Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan into the family of a professor of philosophy, history of literature, and logic at the local theological seminary. His father died young, and all financial and material burdens fell on his mother’s shoulders.
Between 1893 and 1896, Boris studied in theological seminary and took private art lessons in Astrakhan from Pavel Vlasov, a pupil of Vasily Perov. Subsequently, from 1896 to 1903, he attended Ilya Repin’s studio at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He first exhibited in 1896.
He visited France and Spain on a grant from the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1904. After that he traveled to Spain, then, in 1907, to Italy, and in 1909 he visited Austria and Germany, and again France and Italy. However, no matter where Kustodiev happened to be – in sunny Seville or in the park at Versailles – he felt the irresistible pull of his motherland. After five months in France he returned to Russia, writing with evident joy to his friend Mate that he was back once more “in our blessed Russian land”. He died on the 27th of May 1927 at the age of 49 in the city of Leningrad.
Such a happy day is represented in yet another one of Kustodiev’s paintings from 1919. Many of the citizens of a small town in the countryside are out and about in the pink and golden rays of the setting sun. The movement of the holiday can be easily felt when one looks at the speeding sleds. The painter has filled this image of winter with immeasurable happiness. Here we have the majestic three-horse sled in the middle of the canvas, with the sled being pulled by two horses not falling too far behind it. And in the foreground on the left-hand side humbly but cheerfully a couple is going along the road, their sled being pulled by a single horse of white colour.
Seeing off the winter is a special folk holiday, which Kustodiev not once has tried to represent: the colourful sleds, the vendors and customers trading calmly and without a rush – joy without any worries. In the distance one can see the domes of a small church, a symbol of Eastern Orthodoxy. Of no less importance is the store on the left side of the painting, which offers caviar: a product, without which a true Russian celebration would be absolutely unimaginable. On the right-hand side, where we can see that a huge crowd has gathered, and further down the road other products are being sold as well. Most popular among them are Russian pancakes, which also serve as an iconic image of the Maslenitsa celebration. This simple, yet most delicious dish is an inseparable part of the holiday and is, in turn, served in many different variations, with a wide range of different foods. One of the most popular things people choose to eat with their pancakes is nothing else, but caviar, conveniently sold nearby in the store, mentioned earlier.
Though not represented in this particular paining, another vital part of Maslenitsa is the burning of the scarecrow on a bonfire on the final day of the festivities, as a symbol of seeing off the winter. The bonfire would be in the village square, and the scarecrow would be carried off with jokes, songs and dances. Winter was mocked and derided for bringing the frost, but thanked for the winter fun and games. Once the scarecrow caught light, a sequence of happy songs and chants would begin.
After all, Maslenitsa is among the happiest holidays and even though winter still has a minor presence, Kustodiev did not hesitate to add huge amounts of light and warm colours to every part of the masterpiece, thus making it give off a vibe of cheer and general pleasantness.
Yeast Pancakes from the Moscow Region
• 250 g/9 oz/2 cups buckwheat flour
• 50 g/2 oz/½ cup wheat flour
• 100 ml/½ cup milk
• 100 ml/½ cup warm water
• 5 g/1 Tsp dry yeast
• 10 g/1½ Tsp salt
• 25 g/1 oz/2 Tbsp sugar
• vegetable oil (sunflower oil is traditional)
Combine the buckwheat, wheat flour, salt, sugar, add water, and stir it quickly to blend it thoroughly. Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk; add it to the dough. Let the dough rest covered in a warm room so it can rise (at least an hour; more is better). The finished dough should be thick. Cook the pancakes on a greased pan.
• 16 ounces milk
• 16 ounces beer (lager, or darker beer for sweeter taste)
• 2 cups sifted wheat flour, or 1 ½ cups of wheat flour, or ½ cup rye flour
• 1-2 eggs
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter
• 1 tablespoon sugar or white honey
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• ½ potato
1. Mix the milk, slightly warmed, together with the beer. Keep stirring and add flour.
2. Carefully mix the batter, adding the eggs, vegetable oil or melted butter, sugar or white honey, salt, and, just before you finish mixing, baking soda. The more fluid the batter, the thinner the pancakes will be — experiment and find out how you like them.
3. The pancakes must be cooked in a cast-iron frying pan: do NOT wash it; instead, warm it and wipe it with a napkin before using it.
4. Traditionally, the frying pan is greased with half of a raw potato on the end of a fork. Cook the pancakes in a very small quantity of melted butter.
5. Put the finished product — they should be a beautiful dark red in color — into piles and pour melted butter over them. Guests can make their own fillings, though this differs from the way Hungarian and Czech cooks make their pancakes.