From royal feasts to country fairs: A chronicle of fetes in Moscow

From royal feasts to country fairs: A chronicle of fetes in Moscow
The tradition of public festive celebration in Moscow stretches more than 500 years. Food stalls and merry-go-rounds were installed in front of monasteries on special occasions even in the 16th century. Over time, such celebrations lost their original swagger and became more respectable.

Banquets, love feasts and fist-fighting

These parish celebrations played a central role in community events in the past, for neighbourhoods or entire regions. They followed common prayer for which collections were made to purchase a giant altar candle. The outdoor merriment could last a long time – sometimes several days -- after which the leftovers were given away to the poor.

Such feasts were much more luxurious in Moscow. They began with church services and processions attended by the dukes and Tsars followed by their retinues, and gathered pilgrims and spectators from all over the city. The ensuing outdoor fetes featured days of reckless carousing and fisticuffs.

“The public gave itself to habitual entertainment in full liberty and abandon… On 24 June 1722, even the Duke of Holstein deigned to attend the fete on Three Hills, getting there by riverboat. He arrived late and so could see only the central events of commoners’ merrymaking: drinking, dancing and fist-fighting, which he found repulsive. A deafening hubbub and the stench of vodka spread in the air.” [1]

Bear fights were as popular with the townspeople as fisticuffs: “Shrovetide celebrations were memorable with universal drinking and daily bear fights (Russian bear fight- it’s a custom to arrange fighting of a man with a bear and was known in medieval Russia as a "bear fun” – ed. ) on the icebound Moskva River. Not only all aristocrats but the Tsar himself attended these fights. His Majesty ordered to treat the hero-fighters to wines from his own cellars.” [2]

Sokolniki tea room kitchens. Draft. 1903. Central Moscow Archive

Moscow fairs: From Sokolniki to Maryina Roshcha

Peter the Great’s decree of 27 September 1722, which prohibited the opening of entertainment and the sale of alcoholic beverages until after the completion of church services and processions was a landmark in the history of Moscow.

For the sale of alcoholic beverages was the heart of old-world celebratory gatherings. A high tent with bar stands, kegs and the rattle of cups inside drew everyone’s attention. Clustered around it were smaller tents that initially traded solely in nuts, carob pods and spiced cakes. Street traders and vendors began to flock round them only later as initially only treats and beverages were sold at such festivities.

In the late 18th century the first trade fairs emerged on the heals of such celebratory gatherings, when the sale of handicrafts and foodstuffs became commonplace. These fairs were timed with Christian feasts. One of the most popular of them was known as Ivanovskaya, named after the Monastery of St John the Baptist, close to which the fair was held. It opened on 28 August, the day before the Beheading of St John, and worked up to the next evening. Though it was known mainly for trade in wool and threads, its grounds were divided into three sections – the east side for textiles and thread, the west for glass and porcelain, and the south for fruit.

The most popular fests and fairs were:

— Mayday at Sokolniki;

— Ascension at Kolomenskoye;

— Semik (7th Thursday after Easter) at Maryina Roshcha;

— 13 May and 28 July at Devichye Polye;

— Midsummer Day at Three Hills.

Christmas, Shrovetide and, partly, Easter Week were known for being celebrated outdoors, but since there were no special grounds allotted for these festivities, their observation spread citywide. Swings were built along what is now Novinsky Boulevard and in Razgulyai Square on Easter, and in Alexandrovsky Garden and Trubnaya Square on Shrovetide.

Ropewalkers, comedians, trained bears and dogs, and whistler choirs performed for the people, and mechanics demonstrated ingenious gadgetry and contraptions.

No other grounds gathered so many people as Maryina Roshcha, where hundreds of thousands flocked to in order to observe Semik.

Year in, year out, outdoor fests were losing their lustre and merry abandon as the choice of urban entertainment grew: there were theatres, the circus and weekend promenades in parks. The educated classes were rare presences at the commoners’ festivities in the 19th century, in contrast to the Middle Ages, when even Royalty were frequent visitors to such fests.

“In the days of yore, universal merrymaking was kept up through general attendance by Muscovites, whose majority did not yet stand aloof to grassroots customs and not merely did not avoid them: on the contrary, everyone was involved heart and soul in commoners’ entertainment.” [3]

Only few grand-scale outdoor festivities survived until the early 20th century – Shrovetide, which the cultivated public derided as days of drinking and gluttony, Easter Week and Mayday at Sokolniki.  The municipal authorities made sure to regulate them strictly for fear of their getting out of control.

“The Commission for Popular Entertainment should use Sokolniki and Vorobyevy Gory for properly organised popular pastimes, with especial attention to bringing them into order so as to provide the low-income population of Moscow with entertainment in a more civilised manner than that which is offered by private enterprise in Devichye Polye and at Presnenskaya Zastava.” [4]

“The Commission for Popular Entertainment is ordered urgently to draw a general plan of outdoor celebratory festivities in Moscow in connection with a call for the organisation of them to be transferred entirely to the Municipal Public Board.” [5]

The Revolution put an end to outdoor celebrations, especially those connected to Church holidays. Now, their traditions have been reborn at such city festivals as Journey to Christmas, Moscow Spring and Our Product. Luckily, they have not retained their original customs of fisticuffs and drunken abandon.

Archive materials by courtesy of the Moscow Central Archive Board


  1. Ivan Zabelin. Essays on the Study of Russian History and Antiques: Research, Descriptions and Criticisms (Забелин И.Опыты изучения русских древностей и истории: исследования, описания и критические статьи). Moscow, Grachev and Co Printers, Pt. 2, p. 390.
  2. Mikhail Khmyrov. Countess Yekaterina Golovkina and Her Time: 1701-1791 (Хмыров М. Графиня Екатерина Ивановна Головкина и её время (1701–1791 годы)). S.V. Zvonarev Publishers, St Petersburg, 1867. 35-36.
  3. Ivan Zabelin. Op. Cit., p.
  4. Central Moscow Archive. Fund 179. Series 20. File Sheet 39 rev.
  5. Central Moscow Archive. Fund 179. Series 20. File Sheet 41.