening” as it’s traditional for a son in law to go and visit his wife’s mother. Saturday is dedicated to eating, drinking and playing games while the festivities wrap the following day with the “Sunday of Forgiveness”. Afterwards, there is singing, dancing and the moment everyone has been waiting for – the burning of the Maslenitsa doll.
As you can see, the Maslenitsa is a festival characterised by cheerfulness and fun, the perfect event to attend as a tourist. The festivities have seen something of a resurgence since the fall of the Soviet Union and quintessentially Russian touches like group fist-fights, dancing bears and the storming of snow forts aren’t unheard of. This year Pancake Week culminated on the 18th February. If, after reading this, you want to be part of the 2019 attractions, the dates for your diary are the 4th to the 10th March as Easter falls late again next year.