“Are you guys from the press?”
We nod and smile timidly, asking if we can go inside to unfreeze the fingers – this year the maslenista celebration that is supposed to welcome spring, somehow ended with a snowfall.
“Come on in, you’re dead frozen! Want some tea? Our pancakes are almost done, it’s just a matter of minutes”, we are met by Yuri Itin, the director of the first professional Russian theatre, the Volkov Theatre. He smiles cordially and leaves to make sure that the samovar is boiling water and makes a place on the table with freshly baked pancakes. The hospitality is heartwarming. Minutes later we are all invited to go out and join the celebration of the last day of Maslenitsa, the Forgiveness Sunday.
Traditional Russian Maslenitsa has always been one the most joyful and happy holidays. Russians share love, warmth, and happiness, flavored with a vast variety of “blinis” (traditional butter pancakes). Passers-by are stopped and invited to join us at our little theatrical feast.
“It’s all free”, says the director, reassuring the stunned public, surrounded by the joyful actors and actresses, whom until today they only got to see from afar, on stage.
Arriving actors exchange their loving “forgive me” and hug each other in a sign of peace. According to tradition, the entire week is the time of fostering peace and understanding. Neighbors go door to door, sharing pancakes and asking each other for forgiveness. The forgiving person always responds with “God will forgive you and I will”, thus admitting that his relationship with other people has been very flawed, in hope that over the lent he could become a better person and get closer to God.
“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14)
Remaining the only pagan holiday that is recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, Maslenitsta aims to prepare Orthodox Christians for the Great Lent that will last until Easter, time of the inevitable abstinence and spiritual humility.
Always faithful to their tradition, Russians like to say “Your entire year is defined by maslenista”. Either it’s merry and abundant or not…
This year is a particular one. It will be marked by the centenary of the two revolutions of 1917. The choice of word “marked” is deliberate here, despite the insistence of some who would prefer to “celebrate” it. The forces which find joy in the celebration of the revolution will naturally use every opportunity to prove that Tsarist Russia was a terrible, enslaving country, in an attempt to prove to themselves that the joys of the so-called modern “freedom”, gained in bloodshed, are much greater. But I don’t see any point in arguing with that.
What I think is worth observing is the appearance of a new “tradition”, so clearly not Russian. This year it was the handshake flashmob, involving two thousand people. It took place on the main square of Yaroslavl, the city that hosted the most important maslenitsa in the country. Having another go at what is truly Russian, our creative class is trying so hard to be as less Russian as possible, introducing ridiculous rites, naively thinking that that’s what constitutes Europeanism.
Shaking hands, as we know it today, came to us as an obvious sign of pedophiles and homosexuals. While the majority of us shake hands every day, very few are aware of its meaning. Symbolizing a phallus, in many cultures, a raised thumb says “everything is up”, or putting it bluntly “I have no problems with my erection”. A thumb going down is, on the other hand, a negative sign, meaning the absence of erection which is interpreted as death. A thumb massage in a handshake is a direct invitation to have a closer physical contact. Simple knowledge if the two thousand people on the square cared to appreciate their own culture instead of trying so hard to adopt a new one.
After the fall of the Russian Empire, it seems that most Russians forgot about their own culture when it came to greeting each other – holding each other by arms with fingers around veins in a sign of brotherhood of blood.
We part with the cordial actors and wish each other a happy holiday.
“Are you going to keep the lent this year?” I ask a friend who is a video operator.
“Naturally. I do this every year, since I was fifteen. It became a tradition”.
While some made a clear effort of keeping the tradition of sharing both pancakes and joy, others chose to make a spectacle out of a very dubious and meaningless new tradition that clearly contradicts the spirit of Maslenitsa. As for me, I found what I was looking for.