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Russians celebrate Lent with gourmet feasts and cooking contests

Observance of Great Lent, the period of fasting and spiritual reflection that precedes Holy Week and Easter, has become a staple of post-Soviet Russian life, sometimes manifest in ways that might seem out of sync with traditional views of the 40-day period.

Several years ago a new Lenten cookie, free of animal products, appeared on the market. Its wrapper had a picture of an ancient church as well as the logo of the company that makes the cookies: the Bolshevik cookie factory, now owned by Danone, the French-based multinational food company.

While it might seem strange that a company bearing the name of the party responsible for the murder and persecution of millions of believers and destruction of thousands of churches is now stepping on the Lenten bandwagon, Lent is firmly entrenched in Russia.

In tsarist Russia, theatres shut down during Lent except to show religious plays, and fasting was the rule, with most meat and dairy products cleared from the stores.

"Modern society is different," the Rev. Sergei Zvonaryov of the Moscow Patriarchate’s external church relations department told Ecumenical News International on 26 March. "It’s not ready for such sacrifices. Those who are ready, the church helps them, it helps them find their way in society. They can abstain from something."

In Anapa, a Black Sea resort in southern Russia, restaurant and resort chefs convened on 20 March for an annual Lenten cooking competition called "Let’s fast a pleasant fast". A city spokesperson told the Regnum news agency the festival draws "a large number of health food fans".

Lenten offerings are everywhere from Russian airlines like Aeroflot and Ural Airlines, to the restaurant cars of the Russian railroads, where passengers can dine on boiled potatoes with onions and mushrooms, and even in the dining halls of the State Duma and the Kremlin.

Lifestyle and women’s magazines write about Lent as a great opportunity to lose weight.

Potatoes, onions and mushrooms are a staple of the Russian diet, but many of Moscow’s fanciest restaurants are competing to create the tastiest Lenten menu. Their dishes include seafood salads with octopus and calmari. "Truffles are also Lenten!" reads an advertising banner for da Giacomo, an Italian restaurant.

"Guests would feel themselves at a gastronomic ball and not at all in a monastic cell," wrote Anna Karmanova, a food critic for Kommersant, a business daily newspaper, about the restaurant’s Lenten observance.

A poll by the Levada centre shortly before Lent began in February showed that just two percent of Russians plan to observe the strict fast during the whole Lenten period, 15 percent part of the fast, and another two percent to follow the strict fast during Holy Week.

The Russian Orthodox Church says strict fasting means following the monastic rules of abstaining from meat and dairy products, most seafood and even oils. As penance, some people eat just one meal a day. A small amount of wine is permitted on Sundays and some holidays, but vodka is not.

(c) Ecumenical News International