Food for Thought: What is Russian Lent?
20 March, 2017
What is Russian Lent?
The Great Fast (Великий Пост) is an extremely important period for Russian Orthodox believers. By abstaining from certain foods and behaviours, they prepare their bodies and minds for Easter (Пасха). As a vegetarian, I think that Lent is a great time to be in Russia – basically every restaurant has a Lenten menu (постное меню)! However, I wanted to find out more about the Great Fast and the beliefs behind it.
When is Lent observed?
This year, Lent began on 27 February and will end on 15 April. It begins on the Monday after the big pancake festival Maslenitsa (Масленица). The last day of Maslenitsa is the equivalent to Pancake Day in the UK, in that the aim is to use up ingredients like eggs and sugar before the fast.
The period of fasting lasts for seven weeks, with each week commemorating a certain saint or religious event. The final week is called the Holy Week (Страстная седмица) and is the strictest period of the fast.
What do believers give up for Lent?
Orthodox believers give up all animal products – that means no meat, fish, seafood, eggs or dairy products. ‘Clean Monday’ (‘Чистый понедельник’), which takes place on the first Monday of the Great Lent, is a complete fast and for the rest of that week only raw food is allowed.
For the second to sixth weeks, raw food is eaten on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while cooked food is allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On the weekends believers can eat cooked and fried food and drink a little bit of wine.
As well as giving up certain foods, believers are also expected to abstain from excessive smoking, swearing and drinking.
The Aims of the Fast
The Great Fast shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘diet’. Instead, it should help Orthodox Russians show their devotion to God and focus their minds on spiritual matters. Generally, during this period believers spend more time praying and reading religious texts, and lots of people volunteer and do charity work.
Of course, not everyone can follow such a strict diet (e.g. elderly people and infants). Therefore, abstinence from meat and dairy is the minimum requirement for the fast, and believers can choose if they want to follow it to the strictest degree. A lot of Russians do give up meat and dairy during this period, but only 2% of the population adhere to the strictest dietary rules.
Comparing the Great Fast to Lent back in England, it really struck me how much more seriously the Russian Orthodox Church takes the idea of fasting. In the UK, the principle of Lent is popular and lots of people give up unhealthy food, such as chocolate, until Easter. However, this is mainly done for health reasons – not religious ones – and it is not as nearly as strict. I really enjoyed finding out more about the Great Fast in Russia and discovering what an important role it plays in Orthodox culture, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it too! Check out the Liden & Denz blog for more information about Russian culture!