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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pagans and Pancakes

MT
W ay back in pagan times, what is now called Maslenitsa, or Pancake Week, was once a holiday celebrated during the spring solstice to usher out the winter and welcome in the New Year. An effigy of winter was made of straw, dressed in women's clothes and burned; blini -- golden, round pancakes symbolizing the sun -- were eaten by the dozen; and ancient Slavs partied riotously for two weeks. After Christianity was accepted in Russia, there were attempts to forbid the holiday, but they weren't successful; after the long, hard winter, people just needed to get a jump-start on spring. So the church made a wise decision: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The holiday was Christianized into a weeklong splurge before the strict, 40-day Great Lenten Fast.

And splurge Russians did, with fairs, minstrels, Petrusha puppet shows (something like Punch and Judy), acrobats, jugglers, sleigh rides, fireworks, dancing bears, ice slides, team fistfights and the storming of a snow fort -- not to mention blini by the cartloads and barrels of mead, beer and vodka.

Every village, town and city celebrated Maslenitsa right through the 1917 Revolution, but eventually the Soviet government did what the early church fathers could not: They banned it. After decades, even memories of Maslenitsa began to fade. But the authorities couldn't ban blini, and even the most ardent Communists enjoyed at least one evening of pancakes around the kitchen table.

In recent years, Maslenitsa has been revived with a zeal that would put ancient pagans to shame. If you've got the winter doldrums, be of good cheer: From Feb. 12 to 18, the entire country is partying down. There will be plenty of merriment in Moscow, but if you want to experience small-town Maslenitsa, you might take a road trip to one of the Golden Ring cities.

Moscow



Moscow is celebrating at more than 100 sites throughout the city, but Vasilyevsky Spusk (between St. Basil's Cathedral and the Moscow River) is Maslenitsa Central. Every weekday from late afternoon till 9 p.m. there will be free blini; lots of booths selling food, drinks and souvenirs; minstrels, singing and dancing; contests and shows. During the weekend the merriment begins at 2 p.m., and on Sunday a procession of minstrels, singers and dancers will prance with a straw effigy of winter from Triumfalnaya Ploshchad to Vasilyevsky Spusk. Fireworks and a concert are planned to start at 9 p.m.


Igor Tabakov / MT
Boys battling in a traditional Maslenitsa game. Free blini will be offered in Moscow.
Kolomenskoye is celebrating Saturday and Sunday afternoon with blini, food, drinks and souvenir stands; folklore ensembles, singing and dancing; bonfires and round dances; troika rides and the storming of the snow fortress (all are welcome to join the battle). Lefortovo and Lyublino are also to celebrate on Saturday afternoon. All of the city parks are to have entertainment Sunday, with the All-Russian Exhibition Center, or VVTs, and Izmailovo putting on particularly lavish spectacles.

Details at www.maslenitsa.com

Yaroslavl



The charming merchant city of Yaroslavl (250 kilometers from the capital) is giving Moscow a run for its Maslenitsa money. For the fourth year, Yaroslavl is touting its celebration as "the main Maslenitsa in the country." They'll be partying all week with all the traditional food and entertainment, plus a festival of classical and folk music, a film festival, fireworks every night and hot air balloons.

Details at www.maslenica.ru

Kostroma



The pretty ancient city of Kostroma on the Volga (about 400 kilometers from Moscow) has its own Maslenitsa claim to fame: Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) is said to have been born here. On Sunday, Feb. 18, in the city's Central Park (and five other sites), Kostroma's farewell to winter is to involve lots of singing and dancing Snegurochkas, skating, ice slides and a riotous storming of the snow fortress -- plus all the traditional food, drink, souvenirs and merriment.

Suzdal



On Sunday, Feb. 19, the Merchant Square in Suzdal (200 kilometers from Moscow) will celebrate with minstrels, folklore ensembles, games, contests, and the ritual burning of the straw effigy of winter -- not to mention blini, mead, and souvenirs.