Vladimir Putin was executed more than a dozen times by men from the forest in the Ukrainian town of Vashkivtsi. To make this happen, mask maker Mykola Marchuk slept for 3 hours a day for over a month. As a result, traffic movement was paralyzed all day.
For 364 days of the year, this story would be a drunkard’s brawl. But on January 13-14, the date of celebrating the New Year’s eve by the Julian calendar, the New Year’s carnival comes to Vashkivtsi. Merry chaos fills the provincial small town as it is invaded by masked characters from the Netherworld, cartoons, and political figures. Any entity from the Ukrainian world of ideas is eligible to frolic and stir up mischief in the dimension of the Ordinary. This is the holiday of Malanka, a fest that manages to preserve pagan rituals, criticize the existing social order, and reverse social roles under the Christian guise of the feast of St.Melania the Younger. The essence of Ukrainian Malanka is similar to such well-known carnivals as the one in Rio-de-Janeiro and Venice, but differs by taking place not before Lent but at the New Year.
For locals, it is the holiday of the year. On what other day of the year will you be able to shed your daily worries and become somebody totally else? On no other day can you mingle with goats, gypsies, and demons while drinking hot wine. Just watch your step, if you’re wearing a skirt – the old grandfather with the white beard doesn’t stop trying to lift its hem with his stick. If you have a hat, you need to also watch out – the masked demon will try to snitch it from your head. if you run into the crazy old man with the sombrero, be prepared for an exhibition of his stuffed genitals. after all, wishes of fertility were most valued on the New Year in an agricultural society. Today’s Malanka is imbued with sexual undertones. What is forbidden by societal norms during 364 days of the year is tolerated and even encouraged today. Moreover, it carries an educational role, serving as an anti-example of good behavior.
The celebrations start on the evening of January 13, when a chosen village lad leads a team of Malanka-goers around the village. A boy dressed as Malanka and “her” fleet, her companion Vasyl, an old man and woman, Gypsies, Jews, demons, goats, and others. Doors are opened readily, as it is believed that Malanka will bring good luck to the house. Inside, the Malanka fleet will cause mischief and turmoil, for a reward of money or food. This ritual comes from the deepest layers of the Slavic pagan worldview, with the initial function being a magical incantatory one. Members of the village community attempted to bring health, good harvest, prosperity, growth of the livestock in the new year with the help of songs, words, and rituals. The masks that people wear on this day represent the evolution of people’s understanding of the world: masks of animals – goats, horses, bears, oxen; masks associated with the cult of the ancestors – the grandmother and grandfather; demonological characters – the demon and death; social and ethnic characters – the priest, landlord, policeman, Jew, Turk, Gypsy, Hutsul and others.
Mykola Marchun, a veteran mask maker of Vashkivtsi, tells that most of his time before the holidays is taken up by making masks for carnival-goers in Chernivtsi Oblast and beyond. Malanka is an outlet of creativity and an inspiration for him. For over 30 years, he has not only created over a thousand masks out of Papier-mâché and textiles.
“The more the festival was prohibited in Soviet times, the more it flourished,” he tells in the artistic space of his workshop. There were good reasons for the attempts to prohibit the carnival: from times of serfdom, it was the only place where the existing social order and masters of the village could be criticized behind the safety of a mask. Soviet times were no different. Nowadays, Mykola slams Ukraine’s modern leadership.
Recently, he started leaving his favorite masks at home instead of giving them away.
Today, the traditional characters of Malanka, animals, and demons mingle with contemporary figures from international politics, cartoons, and everyday life. Floats on trucks, tractors, and cars carry the macabre and hilarious under blasting music. While some villagers lament the loss of authenticity, it’s unmistakable that this carnival is a living tradition and not a museum exposition. Too bad that what could have been an international attraction lacks the basic infrastructure for receiving visitors.