Maslenitsa, Maslenitsa! Have you been to Maslenitsa? If only for the love of pancakes (blini – something like a cross between a hearty American flapjack and a delicate French crepe) you should kick up your heels at Maslenitsa. Possibly translated as “Butter Week”, Maslenitsa is a festival that falls prior to lent and an official kick in Winter’s pants on her way out Russia’s door. Granted, Spring is still only a dearly guarded hope in the hearts of a frozen people who collectively seem perfectly pleased to shiver in the cold Siberian wind just for the chance to kiss Winter goodbye. Well, that and to strip down to their underoos and scale a gaily ribboned wooden pole for prizes tied on top, cheer on pancake relays, engage in some old fashioned tug o’ war (even Grandmas got in on that fun), watch Cossack sword dances, strain at lifting 30 kilo weights before a cheering crowd, scarf blini and condensed milk (a treat that makes Russians moan in ecstasy, really I have seen it!), mount a balance beam to take shots at each other with weighted gunny sacks, and finally burn lady Maslenitsa in effigy! This is a decidedly Russian experience.
Historically the roots of Maslenitsa are pagan, but Orthodox influence has changed it enough for it to become an steaming, eclectic mix of pagan and Orthodox Christian tradition. A week long event, nowadays Sunday, the last day of the festival is when Russians come out in force. Sunday is known as “Forgiveness Day”
On Forgiveness Day, I made my way to the Ethnographical Museum of Ulan-Ude. Full of festive ardor, people streamed into the festivities between cars packed into the turn off to the museum. Smiles and laughter flitted through the crowds, making otherwise reserved spirits bright. The continuous creek of people flowing toward the celebration site encountered a menagerie of humanity dressed as bears, goats, fools, musicians, bunnies, and people in traditional Russian or Cossack dress. The milling crowds attended to different cultural ensemble’s dances and songs, played traditional games and cheered on participants in the strong man contest. My favorite group was the six and seven year old white clad bunnies whose fuzzy ears rivaled the snow in brightness. They didn’t seem sure they were in the right place, but there hopping, carrot wielding antics warmed my cold heart. The turn toed Cossack dance avec swirling saber captured my wonder. Cossacks always cut striking figures. I was pleased that they were dancing, smoking and laughing rather than chasing me down whip and sword. When the song and dance no longer kindled my bones, I shivered my way over to the culinary promenade. Flinging everything I could at my chills, hot pozi, hot tea, hot blini, my body temperature rose to lukewarm.
Stumbling toward the “maypole” I contemplated collective chaos as a scrum of young men climbed over/on one another at the pole’s base. After a scrabbling struggle, some ascendant fellow would begin inching his way top-ward giving out somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way up. And the climbing scrum scrabbled again vying for pole position. After several prizes swinging from the top had been hard claimed the last successful pole crawl was completed by a champion in briefs. The crowd stepped back in respect upon seeing his literally naked determination. Unfazed by a future certain of sliver picking his birthday suit, this Vanya made fast work of the nearly unconquerable pole to claim his prize. He descended to hearty cheers for his audacity.
The afternoon was waning and Maslenitsa had yet to be burned. A procession bearing the effigy made its way through the crowd to install the colorfully garbed paper maiden on her funeral pyre.
Doused in kerosine she stood unknowing and serene, dripping flammable. The fire dancers circled spinning their torches ever nearer the gassed maiden until . . . smoke and fire inflamed her pyre. I ran ahead of everyone making for the gates to the warm transport waiting to carry revelers back to the city.