Palaces, Paganism and Pancakes

On the 23rd February, Russia marks the Defender of the Fatherland Day. This was originally a holiday day to celebrate people who are serving or who have served in the Russian Armed Forces, and has been celebrated since 1919. Nowadays, the festival is also more colloquially referred to as ‘Men’s Day’ and celebrates all men (fear not, ‘Women’s Day’ is coming soon on the 8th March). This meant that we were in for a four day weekend, giving us lots of time to explore the city and spend time with friends.

After meeting up with a language buddy I went for dinner at a friend’s flat and met up with Emma and Will, two Cambridge students who were visiting from Moscow. Having caught up on each others Russian adventures, we sprinted along Nevskii Prospekt to catch the firework display taking place over the Neva River. Arriving just in time, we took in the glorious sight of fireworks exploding and cannons firing over the Winter Palace.

For Friday I had received a very last-minute invitation to travel to Vyborg with a group of international students. Thankfully I didn’t sleep through my alarm and we arrived early at the train station to catch an elektrichka (a type of train) there. Despite clear skies in Petersburg, as we drew closer more and more snow began falling, which wasn’t a great prospect for a day of wondering around the town. When we arrived we had lunch at an Italian restaurant, since it was quite difficult to find an authentically ‘Russian’ lunch place which could fit 18 or so of us in! We then met our lovely tour guide Svetlana, who showed us around the town. Vyborg is very close to the Finnish border and a lot of its history is interwinted with Finland and Sweden. The town itself belonged to Finland until the Winter War between the USSR and Finland in 1940, when it was transferred to Soviet control.

Sliding around the icy town we saw lots of sights but got very cold, and so we were glad to run into a café for a cup of tea before we went our final tourist site. The community library in Vyborg is one of a few ‘Functionalist’ pieces of architecture in Russia, and was recently restored. It’s design is incredibly intelligent with features such as wide circular sky lights, movable bookshelves and an emphasis on using natural materials such as stone rather than metal. Since we caught a tour at the end of the day, we were in a very small group which meant we could ask lots of questions and take our time nosing around.

After a long ride home on the elektrichka we grabbed some pancakes and then got some well deserved rest. Saturday was an opportunity to catch up on some rest, and after cooking a dinner for Emma we went to a party with some Russian and English students.

Sunday was the culmination of ‘Maslenitsa’. This festival was originally a pagan practice, celebrating the spring solstice. Traditionally, people cook Russian pancakes/blinis since they represent the forthcoming sunny months: like the sun, they are round, light-coloured and warm! Nowadays, it coincides with Orthodox preparation for Lent and it is a popular festival for Russian people. A group of us travelled to a park where celebrations were being held, and we begun by grabbing a hot cup of Medovukha  (Russian honey beer!). We wandered around and saw a crowd gathering. In classic Soviet style, we joined in not quite knowing what we were waiting for. Eventually we discovered that we were in prime position to watch some Kazak horse tricks. Some young people in traditional costume displayed their skills on horseback, and it was honestly so impressive! They threw themselves about on the saddle, dragged their feet on the ground before hopping back on the saddle and one man even rode standing on two horses with one foot on each! (Sadly my photos are very blurry, since I filmed rather than taking photos).

Having found some blinis to eat, we continued to wander about and found some live traditional folk music. We enthusiastically joined in with the folk dancing elements, and I was thankful I was holding the hand of a rather sturdy Russian man since I was slipping about on the ice in a rather poor choice of footwear! We also managed to catch some folk singing, but by this point we were getting a little chilly from standing out in the open.

We rounded off our celebrations by partaking in another Maslenitsa Tradition. People burn dolls made out of straw and bright clothing which is also called a ‘Maslenitsa’, which symbolises winter; by burning these figures, people symbolise how they are leaving winter and welcoming in the spring. There was a big bonfire planned for the evening, but we saw some other people burning their own figures throughout the park. So we simply found a spot and lit our figurines ourselves.

This four-day weekend has been exhausting but so much fun! It’s been great to see more of Russian and Russian culture, and take some time to simply reflect on what a different and special country it is.

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