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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Indulge Stomachs in Sun God's Honor




Today is the third day of Maslenitsa, or Butter Week, the 1,500-year-old Russian cousin of the French Mardi Gras and South American Carnivale. Maslenitsa was originally rooted in pagan celebrations in honor of Yarila, the god of the sun, which ensured the fertility of the land. The week-long farewell to winter marked the start of the spring agricultural season.


Around the 16th century, the Russian Orthodox Church made Maslenitsa an official religious holiday in an attempt to Christianize the remaining pagan beliefs. Now Maslenitsa is a gluttonous preparation for the seven-week Lenten fast before Easter.


Every day of the Maslenitsa week has a name and rites. Monday, for example, is called Vstrecha, or Greeting. That's when people ritually greet Maslenitsa, personified by a large, straw-stuffed sarafan, or peasant doll, representing a fertility goddess.


Every day of the festival, people cook and eat golden pancakes, blini, which were solar and fertility symbols and Maslenitsa's central emblem. Blini are consumed in unchecked amounts, drowned in butter or sour cream or stuffed with meat, caviar or homemade jams. Mothers-in-law of new brides traditionally spend Monday teaching their sons' wives to make perfect blini.


Maslenitsa was the time when people courted and weddings were celebrated. The festivities of the second day, called Zaigryshi, or Games, included erotic dances, games, troika races and sleigh rides down an ice hill. The newlyweds took part in the rite when they had to kiss atop an ice hill from which they were then pushed down on a sleigh. In another ritual, young women had to slide down the hill with their skirts rolled up -- to "warm up the land."


Group fist fights when men fought "wall on wall" and storming of a snow fortress were originally organized in remembrance of the warriors in pagan society. Now the storm is still one of the favorite Maslenitsa entertainments, when people first build the fortress together, usually on a frozen river, and then fight with brooms and snow balls. The losers are no longer dipped through a hole in the ice, and people simply drink a toast to peace after the fight.


On the last day, the Maslenitsa doll was burned, and its ashes were poured over the fields for a good harvest, while people jumped over fires, symbols of the sun's power on earth, and rolled wooden wheels set on fire from the top of a hill.


Sunday is called Proshchyonnoye, or Forgiveness Sunday, when people traditionally ask each other forgiveness for all the intentional and unintentional bad that they have done to each other, and go to the cemetery where they drink and eat near the graves to pay homage to the dead.


For many contemporary Russians, Maslenitsa has lost its significance. Maslenitsa celebrations are organized at virtually every park, people come as observers, not as participants.


In Victory Park, celebrations start at noon Saturday and continue on Sunday. There will be folkloric Maslenitsa rituals, ice hill and sleigh rides. Blini, pirogi and hot tea will be available. Fireworks are scheduled for 9 p.m. Saturday.


On Saturday, Kolomenskoye state preserve has one of the most ambitious recreations of Maslenitsa festivities including fist fights, troika rides, singing, dancing and burning of the doll.


In the city center, there will be celebrations Saturday at Vasilyevsky Spusk behind St. Basil's cathedral.