Foodways

It's Russian Mardi Gras: Time For Pancakes, Butter And Fistfights

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    A man dressed as a medieval East Slavic harlequin distributes blini in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the last day of Maslenitsa in 2009. The festival originated in pagan times as a way to mark the end of winter and beginning of spring. Pancakes known as blinis abound: Their round shape and warmth were meant to symbolize the sun.
    Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
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    Street vendors in the ancient Russian city of Suzdal, some 124 miles east of Moscow, prepare the traditional foods that mark the Maslenitsa holiday in 2010.
    Mikhail Metzel/AP
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    A vendor sells blini at a booth camp just outside the Kremlin in Moscow during Maslenitsa, February 2009. Each day of the week calls for prescribed activities. For example, on Sunday, the final day of the event, people are supposed to seek forgiveness from friends and strangers.
    Misha Japaridze/AP
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    Belarusian women in festive costumes welcome the coming of spring with stacks of blinis during the 2010 Maslenitsa celebrations. The holiday is celebrated in Slavic Orthodox European countries.
    Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
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    Smiling Russians at the Aksyonovo village celebrations of Maslenitsa in 2012.
    Ivan Sekretarev/AP
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    People view straw effigies for sale at a booth just outside the Kremlin in 2009. Often referred to as "Lady Maslenitsa," the straw figures are meant to symbolize winter (the word for winter in Russian is feminine).
    Misha Japaridze/AP
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    Residents of the Russian town of Yalutorovsk attempted to make a record-breaking pancake during 2011 celebrations of Maslenitsa. For several years, Yalutorovsk's residents have made a huge pancake for Maslenitsa to apply for entry into the Guinness Book of World Records, but they've failed to turn it over.
    Marat Gubaidullin/AP
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    Belarusian woman drink vodka and sample more traditionally sized blinis.
    Sergei Grits/AP
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    People stick coins to an ice sculpture of Lady Maslenitsa in front of St. Basil's Cathedral just outside the Kremlin on Feb. 14, 2010, during the last day of Maslenitsa celebrations.
    Misha Japaridze/AP
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    A man tries to burn a small effigy of Lady Maslenitsa during the final evening of festivities in 2011 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The torching marks the end of the holiday — a fiery goodbye to "lady winter." A larger straw effigy burns in the distance.
    Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

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Nothing says party like pancakes and butter. At least, not if you happen to be in Russia this week.

The country is in the midst of celebrating Maslenitsa, an Eastern Slavic folk holiday that takes place the week before the start of Russian Orthodox Lent (this year, it starts March 18). Though now tied to the Christian calendar, Maslenitsa has roots in ancient Slavic sun worshippers — it originally marked the end of winter and advent of spring. And, like Mardi Gras, it involves a whole lot of feasting before the Lenten fast — with blinis, a Russian pancake, as the food of choice.

Topped with sour cream, caviar, berries or jam, blinis are everywhere, anyway you like 'em. Why blinis? Their round shape and warmth were meant to symbolize the sun. And they're usually drenched in butter (the festival, whose name derives from "maslo," the Russian word for butter, is also known as "Butter Week").

"Everyone goes crazy with the buttered food" and the blinis, says Anton Fedyashin, a professor of Russian history at American University. He says he has attended 10 or so Maslenitsa festivals since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "You eat them as often as possible."

The holiday is observed in other Slavic Orthodox European countries, he says, but "nowhere more elaborately than in Russia."

Pancakes are king during Maslenitsa, but there's more to the festival than just food. Sleigh rides, snowball fights, family gatherings and general merrymaking are all part of the tradition, with prescribed activities for each day of the week.

Indeed, a Google search turned up plenty of Maslenitsa traditions — some of which seemed too wild to believe at first.

Organized fistfights? They're real — apparently, they're meant to celebrate Russia's fighting spirit. Our Moscow correspondent, Corey Flintoff, confirms there's a fight on the schedule of events at a park in the Russian capital this Sunday.

Dancing bears? Yep, in some places. Bears are considered a symbol of Russia. And performing bears are an old tradition among Russian Gypsies, also known as Roma, says Galina Aleksandrovna Komissarova of the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. The bears, she notes, are "not obligatory."

Celebrations were more muted during the Soviet era, usually taking place at home. But in recent years, the festivities have become more elaborate public events.

In Moscow this year, streets are being temporarily rechristened with names like "Gluttony Row," where passersby can sample blini in their many incarnations, according to The Moscow Times. Tasting lines, concerts and contests will be held at Gorky Park — an amusement park that might ring a bell with some Americans because of the 1983 movie of the same name.

And in Pskov, a city of about 200,000 in northwestern Russia, officials have even created a Maslenitsa mascot as a way to raise the region's profile: Czar Blin is "a pancake-themed jolly despot" to rule over the holiday, The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent reports. (Think of him as the Hamburglar of pancakes.)

It all culminates on Sunday, when, across Russia, people will ask for forgiveness from their fellow man (sometimes even from strangers). In some regions, the grand finale calls for pyrotechnics: A straw effigy of a woman, "Lady Maslenitsa," meant to represent winter (the word for "winter" is feminine in Russian, explains Komissarova), is burned to bid the season a fiery goodbye. Others make do with ice sculptures of "lady winter," says Komissarova.

Of course, this being Russia — where alcoholism has been called a "national disaster" — no holiday would be complete without plenty of alcohol.

"Eating and drinking, blini and sour cream and caviar," notes Komissarova, "that is the main thing."

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