After a very busy and interesting week, I thought I had a lot of really great material for my blog—but then Maslenitsa happened and blew everything out of the water. So I’ll start with that and then work my way back to everything else that now pales in comparison…
This week, Russia celebrated Maslenitsa (which in English, roughly translates to “Pancake Week,” or, even “Butter Week”). Essentially, this holiday is the Russian Orthodox equivalent of a weeklong Fat Tuesday/Mardis Gras. You celebrate Maslenitsa by eating bliny (Russian pancakes) for a week, and then on the last day you go out into the woods, get dressed up in costumes, play games, take part in silly contests, eat and drink yourself into a coma, beat the crap out of everyone, burn a witch, and beg everyone for forgiveness.
You think I’m joking?
Maslenitsa is the week before the Russian Orthodox Church begins Lent and is supposed to be your last chance to eat fatty, rich, sugary, meaty foods and partake in activities that are inappropriate for Lent. Like many holidays, Maslenitsa has pagan roots, historically celebrating the start of spring. Bliny are supposed to symbolize the sun. My verdict is in: Maslenitsa is by far the craziest holiday I’ve ever celebrated and, thus, the most fun.
In Ulan-Ude, the main public celebration of Maslenitsa is on the final Sunday—all the fun, food, and crazy of Maslenitsa crammed into one day. They hold it at the open-air Ethnographic Museum. Of course, it was the coldest day in weeks (and windy, too), but that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. The first thing you come to is a stage, featuring a program of singing, dancing (including a dozen dancing white rabbits), silly skits, and dozens of contests and games. Pretty standard. But the museum complex is massive, and the deeper you go, the crazier everything gets. Suddenly, everyone’s dressed up in costumes. There’s a lot of traditional Russian dress—such as shawls and Cossack hats and shirts. There are lots of jesters. There are some bears (of course) and mice and pigs and goats. There’s a Maslenitsa witch on stilts. There is also a creepy organ-grinder character dragging around a giant monkey-man on a leash. Then you come to the food: it’s essentially all-you-can-eat bliny, shashlik, buuzy, and piroshky (except the shashlik, which is in high demand and slow supply—you have to bight and claw and fight for your right to partake in this delicious barbecued meat). You even see tables where babushkas sell shots of vodka.
And then, you walk right into the twilight zone. Strolling through the museum complex, people start inviting you to join their games and competitions. You can race on stilts. You can do a sock-hop. You can flip fake pancakes. You can race to pick up flower petals off the snow. You can throw stuff as hard as you can. You can knock each other over in tug-o-war. You can whack each other with sand bags to knock each other off balance beams. You can knock each other over by locking knees and hopping around in circles on one foot. You can knock each other over by participating in massive 15-second scrums and backwards scrums and other forms of organized violence you don’t even understand. I’ve heard rumors of large-scale organized fist fights and brawls, and I don’t doubt that they could be true in some places. Then, at the height of it all, you take the giant Maslenitsa Witch effigy and burn her in a huge bonfire, burying her ashes in the snow. Finally, after all the partying and gluttony and violence, you’re supposed to ask everyone you know—and strangers, too—for forgiveness, and you forgive everyone.
And thus, over the course of a few hours, you experience the entire spectrum of human emotion. Talk about catharsis!
St. Patrick’s Day:
I’m pretty sure this just confirms your impression that my whole life here is a holiday, but this weekend was also St. Patrick’s Day. Being possibly the Irish-est person in Ulan-Ude only increased my need to somehow celebrate this part of my heritage and share it with my friends. So it was off to the Irish Pub—which does not sell any Irish beer, let alone green beer, but was otherwise perfect. It’s relatively affordable, the service is great, and they keep the music to a dull roar (a rarity, believe me). They were definitely aware of the holiday: there was a band (which played a personal favorite “My babushka smokes a pipe”), and they even had free face-painting—of which I definitely took full advantage.
And we got the star treatment. The minute you are heard speaking English in public, everyone knows you’re Exotic. Usually, I go through life here with relative anonymity and an illusion of belonging—no one has to know I’m foreign unless I open my mouth and say something dumb. And I’m happy that way. But every now and then, it’s nice to enjoy some of the perks of being a foreigner. And this was a definite perk.
After the band had finished its set, the singer made a big announcement. “These ladies,” he said, “Sitting at the center table”—it only took me a second to realize he was talking about us—“seem to be tourists!” Hoozah, lots of gawking and some applause, and the waiter brings us a complimentary bottle of champagne. They then proceeded to take our picture—maybe not wall-of-fame material, but certainly worthy of their Vkontakte page. All this we earned simply by being foreigners!
On Friday, I made a rather surprising discovery. When trying to access certain parts of my blog (including the homepage and archives and several individual posts), I received this message on my screen:
Translation: “Sorry, but access to the requested page is restricted. Possible reasons for restriction of access: 1) This site is included in the Unified Register of websites containing information, distribution of which is forbidden in the Russian Federation; 2) Access has been restricted by a court decision or for other reasons established by lawmakers of the Russian Federation.”
I’ve been blacklisted???
This “Unified Register” was developed as a part of recent legislation (this past summer) targeting sites with content deemed harmful to children—primarily child pornography and the promotion of drugs, suicide, and extremism. Clearly, I’ve got none of that in this blog. When I kept getting this message, I started freaking out a bit. Understandably. At orientation, they warned us that anything we said/did could be monitored, but I never imagined that anyone in Russian Intelligence would actually be interested in the banalities of my own daily life, let alone want to block it. Seems kind of far-fetched. I’m not even critical, if it comes down to that: I’m the poster child of everyone-should-come-visit-Russia-it’s-awesome-here-life-is-beautiful. So why this creepy message, courtesy of the government?
I did some research. My blog isn’t actually listed in the Unified Register. Apparently, two WordPress blogs were added on Friday for posting child pornography or something; and as a result, a few internet service providers (including mine) blocked thousands of WordPress pages (including mine). So in the end, it’s more of an inconvenient (and scary) technical difficulty than anything else.
Busying it up:
Last Monday evening, I made the decision to make better use of my time here—to become busier and more active. After that, it was like a giant bat-signal appeared over my head, drawing opportunities my way. All those vast expanses of free time I had are a thing of the past, and I’m all the happier for it!
Within 24 hours of my decision, I was invited to visit the local English “moms’ club,” to teach English to engineering professors (“You teach English, don’t you?” is the best way to strike up conversation at the bus stop), and to help train the Academy’s English Language Olympiad team. This is a group of five of the Academy’s best English students and speakers, and they will compete against students from other universities in reading, writing, listening, grammar, and speaking. They’ve got a pretty intense schedule of extra classes in preparation, but I’m only working with them on speaking. So far, I really enjoy coaching my Olympians! Actually, for the record, all my classes have been going pretty well lately.
Also, I finally got a schedule worked out to attend a Russian history class and a class on contemporary international relations! In addition to being a real test of my Russian abilities (discovery: I can listen to a lecture in Russian and keep up in note-taking!), the course material is very interesting to me. The international relations course is basically on Russian foreign policy—which, as you may know, is exactly my cup of academic tea. And you can’t tell me you never wondered about Russia’s perspectives on the Cold War!