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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 3 March 2014

Bad timing for sixth Maslenitsa

Three years back, remember how great it seemed to stumble onto that big Russian spring festival in Trafalgar Square? Last Sunday was the sixth year of this "Maslenitsa" festival welcoming the spring - but alas, the actual and political climates ruined the day for many.

London's Maslenitsa festival seemed a great way for London's estimated 150,000 Russian residents to show the city a bit of their culture. The whole idea of a spring festival is a delight, slotting in neatly just before pancakes, Lent and Easter.

From the start it was state-sponsored - both by the Russian ministry of culture and our own  minister of any London event, the omnipresent Boris Johnson. It was not some spontaneous bit of creativity from London based Russian, but a well stage-managed bit of state propaganda (odd how that seems to have chnacged very little since soviet days) along with some great PR for some huge Russian  corporations and  of course for  Boris himself.

Back in 2010, this all seemed ok-ish, there was even some sun in London, and the Russian cultural display appeared fresh and strange, almost innocent, compared with the slick X-factor nonsense you get at British versions of such events.

Rain and politics did not keep the crowds of Russian away from Trafalgar Square for Sunday's sixth Maslenitsa festivalAbove all, the crowd was huge and happy and at least half-Russian (you could tell: the good-looking ones and those wearing real furs were the  Russians, says the ethnic stereotyper in me ).

It was an unexpected and hugely enjoyable event.

So we went back on Sunday, cautiously, knowing that everything had changed. Since them we've had Putin's men beating up Pussy Riot members, we've had Russia blocking any attempts to do much about Syria, the strained goodwill of the Sochi Olympics, and this week, with devilishly bad timing, we have Russia apparently poised to crush the revived democratic movement in Ukraine.

For the past three days, we have seemed to be teetering on the t brink war, thought there days seem to be a merciful cooling-off of the rhetoric this morning.

So we had the organisers speaking of the value of cultural exchange and mutual benefits, when everyone there knew what was going on in Crimea. Only the most oblique references were made, however, and all the dignitaries who spoke - English and Russian - were cheerful and upbeat.

People were handing out little Russian Federation flags energetically, as they did three years ago - but this time, you couldn't help thinking that the resultant flag-waving images from Trafalgar Square might have some symbolic use in the next few weeks.

Sad, too, for the performers, many of them young dance troupes, whose beautiful displays were clearly the fruit of months of painful rehearsal, should have this moment of triumph tarnished by both politics and the stinking British weather.

The acts we saw did not seem too bothered, and the best, the insanely energetic Cossack dance troup[e, Samoc (?), were exchanging jokes in Russian and demanding bigger and better applause from the audience.

 By 5pm, when the rain got harder and the wind colder, and the more casual visitors were leaving fast, the hard-core were beginning to dancing and stamping and swaying and shouting all the more. The crowd were just as cheerful as three years ago - but  this time perhaps it was
more defiantly cheerful.

Oddly, there was no large-scale Ukrainian protest - just a handful of people with placards across the road. There was also, for a while, a silent protest by Turks against al-Qaeda-backed extremists which seemed unconnected.

A shame that this day was marred - and in fact it was part of a week of Russian culture in London, and with equally bad timing it would seem 2014 has been declared a Year of Russian culture  in the UK.

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