Culture Unbound: Russian Flagship Program Events

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.

Students preparing the Maslenitsa scarecrow before burning it
Students preparing the Maslenitsa scarecrow before burning it—the ritual is believed to speed up the arrival of spring.
Photo – Kelly Kim

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 bliny
Russian bliny, or pancakes, are an essential part of Maslenitsa and are traditionally prepared for the entire week preceding Lent.
Photo – Kelly Kim
Students in traditional Russian dresses - sarafans - are signing
Maslenitsa is a time for songs, round dances, and calling for the arrival of spring.
Photo – Kelly Kim

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.

Olivier salad
Olivier salad served at the Russian Flagship New Year’s Celebration
Photo – Abigail Kohler

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.

Snegurochka and Ded Moroz
Snegurochka and Ded Moroz visit the Russian Flagship New Year Celebration in December 2018.
Photo – Abigail Kohler
UW-Madison students are making ornaments
UW-Madison students had an opportunity to create their own handmade ornaments during the Russian Flagship New Year celebration.
Photo – Abigail Kohler

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.

Fortune-teller is waiting for her patrons at the table
Fortune-telling as part of different festivities is very popular in Russia. The most popular period—Sviatki—falls before Orthodox Christmas, but if you do not want to wait, tea leaves can help you out all year round!
Photo – Russian Flagship Program
Students practice khokhloma
UW-Madison students practice the art of khokhloma—a wood painting technique known for its curved and vivid patterns. The most popular colors for khokhloma include red, black, green, yellow, and orange over a gold background.
Photo – Russian Flagship Program

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.

Students running in khorovod
Khorovod, a Slavic combination of a circle dance and choral singing, is popular in Russia and performed during many holidays, from New Year to birthdays and wedding celebrations.
Photo – Russian Flagship Program