Smells like Pancakes: Russian Community Celebrates Maslenitsa in Ottawa

Head Sister Irina Shiraeva poses with dancers from Ottawa’s School of Modern Dance and their teacher, Anna Kamsha. All photos by Damira Davletyarova.

A little parish on 412 Booth St. smells like blini. You might call them pancakes or crêpes.

It’s getting hotter in the kitchen. Flour particles disperse in the air. Spilled milk dots the floor. Sounds of breaking eggs correspond with intensive clanging of dishware. From dawn that morning, the team of nine female parish members rolled up their sleeves to bake blini to celebrate Maslenitsa.

They have ended up baking almost 1,000 pancakes, serving them with caviar, jam and lots of butter. On the side – two shots of vodka, of course.

The Sisterhood of Ottawa’s of Parish of Our Lady of Kazan and the Protection of the Mother of God was in charge of the Maslenitsa. It’s a carnival with pagan and Christian roots that marks the arrival of the spring and the feast before the Great Lent – a seven-week fast ahead of Orthodox Easter.

The parish has also put on a great show, organized a craft sale and served some traditional Russian food. The children choir has sung Russian folk songs. Dance teams have performed different cultural dances to the public.

Nearly 200 people attended the celebration. Most of them were parish members and Russians from small towns near Ottawa. Unlike other festivals like Mardi Gras or Oktoberfest, Maslenitsa is barely known to Ottawa. Only a few Canadians could be seen among the public.

1 Kevin Slocombe
Kevin Slocombe holds up a plate of blini and two shots of vodka at Maslenitsa festival.

Kevin Slocombe was one of them. A software engineer at Vailtech, Slocombe was busy buying another plate of blini when I found him. “Delicious!” he says. “I like all Russian food!”

It is Slocombe’s first time attending Maslenitsa. He would have never come, he says, if not for his Russian wife’s community connection. In fact, Slocombe has just returned from Russia, where he had a chance to immerse himself into Russian culture and better understand what is different about Russia.

“I saw the long-term culture, because Canada is kind of a new country. Traditions are not as old, so it’s very interesting for me to see old traditions being celebrated. And I am glad it keeps going, making Ottawa interesting,” Slocombe says.

Cold and long winter days unite Canada and Russia. Warm food and hot drinks make them friends. The arrival of warmer sunny days is a celebration for both. Round, buttered pancakes melt away the winter fatigue. People who come to the festivity usually find friendship, diversity and a great show, says Irina Shiraeva, the head sister of the sisterhood, who was in charge of the celebration.

“It’s a chance for Canadians to know more about Russian culture, traditions and community, to listen to Russian music and see wonderful Russian dancing,” Shiraeva says.

4 Dance
The dance team from the School of Modern Dance performing a Russian folk dance.

The preparation for the event has taken more than two months. The parish has celebrated Maslenitsa for several years. This year is different though, says Shiraeva. Before, she says, it was a mere preparation to make it a bigger carnival that would include more people. This day has come: More visitors have joined the parish for Maslenitsa celebration than in any previous years.

“Everybody, who came here, are happy. They are smiling, they are laughing, and they are eating and singing, and dancing and saying thank you. It’s nice,” she says.

That’s what the parish’s community members wanted to see. Women worked hard baking blini, preparing pelmeni – the Russian dumplings with meat, and putting pies and sweets on the table.

“Everybody is happy to be together, to work together, to act together, to have fun and see new people. It is wonderful,” Shiraeva says.

3 Olga Waugh
Olga Waugh at the Maslenitsa craft sale, showing a necklace that she says represents Maslenitsa: the spring and the Sun.

Olga Waugh shows a round, yellow necklace. Waugh was among few who brought their craft, jewelry and knitting, to the Maslenitsa craft sale.

“This necklace will remind people of the bright sun and coming of the spring,” says Waugh. “It means beginning of the spring, something new and exciting. It’s a chance to have fun, after a long winter.”

Waugh has been living with her family in Canada for 12 years. Over these years, unfortunately, she met only some Canadians who knew about the Pancake festival.

“I think, it is fun that we have this diversity, and people can come and see what it is, and compare. It’s fun to meet people of other cultures,” Waugh says. “Come on! I know, many Canadians, they really like Russian food: caviar, mayonnaise… And music too.”

If you are tired of long winter, then join Maslenitsa for some blini. In fact, why not make it an annual event? The blini week will definitely make Canada a warmer and yummier place to live.