If all had gone according to plan when I was getting my Russian visa last May, I would have arrived in Moscow June 1st and left March 1st. But, luckily, things didn't go according to plan; my trip was delayed, and my departure date is now March 15th. I say "luckily" because I got to participate in my first Maslenitsa festivities in Russia on Sunday the 6th. Maslenitsa is roughly the same as Carnival or Mardi Gras, which all mark the week of celebrations before lent. But Maslenitsa, Mardi Gras, etc. have their roots in pre-Christian pagan holidays celebrating the beginning of spring.
Sunday was the last day of Maslenitsa week here in Russia and I joined my roommate and another friend for a festival of games and blini (or traditional Russian pancakes, the sun-like symbols of Maslenitsa) in Istra, a town an hour or so outside of Moscow.
We were greeted with shots of vodka:
And different games/activities, such as jumping rope and walking on stilts:
You may have noticed that it doesn't look particularly spring-like in the pictures. In fact, it looks a lot like the dead of winter. It's no optical illusion. It was very very cold and I wasn't fully prepared. There was a half an hour or so when I was preoccupied with worries of frostbite. I thought that my feet, in particular, were in danger of permanent damage after my shoes got wet and the temperature seemed to steadily decrease...
But then we found the bonfire, cognac, and fake gypsies and everything got better. A LOT better.
For the first time I experienced hard liquor dulling the pain of cold weather. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also the first time that hard liquor has ever gone down so painlessly. Liquor and bonfire are the perfect pair. Whenever my feet started to feel cold again, I would just stick them fearlessly into the fire pit.
But it wasn't all liquor and fire. We enjoyed some more traditional Maslenitsa activities as well. Most importantly was the consumption of homemade blini (look in my left hand for the pancake and at my face for the excitement).
And the event that marks the end of Maslenitsa: the burning of a scarecrow (here a rather large one):
I think that the first week of March may be a wee bit early to legitimately declare the onset of spring in the middle of Russia. But, in the end, I can't say that I mind the farce all that much. We'll just say that for whatever reason the sheep (spring) feels comfortable wearing the wolf's (winter's) clothing for a little while.