So today marked the last day of Maslenitsa (aka Butter Week, aka Pancake Week aka “Cheesefare Week”) which is the Russian holiday prior to Lent, sort of like an elongated Mardi Gras, although it’s usually just the Saturday and Sunday of it that have the big celebrations these days.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken the opportunity to get out of the city center and go to a Maslenitsa celebration in one of the suburbs, but this only occurred to me after I was already at the large celebration at the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was interesting, but there were tons of people and not a lot of things actually going on (up until the end, which unfortunately I missed.)
The highlight of Maslenitsa is definitely the blini, which are Russian crepes. Because Maslenitsa was the last week before people had to give up milk, eggs, and butter for Lent, during Maslenitsa the tradition is to feast on pancakes made of (you guessed it) milk, eggs, and butter. Blini can be sweet or savory, like crepes. So for breakfast yesterday my host mom made blini with sweetened sour cream and blueberry jam, but at the fair today they were also selling them with sour cream, cheese, ham, and caviar. You can actually buy blini all year round (the local fast food chain Teremok has little blini kiosks all over the city, which are great) but they are especially popular during Maslentisa.
I was overwhelmed by the number of blini stands at the fair today, so I just picked the longest line I saw and got at the end, figuring that if people were lining up like that, whatever was at the end of the line must be pretty good. When I finally got to the front of the line I was rewarded with some mediocre, microwaved blini, and glintwein—Russian mulled wine. I suddenly understood the stands popularity, as I did not see the glintwein being sold anywhere else.
I also saw a bunch of people walking around with this, so I decided to try it. It is basically what it looks like: sugar coated fruit on a stick. WAY too sweet for me, but the kids at the fair were loving it. After some internet research at home, I found out that this is actually a Chinese snack, called tanghulu, which explains why mom host mom was so confused when I was trying to explain to her what it is.
At the fair there were also puppet shows, mini-Maslenitsa doll making workshops for kids, dancing for kids, and people dressed up in “traditional” Russian costumes singing and dancing. Also wandering groups of children in costumes singing and playing instruments. It all got a little overwhelming after a while, especially the loud music, so I ended up leaving before the main event: the burning of the figure (like a giant puppet) of the Maslenitsa. I’m not really sure of the significance, so I won’t try to explain.
Oh! I also took a few (cautious) steps onto the ice of the Neva by outside the fortress, just so I could say I did: