russian carnival

Russian carnival, or maslyenitsa, has always been a big and cheerful festival, a time of particular revelry. Carnival traditionally began with exuberance on the Monday, the turning point was on the Thursday, and the festive week ended on the Sunday. Now carnival is celebrated on the last Sunday of winter. The festival once belonged to the cult of the sun whose renewed energy is felt most intensely in the spring. Thus the uncommon merriment accompanying the festival. Various rites have also been preserved although they have lost their original meaning. In some places, for example, a man is dressed up and taken around on a huge sleigh; he sits on a wheel fastened to the top of a pole raised in the middle of the sleigh. The wheel is a symbol of the sun. Instead of a man, in some places there is a tree adorned with ribbons and decorations. The tree is a symbol of the fertility that the sun gives rise to. In other places a decorated straw dummy is taken around and later burned on a bonfire – a symbolic destruction of winter. For our ancestors, the reawakening of nature in spring was connected with the idea of the revival of the dead – thus the ‘funeral pancakes’ eaten at carnival.

What is astonishing about the history of carnival in Russia is that it had clearly pagan roots which were always in contradiction to Christianity. Carnival and many other folk customs aroused the righteous indignation of the guardians of religious correctness.

The Czechs and Slovaks call carnival fašanek or masopust. The latter expression, as well as the Russian word post, are related to ‘fast’, and there are numerous Russian sayings to the effect of ‘after the feast comes the fast’. In German, carnival is generally known as Fasching, or more traditionally Fastnacht. In the year 600 Pope Gregory I, the Great, established Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Lenten fast. The eve of this day, known as Bacchanalia, was infamous for its diabolical festivities. As church historians put it, “in these days people behaved like lunatics: they donned masks, men dressed up like scarecrows, while women indulged in frenzied debauchery”. These were the origins of the European carnival which in Catholic regions went from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. The ancient saturnalian rites, a pagan festival, took on new forms and spread from Italy to other early Christian countries where they served as models for imitation but also merged with local folk customs.

Carnival did not develop so strongly among the Ukrainians and Byelorussians, but the Russians have always celebrated it zestfully, nationwide. The whole population pursues the typical carnival amusements: tobogganing and sleigh riding combined with singing, fisticuffs, heavy drinking and feasting, at which pancakes and fritters play a major role.

I would like to present a picture of this festival today. For making the film I have chosen an old Russian mercantile centre which still preserves the splendour of old Russian cities – Vyshniy Volochek, 300 km from Moscow. Carnival is celebrated there on the town’s central square surrounded by eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings. A huge number of people from the surrounding towns and villages flock there on that day. And then the folk processions begin, one long outdoor party, loud and intemperate. I have seen it and was very impressed. One might now think the film will be a documentary about the festival, but it will be more than that: I am particularly interested in the pagan element, that archetypical constituent of popular culture that has been inherited unconsciously and is still practised today. In everyday life it is hidden, as a rule, but it emerges most vividly during such celebrations. Carnival was and possibly still is the only festival of its kind. In a word, I am fascinated by the population’s elemental energy, its seething, boiling fervour, its outpourings, its faces that it itself is not conscious of. The film will be shot in one day.

Festivities and Holidays

A Personal Note

Let me speak for a moment on a personal note. Ever since I was a boy I have been afraid of festive occasions. I cannot relax and enjoy myself the way children do. I cannot spend even a moment in a state of carefree merriment. It seems to me that I am far from being the only person in Russia who is like this. I think this feeling – a kind of inner constraint – afflicts many of us here. Something is always constraining our feelings and holding them in, a kind of general ponderousness. It is hard to put your finger on it, but you get an idea of it when you compare various peoples’ celebrations. What are festive occasions? Apart from anything else, they are an opportunity to escape from the rut of everyday life and to forget. Yet for some reason this never works, and we are painfully aware of it. I want to understand why this is. Why it is not possible to ‘tear oneself away’ and spend a while in carefree oblivion? This is another question, evidently a deep and complex one, concerning national peculiarities and their history, and also has an intimate component that is hard to put into words. It can only be conveyed at the emotional level. So much for my personal impressions.

