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It's Russian Mardi Gras: Time For Pancakes, Butter And Fistfights

Nothing says party like pancakes and butter. At least, not if you happen to be in Russia this week.

The country is in the midst of celebrating Maslenitsa, an Eastern Slavic folk holiday that takes place the week before the start of Russian Orthodox Lent (this year, it starts March 18). Though now tied to the Christian calendar, Maslenitsa has roots in ancient Slavic sun worshippers — it originally marked the end of winter and advent of spring. And, like Mardi Gras, it involves a whole lot of feasting before the Lenten fast – with blinis, a Russian pancake, as the food of choice.

Topped with sour cream, caviar, berries or jam, blinis are everywhere, anyway you like 'em. Why blinis? Their round shape and warmth were meant to symbolize the sun. And they're usually drenched in butter (the festival, whose name derives from "maslo," the Russia word for butter, is also known as "Butter Week.")

"Everyone goes crazy with the buttered food" and the blinis, says Anton Fedyashin, a professor of Russian history at American University. He says he's attended 10 or so Maslenitsa festivals since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "You eat them as often as possible."

The holiday is observed in other Slavic Orthodox European countries, he says, but "nowhere more elaborately than in Russia."

Pancakes are king during Maslenitsa, but there's more to it than just food. Sleigh rides, snowball fights, family gatherings and general merrymaking are all part of the tradition, with prescribed activities for each day of the week.

Indeed, a Google search turned up plenty of Maslenitsa traditions — some of which seemed too wild to believe at first.

Organized fistfights? They're real – apparently, they're meant to celebrate Russia's fighting spirit. Our Moscow correspondent, Corey Flintoff, confirms there's a fight on the schedule of events at a park in the Russian capital this Sunday.

Dancing bears? Yep, in some places. Bears are considered a symbol of Russia. And performing bears are an old tradition among Russian Gypsies, also known as Roma, says Galina Aleksandrovna Komissarova of the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. The bears, she notes, are "not obligatory."

Celebrations were more muted during the Soviet era, usually taking place at home. But in recent years, the festivities have become more elaborate public events.

In Moscow this year, streets are being temporarily rechristened with names like "Gluttony Row," where passersby can sample blini in their many incarnations, according to The Moscow Times. Tasting lines, concerts and contests will be held at Gorky Park – an amusement park that might ring a bell with some Americans because of the 1983 movie of the same name.

And in Pskov, a city of about 200,000 in northwestern Russia, officials have even created a Maslenitsa mascot as a way to raise the region's profile: Czar Blin is "a pancake-themed jolly despot" to rule over the holiday, The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent reports. (Think of him as the Hamburglar of pancakes.)

It all culminates on Sunday, when, across Russia, people will ask for forgiveness from their fellow man (sometimes, even from strangers). In some regions, the grand finale calls for pyrotechnics: A straw effigy of a woman, "Lady Maslenitsa," meant to represent winter (the word for "winter" is feminine in Russian, explains Komissarova) is burned to bid the season a fiery goodbye. Others make do with ice sculptures of "lady winter," says Komissarova.

Of course, this being Russia — where alcoholism has been called a "national disaster" — no holiday would be complete without plenty of alcohol.

"Eating and drinking, blini and sour cream and caviar," notes Komissarova, "that is the main thing."

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