Top festivals in Moscow and around Russia
The best of Russia's festivals celebrate the rich Russian culture, religion and history, alongside a vibrant mix of music, film, theatre, food and snow festivals.
Traditional Russian festivals celebrate religious occasions such as Easter and Christmas plus historical and political events, as well as the rich Russian culture. Sprinkled in are summer music festivals and events celebrating food, film and theatre – and, of course, snow and ice. Here’s an interesting mix of some of the best festivals and celebrations in Russia.
January 6/7: Russian Orthodox Christmas
Along with other religious celebrations, Christmas was banned in Russia after the 1917 Revolution and was only openly observed again in 1992. The Russian Orthodox church – and almost all Russians – celebrate Christmas (the birth of Jesus) on 7 January. It’s mainly a religious occasion, when families gather together to attend church services on Christmas Eve (6 January) and then go home to feast on a special ‘holy supper’, which includes a dish called kutiya, a porridge with raisins. Some people attend all night vigils at church; others just go on Christmas morning.
January 25: Tatyana’s Day
Tatyana’s Day is often called Russian Students Day. When Elisabeth Empress of Russia signed a decree to establish Moscow State University on 25 January 1755 – the saint’s day of 3rd-century Christian martyr St Tatyana – St Tatyana became the patron saint of students. Most university towns have St Tatyana celebrations, holding balls and choosing the best Tatyana from the students.
January: International Festival of Snow and Ice Sculpture, Krasnoyarsk
The Magic Ice of Siberia is an international competition that takes place on the banks of the Yenisei River in Krasnoyarsk, the third largest city in Siberia. Teams of sculptors, architects and artists from Russia and beyond create massive frozen artworks to compete in two categories: snow and ice.
February: Maslenitsa Festival
Seven weeks before Easter are the week-long Maslenitsa festivities – Russia’s pancake week. They combine the pagan tradition of marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring with the Christian tradition of feasting and merrymaking before Lent. Each day there are different activities: making Maslenitsa dolls from straw and old clothes, making and eating lots of pancakes (blinis), sledging, playing on seesaws, singing, fist fights, visiting the in-laws, exchanging gifts, feasting and drinking tea or vodka. The Maslenitsa dolls are burned on the final day and people jump over bonfires.
Celebrations start the night before Easter Sunday. Churches are filled with lights and at dawn the bells ring out to announce that Easter has arrived. Everyone paints boiled eggs in bright colours and has a traditional feast. Typical Easter foods are round sweet bread and Easter cake served with sweetened curds, butter and raisins.
March 8: International Women’s Day
Symbolising women’s equality, most people in Russia refer to International Women’s Day just as ‘the 8th of March’ and it’s a day when women’s achievements – both personal and professional – are celebrated. People have time off work, workplaces organise celebrations, and everyone gives gifts such as flowers and chocolates to the important women in their lives and wishes them ‘a happy 8th of March’.
March/April: Golden Mask Theatre Festival, Moscow
The Golden Mask Theatre Festival, established in 1993, is an all-Russian theatre festival and competition and covers all genres from drama to modern dance and puppet theatre.
May-July: White Nights Festival, St Petersburg
Due to St Petersburg’s northerly location the sun never fully sets in St Petersburg between May and mid-June. You can talk a walk at midnight and still see the sun on the horizon. This provides the romantic backdrop for the annual White Nights Festival, an arts festival with music and dance by Russian and international stars. The Mariinsky Theatre has a programme of more than 175 operas, ballets and classical concerts – and tickets get snapped up fast. There are carnivals, too, the best being in the suburb of Peterhof where actors dress up in historical costume from the time of Peter the Great and re-enact historical events.
May 9: Victory Day
Victory Day celebrates the end of World War II and it’s celebrated with parades, spectacular fireworks and displays of military strength. The most impressive event is held in Moscow’s Red Square, where soldiers, tanks, missiles and other military equipment are on display on the ground and military planes fly overhead. Military memorials all over Russia are spruced up, and there are displays in museums.
June: Moscow International Film Festival
The very first Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) was held in 1935 when the jury was headed up by world-renowned film-maker Sergei Eisenstein (of Battleship Potemkin fame). It became a regular event on the cultural calendar in 1959. More than 200 films from 50 different countries are screened, with the best picture winning the Golden George.
June: Taste of Moscow
Each year a selection of Moscow’s top restaurants open their doors for three days of master classes and tasting sessions, open to all the family (there’s usually a special entertainment zone with a children’s menu). There are also zones dedicated to different types of food and drink, DJs and music to create a party atmosphere. Around 200 different master classes are on offer, for both Russian and international foods.
