Sunday, April 5, 2015

Throw Back Thursday: Lent in Russia

Христос воскрес! Воистину воскрес!
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

As we close the season of Lent, I wanted to take a moment to talk about how Russia, a primarily Orthodox Christian country, expresses Lent!

This season unexpectedly made me extremely nostalgic for Russia, more so than the actual weather season outside (since we randomly had blizzard conditions for a few weeks in Charlottesville...).
I think it was around this time last year that I really started to reach out and explore my community in St. Petersburg more, that I felt I started integrating better, and that I had a direction in my daily life rather than just learning Russian.

For those who don't know: for Orthodox Lent, similarly to the Catholic tradition, you don't "give something up" like TV or chocolate, you undertake a strict fast. Great Lent (Великий Пост) is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year. The rule is: for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided.
So, basically vegan + oil - shellfish. There are lots of regional interpretations, exceptions, qualifications, etc. (This website does a great job of explaining if you're interested in reading more.)

In Russia, most restaurants have a "biznes lanch" (business lunch), which is a prix fixe menu and is usually extremely cheap- ranging from $4 to about $9 or $10 in very upscale restaurants (at an exchange rate of 50 rub/1 usd). During Lent, there will also generally be a "fasting menu" offered. Restaurants will advertise their fasting menu with a sign on the door or maybe post it outside on a chalk board. Grocery stores will sometimes put little "fasting" stickers on products and some companies even have special "fasting" product lines they roll out for Lent (I've seen this with frozen/ready-made food). All of this makes it extremely easy to keep a Lenten fast, especially since just saying "I'm fasting" or "do you have anything fast-friendly?" to a waiter or clerk is immediately understood and accommodated.

Most Russians don't keep a strict fast during Lent. Even those who are religious will often fast only the last week of Lent (Holy Week). I've also met a few people fasting simply because they want to lose weight and it's easier this time of year. Although it's not the norm, no one will judge you for fasting, and you won't feel marginalized. The health and spiritual benefits of fasting are well documented.

The week before Lent is Maslenitsa (Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Shrovetide are all related). The tradition is to eat blini (Russian thin pancakes) until you pop. Learn more about it here. Maslenitsa is recognized not only in the Church, but by public festivals at parks, cultural performances, specials at restaurants, and of course cooking a ton of blini at home. 
It is much more widely celebrated and recognized than the last week before Lent in the United States (except for Mardi Gras in new Orleans).
a Maslenitsa blin with sour cream and home-canned blueberries

Last year, when I spent Easter in Russia, I had the opportunity to celebrate at Navy Cathedral in Kronstadt at the midnight service- it was AMAZING. I was really tired and at first didn't want to go, but I forced myself out of the house and went. At first everyone was just kind of milling around in the church and there were some relics that people were lining up to see and pray at. Then the service started- lots of unintelligible chanting and crossing and bowing. Then right before midnight, the priests head out the big main doors and lead the worshipers in a circle around the church carrying banners (gonfalons) with saints on them. At midnight, the church bells ring and everyone starts smiling and hugging their neighbors and shouting " Christ is Risen!" Then everyone squeezes back into the church and prays more. It was really very powerful to be a part of, especially in such a big, beautiful, important church. I love the chanting, the incense, and the gilded icons and pillars of the cathedral.

Inside the Navy Cathedral
Roman and I in front of the Navy Cathedral in Kronstadt

Easter Sunday in Russia is spent eating this pretty but actually gross-tasting kulich, playing a game with eggs (dyed previously, often with natural dyes made of onion or potato skins) where you hit your egg against another person's to see whose will crack, and greeting people with "Christ Has Risen!" There is usually a family meal with lots of no-longer-forbidden foods- meats, cheese, milk, eggs.
Some half-eaten kulich and Imperial Easter eggs

Anyway, this post kind of got away from me, but basically, Lent is expressed in similar but distinct ways in Russia and the US- no surprise there. I found it much easier to maintain an Orthodox fast in Russia because of the social acceptance and subsequent unconscious support system.

One interesting thing to note: just because people won't ask you 100 questions about why you're fasting and what it means and did you convert to Orthodoxy (actually, I get asked that in Russia too...), doesn't mean they agree with you. I met a lot of people who were pretty shocked by what I was doing- partly because I was a Protestant foreigner adopting an Orthodox tradition and partly because I was actually attempting to keep the fast throughout all of Lent. I've heard many times that Orthodoxy is the core of the Russian soul, that you cannot be Russian (Русский) and not be Orthodox, but in an interesting paradox, people who regularly go to church are outliers and considered a bit strange. Orthodoxy is a very strong cultural identity factor, and actual religious practices such as fasting and attending masses are less important.

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