Paul Bouvet ’14 is studying on the Dickinson-in-Moscow program for the 2012-2013 academic year. Paul wrote about his experiences last week celebrating Maslenitsa, sometimes called Pancake Week or Butter Week:
I have never been a fan of waking up before 7 o’clock, especially on a Sunday, but sometimes I will admit that it is worth it–and one of those instances would be Масленица (Maslenitsa). Maslenitsa is a 6 day long holiday with the specificity of being both a religious and a pagan celebration, which makes it one of the most popular holidays in Russia. (Well, I can really only vouch for the Moscow area.) For the orthodox, Maslenitsa means that they are 1 week away from Lent, and therefore 7 weeks away from Easter. The secular see Maslenitsa as the end of the winter.
Our day went as follows: we hopped on the electrichka (light rail) for a 50 minute ride to our destination. The ride, much like many rides on the electrichka, was an adventure in itself. There were people singing, drinking (it was only 8 am, which means that in Vladivostok or New York it was the perfect time to have a drink), and playing the balalaika and the flute. The overall atmosphere was very friendly and playful. Once we arrived we had to walk 4 km (roughly 2.5 miles) into a forest, because a Russian celebration would not be one if it was not in the middle of the woods. The walk was once again an adventure in itself: the forest was covered by, I would say, a good meter of snow, except for a little path upon which we had to walk that had been made by the organizer of the event. Since there were a lot of us going to the same place and not a lot of room on that little path, we formed a long column that could not really stop–the only exception being when someone would slip and fall, which would happen about every 5 minutes. I, myself, must have fallen half a dozen times.
We finally arrived at the site. My first impression was that it looked like some sort of clandestine village, something out of a fairy tale: the organizers were dressed in typical folkloric costumes, and the site was covered with various statues made of ice. To enter the site we had two possibilities: 1. Sing a song to a man in a fly costume that was blocking the only entrance, 2. Go through a tunnel made in a big wall of snow. I personally picked to entertain the man in the fly suit with a beautiful little show that included “Aux Champs Elysee” and some tap dance. He was impressed and let me in. The site included the aforementioned statues, a place where we could buy blinies (Russian buckwheat crepes), a slope of ice that had been turned into a slide, and many more games.
I couldn’t help but notice that the games had one common theme: let’s happily beat each other up while keeping a spirit of playfulness and friendship. So a few of the games included wrestling, beating each other up with foamy swords, beating each other up (blindfolded) with what resembled pillows, or dividing people into 2 packs of 10-15 people and make both packs run towards each other in a manner reminiscent of the barbaric battles of antiquity. Other games included climbing up a 20-something-meter pole in your underwear (when it is -5 degrees Celsius) to grab chocolate at the top.
At 2 PM the main event started. When I first arrived, I noticed a big castle made of snow, which at first I thought was just another statues. But it turns out that this castle plays a very important role for Maslenitsa since it is the castle where Dame Maslenitsa “lives” (Lady Maslenitsa is a scarecrow that is burnt at the end of the day.) A few people have to defend that castle and Lady Maslenitsa, while the rest of the crowd had to climb up into the castle and capture her. This event is called Штурм (Storm) because people are literally storming the castle. The interesting part about this is that the castle is pretty big and the assailants do not possess a ladder or any other equipment, so what they do in order to reach the top of the castle is climb onto one another.
Muscovites (and Dickinson students!) storming the ice castle during Maslenitsa
After roughly 30-45 min, the assailants finally managed to climb into the castle. Our own Chase Philpot ’14 was the second one to manage to enter the castle. Lady Maslenitsa was finally captured. Upon being captured, she was taken to the center of the site and burnt. Her ashes covered in snow, to fertilize the ground. Then, since the Sunday of Maslenitsa is a day of forgiveness, everybody asks their friends and family for forgiveness for anything they might have done wrong during the past year.
Actors at a Maslenitsa festival burn a straw effigy to celebrate the coming of Spring
I could say the usual “touristy” thing about Maslenitsa–about how it was very culturally interesting and how I learned a lot about the Russian people (which I did). But the best way to summarize Maslenitsa came to me from an old lady: “We really like Maslenitsa because it is one of the last holidays where the government does not bother us; it is a holiday where we all come together and have fun whether we are religious or not.” I will admit that it sounded very corny, but I think I mostly agree with her.
– Paul Bouvet 14