The carnival in Russia is celebrated during the last week before Lent. Known in Russian as Maslenitsa, the carnival season is also called Pancake Week because the round, warm, golden pancakes consumed during the festival symbolize the sun, the end of winter, and the beginning of spring. In addition, because the pancakes are made with ingredients allowed for consumption even during religious fasts, they represent food acceptable to eat during Lent.
A tradition of Maslenitsa is to share pancakes, also known as blini, with family, friends, and acquaintances throughout the carnival week. Blini are served warm with butter and assorted toppings, such as honey or jam, or the pancake is topped with sour cream, mushrooms, and caviar. A primary goal during Pancake Week is to feast in preparation for the impending fast, so it’s unsurprising that a significant part of the carnival revolves around food—and lots of it. Along with blini, fresh seafood, caviar, nuts, honey, beverages, and assorted pastries are readily available throughout the celebration.
Maslenitsa is held at the end of winter when snow is still covers the ground. Activities during the festival center around snow related include fun and games that include sledding, creating snow sculptures, snowball competitions, skiing, and horse-drawn sleigh rides. The carnival in Russia is considered a folk holiday signifying the end of winter and utilizes some of the traditions and rituals dating back to pagan times.
Long-standing traditions during Maslenitsa include bonfires, music, singing, clowns, puppet shows, theater presentations, troika rides, and fireworks. Dressing in colorful garments to masquerade your identity is all a part of the festival activities.
The carnival in Russia has a mascot in the form of a beautifully clothed straw figure known as Lady Maslenitsa. The final ceremony at the end of the festival week is to remove the colorful clothing, a symbol of removing all possessions, and then burning the straw effigy on a bonfire officially ending the celebration.
Although Maslenitsa is celebrated at the end of winter when the ground is covered in snow and the temperature is cold, the carnival is a popular celebration. For vacationers visiting Russia during the winter, the festival provides plenty of outdoor activities.
The festival is celebrated in quaint villages throughout the country with the biggest event held in Red Square for the Moscow Carnival. During Pancake Week, the Moscow Carnival draws large crowds where both local citizens and visitors to the city enjoy hot pancakes slathered with butter and assorted toppings along with medovukha, an alcoholic honey-flavored beverage.
To celebrate the St Petersburg carnival during Shrovetide, the St Petersburg Ballet presents a special performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka, which captures the essence of Maslenitsa. Performances are held at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg along with organized masquerade events.
In London, the Russian Culture Festival, much like the celebration at the Moscow Carnival, brings the centuries old spirit of Maslenitsa to the city allowing Londoners to experience the traditions and culture of Russia. The festival features music by balalaika players, Russian dances, crafts, costumes, and pancakes of this centuries old festival.