The mystery and symbolism of pancakes à la Russe

Celebrate the arrival of spring the Russian way: caviar, bear knuckle fist fights and lots of dough.

It is bitingly cold, and your feet are buried deep underneath a fluffy blanket of crackling snow. The air is filled with a rumble of happy voices, little bell chimes, and the swish of sledges passing down and all around you, but your whole attention is on the warm and pliable little piece of sunshine in your hand.


'It's a pancake day in Russia' by Natshu.

You smile happily in anticipation of the pancake’s buttery warmth and its mother-skin-like smell. You put a little cloud of sour cream in the middle, next a blob of jam, carefully roll the sunny creation, close your eyes and bite. The taste and feel of the pancake in your mouth will mean one thing for the rest of your life - Maslenitsa has arrived.

Maslenitsa, or Butter Week, comes from the Russian word maslo, meaning butter. The festival is a lesser-known sibling of Shrove Tuesday celebrated in Russia and Ukraine. Both celebrations, as well as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnevale in Venice, are based on the ancient pagan festivals marking a change from winter to spring that were later incorporated into Christianity. Maslenitsa now forms part of the celebrations leading up to a 40-day fast – Lent -culminating in Easter. Because of different calculations Russian Orthodox Lent is longer than the Western Christian, and the date of Paskha, Easter in Russian, does not normally coincide with the Western Easter.


'Maslenitsa' by Boris Kustodiev, 1919.

Russians call Maslenitsa 'wide', 'honest', 'gluttonous'. It is the time to over-eat, over-drink and be generally merry. This celebration is such an ingrained tradition that even attempts of the Tsars and, initially, the Russian Orthodox church to ban the holiday – for being too barbaric, too pagan – did not stop Russians from celebrating it. Even during Soviet times when all the other religious holiday celebrations were banned, Maslenitsa was still widely observed in families without its religious significance.

Maslenitsa celebrations last for seven days, each day with its own tradition:

Thus on the first day, called 'Meeting', people visit friends and families; the fifth day, named 'Mother-in-law's evenings', is for married couples treating their parents with bliny; and a very important seventh day, the Sunday of Forgiveness, is when everyone should beg pardon to each other for any hurt feelings. Since during Lent meat and dairy are not allowed, Maslenitsa is the last week when milk and butter can still be eaten. Not a surprise then that pancakes became the focal point of the whole week. 

Oladushki - fluffy pancakes - with pripyok apple in our shop.

Thin, crêpe-like bliny, are traditionally made with buckwheat flour and leavened with yeast, which gives them an earthy and nutty flavour from the buckwheat, and a very light texture from the raising agent. The bliny are 'baked'  on both sides (so called because traditionally they were made in huge Russian ovens, although now they are cooked on top of a stove)  in a large, flat-bottomed pan that does not normally get washed, but only rubbed clean with grains of salt; and eaten with a myriad of different fillings: from wild mushrooms and dark-grey Beluga caviar, to sweet cottage cheese and forest berries. 

In old times the pancake-making process carried a sense of mystery and magic with it. As Chekhov put it 'something higher, symbolic, maybe even prophetic, is hidden in [bliny]…watching a woman baking bliny one might think that she is calling spirits or making a philosopher's stone out of the dough'. The time before and during Lent is considered to be a spiritual and cleansing process. However, nowadays it is the social and celebratory element of Maslenitsa that most are drawn to. The whole Butter week is a bright and loud public jamboree, celebrated by bizarre (but so Russian) bare knuckle fist fights in honour of the burgeoning spring, huge group sledding and bonfires. 

Maslenitsa is for being merry, for giving into guilt-free nostalgia and reconnecting with childhood memories, for reflection…and for just gorging yourself on the warm beauty of the sunny pancake. 

Enjoy our pancakes oladushki with baked on apple with sour cream and wild thyme honey!