In Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union, greeting the New Year is by far the biggest holiday. Coming in second, and observed by both believers and non-believers, Easter is the main liturgical focal point of Russian Orthodoxy with the Christmas liturgies not far behind. Prior to Easter comes the 40-day Lenten fasting period:
Easter is the most widely acknowledged religious holiday in the country according to a 2003 poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation and reported by Russia Beyond the Headlines who says that “for the vast majority of Russians, celebrating Easter is not so much a question of faith as it is one of national identity.”
Unlike Lent fasting in the West which encourages a believer to give up a valued food item or habit during the fast, Eastern Orthodox fasting is far more comprehensive, with the goal of taming the flesh and imitating the 40 day fast observed in the desert prior to his crucifixion.
Foods not permitted during the Lenten fasting period:
– Alcoholic beverage are not permitted during the fast.
– Meat, including poultry, and any meat products such as lard and meat broth.
– Fish (meaning fish with backbones; shellfish are permitted).
– Eggs and dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, etc.)
– Olive oil. A literal interpretation of the rule forbids only olive oil. Especially where olive oil is not a major part of the diet, the rule is sometimes taken to include all vegetable oils, as well as oil products such as margarine.
The Lenten fast is designed to call the flesh into subjection to the spirit and as believers are tempted to break the fast they are reminded to call on God for the power to tame the flesh and for the grace to allow the spiritual to triumph.
Most government offices convert to a fasting menu in work cafeterias as do public school cafeteria menus. Many restaurants offer Lenten dishes as well.
The very young, the elderly, those sick and with conditions such as diabetes are exempted from the fast in consultation with their priest. When traveling the fast is exempt and so as not to make a public show of fasting, the fast is exempted when non-believers visit your home.