February 10, 2009

Take your Valentine to Pancake Week Festival in Russia

First of all, don’t be afraid of Russian winters, it is not as bad as the media wants to portray it. Second of all, Russian winters can be fun, depending on what mood and expectations you have for it. And thirdly, you would not want to miss one of the largest Russian celebrations that is romantic and fun for both couples and families with kids.

Maslenitsa (or Масленица in Russian) is Russian Pancake Week Festival, which has been successfully celebrated the first week of March in Moscow since 2002, but its traditions and customs go as far as 18th century. Maslenitsa is a Russian religious and folk holiday, but it is more of a holiday for everyone rather than for religious people. It’s just a good excuse to bring your partners and/or kids to see staged performances of folk tales, listen to folk music, play folk games and to indulge in pancake feast.

Maslenitsa is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent, the seventh week before Easter (Pascha.) This pre-Lenten feast, “Pancake Week” or “Butter Week” as some call it, takes place around the city and Red Square's Vasilyevsky Spusk (Moscow) and Mariinsky Theatre (St. Petersburg). These are just the two places where the celebrations go all the way, however, quite a few events are taken place during Maslenitsa in and around the cities, including Russian villages, and every year it gets more lavish and more elaborate in decorations, people’s attendance and pancake treats, and less religious.

The word Maslenitsa is a sun festival, celebrating the imminent end of the winter, and Maslenitsa’s pancakes, very well buttered, are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa. They are the symbols of sun – being warm, round, and golden. (For a true Russian pancake recipe, scroll down or click here.) Families and friends treat each other to homemade pancakes all through the week. The pancakes are usually served with various berry jams, honeys, sour cream, and, of course, lots of butter. Others who prefer to have their pancakes the “French” way, opt for sides and fillings of meat, cheese, and mushrooms and for the ones who follow the oldest pancake traditions – top their pancakes with caviar.

This year, Maslenitsa is not only celebrated around the city of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it also takes place at restaurants, cafes, open-air gardens and parks and even at the Mariinsky Theatre.

These are just a few, main, celebrations and traditions that will take place during Maslenitsa week, and you could be the one to experience it all:

Fist Fighting – these group fist fights go all through the week, and are considered to be absurd by foreigners, however, the traditions goes back to celebrating Russian military history, when soldiers supposedly compete in hand-to-hand combats. Now, it’s all about good fun in fist fight, which engages both men and women.

Performing Bears – even though to common beliefs, Russian bears roam freely in Russia, this is not true. However, you can see a bear during Maslentsa that usually are brought from local circuses to perform for the crowd. In the past, it was a custom to serve vodka to bears and their trainers before they engaged in a wrestling match. Over the years this custom ceased to exist for many reason, one of which – animal rights and common sense safety.

Bonfires and Fireworks – bonfires usually signify the burn of the “winter” dummies to say farewell to long cold winters, while fireworks were done for pure fun.

All in all, Maslenitsa is a good excuse to go out and have a good time, indulge in food and drinks and share emotions and laughter during such activities as troika rides, masquerades, snowball fights, riding on swings, sleigh ride sledding, puppet plays, snow/ice arts, and singing, which have been kept alive to preserve the very Russian heritage, and many countries with a significant number of Russian immigrants consider Maslenitsa a suitable occasion to celebrate Russian culture.

The traditional festivity of Great Maslenitsa (Russian Pancake Week), pre-Lenten feast, will be celebrated at Vasilievsky Slope near Kremlin from 3 to 9 March. You will share the feast of a variety of pancakes and other snacks with the Moskvites, as well as partake in concerts, competitions and folk dances. Throughout the week of Maslenitsa, each day will feature a special theme based on tradition, and the symbolical burning down of winter dummy will take place on the last day of Maslenitsa that will be crowned with fireworks.

Food, entertainment, competitions, and a parade await Maslenitsa participants, and Maslenitsa becomes more popular every year. While Moscow is still chilly in early March, Maslenitsa's week-long festivities won't leave you cold.

Maslenitsa 2009
When: 3th - 9th of March, 2009
Where: Moscow, Vasilyevski Spusk/Slope
Visit Maslenitsa online.

St. Petersburg
From February 23 through March 1, couples and families will come to the famous Mariinsky Theatre, where Valery Gergiev, the Artistic Director of the Festival, plans to celebrate Maslenitsa the “pre-Revolutionary” style – as St. Petersburg is the capital of Revolution. The most august figures and officials, the intelligentsia and the city’s nobles all took part in the revelry, because it was never an event for just one “party”, it was a folk event, which prepared Russian people for the meat-less and diary-less Easter week allowing to taste the foods that an Orthodox is not allowed to eat during the Easter.

Only a few years ago, Mariinsky Theatre returned to the wonderful tradition of Maslenitsa festivities, which this year include fairytales ballet productions, as well as wonderful vocal and instrumental programs. Moreover, continuing the tradition of open-air celebrations established by the Imperial Theatres for Maslenitsa, the Mariinsky Theatre will host several charity concerts and student balls to bid farewell to winter. Fireworks are always to follow the folk’s celebrations of Maslenitsa.

One also has a choice of attending Maslenitsa events at Tsaritsino Gardens (Moscow) and/or at the Admiralty Gardens (St. Petersburg) that have played host to Maslenitsa folk celebrations for years. The St. Petersburg’s palaces and mansions will be also busy making pancakes and brewing Kvas, a fermented mildly alcoholic beverage made from black or rye bread, for masquerade balls and parties.

The Mariinsky Theater
Tel. +7 812 326 4141
Visit Mariinsky Theatre online.
Russian grandma's pancake (blini or blinchiki) recipe:
"Thin layered blini with melted butter.. a true Royal Russian breakfast! Best eaten with sour cream, jams and honey."
2 eggs
1 tablespoon white sugar
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and salt. Sift the flour into the bowl, and stir in along with the milk. Mix until smooth and well blended. The batter should be thin.
Heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Lightly oil the pan or spray with cooking spray. Pour about 2 tablespoons of the batter, or as much as desired, into the pan. Tilt the pan to spread the batter out evenly. When the edges are crisp looking and the center appears dry, slide a spatula carefully under the blin. Flip, and cook for about 1 minute on the other side, or until lightly browned.

Remove blini to a plate. Put a little butter on top, and continue to stack the blini on top of each other. To serve, spread with desired filling, then fold in half, and in half again to form a triangle. Mmm Mmm!

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