Have you ever tried predicting your fortune with tea leaves or burned a scarecrow to speed up the arrival of spring? The answer is most certainly “yes” if you attended the holiday celebrations organized by the Russian Flagship Program and its campus and community partners this year.
The Russian Flagship Program is a federally funded program that provides opportunities for UW-Madison undergraduate students of any major to reach a professional level of competence in Russian by graduation. In addition to taking specialized courses in advanced Russian and enjoying access to individual and group tutoring, Russian Flagship students also learn about Russian culture through thematic events based on traditional celebrations in Russia. But these festivities are not limited to Flagship students. The Russian Flagship solicits input from students and works with several campus and community partners to expand the reach and impact of these events, including CREECA, the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic, the undergraduate Russian Club, Russian House in the International Learning Community, the Slavic Graduate Student Organization, the Wisconsin Union Directorate, and the Madison Russian School.
Maslenitsa: Spring Festival or Russian Mardi Gras?
Did you notice that this year’s spring weather arrived in Wisconsin before the equinox? (Well, then it got cold again, and even snowed, but never mind about that.) Do you think this may have been due to the correct prediction of Punxsutawney Phil? Those who attended the campus Maslenitsa celebration on March 7, 2019 know the secret—students burned a scarecrow to speed up the arrival of spring.
Maslenitsa derives its name from the Russian word maslo (butter), abundantly used on bliny (pancakes), eaten during the week before Lent. Pagan and Christian traditions intertwined in this Slavic holiday throughout the centuries. It is believed that before the introduction of Christianity to Kievan Rus’ in the tenth century, Slavic tribes tired of the cold winter practiced rituals to hurry spring along, including burning a scarecrow and making—and eating—pancakes that symbolize the Sun and its warmth. In Christian Russia this holiday became part of pre-Lenten festivities as people got full on pancakes, which would be forbidden during Lent, and burned the Maslenitsa effigy to symbolize burning away their sinful past and starting a period of fasting and repentance.
Russian New Year or Soviet Christmas?
For many in the United States, New Year’s Eve is just another occasion to go out and have fun, but in Russia it is a family holiday where everyone gathers around the table, which usually includes the traditional salat Oliv’e (Olivier salad). The dish is named after a cook of Belgian origin, Lucien Olivier, who invented this salad in 1860s as the chef of the Hermitage, one of Moscow’s best restaurants. As often happens with gourmet recipes that become popular, those ingredients which were rare, expensive, seasonal, or difficult to prepare were gradually replaced with cheaper and more available substitutes. Now the salad is usually made with diced boiled potatoes, carrots, dill pickles, green peas, eggs, celery root, onions, diced meat, and dressed with mayonnaise.
The decorated fir tree—a New Year’s tree—might feature figurines of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his granddaughter Snegurochka, who bring gifts to Russian children on the night before January 1st. These characters have their roots in Slavic mythology. Although briefly banned at the beginning of the Soviet period and state-sponsored atheism, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka became an important part of Russian culture in the twentieth century, similar to that of Santa Claus and his elves elsewhere.
Fall Fair: Giving Thanks for the Harvest
As in many other societies, including Thanksgiving in the United States, Russians and other Slavic cultures have traditional celebrations of harvest, fecundity, and family well-being, which include rituals connected with the end of reaping wheat from the fields to ensure a fruitful next season, as well as songs and crafts. The Russian Flagship Program’s Fall Fair, held in October 2018, blended elements of traditional Slavic culture with Halloween for an evening event that featured a costume contest, music, fortune-telling, and arts and crafts.
The final Russian Flagship event of the current academic year will be the end-of-the school year talent show, or Kapustnik, on April 26, 2019. All events organized by the Program, as well as many others, can be found in CREECA Events calendar.