Late June: Scarlet Sails, St Petersburg
The White Nights Festival culminates with Scarlet Sails, the largest annual pubic gathering in Russia with more than a million people watching a mock pirate battle on the River Neva, a firework show, and a tall ship with sails the colour of blood. The event celebrates the end of the school year.
June: Wild Mint Folk Festival
This large, open-air world folk music festival takes place in the Ethnomir complex in Moscow every summer. Over several days, Russian and international musicians perform a variety of folk-based genres – afrobeat, ethno-jazz, raga, Russian folk – and there are food stalls, markets, and body and soul workshops.
July 6/7: Ivan Kupalo Day
This is a summer solstice celebration related to John the Baptist (Ivan means ‘John’ and kupala is related to a Slavic word for ‘bathing’) as July 6/7 is June 23/24 in the Julian calendar used by the Orthodox church. Girls wear flower or herb wreaths on their heads, and in the evening the wreaths are decorated with burning candles and set afloat; the girl whose wreath travels the farthest will have the happiest year ahead and the candle that burns the longest means a long life. People light bonfires and jump over them for good luck. Some seek a special flowering fern said to direct the finder towards treasure. There are fireworks, of course.
July: Nashestvie, Moscow
This big, open-air rock festival focuses on Russian rock bands. Nashestvie is organised by Russian rock station Nashe Radio (the station responsible for Russian’s major rock music chart ‘Chart Dozen’). The festival's name means ‘invasion’ in Russian but many people call the festival the ‘Russian Woodstock’. It’s a good place to see both established and up-and-coming musicians from around Russia and neighbouring states. nashestviefest.ru
End July: Afisha Picnic, Moscow
This may just be a one-day event but it’s one of the oldest and best-known music festivals in Russia. It’s held in the grounds of Kolomenskoye, a former Tsar’s estate on the banks of the Moscow River. It attracts big Russian and international names, like Kaiser Chiefs, Courtney Love, Jamiroquai and Madness.
Early November: Day of Accord and Reconciliation, Moscow
There’s a big parade in Red Square and many other events, usually around the Kremlin, to celebrate the communist revolution in 1917/1918.
Mid-December to mid-January: Russian Winter Festival
All Russian cities have Winter Festivals celebrating the best of Russian culture but the biggest and best is in Moscow. This is a huge annual event with activities all around the city decked with thousands of fairy lights. In Izmailovo Park you can watch performances of folk songs and dances, ice skate, sledge or take a ride in one of the three-horse sleighs called troikas. Gorky Park is famous for its magnificent ice sculptures. In Revolution Square you can buy crafts, eat warm pancakes or bagels spread with jam or honey, listen to a balalaika concert or watch a fashion show.
December/January: New Year
As Christmas was banned for many years in Russia, many of the Christmas traditions were diverted to the New Year celebrations on New Years’ Eve on 31 December. So people decorate New Year trees instead of Christmas trees and Ded Moroz (Father Frost), accompanied by his grand-daughter Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), delivers presents instead of Father Christmas. Families enjoy feasts, listen to the President’s New Year Speech and the Kremlin clock strikes midnight. Many Russians also celebrate a second New Year on 13/14 January or Old New Year, a tradition dating back to the old Julian calendar. Concerts, carnivals and street fairs – and a large ice rink in Red Square – are part of the fun.
Throughout the year: Chekhov International Theatre Festival, Moscow and beyond
Established in 1992 and named in honour of Russia’s most famous playwright and author, Anton Chekhov, the annual Chekhov International Theatre Festival brings together theatre companies from all over the world as well as Russia. There are also joint productions. In the 2015 line up were top names from the UK, France, Spain, China, Argentina, South Africa and Japan. Performances are primarily in Moscow but there are sometimes shows that tour other major cities such as St Petersburg and into the regions.
Photo credits: Luba Petrusha (thumbnail); mandarina94 (Russian Orthodox Christmas); Vladimir Vyatkin (Tatyana’s Day); Dayou_X (International Festival of Snow and Ice Sculpture, Krasnoyarsk); Лобачев Владимир (Maslenitsa Festival); Natalia Photos (Easter); Theefer (Golden Mask Theatre Festival, Moscow); Kremlin.ru (White Nights Festival, St Petersburg); Russian government (Moscow International Film Festival); Charles Haynes (Taste of Moscow); Лобачев Владимир (Ivan Kupalo Day); Спиридонов Денис (Afisha Picnic); Yogi555 (New Year).
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