Last weekend, a festive craze swept Irkutsk into a mid-winter’s frenzy that would have been hard to produce any other way. Skies beautiful and clear, the winds calm, and the temperatures nothing too extraordinary at this point, there was plenty to be happy about, the first of which might very well have been the fact that winter, slowly, is leaving.

February 8-14 was the last week before the Great Fast (or “Velikii post”), which, in a religious sense, is the equivalent of Carnival or the New Orleans version of Mardi Gras. The weeklong festival is called Maslenitsa, with the root of “maslo” (butter), which is consumed in quantities of “mountains,” as the holiday rhymes go, in order to prepare for the forty-day abstinence from meat, milk and butter, and honey leading up to Easter.

Ryan, Romany, Romany’s ski friend Zhakko, and I decided to go to the cultural center/open-air ethnographic architecture museum, Tal’tsy, outside the city on the way to Listviyanka. Arriving around one in the afternoon, we were greeted in the village (comprised of centuries-old houses, yurts, forts, and churches transported to the site from all around Irkutsk province) with music, games, the smells of cookin’, and, brace yourself, smiling Russians

I kid you not. Russians (and not just groups of youth making merry, or a babushka chuckling on her cell phone), regular run-of-the-mill Russians, were out in public with genuine, free, happy smiles on their faces. If nothing else, let that be testament enough to how great this day was.

There were snow slides, ice slides, snowmobiling, stilt walking, tug of war, comedian entertainers, knock-your-opponent-off-the-beam-with-a-pillow, craft stands, souvenir stands, shashliki stands, and lots of people dressed in traditional Russian garb. With respect to those aspects, it kind of felt like a Renaissance festival. But held on Groundhog Day, that is, in order to see out the winter.

But not just “see” the winter out: you burn “her,” represented by this big, more-colorful-than-Raggety-Ann doll-on-a-stick that the performers process across the grounds carrying. Then you sing songs and say traditional rhymes with the “Lord General of Maslenitsa” and then dance and most importantly of all, eat lots of bliny (thin pancakes smothered in butter, honey, caviar, sour cream, &c.) which represent the sun. And then, as I mentioned, you burn the doll on a stick. Obviously, there’s just a tad bit of Slavic paganism left over in the Orthodox pre-Paschal mystery celebration….

Incidentally, the burning of the doll/winter seemed to work, since all this week temperatures gradually climbed up to about 30 deg. F. yesterday, though it’s supposed to return to a comfy 0 deg. F. for the next while.

People were lined up, standing and sitting around a multitude of wooden picnic tables (this in -20 deg. C. weather, mind you) eating their lunches and drinking their vodka all day. Even though we didn’t add the vodka to our Maslenitsa mix, it was all too easy, nonetheless, to catch the celebratory fever of the day: laughing along at the crude jokes and low Russian hinterlands accent of the Maslenitsa Lord General, or letting an unknown, fur-clad Russian grab your hand to add you to the chain of dancers hopping along the snow to a great techno version of a Maslenitsa folk song (which I have yet to locate on the Web).

Once the scheduled festivities ended and we’d had our fill of free games and people-watching, we stepped back out on the Irkutsk-Listviyanka highway, knowing that going straight back to Irkutsk was probably not a feasible option (don’t ask, just the way it is). Right away, a bus pulled up and got us to Listviyanka. It was my first time seeing Baikal (or any lake up close, for that matter) completely frozen over. Crystalline ice over pitch-black, perfectly pure water… crazy.

There were festivities and people out and about celebrating there, too. So, we skated around the ice and peeked through the fencing around the over-priced ice sculpture display before finding the marshrutka van that got us back home.

Maslenitsa ski game

The next day, the fourteenth, I’d planned on going to the Russian-Wide Ski Race with on the IGU ski-team and student bus (with Romany and Zhakko, who were skiing). The event is comprised of a free, all-ages and all-skill-levels inclusive cross-country ski races held all over Russia. If you register (whether or not you participate, as many, apparently, choose not to), you also get a free stocking cap, which become the coveted items of the year, akin to the Old Navy 4th of July t-shirt craze of my youth…

But after oversleeping the 9:30 departure time and then not having the motivation to find out how to get there otherwise, I took the day easy around the house before meeting up with Ryan later to hang out.

It was also Asiatic New Year, meaning that Buryats were celebrating that, as well. And, of course, imported from the West, the commercialized-up St. Valentine’s Day (translated “Day of Lovers”), which ultimately means that when Ryan and I stopped in to grab a tea/coffee at a cafe, we were met with the odor of over-cologned, rose-bearing Russian guys waiting on their happy to be in love girlfriends.

And then, Monday came around as predictable as always, probably bringing a bad case of the hangovers for some, and another day of work for the rest.


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