Partying Russian-style – not just vodka and dancing bears

An exhibition that shows how to have a good time Russian-style has opened up in Moscow, enlightening anyone interested on national partying traditions.

Held at Moscow’s estate of Tsaritsyno, the display traces the history of Russian celebrations from the days of the Tsars to Soviet times. More than a hundred works bring everything from market fairs and hen parties to royal balls and Soviet parades.

Ironically, the first to document Russian merrymaking were foreigners. An 18th century painting of sledge-riding in St. Petersburg was composed by a British artist John Atkinson, amazed by the sheer size of the ice slopes. It was only afterwards that Russian painters caught up, with celebrations of all sorts becoming trendy to draw.

Every holiday in Tsarist Russia had age-old traditions and was a wild mix of pagan rites and Christian practices – of things typically home-grown and things imported from abroad.

Celebrations were normally large-scale, although sometimes not all about fun, like the wedding that Empress Anna organized in 1740 for a courtier who fell out of favor. Not only did she force him to marry a female court jester, she also had a palace made entirely of ice built for them to spend the night in, which they had much trouble surviving because of severe frost.

The exhibition also boasts a range of traditional folk party costumes. Since celebrations typically lasted for several days, women had the chance of showing off several dresses, often adorned with golden embroidery.

You should also take a look at the menu of a dinner marking the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. A true royal feast includes several types of soup, pheasant in aspic, fruit with wine, cakes and ice-cream.

You would be surprised by huge dippers for beer, including a special double scoop for newlyweds to drink from at their wedding. Drinking had its own traditions too, like the 17th-century “kissing custom” – when a guest was offered a tipple he thanked the mistress of the house with a kiss.

The Soviet era produced new celebrations, the most popular having been Labor Day on May 1 and the anniversary of the Revolution on November 7.

The exhibition’s organizers say holidays are not just a big part of Russian culture, but also the key to understanding it.

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