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Bingeing on hot buttered blini in frigid Moscow

Russia celebrates the richness of life during Butter Week

It is a sort of Mardi Gras without the costumes and with a lot of butter. The central thing is to drink, be merry, and eat - pancakes and more pancakes.

Once a year Maslenitsa, or Butter Week, lands on Russian tables in one of the Orthodox Church's more rambunctious feasts. The idea of holiday is to gorge on blini, or pancakes, have fun, and basically indulge in behavior otherwise considered frivolous before the 40 austere days of Lent begin.

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The fest, which occurs Feb. 15 to 21 this year, takes its name from masla, Russian for butter. There are many ways to make blini, but the important thing is to smear them with lots of butter or fatty food. As with the Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday, butter symbolizes the richness of the land and life.

Maslenitsa, which has pagan roots, is not just the last sensual binge before Lent. It is also a celebration of the fact that the sunless and interminable gray Russian winter is finally coming to an end.

"Fat is the key word for Maslenitsa," said Valentina Bakhtina, a folklore scholar at the Maxim Gorky Institute of World Literature (attached to the state-run Academy of Sciences based in Moscow).

"Maslenitsa is the celebration of the beginning of spring," says Dr. Bakhtina. "It is a farewell party for winter. These were agrarian people who were dependent on the land, the seasons, and the sun."

This worship of the sun explains why the main foods served during the pancake carnival resemble it - round blini and sunnyside-up fried eggs.

You don't have to eat butter during Maslenitsa. All that is required is to fill the blini with vast heaps of any delicacy - mushrooms, salted herring, caviar, honey, raspberry jam, cheese, salmon, or sour cream. Everything is allowed - except meat, in preparation for Lent.

The practice was first described in letters written by foreigners who lived in Moscow in the 17th century. However, scholars believe the custom long pre-dates the arrival of Christianity in Russia.

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Customs differ among villages across the big country, but even the poorest people try to ensure they can provide a well-stocked table. In some regions, people parade around in masks. In others, they go on sleigh rides through the streets with hampers filled with blinis.

In the old days, it was de rigeur to take the week off and promenade in one's finest furs, river pearls, and lace embroidery, which were stored carefully in trunks the rest of the year.

It is mainly in the countryside that straw effigies symbolizing the winter are burned in bonfires. People visit relatives' graves with offerings of blinis, in the belief that the dead will protect them.

For many, the Maslenitsa is the time to pay rounds of visits on neighbors and loved ones and think about the year to come.

"It is an ideal opportunity to meet with family and friends," said Masha Ryzhak, a devout Moscow resident.

Convention has it that the night before Butter Week begins, menfolk dine on mutton, finishing off all the meat in the house. Wednesday is the day of honey and other sweets. Thursday is the time for newlyweds to visit their in-laws.

Traditionalists end the week on Sunday evening asking forgiveness for wrongdoings over the past year. A huge bonfire is lit to burn wooden objects that broke over the past year - and like a sacrifice, the remaining Maslenitsa food that was uneaten. The ashes are then buried in the earth.

"The function of the fire is to purify, to begin the new season with a clean start," says Bakhtina.

There are many ways to make blinis in Russia. One school of cookery swears by yeast; others say it is too heavy. Whichever one chooses, says Masha Ryzhak, it is advisable to bless the blinis.

"If you want 100 percent success, you should put a cross on the dough and then cross yourself and say 'God bless me,' " she says.

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