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Russian bread salt & welcome ceremony

1 March 2017

It's often said that nothing captures the spirit of the Russian people more than their traditions, many stretching back generation after generation, and while certain politicians may not demonstrate it as much as they perhaps should, it's also a nation proud of the hospitality it extends to visitors; both diplomats and tourists alike.

So let's travel back in time, nearly 700 years, to the 15th century - Moscow has grown to be the country's capital of culture, and Ivan the Great is expanding the nation's sovereignty, pushing Russia's borders ever further into the Republic of Novgorod. During this period, a meticulous adherence to social status and the customs put in place to honour this became cemented into everyday life, and a ritual still very much in practise today was born. The ceremony of the bread and salt was once performed for travelling merchants and dignitaries, often at the gates of a city or at the point that marked a town's boundaries, with inhabitants eager to make such important guests feel at home.

Nowadays when travellers are offered the Karavay, a round elaborately decorated sweetbread, often adorned with a motif of intertwined wheat symbolising prosperity for the consumer, it's more of a warm greeting to those who may never have set foot on Russia's impassioned shores before. What could be more captivating for the uninitiated than a friendly welcome party bedecked in traditional folk costume, including ornate headdresses known locally as a kokoshnik? In the background you may hear the stirring vibrato of the balalaika as you reach out to tear off a chunk of bread that will have been delicately placed upon an embroidered rushnik, before dipping it into the pot of salt. Once a rare commodity in the Baltic regions, nothing was scrimped on for eminent out-of-towners, who would be offered the most expensive and sought after delicacies, and to thank your hosts for their generosity, in return you can give them a heartfelt Спасибо - spasiba!

In more recent times, the bread and salt ceremony has been staged to present a united front, being used as a demonstration of forgiveness and repaired friendship when in 1994 the exiled writer Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn returned to the motherland after a 20-year expulsion and rumoured assassination attempts. He was considered a dissident by the KGB after he published several monologues about his thoughts on life behind the Iron Curtain, but when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1994, he was no longer considered an enemy of that state and flew back to the capital city for his first taste of home after such a long absence.

Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. - Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.