For the past few weeks, the Western view of Russia has been inevitably tainted by the reckless actions of its president, Vladimir Putin, who caught the international community off-guard by invading Crimea in response to last month’s revolution in Ukraine. As alarming images of heavily armed Russian soldiers flood newspapers, stoking fears of war throughout the world, the situation seen from St. Petersburg looks rather different, at first glance.
Ukraine may be on everyone’s mind, but outward appearances hardly suggest the crisis unfolding some 1,350 miles away. For most Russians, daily life continues as usual-and so do the traditions that have sustained Russian culture for centuries.
On Sunday, March 2, huge crowds gathered at the Peter and Paul Fortress to celebrate the final day of Maslenitsa, the Russian version of Mardi Gras. The sights, sounds, and smells on display represented long-established traditions for the Orthodox holiday-the eating of delicious thin pancakes known as blini, lively recreations of Russian folk dances, colorful costumes, and the burning of a straw effigy to symbolize the beginning of spring and Lent.
If the holiday was purely traditional, though, its celebrants’ fashion was not quite so straightforward. Instead, the event’s attendees showcased the diversity of fashion styles regularly on display in St. Petersburg. In some way, the visitors represented a microcosm of Petersburg society, a city long torn between its Russian and European identity.
Some of the event’s older visitors perfectly matched most Americans’ view of Russian style-lots of grey, and lots of fur. Most middle-aged women sported knee-length (or longer) grey coats, some of them equipped with elaborate furry hoods. Their husbands generally wore shorter coats, but preferred even darker shades, with navies and blacks dominating. As for headwear, berets were especially popular, injecting a dose of French style into a largely Russian ensemble.
Many younger Russians, though, displayed more explicitly European styles, with color palettes that went beyond the various shades of grey preferred by their elders. Two young Russian women walking arm in arm, for instance, both accented their outfits with strong splashes of red. One wore a light beige jacket enlivened by a red scarf, gloves, and purse-the other sported red boots and a red knit hat. One young man wore a lumberjack-style red plaid jacket, looking more Canadian than Russian. His girlfriend, meanwhile, wore a darker plaid pattern on her pants, but introduced some brightness into the outfit with a pink scarf wrapped snugly around her neck.
The most colorful outfits of the day, though, were seen in the costumes of the folk dancers, musicians, and puppet masters who provided the day’s entertainment. Special mention goes to one stilts walker, who strode proudly among the crowd wearing clown makeup and red and yellow pants, while waving a massive blue and white flag.
Families young and old continued to file in and out of the fortress all day, happily taking part in a longstanding Russian tradition on an unusually warm March day. Taking in the festive atmosphere, it almost seemed as if Russia’s current troubles were temporarily forgotten in favor of comforting tradition. Perhaps the day’s festivities represented a welcome break from a week of worry about the tensions brewing in Crimea.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, anti-war protesters assembled at St. Isaac’s Square to protest the invasion of Crimea, only to be violently dispersed by riot police. The alignment of the two events on the same day was a potent reminder that even as tradition’s roots grow deeper with every year, the future marches onward-sometimes in unwelcome directions.