Why this Particular Festivity?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communist ideology as an official dogma, Russia now has the following public holidays:

  • New Year’s Day,
  • Orthodox Christmas,
  • 23 February – Defenders of the Fatherland Day,
  • 8 March – International Women’s Day,
  • Easter,
  • 1 May – May Day (the day of workers’ solidarity with other workers),
  • 9 May – Victory Day,
  • Independence Day (independence from whom?),
  • 7 November – the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution, now called Accord and Reconciliation Day (of whom with whom?),
  • Constitution Day,
  • and again New Year’s Day.

That is the cycle of holidays in Russia today.

Of the holidays mentioned, only New Year’s Day is truly free of (church or state) ideology. It alone reminds us of the passage of time and nothing else. All the other festive occasions are ideologically charged to some degree. New Year’s Day is a family holiday, usually celebrated privately, with the family. It does not presuppose large outdoor events.

Russian carnival, or maslyenitsa, is not an official holiday. It falls on the last Sunday in winter, at the end of February, and is celebrated nationwide with great zest. Like New Year’s Day, it is connected with the passage of time. It marks the change of the seasons, the joy at having survived the harsh winter and the hope that the future – the coming spring – will bring relief.

Celebrating carnival is a pagan tradition of long standing in Russia, yet under Stalin it was forbidden to celebrate carnival or New Year. People were not to be connected with nature and its cycles. Nature was replaced by the ideology of progress, according to the given definition. That is how things were laid down. Linear movement from good to better ruled out any notion of cycles, rebirth or renewal.

Later, after the death of Stalin, the tradition of carnival gradually returned – reticently, timidly, cautiously – yet of its own accord. Now, in the age of pseudo-capitalism, people have begun to celebrate it again on a large scale. The ideology of this day is that of the belly – the gargantuan ideology of stuffing your stomach as full as possible. This is achieved with pancakes, a symbol of the sun. In other words, the stomach is filled with the energy of the sun. Basically it is a big ‘pig-out’. Long live the full stomach! That is definitely one of the features of carnival. There is no other day in the calendar for exultant and excessive eating. How very contradictory this is for a people accustomed to austerity and scarce earthly pleasures, that has adapted to privations and limitations by turning to virtual abstinence!

At carnival, however, this suppression of earthly pleasures in the name of the church or a secular ideology is broken. The gutsy pagan thirst for life, repletion, and wild revelry has free reign. Carnival is full of blazing energy, games, and fisticuffs near the end (the tradition of mass fist fights). The cult of fire figures at the very end when the carnival effigy is burnt. Destruction in the name of renewal – that is what this festivity is all about. Carnival is a display of the Human, right from the guts. It is this manifestation that I am looking for, and the film will show it to the greatest extent possible, to the extent that the revellers express their desires without inhibition. This is an experiment, of course, and like every film it is a journey into the unknown that will reveal more than we can now guess. That is what makes this experiment so interesting.

The Place

I have chosen to shoot in an old Russian town, Vyshniy Volochek, that has retained the character of an old Russian mercantile centre. It lies in the Tver district in the very centre of Russia. All sections of the population, rich and poor alike, come together on the town square to celebrate carnival. People from the surrounding villages converge there too, and we will see the full human diversity of the region. Technique In order to take in all the developments I will film with several cameras. These will gradually be drawn into the crowd, the raging sea of people.

Initially I will maintain a distance between the camera and the people – an observer’s distance. Being an arm’s length away helps us remain detached. But as events develop and the masses begin to get excited, the distance will be abandoned and we will be caught up in the very thick of things: games and contests, fancy dress, excessive eating, fist fights, singing, and so on, right through to the bonfire at the end. Then everything is burnt, consumed by fire. The riotousness ended. Only ashes remain.