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Winter in St. Petersburg

Celebrating Russia’s Oldest Pagan Tradition

St. Peterburg Church
The Church on Spilled Blood, in St. Petersburg.

A fist fight with a neighbor might seem like a strange way to welcome the end of winter, but it’s just part of Russia’s oldest spring tradition known as the Maslenitsa Festival. The celebration is rooted in pagan traditions and was outlawed during the Soviet era. But it’s making a comeback among Russians who welcome it as another opportunity for a party.

Although most people go to St. Petersburg in the summer when the streets throng with tourists, shoppers, and musicians, when you’re a volunteer you can’t always pick the travel dates. So that’s how I found myself in St. Petersburg in March. the days were short, the nights long, and the winds off the River Neva bone-chillingly cold—but I discovered that winter in St. Petersburg offers several rewards. It’s a time to become acquainted with local traditions that summer visitors miss.

“He who laughs on Maslenitsa will enjoy a good mood all year” is what local folks say about the 7-day celebration that begins in early March. In addition to sport competitions such as fist fighting and log jousting, the festival includes outdoor events like bonfires, sled rides, and snowball throwing. The festival culminates with the burning of a straw scarecrow to signify the end of winter and banish misfortune.

Other traditions include eating blini—thin, buttery pancakes considered a symbol of the sun because of their round shape and gold color. A tapas-style tour of the city’s restaurants yields varieties laden with strawberries or black caviar.

Winter pleasures beyond Maslenitsa include horse-drawn troika or sled rides in the countryside. Or, if you prefer to stay in the city, horse and buggy rides are available at the Palace Square in front of the Hermitage museum.

Another winter tradition is the banya or sauna. Historically, many Soviet-era flats didn’t have comfortable bathing facilities, so locals would head to communal bathing facilities. St. Petersburg’s historic center still has several. The most traditional are wood-fired and supply birch branches for exfoliation and extra fun.

I enjoyed strolling the snow-covered streets at nightfall when glowing lanterns illuminated the bridges and frozen canals. The polished domed cathedrals of the Church on Spilled Blood or Kazan Cathedral offered warm shelter from the wind. If I got too chilled, I’d duck inside a café for a shot of vodka—often complimentary with the purchase of a bite to eat.

Winter winds up with International Women’s Day. This national holiday dates back to the Russian Revolution when women rallied for their right to vote. Now citizens celebrate the women in their lives by purchasing flower bouquets sold by street vendors. Even I received a large branch of delicate yellow mimosa. “It’s a sign of mutual support,” explained Nadezda Malysheva, my host and director of the nonprofit organization Help for Women and Family.

Seeing that I was shivering in my thin wool jacket, she lent me her floor-length muskrat fur coat as a special demonstration of solidarity. So not only did I get to experience the city as a local might, I even got to look like one.

For More Info

Help to Youth and Family offers volunteer assignments in St. Petersburg and Leningrad region.

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