Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Land of Celebrations

You may be wondering why I have not been blogging as frequently in the previous two months as during the final months of 2009. Or, if you're like I imagine you are, you really couldn't care less. Except you, Tim Bacon. But, the reason for my general absence is more or less as follows: Russia has a lot of celebrations during the beginning of the new year, and I have been taking full advantage of them. A recap:

January: a 10-day New Year's vacation, during which I frolicked around Red Square and learned to handle my vodka as though I'd been drinking it from the womb. Then I jetted to Istanbul for a few days. After returning to teach for two weeks, I made my way to Vladimir and Suzdal on the Golden Ring before our mid-year Fulbright seminar.

February: I spent the wee hours of the morning on Monday, February 8 watching the Super Bowl in an American diner...and losing three bets on the way (why, Saints, why?).

The next week/weekend was Maslenitsa--an old pagan holiday that is still celebrated by many in Russia to welcome the coming of spring. I could not help but notice that it was, indeed, still the middle of February, which generally means at least two more months of winter weather in Russia. I spent Sunday the 14th in the middle of a snow-covered forest with friends where a large clearing was made to hold festivities. This day deserves a more detailed description.

First of all, this celebration was 'secret'. That is, it was planned by a select group of individuals and 'advertising' was done by word-of-mouth only. Supposedly, this tradition is over a century old. Every year, the festivities are held in a different location somewhere outside of Moscow, but the location is always kept a secret until the day before. I spent the day prior at Lyoha's house with some other people making blinis (pancakes--the traditional Maslenitsa dish, as it represents the sun). At some point in the evening, one of the guys received a phone call and was told the location of the celebration and how to get there. The next morning, we hopped onto an elektrichka and rode about an hour outside of the city to a random stop in the middle of a forest (I mean, absolutely no civilization sight...why there is a train stop there is beyond me). Here, however, almost the entire train disembarked and the hundreds of people who had been informed of this 'secret' jumped across the train tracks and started trekking for almost another hour through the woods with snow up to their hips.

We had been told prior to leaving that we had to learn a Russian folk-song to gain entry into the festivities. Myself and a group of other internationals chose the most easy of all folk songs, Катюша, and prepared ourselves to sing once we finally reached the entrance to the clearing where three women in traditional Russian outfits judged our performance. Upon hearing that we would be singing Катюша, however, they moaned that they had already heard it too many times that morning. Sensing that we were not from these parts, they asked us to sing a folk song from our own countries. Everyone balked, but then I remembered the one song that has brought me so much joy over the last couple years: Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" (a W&M 'education' at the Green Leafe comes in handy SO often). While not exactly a folk song, it has folk qualities, so I stepped forward and gave it my all--the women were amazed, gave us a huge smile, and parted to let us through.

The first things I noticed were the huge ice/snow sculptures that littered the clearing in the woods. There was an old-fashioned viking-like ship upon which children climbed and played-our imaginary battles with passerby, an ice-mouse, a turtle (I think) and a huge wall that was meant to be 'raided' by common-folk while the event organizers pelted them with snowballs from above and pushed them off the wall if they made any progress trying to scale it on the shoulders of their comrades. Then looking to my left, I saw a huge log standing completely vertical in the snow. Men wearing nothing but their underwear tried to ascend this log to reach the prizes hanging at the top. This log was easily 100 feet tall, and the men scurrying up and sliding down were rewarded with scrapes and scratches all over their body as well as near frosbite in the -25 weather. I have no clue why they thought this was a good idea.

I had been forewarned that this event would be full of "positive energy"--that is, no alcohol, and even though things might get a little 'rough', it was all in good fun. I soon figured out what was meant by 'rough'. The games offered at this celebration ran the gamut from traditional singing games, jump-rope competitions, tug-of-war, and duck-duck-goose types to the more 'masculine Russian' games such as Стенка-на-стенку (Wall-to-wall). This is played by lining up two groups of men opposite one another and then having them scream and charge at full-speed until they smash into each other head-on like a rugby scrum. This is repeated until one-by-one, men start dropping out of the game. I saw one guy spit a tooth out in a pool of blood.

There was also Слон, or Elephant, where a team of people lined-up and bent over, grabbing the hips of the person in front of them to make a sort of wall. Meanwhile, members of the other team took turns leap-frogging up the line of people, landing on the backs of the first team until their combined weight forced the wall to collapse. There was also wrestling, arm-wrestling, and a game where opponents were blindfolded, spun around to lose their orientation, and then commanded to swing pillow-like sacs until they finally found and knocked down their opponents. After nearly having my skull crushed against the hip of a teammate in Слон, my shoulder dislocated by a random dude in arm-wrestling, and several bones snapped in Стенка-на-стену, I decided to take a rest. But it was all about positive energy, man.

We spent a full day in the forest, keeping warm in the frigid weather either by participating in competitions or taking tea and blini breaks and sitting by the campfire of some other jolly Maslenitsa-ers. The day was incredibly fun, and you can find my photos from this event at

February 15 was the celebration of Valentine's Day in Lingva, so I co-organized a little shindig for the English students where we sang Sinatra's "My Funny Valentine", read a poem about love, and played a few games before sitting down to tea and cakes.

The next weekend I attended a wedding of an American man and Russian woman who I had met through a few other Americans doing missionary work in Moscow. It was a lovely ceremony, and had a nice touch of America as all of the groomsmen wore cowboy hats to represent the groom's home state of Texas.

February 23 is the Day of the Defender in Russia (formerly Red Army Day but now a day celebrating all of the past and present members of the Russian Armed Forces). It is sometimes referred to simply as Man's Day. I was invited out for drinks with a few other Russians, and guess what: Man's Day means cheap vodka at every dining institution. And that means a lot of drunk men. You can guess what followed.

Last weekend I took a trip to Sergeiv Posad, an iconic old Russian monastery-town on the Golden Ring that draws thousands of tourists to see the beautiful monastic buildings and to pay homage to St. Sergius, the patron saint of Russia, who is buried in the Trinity Cathedral. Just outside the entrance to the Cathedral of the Assumption across the courtyard is the grave of Boris Godunov, the only tsar not buried in the Moscow Kremlin or in Saint Petersburg's SS Peter & Paul Cathedral. There is also a great archeological/ethnographic/history museum and a fun toy museum! I hope to have pictures edited from this trip soon, so I will post a link when I've got time.

Last Wednesday, I attended a great free concert with American friends of a female Russian guitarist and her group. This was followed by a tiny-portioned Italian dinner with the sounds of Russian karaoke blaring in our faces. I enjoyed the concert more.

And finally, this Monday, March 8 is International Women's Day (celebrated by Russia and other CIS countries). So, it's a three-day weekend, and I'm heading off on a day trip tomorrow to the New Jerusalem Cathedral with a professor.

So, that explains my lack of blogging lately. I hope I've sated your appetite. Until next time...

1 comment:

  1. Greetings from St. Petersburg! I don't think we've met, but I graduated from WM in '04. -Liz