A Russian city stakes its claim to blini, the pre-Lenten feast


A man dressed as skomorokh, a medieval East Slavic harlequin, distributes blini in St. Petersburg during Maslenitsa, or Butter Week. Maslenitsa is a week-long Russian celebration to say goodbye to winter. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)
March 12, 2013

Fat, round and pagan. For Russians, it’s that time of year, and here in Pskov they’re not going to let anyone else outdo them. This is Butter Week, and this is when Pskov stakes its claim as the home of Czar Pancake.

Lent, in the Orthodox Church, begins on March 18, so starting this Monday, Pskov’s griddles have been sizzling overtime. This is like a week-long Mardi Gras, except that it’s all about blini — the distinctively Russian, yeasty pancakes — served all day and into the evening and filled with everything from herring to honey, all drenched in butter. Actors and musicians are performing, artists have been creating a city of straw sculptures, and leading citizens are trying their hands at the stove top, led by the holiday’s biggest booster, Gov. Andrei Turchak.

Russians everywhere celebrate the week they know as Maslenitsa, so what’s Pskov’s special claim? None at all, said a highly amused Lidia Chechelnitskaya, deputy director of the Folk Art Center of the Pskov region. But no one else had laid claim to it, so why not?

“We had an opportunity, and we had a wish,” she said, her face alight in her cramped and bustling office, “and anything is possible when these things come together.”

It was four years ago that Turchak — who is 37 and hails from St. Petersburg, where his father is one of President Vladimir Putin’s close friends — was appointed governor of the Pskov region. An outsider, he needed an idea to put Pskov on the map — and maybe get some notice himself, as well.

The thinking went this way, Chechelnitskaya said: Look at Moscow. A city of more than 10 million, it has its Czar Cannon and Czar Bell — ancient bronze monuments on the grounds of the Kremlin — so why shouldn’t Pskov, home to 200,000 in northwestern Russia, try for something, as she put it, “identical and interesting”?

A jolly despot

And then they had it. Czar Blin — not a pancake himself but a pancake-themed jolly despot, the emperor of Maslenitsa — was born.

“The Czar Cannon never shot, the Czar Bell never rang, and the Czar Blin is impossible to eat,” exclaimed a delighted Chechelnitskaya. And if she and the governor get their way, His Royal Yeastiness will one day be as firmly associated with this city hard by the border with Estonia as a certain groundhog is with Punxsutawney, Pa. For the pagans who once lived here, Maslenitsa was a harbinger of spring; today, the organizers hope, it could be the harbinger of a more figurative springtime for Pskov.

Naturally, there’s sniping. For one thing, the word “blin” is also a euphemism for one of the least polite words in the Russian language, and although the governor would like people to identify him with Czar Blin, there’s the danger he’ll be thought of as Czar “Blin” instead.

And then there’s the undisclosed spending. “It’s pure PR,” said Lev Shlosberg, an outspoken member of the regional parliament and a member of the opposition Yabloko party. “It’s not for residents. Not even for tourists. It’s just a possibility for certain people to get in the picture.”

In years past, the administration has been brazen about giving Maslenitsa contracts to favored bidders, he said, but now it has gotten wiser and hides most of the expenditures. Chechelnitskaya said the budget includes $200,000 in public money, with the rest from commercial sponsors. And she argued, as boosters do everywhere, that the festival fills hotels and restaurants.

The villa in France

In the meantime, Turchak may have a bigger finance-based headache to worry about. On March 5, two days after he filed his property disclosure form, a Web site run by the crusading anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny revealed that Turchak’s family owns a villa in Nice, in the south of France, purchased for about $1.7 million in 2008.

The governor had not officially noted that villa before now, though after the news came out he quickly amended his declaration. Owning expensive property abroad on a government salary is one thing — and a very common thing among Russian officials — but the timing of the disclosure is awkward, coming during a big wave of anti-foreign patriotism.

(The governor declined to meet with The Washington Post but gave an interview to the Russian newspaper Izvestia about the property in Nice. He said it is technically owned by a company in which he and his wife, father and brother are the shareholders. He promised to sell it by May 1. He said, “An official with foreign assets cannot defend Russia.”)

Czar Blin, at least, is all Russian. “Maslenitsa,” Chechelnitskaya said, “is one of the opportunities for us to show our tradition and identity.”

Festivities are anchored in the plaza surrounding the statue of Princess Olga, the Russians’ first Christian saint, who is famous for burning or burying alive thousands of her enemies. In previous years, money raised through the auction of celebrity-made blini went to the church. This year, though, orphans — who have become the Kremlin’s favorite cause and an inspiration for continuing anti-Americanism — are the featured guests of the celebration and the chief recipients of charity.

The hotels are filled to overflowing. The flour, yeast, eggs, salt and milk are at hand. The butter is rich, and plenty more lies in reserve. In Pskov, the party’s on.

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