Russia has geared up fore a double-hitter holiday weekend that will offer an
entertaining mix of Soviet and pre-revolutionary pagan traditions: Saturday,
March 8 is Women's Day, an official Soviet-era holiday that has carried over
to capitalist Russia. Sunday, March 9, is the culmination of Maslenitsa, a
pagan celebration of spring that became the Russian version of Carnaval,
which is being celebrated with new fervor as Russians re-embrace old
For visitors, here are some tips for celebrating the two holidays, in order
of their appearence:
Saturday, Women's Day: Flowers are de rigueur on Women's Day. If you are a
woman, expect to receive them. If you are man, be prepared to shell out on
this one day when all men in Russia regard it as their duty to be nice to
women. Actually, in Russia, men also give other men flowers: it's
particularly the custom for special occasions among middle-aged bureaucrats
This time of year, there are street stalls full of flowers throughout the
city. Russians have a penchant for huge bouquets wrapped in kitschy ruffled
paper. It's best to create your own bouquet with the selection of individual
flowers, but they can be pricey. This week I've spotted roses for up to 150
rubles each (over $6.25 each).
The solution: head to the 24-hour flower market behind Kievsky vokzal, one
of Moscow's main train stations. If you're facing the front of the station,
walk along the right side of the station, to the end, and you'll see the
Be prepared to bargain. Once, last year, I needed to buy some tulips for a
birthday party. I meant to buy a modest eleven or so, at 20 rubles each,
which was half price elsewhere in town. It must have been a slow night;
because when I turned up I found I was the only customer. The vendors
descended on me, pulling me from one stall to another. My head was spinning.
Finally one of them pointed to a bucket full of tulips and said: "500
rubles!" I walked out with 50 tulips.
It probably won't be so easy to get a deal on March 8, when flower prices
spike, but wheedling for flower deals is just half the fun this weekend.
Sunday, Maslenitsa: This holiday has become part of the Russian Orthodox
tradition, representing the last opportunity to eat dairy products before
Lent. After Maslenitsa comes Great Lent: From the the first full day of Lent
(March 10) to Easter (April 27) believers abstain from meat and dairy
products, most seafood and even oils as they strive to relive Jesus' 40-day
fast in the wilderness. Some even limit themselves to one meal a day and on
the strictest days do not eat at all.
From a secular point of view, Maslenitsa means eating as many blini as
Foreigners often call blini Russian pancakes, although that isn't quite
accurate. True blini are thinner and yeast-based, more like crepes. Most
Russians these days do an easy version of blini and cook them like crepes
(i.e. without yeast). For true blini it's best to adopt a Russian earth
mother for your stay in Moscow. I have mine, Tania, and she makes blini from
an old family recipe passed down through generations. This week she spent a
day whipping up 200 real blini to feed a small army of friends and family.
Each day of Maslenitsa has its own name and traditions. For example, one day
is devoted to eating your mother-in-law's blini.
The City of Moscow has been promoting Maslenitsa week as a tourist event
(http://www.maslenitsa.com/), with traditional games and masquerades, kitschy folk
and pop concerts - and of course blini - on Vasilyevsky spusk, an extension
of Red Square behind St. Basil's Cathedral from late afternoon to late
evening. On Sunday there will be a carnival parade from Triumfalnaya
ploshchad, a square in the city center, to Vasilyevsky spusk.
Extensive Maslenitsa events are also being held on the grounds of
pre-revolutionary palaces in Moscow on Saturday and Sunday afternoon:
Kolomenskoye (Prospekt Andropova 39, telephone within Moscow and Russia
8-499-612-5217, from abroad 7 instead of 8 is the first digit); and
recently-restored Lyublino (Ulitsa Letnyaya 1, tel. 7-495-350-1553). The Web
site for both locations is http://www.mgomz/. ru (Russian only).
For a vision of what Maslenitsa was like in pre-revolutionary Russia, check
out Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov's "Barber of Siberia,"
starring Julia Ormond and Oleg Menshikov. The movie has an epic Maslenitsa
scene, with rivers of vodka and wrestling, which is part of the traditional
If you don't make it to Maslenitsa this year, don't fear. Blini are, of
course, a staple of Russian cuisine. Fancy restaurants such as Cafe Pushkin
have their pricey version, with black caviar, of course.
But blini are also street food. There are several chains of street stalls
that offer blini with all kinds of fillings. Teremok, with locations in
Moscow and St. Petersburg, is the best, created by an entrepreneur who
decided to invest the money he had salvaged after the 1998 financial crash
Actually, he studied the way crepes are made in France and translated it
into a tasty Russian venture that combines fast food with pre-revolutionary
customs. The stands, stalls and several sit-down Teremok cafes might have a
McDonald's esthetic on the one hand (although the McDonald's in Russia are
actually much fancier than the ones I remember from the United States, but
that's another posting).
Customers, however, are addressed as sudar or sudarinya, the polite old
Russian way of saying "Sir" or "Madam," which also happens to be the way
guests are addressed at Cafe Pushkin (Tverskoi bulvar 26A, tel.
7-495-739-0033, open 24 hours). At Teremok (http://www.teremok.ru/, Russian only),
however, a plain blin (singular for blini, but also a mild expletive,
probably invented by someone upset that he got only one blin) is a bargain
at just 45 rubles, or less than $2. The choice of fillings, at an additional
cost, ranges from mushrooms to smoked salmon.
Teremok also offers blini with red caviar. A portion with a generous serving
of red caviar is just under 200 rubles, or about $8. Now that's street food.
The most central Teremok locations are at the corner of Ulitsa Tverskaya d.
6, and Kamergersky pereulok, a pedestrian street. It's open 24 hours (with
breaks between 4 and 5 a.m., 9:30-10 a.m. and 10 p.m.-10:30 p.m.) Down the
street, below the Kremlin wall, there's a Teremok in the huge food court of
the Okhotny ryad shopping mall, (Manezhnaya ploshchad d. 1; open 11 a.m. to
11 p.m. with no breaks).