By Olga Mironenko
Maslenitsa (Butter Week) is not, as many people think, an Orthodox festival; it is, in fact, a pagan festival and, as such, is disapproved of by the Orthodox Church. What is most confusing, however, is that the end of the pagan festival Maslenitsa also marks the beginning of Orthodox Lent. This is yet one more example of the way in which pagan and Orthodox traditions in Russia have become intermingled.
Boris Kustodiev (1878–1927)
Maslenitsa marked the beginning of spring, and for centuries all over Russia people celebrated each day of Butter Week with particular traditions. In Moscow this February there will be celebrations and activities which closely follow the traditional activities and entertainments of old Moscow.
The 7 Days of Butter Week
Maslenitsa Monday in History – Meeting
Together with the grown-ups, children made a Maslenitsa doll out of straw and old women’s clothes. They set it on a pole and carried it around, singing. Then it was placed at the top of a snow hill, from where people were sliding down.
Monday, 12th February, 2007: The Maslenitsa Fair at Vasilyevsky Spusk opens at 4pm. Until 9pm you can watch folklore performances, various contests, and a lot of traditional pancake cooking taking place here each day of the fair. At 6 pm people greet Maslenitsa.
Maslenitsa Tuesday in history – Games
Most of the amusement activities began on this day. Groups of friends drove around in sledges. Petrushka the clown made people laugh in wooden entertainment pavilions (balagan). Mummers visited homes in groups and surprised everybody with spontaneous concerts. Men were allowed to kiss any passing woman on the streets during this day.
Troika racing was one of the most popular entertainments. But in downtown Moscow, then as now, there was no space for competitive driving. The racing, therefore, took place on the rivers. Troika drivers began the course on the ice of the Neglinka River, and then dashed to the Moscow River. The straight section along the Kremlin walls was where the racing drivers lashed their horses to maximum speed.
These amusements soon became an annual tradition; on the Moscow River in winter the city began to arrange "orderly" competitions. Two stadiums were constructed for the better-off citizens; there were so many people that the ice would crack. Two racetracks were cleared, measuring 250 sazhen (533 metres), with the turnings made around two columns.
Tuesday, 13th February, 2007: from 4 pm to 9pm the Maslenitsa Fair is offering free pancakes with honey mead, traditional folk souvenirs and contests.
Maslenitsa Wednesday in history – Feasting
This day opened the feast proper, in all homes, when pancakes and other delicacies were prepared in quantities. Each housewife had her own pancake recipe and kept it a secret. Pancakes were made in a great variety of ingredients – from wheat, buckwheat, fine-ground barley and oats. Street stalls were opened, selling hot toddy (made from honey, water and spices), nuts, honey cakes, tea and pancakes. This day sons-in-law went to their mothers-in-law to eat blini.
Wednesday, 14th February, 2007: At 7pm at the Maslenitsa Fair there is a contest between men and women, where everyone can take part.
Maslenitsa Thursday in History - Revelry
The biggest day of Butter Week was ‘Wild Thursday.’ In Moscow this meant fi st fi ghting. One of the favourite places for fighting was the area of land immediately below the Moscow River Bridge. The contests were often extremely violent, in spite of the strict rules. “Never hit a man when he is down” goes the Russian proverb, and it comes from Maslenitsa. Violations of the rules were punished. Rules, of course, are made to be broken – a Dr Collins, in Moscow during the mid-17th century, recorded that more than 200 men were killed on this day.
Thursday, 15th February, 2007: At 6pm at the Maslenitsa Fair a concert begins, during which performances of different folk groups and comedians are expected.
Maslenitsa Friday in History – Motherin-law’s Eve
Mothers-in-law were invited by their sons-in-law to a gathering with pancakes. Newly-wed couples put on their best clothes and rode on decorated sledges. This was a day to visit all those who had been the guests at a wedding. Friday, 16th February 2007: The Maslenitsa Fair at Vasilyevsky Spusk is open and is working half an hour longer than usual – until 9:30pm. This is so that you can spend even more time with your mother-in-law…
Maslenitsa Saturday in History – Sisterin-law’s Gathering
Sisters-in-law and other relatives were invited for dinner by a young wife, where she was supposed to distribute gifts. After strolls and round dances, when darkness arrived, Maslenitsa dolls were burnt in ritual fires, with cries and laughter. Pancakes were thrown into the fire with the words: “Burn, pancake, burn, Maslenitsa!”
Saturday, 17th February 2007: At the Maslenitsa Fair the entertainment starts at 2pm. At 4pm, during the children’s concert you will have a chance to see how children imagine Maslenitsa and its rituals.
Maslenitsa Sunday in History – Forgiveness Day
People went to cemeteries and left pancakes on the graves of their ancestors. Everybody asked one another for forgiveness and bowed with the words, “God will forgive you.” All the food that was left was eaten, along with a piece of rye bread and salt, as a reminder of the coming Lent.
On this day the Maslenitsa dolls continued to be burnt; after they had turned to ashes, young people jumped over the fire, and this action ended Maslenitsa. The Sunday of pagan Maslenitsa is also the Orthodox Day of Forgiveness (known in the West as Shrove Sunday).
Sunday, 18th February, 2007: This is the last day of the fair, and when the main festivities take place. At 4pm the festive procession from Vasilyevsky Spusk to Triumfalnaya Square starts, accompanied by skomorokhi (travelling clowns). At 5pm, when the procession has ended, the closing concert starts. There will be an offi cial closing ceremony at 8:50pm, followed by fireworks at 9pm.
The Monday after Maslenitsa: The last day of celebrating Maslenitsa was called Pure Monday (which coincides with the first day of Lent). Everybody went to the banya, women scrubbed the dishes of grease and what the cats had not eaten: “Maslenitsa won’t last forever for the cat, as Lent will come.”
One other thing: on the first day of Lent men were supposed to gargle with vodka, and then go to the banya.
Maslenitsa (Butter Week) Fair
M. Okhotny Ryad
12 - 17 February
4pm to 9pm (Friday until 9:30pm)