From Russia, with love

Posted: March 18, 2013

The Winchester Star

Breanna Cunningham, 5, plays with Russian nesting dolls at a Maslenitsa celebration on Saturday at Handley Library in Winchester. She was with her mother, Jackie Thomas of Winchester. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
Nani Vassallo (left) serves a bliny, or Russian pancake, to Sophia Applegate, 9, daughter of Vaska and Doug Applegate of Frederick County. Pancakes are served at Maslenitsa — a traditional Russian holiday that celebrates the end of winter and the arrival of spring — because they are warm and round, like the sun. Maslenitsa is one of Russia’s oldest and most joyful celebrations.
Maya Perkins, 4, sings and dances while playing wooden noisemakers in a Russian dress called a sarafan. She is the daughter of Maria and Mark Perkins of Frederick County.

WINCHESTER — Dozens of people gathered in the Children’s Room at Handley Library on Saturday afternoon to ring in spring with a traditional Russian custom.

“Goodbye winter, hello spring and let’s dance,” exclaimed Nataliya Self, a Front Royal resident and Moscow native, before strumming an acoustic guitar to accompany a song about the Russian birch tree.

Maslenitsa — also known as Butter Week or Pancake Week — is a Russian and Eastern European tradition that began more than 1,800 years ago to welcome spring, according to Maria Perkins, a Frederick County resident and a native of Togliatti — a Russian city in the Samara Oblast region.

“It’s a very popular holiday,” Perkins said.

Irina Galounina, a Stephens City resident who hails from Moscow, said she and other local residents of Russian heritage were looking for an easily accessible location to hold a Maslenitsa celebration.

“It is the most joyful holiday and probably one of the oldest in Russia,” Galounina said. “[It’s] joyful because people are saying goodbye to winter and they’re embracing spring.”

Maslenitsa traditions include eating Russian pancakes, singing, dancing, and burning the Doll of Maslenitsa, though that’s not done as much these days.

“Usually, people after the celebration, they burn [the doll],” Galounina said. “Not inside, outside. Nowadays, many areas, especially in Moscow, do not observe this tradition.”

Self said the transition from winter to spring is the main reason Russians celebrate Maslenitsa.

“People really enjoy that because finally they can take off all this heavy clothing and they can enjoy spring and go outside,” she said.

Pancakes are the food most associated with Maslenitsa, Self said, because they symbolize spring.

“They’re round, they’re warm, they symbolize [the] sun, so sunshine,” she said. “It is a little piece of sun, so [people] become more cheerful, get all this energy and so [they] ready for spring.”

Galounina and Perkins said they hope to organize more events like the Maslenitsa celebration to help local residents better understand Russian culture and heritage.

“Next year Russia will be hosting [the 2014 Winter] Olympic Games, so the interest is growing rapidly and people would love to know more about our country,” Galounina said. “The other reason is that, you know, the relationship between the United States and Russia at this time may be not the best. But this is all at the top, all this ideology and politics and blah, blah, blah.

“If we can do something to make the relationship between people much better than between our leaders, I think that’s a good reason to do this.”

The Maslenitsa event was sponsored by Collage, a local international women’s group.

Collage is considering becoming a nonprofit organization to help promote cultural events in the area, Galounina.

— Contact Matt Armstrong atmarmstrong@winchesterstar.com