Bliny and Maslenitsa – an ancient Russian tradition

In Russia, you can see and experience many beautiful and historical places. The Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, The Hermitage Museum, Lake Baikal, and the Altai Mountains, are just a few of the places you can see on your next visit to Russia. However, what makes Russia special and unique are not its historical sights and natural wonders, but its people and great traditions. Last Sunday marked the end of one of the longest-standing traditions in the Eastern Slavic world: Maslenitsa. Maslenitsa, often referred to as Butter Week, Crepe Week, or Cheesefare week, is regarded as the oldest surviving Slavic holiday dated back to pagan traditions of the 2nd century A.D.

In the pagan tradition, the celebration was for the ancient god of the sun, Volos, and it celebrated the end of a long winter. However, once Christianity had reached Easter Europe, the tradition transformed into what it is today, the final week before the beginning of the Christian Orthodoxy’s Great Lent. Traditionally, meat was not allowed during this week, and still isn’t, but much like Christmas, the holiday has become increasingly secular and has become more about saying goodbye and having fun. But, sticking to tradition, Maslenitsa is the last week that dairy products are allowed before Lent. Think of it as the last indulgent hurrah before weeks of religious observation and abstaining from your favorite hearty treats. Now that we know a bit about Maslenitsa and its place on the calendar, how exactly is it celebrated?

Maslenitsa is celebrated in many ways, with variations from region to region, where often each day is dedicated to a particular activity. Nonetheless, there are elements that are common everywhere. During festivities, whether they are large or small gatherings, there is a plethora of foods, particularly pastries and goods made using eggs, milk, and wheat. The most famous, common, and staple items are bliny or Russian style crepes. You find it on its own with butter, stuffed with fruit or sweet cheese, meat, and many other delicious combinations. The reason bliny are widely used is not just because they’re delicious, but also because they have a circular shape that is representative of the sun, going back to pagan origins. In addition, it’s common to go sleigh or horseback riding, tobogganing, sledding, and even have large snowball fights. 

The common organization of the weeklong celebration goes as follows: on Monday a straw-stuffed figure is made representing the winter; on Tuesday, shows are performed and games are played; on Wednesday, large flea markets are set up with all kinds of goodies and treats; on Thursday there are more games; on Friday, in-laws treat one another with food, especially bliny; on Saturday, relatives visit one another and special attention is given to newlyweds, which occurs during most of the week. On Sunday, the last day of the whole celebration, things get a little more solemn and sincere. People go about asking one another for forgiveness, which is why the day is titled “A Day of Forgiveness,” and bid farewell to those who have passed among other things. Finally, the day ends with a large fire, where the stuffed figure representing winter is burned, and old leftovers of foods banned during lent are burned as well. It can be quite a spectacle depending on where you visit in Russian. Some of the most remote areas can have the most interesting celebrations.

BlinyWith all this in mind, coming to Russia (or Eastern Europe) during Maslenitsa would be an ideal time. You can experience, Slavic culture, amazing food, honest and fun-loving people, games and so much more. Traditions like this are what make going to Russia a unique and memorable experience.