This article was published as part of SRAS's free monthly newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, just send an email with "subscribe" in the subject field to email@example.com.
Они хранили в жизни мирной
Привычки милой старины;
У них на масленице жирной
Водились русские блины.
In peaceful life they protected
Sweet olden-time traditions;
With them on fatty Maslenitsa
Was always the Russian blin
The Food and Celebration of the Russians
By Josh Wilson
Russians revere both blini and Maslenitsa as being "truly Russian" although, ironically, neither is without multiple counterparts among world cultures.
Russian blini are descended from one of mankind’s oldest and most common prepared foods: fried flat bread. Russians, in fact, always translate “blini” as “pancakes” when speaking English, although the ultra-thin, slightly tart Russian blin is more akin to the French crepe and German blintz than it is the thick, sweet American pancake. Even the Mexican tortilla is similar, as the blin is also often stuffed with filling and rolled before eating. The simplicity and versatility of the food has spread it across the planet, yet it is doubtful that Russia invented it.
Maslenitsa is the oldest surviving Russian holiday; archeological evidence suggests it may have been celebrated as early as the 2nd century A.D. The week-long celebration marking the beginning of spring was one of the most important and elaborate for the pagan culture, which is a fact not at all surprising if you have ever lived through a 6-7 month Russian winter.
As with most ancient traditions, there are many explanations of why things developed as they did. One version says that Blini were eaten as symbols of the sun, personified by the ancient and powerful god Volos. This was done not only in thanksgiving, but also as a method of purification as it was coupled with an abstention from meat, which Russians have long regarded as a source of lust and aggression. Linguistic evidence suggests that Maslenitsa (“Butter-Week”) was formally called “Myasopusta” (“meatless,” though the word form is now archaic).
Another explanation of blini comes from the ancient slavic traditions of ancestor worship. It was believed that at springtime, the world of the living and the world of the dead were drawn closer. Blini were first cooked, some say, as an offering to dead ancestors who might be visiting at this time. Of course, the living partook of the food as well. The blini were very thin to symbolize the thinness of the barrier between this world and the next.
Whatever the reason for its start, Maslenitsa developed into a highly elaborate, multi-day festival. There was a day specifically for sharing blini with your sweetheart, a day to give blini to the poor, and a day when mother’s-in-law cooked blini for their son’s wives. Maslenitsa was also known as a “threshold time” in folklore jargon. It was a time when rules (both societal and natural) could be broken; in addition to gorging themselves on blini, people often wore masks and clothing of the opposite gender, role-played, consumed large amounts of alcohol, and generally made merry.
With the arrival of Christianity this pagan tradition was kept and is now a sort of Mardi Gras or Carnival for the Orthodox, marking the week before Lent (Velikii Post). Most Russians no longer abstain from meat (as the Orthodox church still officially requires) and Maslenitsa celebrations are now often dotted with Sashlik (Russian BBQ) stands, but meat still does not play a major role in the festivities (as opposed especially to the meat-stuffed Carnival). In fact, it seems that neither Maslenitsa nor blini have changed very much over the last few centuries, having survived the official ideologies of both Orthodoxy and Communism. This is a fact Russians will point out often and with pride if asked.
To make sure that your blin are not pancakes or crepes, you should make sure that they are made from buckwheat flour and yeast, the two things which set the Russian variant apart from most of its counterparts. Some patriotic Russians will also insist that true Russian blini should be made by a Russian grandmother, since cooking the super-thin dainties requires much practice. For most of us, however, following the recipe below will have to do, along with the advice of Russian grandmothers everywhere: “Первый блин всегда комом.” It means, literaly, “the first blin always lumps up;” but is used in the context of “if at first you don’t succeed…”
See below for a free recipe for Russian blini. If you are interested in cooking from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and other places in Eurasia, make sure to see our full, free Eurasian Cookbook online! You might also be interested in the following specialized cookbooks we've enjoyed:
2/3 cup warm milk
½ tsp honey
1 pkt dry yeast
2 tbl melted butter, cooled
½ cup flour, plus 2 tbl flour
1 pch salt
2 eggs, whisked together
1 potato, cut in half
vegetable oil or butter for frying
Preparation: Combine milk, honey and yeast in a medium bowl. Whisk together and let stand until foamy. Stir in cooled butter. In a separate bowl combine the flours and salt. Make an indentation in the center of the dry mixture and stir in liquid mixture, slowly, until blended. Without stirring vigorously, blend in whisked eggs just until combined. Cover and let rise at room temperature for about 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in volume.
Cooking: Heat a thick-bottomed skillet (or a blini, crepe, or plett pan) over medium-high heat. Dip the halved potato in oil, or coat with butter and grease the pan lightly (this is the traditional way, a paper towel or oil brush may also be used). Pour some batter in the pan. Some chefs use a special "blini roller" to spread the batter evenly and paper-thin, otherwise, move the pan while pouring to help spread the batter, or make very small bliny, which will be able to spread themselves (use about 1 tbl.). When the blin is golden brown on its underside (should happen in under 1 minute), flip over and brown the other side. Repeat.
Presentation: Blini are remarkably versatile and may be served with nearly anything from caviar to salmon to cottage cheese to sour cream to jam to honey. Place your filling in the center of the blin. For larger blin, fold once in half, then thrice lengthwise to form a small triangle.
Find Out More!
History of Russian Holidays
Internships in Russia
Health and Safety in Russia
The SRAS Newsletter
The SRAS Library on Russia
Journal for Students
More Free Resources!
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor.