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Celebrating Winter's End In Russia

A tradition that goes back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, Maslenitsa is a week-long festival that celebrates the beginning of the end of the Russian winter.

Besides all the singing, dancing and eating, there are contests of skill and strength for all ages. Some of them, like the traditional drunken fistfights, have been toned down a bit.

Customs may vary from place to place, but there are two things that are essential to Maslenitsa - one, the Maslenitsa scarecrow, representing the last vestiges of winter (She has a special role to play on the final day); the other, is the blin.

Blini are Russian pancakes, paper-thin, huge in diameter, and consumed in mass quantities here all week - with caviar, sour cream, and just about anything else.

"This blin represents the sun," says Vladimir, a pensioner. "It's how we greet the arrival of spring."

It's just a coincidence that this year Maslenitsa comes right on the heels of the presidential elections. It's one of those rare Russian holidays that manages to instill a sense of national pride, without politics.

At least not overtly. But by offering free blini to those willing to stand in line, the city of Moscow may be appealing to what one Russian writer calls "physiological patriotism."
After all, blini are as close to the Russian soul as pickled mushrooms or borscht, a cold-weather comfort food capable of uniting the masses.

Pagan rituals have almost disappeared since the arrival of Christianity, but Maslenitsa has survived. Nowadays it immediately precedes the 40 days of Lent, which means it's the last chance for Orthodox Christians to eat meat, eggs and dairy products.

For the Sharonovs of Moscow, Maslenitsa is not about religion or politics, it's about the family.

"I grew up in a communal apartment with 10 other families," says Yuri Sharonov. "At Maslenitsa, everyone got together and made blini - there were 5 or 6 platters piled high."

He's been in charge of blini for five years, but this year he's passing on the traditions to his daughter Vera.

"Now I can sleep in on Sundays!" he says.

Is there such a thing as too many blini? Apparently not, according to Vera …

"Kisses and pancakes don't like to be counted!"

Her daughter Sonya's not counting, just eating.

200 miles south of Moscow in the village of Kalikino, they take blini even more seriously. Cooking classes are taught by the local babushkas, and boys as well as girls are expected to learn the tricks of the trade.

The final day of Maslenitsa ends with the traditional burning of the straw figure, although in a country known for six-month winters, it may be a bit early to be saying goodbye to the cold weather just yet.