burn the witch… well, at least the effigy, or lots of pancakes

Originally published on 03/21/2013

I hate waking up late.  Especially after you wake up early, then decide that you have just enough time for it to be worth it go back to sleep.  That’s what happened Sunday morning.  Greg woke us up practically as he was heading out the door.  Ashley and I threw on our clothes and stuffed the food we had purchased the night before in a backpack and rushed to our Maslenitsa adventure.

We met Greg, Elena and her kids, and a few other people at metro Savyolovskaya and to catch the next elekchichka destined for the woods.  We had no idea where exactly we were going and the best answer we could get out of Elena was that we were going to maslenitsa.  Elena explained that it is supposed to be ambiguous like that.  The details for this gathering couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be found on the internet.  It wasn’t advertised, and wasn’t to be written down in any way; in true folkloric fashion it is an oral tradition.

For not being advertised, there seemed to be a ridiculous amount of people hanging around the metro station with us.  But that was nothing compared to the train station and the train ride  afterwards.  I haven’t been on a train that crowded since I served in Podol’sk.  When we arrived where we were going, we simply disembarked from the train and were swept away in the river of people flowing into the woods.  It wasn’t that far to the destination, which we learned was called a polyana, perhaps only a mile or so, but the going was slow as the train of people chugged along.  The people were of all ages, sizes, and colors.  I don’t mean ethnicities.  I mean literally, the people were painted multifarious colors, and most wore brightly colored coats and snow gear.  A nice contrast to the normal black and grey of the city.  No better way to welcome in spring, I suppose.

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The pines broke into a clearing blocked by a 10 foot wall of snow.  Guarding the gate into the polyana was a skomorokh.  In order and join the festivities, we had to sing a song.  After botching Scarborough Fair, the skomorokh let us in (probably only because he didn’t understand the song).  Inside the polyana was a sea of people.  After wandering for a long time or a short time, Elena found her friends and we participated in various pagan rituals to welcome in spring.  Our initiation into the pagan rituals was light, with a game that looked something like red rover meets Victorian-style dancing.  It involved the two lines running at each other, and couples running through the middle.  Naturally, some random girl came up to Ashley and said, “Let’s go!” and away they ran.  So I went with Greg.  Next we formed a line, holding the waist of the person in front of us and stretched our legs out as if we were mounting a horse.  Then we were told to start rocking back and forth from foot to foot, chanting, “I’m a snake, a snake, a snake. I slither, slither, slither.”  As we did this, people would crawl between our legs, and then join the back of the ever-increasing snake.

The masses then dissipated into the woods, as people went to tables carved out of snow to eat, drink, and sing.  It was about now that we rejoined Elena to go to our own table in the woods.  Elena has a group of friends who are folklore enthusiasts.  Some of them are professional folklorists, some of them are psychologists, some of them are young and probably have no profession yet.  The point is it doesn’t matter who or what you are, but instead the point is to embrace ancient tradition, to share in wonderful camaraderie, and, of course, to eat scrumptious food.  Although I was quickly full of food and sbiten’, I don’t think my hunger for their singing or friendship could ever be sated. There were a plethora of other rituals, each with their own interesting symbolism.  We saw swings in the trees, half naked men (and a woman) climbing a 40 foot pole, and many other things.  But nothing is to compare to the general revelry and splendor we were witnessing; it is certainly a memory I will take to my grave.

Burning the kukla chases away winter, or so the tradition goes.  The effigy is made from birch branches and is dressed in clothing, made to look like a babushka.  As spring is a renewal of the world, a time of rebirth and new beginnings, so does the burning of the kukla represent fresh life for those present.  It was bittersweet to see her burned, but I suppose that is why it is such a striking symbol.  After the effigy was nothing more than a smoldering frame, a huge whirlpool started in the crowd, as people circled it three times, maybe chanting, maybe not – the actions are generally more important the words when it comes to these types of things.By this time the polyana was a sea of color, as thousands of brightly dressed people filled the clearing in the woods.  The densest and most tumultuous section of the sea was surrounding a 20-25 foot tall snow castle.  There were a handle full of people atop the castle.  The people looked ready for battle, or at least a hockey match, dressed in half traditional clothing, half in helmets, goggles and knees pads.  To make their get up even stranger, the majority of them were sporting GoPros.  What were the people doing up there?  Well, they were defending the kukla, the effigy that represents winter, of course!  And they were defending it with all their might.  A cloud of powered snow gathered around the castle, as the biggest snowball barrage I have ever seen impacted with the top of the castle.  As salvo after salvo flew from the thousands surrounding the castle, waves of people started crashing against the battlements (watch this link for an idea of what it looked like).  Eventually the torrents of people conquered and whilst waving a flag of victory, took the effigy to be burned.

Leaving back to Moscow was somewhat surreal.  I fell asleep on the train and when I awoke in Moscow things were different.  We went home and back to everyday life in the big city, as if our excursion out into the woods was nothing but a dream.

In any case, Monday was sunny and warmer than the day before.


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