Maslenitsa - Russian Mardi Gras

Irkutsk, Russia

Maslenitsa - Russian Mardi Gras

Words by Joshua Hartshorne

The Russian Orthodox calendar includes four Lent-like fasts. The one coming before Easter is called the 'Great Fast.' Like the Catholic tradition, Russian Orthodoxy respects the need to enjoy oneself before a month of self-denial. In Russian, this week-long festival is called Maslenitsa.

The 'main' day of Maslenitsa is the last one, which this year fell on a Sunday. My friends here in Irkutsk (Siberia) offered to take me to the location of the main festivities: Tal'tsi, a small historical village an hour out of town. Given the Russian love of hard alcohol, I was expecting something that would make Carnival seem tame. I was in for a wholesome surprise.

Early Sunday morning, my neighbor Natasha and I headed out to a market near the Irkutsk dam, where we met up with our friends to wait for a bus to Tal'tsi. Typically, one needs to take a car — which none of us have — or a cab — which is outside our student budgets — but it being a special event, we expected enterprising bus-drivers to run special routes. Sure enough, after ten minutes a rusty old bus rolled up to the stop. The driver stuck his head out the window and shouted, 'Who's going to Tal'sti?' We and the others waiting clamored on board. It was already standing-room only. There were points when I did not think the bus was going to make it over a given hill we were climbing, but after an hour, we had made it to the village.

Tal'tsi itself is one of a number of outdoor ethnographic folk museums in Russia. In essence, it's a collection of old, period-specific buildings. Tal'tsi has Siberian bark wigwams, tree-houses and Buryat huts, laid out along a path through the woods between the highway and the village. Tal'tsi proper is an entire settler-era wooden village complete with town tower, all rescued from the damming of the Angara River. The buildings were moved to safety, including the old mills, which look a little odd several hundred meters from the river banks.

The Siberian culture section was the most fascinating for me, since I know almost nothing about the original Siberian nations. In fact, until a year ago I didn't even know that there were any. I had assumed Siberia had always been Russian. As it turns out, Russians only began expanding into Siberia in the 1500s — about the same time Europeans were making headway into the new world. As in the Americas, Russian settlers and trappers killed and displaced as they went. Now, only in the area around Irkutsk is the Siberian population still significant, which is one of the reasons I came here.

The Russian section was also an adventure, where I saw things I had only read about before. For instance, Russian homes were traditionally heated by a very, very large oven. The elderly or sick slept on top of the oven, it being the warmest place in the house during the long winter. This I learned reading the autobiography of the great Russian writer Maksim Gorky, but I had never seen one. All the old houses in Tal'tsi had such ovens, with the top sleeping area partitioned by curtains.

As we wandered through this rustic and historic setting to the location of the party on the other side of town, I should have expected something far different than Mardi Gras or Carnival. When we turned the corner to the village main, the milling crowd reminded me of nothing so much as a Renaissance festival, with roaming choirs in traditional costume and visitors amusing themselves with folk games. Some games were familiar: tug-of-war, pillow-fighting and stilt-walking.

Others were completely new. My favorite, which I am determined to introduce to the States, involves a hat and a boot on a rope. One person, wearing the hat, stands in the middle of a circle, swinging the boot around. The rest try to sneak in and grab the hat before he (as a rule, only boys played this game) manages to clobber them with the boot. If someone manages to get the hat without being touched by the rope, he is then the new person in the center. All this is made that much more difficult by several inches of ice on the ground. There was a similar game where the person in the middle was blindfolded and swinging a short piece of rope. The goal was to touch him without being touched by the rope.

The two signature games of Maslenitsa are the pole-climb and the storming of the snow fort. The pole climb involves a huge smooth wooden pole (maybe 40 or 50 feet high) which men wearing only their underwear attempt to scale. I should point out that February in Irkutsk is cold (-10 to -20 Celsius) and windy. Several prizes are strung up at the top of the pole, so anyone who makes it to the top selects a prize and comes back down (as quickly as possible!).

That one I did not try myself.

I did storm the snow fort. The snow fort consisted of a tall wall (7-8 feet high) with a small tower; both made igloo-style with blocks of snow and ice. While the stormers tried to scale it, a small group of defenders pushed the attackers off the wall. This was after several hours on impromptu bombardment of the snow fort. In fact, snowball fights ran all day, with even parents lobbing chunks of ice at their children. Kids and teenagers were perched on the snow fort and on the roofs all around the main square, lobbing snow indiscriminately into the crowds below. Some of these buildings are several stories high, and all of the roofs are steeply slanted. Amazingly no one fell.

At one point in the snow-fight, I snuck up under the wall of the snow-fort and began lobbing large chunks of ice which had fallen from the wall back over it. This worked pretty well until someone got wise, leaned over, and pelted me with a chunk of ice. At least it was cold enough that I didn't have to ice the lump on my cheek.

It struck me that almost none of this — the snow fort, the climbing pole, frolicking about snowy roofs — is possible in the US, where cities and organizers would be too worried about liability. Sometimes it is nice to be in a 'less civilized' country.

There was a great deal more to the festival than the games, of course. By tradition, you must eat blini (Russian pancakes). Blini were sold at stands around the festival, but we had brought our own, topped with caviar. There were souvenirs, mostly woven baskets and clay Buryat charms (Buryats are the main Siberian tribe group in the area). Like all souvenirs in Russia, they were cheap (a few dollars each), and I loaded up on presents for friends and family. There were other games, wrestling, and blini-eating contests...

There was also the burning of the winter in effigy. The 'maslenitsa' itself is a doll that symbolizes winter, as well as your sins of the previous year. You can buy little straw dolls and burn them yourself, but the organizers of the festival also have a life-sized doll for the main event. We marched behind the maslenitsa to the bonfire, where, after a great deal of speech-giving, she was duly burnt to a crisp, officially ending the festivities and the winter both, after which the crowd dispersed. My friends and I finished our blini, and then headed to join the traffic jam home.

I may have to celebrate Maslenitsa every year.

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