Feb. 20-26 is Maslenitsa week in Russia. A mix of Orthodox and pagan Slavic traditions, this week marks the farewell to winter and the beginning of Great Lenten fast, which lasts for 40 days. It is a time for having lots of fun and, most importantly, eating plenty of bliny, Russian pancakes.
What is left for us from the Shrovetide festivities is just bliny and Forgiveness Sunday, which maybe is not that bad. No longer do we need to ride the Russian hills (“to ride the hills, to wallow in bliny”), or hold dashing fistfights, or the necessary fraternizing with mothers-in-law, or the rather horrifying rite of the Kostroma burning [Kostroma is an East Slavic fertility goddess, who is usually portrayed as a straw effegy and ceremonially burned during the Shrovetide festival.] But the blin, being a solar sign and hand-made imprint of celestial bodies and resembling the lunar landscape with its blistered surface, is archaic in the extreme. By the way, has it ever crossed your mind that our tea drinking from a samovar, cups, and saucers very closely resembles our solar system? Food is food, but kitchen is a theater of ideological spectacles. Maslenichnaya (the adjectival form of Shrovetide, from the word “maslo” [that which is being spread]) or Cheesefare Week (when in anticipation of the 54 Maslenitsa, which originally came from pagan holidays marking the vernal equinox, now is celebrated as the week of carnival before the Lenten fast begins). Bliny play a significant role in the celebrations, both as a symbol of excess before the fast as well as a symbol of perfection in terms of their round shape. The Great Lenten fast, where one already abstains from meat, should have been called “Bliny” Week by the name of its main ritual dish (“blin” is a distorted “mlin” or “mlinets,” that is, a dish made out of ground grain). The “blin” is a commemorative dish, but at the same time a life-asserting one. It resembles a burial shroud, but it also feeds you and imparts you with a life force. And when red caviar is folded into the blin, it promises life beyond the threshold of death. The bliny can be dipped into Slavic sour cream or a mushroom sauce, into sunny honey or melted butter; you can fold them into an envelope-like shape and fill them with various kinds of stuffing, but by themselves they have to be simple and primal with almost zero taste (like water in the desert and bread without additives, like raw oysters and avocado flesh, like brut champagne and clear vodka).
Our Maslenitsa is a sister of European Carnival, a similar pagan, pre-Christian festival of the banishment of winter (not the season of the year but the embodiment of the death of nature). Orthodox Christianity transformed Maslenitsa into one part of the swing’s amplitude – which through the revelry of Maslenitsa festivities and the ensuing Forgiveness Sunday is capable of throwing the congregation straight into Bright Monday, the beginning of Great Lent, and to remind the rest of the people how important it is for every family at least a few times a year to bake pirozhki pies and make bliny so that our children would not grow up to be freaks of nature.