>2004.02.13 Moscow Times:
Friday, February 13, 2004
By Alexander Osipovich
For centuries, Russians have celebrated Maslenitsa by gorging themselves on
pancakes and knocking back industrial-sized quantities of vodka. So the
weeklong festival marking Orthodox believers' last chance to eat dairy
products before Lent might not seem like the best time to promote physical
fitness and sportsmanship. Nonetheless, the Moscow city government has
decided that pancakes and sports are a match made in heaven. From Monday to
Feb. 22, the city will host the world's first-ever Olympic Maslenitsa Town
on Vasilyevsky Spusk, the stretch of land between St. Basil's Cathedral and
the Moscow River, to promote Moscow's bid for the 2012 Olympics.
"This year, Maslenitsa will have an athletic character," declared Tatyana
Kokoryova, a public relations manager for the upcoming festival. Asked what
sports have to do with a holiday best known for gluttony and debauchery,
Kokoryova pointed out that Russians once celebrated Maslenitsa by sledding,
fistfighting, riding in troikas and climbing poles.
In keeping with tradition at Monday's opening ceremonies, Olympic
athletes will light a Maslenitsa flame -- in a giant frying pan, of course.
The flame will burn for seven days overlooking the Olympic Maslenitsa Town,
where visitors can eat pancakes, listen to music and watch traditional
The highlight of the show will come on Thursday, when Moscow will attempt
to enter the Guinness Book of World Records by building the world's tallest
stack of pancakes. The organizers hope to build a stack 15 meters high,
promising that "famous politicians" will be involved in the effort. After
the greasy heap of pancakes has been measured and immortalized by Guinness,
it will be eaten by children from Moscow orphanages.
This is the third year in a row that the Moscow city government has
sponsored a public celebration of Maslenitsa. According to Kokoryova, over
2 million people visited Maslenitsa Town in 2003. But for many Russians,
Maslenitsa is a private holiday best celebrated with friends. Orthodox
believers take the opportunity to squeeze in some socializing -- and some
calories -- before the 40-day fast of Lent.
Yet many Maslenitsa traditions date back to pagan Russia, when the early
Slavs held a similar holiday to mark the end of winter. Even back then,
pancakes magically ushered in the spring; fried up on the pan, they
symbolized the sun, while their ingredients -- grain, flour and eggs --
Pagan roots can also be detected in today's tradition of forcing
newlyweds to kiss (to promote fertility) and burning a scarecrow (to bring
the winter down in flames). The Orthodox Church has never quite approved of
these pagan traditions. Instead, church doctrine states that the week of
Maslenitsa should be used to prepare oneself mentally for Lent.
Many Russians take a different approach altogether -- back in the mid-17th
century, the Englishman Samuel Collins, court doctor to Tsar Alexei
Mikhailovich, observed that 20 to 30 Muscovites drank themselves to death
each Maslenitsa. "During Butter-week, before the Great Lent, Russians give
themselves over to all sorts of amusements and unbridled excesses," he
wrote. "They drink as if they were fated to drink for the last time in
Reining in the unruly holiday has proved a chore; Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich
tried to ban fistfights, games of chance, and, curiously, swinging on
swings. Peter the Great loved Maslenitsa -- in 1722, he celebrated it with
a mock naval procession, standing on the deck of the largest ship as horses
pulled it through the streets of Moscow. The Soviets tolerated Maslenitsa,
but they renamed it the Send-Off of Russian Winter, to eliminate any
With Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the Moscow City Hall taking a new approach to
Maslenitsa, the golden hue of this year's pancakes may conceal the glint of
an Olympic medal.