Weddings in Winter
Russian weddings are quick! Don’t be late.
7 December, 1998 NBC NEWS
Moscow: love among the ruble
By Carlota Zimmerman
MOSCOW – As Moscow leaders ponder the socio-economic virtual reality of the
country’s burning ruble, Russians continue doing what comes naturally – falling
in love and planning one of the most bizarre events in traditional Russian
life: a wedding. Misha’s salary was cut by a third, while Katya lost her
job altogether. But the two never hesitated in their plans to get married.
GOT 12 HOURS
and several million brain cells to kill? How about a taste for
mayonnaise-and-aspic-encased foodstuffs? Been waiting for that opportunity
to drink yourself blind to a soundtrack of Greatest Soviet Classics as performed
on the accordion? Good, because Mikhail and Yekaterina are getting married
and you’re invited. Mikhail Morgachev, 26, is one of my boyfriend Sergei’s
best friends. Growing up in a small northern Russian town, they detonated
homemade bombs together, thus cementing a life-long friendship not known
for its maturity.
when Misha (short for Mikhail) decided to marry 20-year old Yekaterina (Katya)
Chepaskina, he asked Sergei to be his svidatel, or witness, at the civil
ceremony. I knew we were in for trouble when Sergei, deeply touched by his
friend’s request, responded by buying Misha the Russian version of “Everything
You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.”
Touring the sights, thinking about kids..
Misha is a computer systems administrator at a Moscow bank, where he met
Katya, a university student majoring in economics. They decided to wed this
past June, before the latest economic crisis hit. The market downturn hit
the couple hard. Misha’s salary was cut by a third, while Katya lost her
job altogether. But asked if they had ever hesitated in their plans, Misha
shrugged: ‘We decided there was no point in waiting. You have to keep on
I woke up cursing the unnatural idea of matrimony, wishing that everyone
could just live happily and without ceremony in sin. For some reason, I was
strangely unmoved about the idea of spending the next 12 hours celebrating
a wedding. However, Serge informed me that I was getting off easy; he’s been
to weddings which last 3-5 days!
is especially common in provincial Russia, where the entire village will
be invited to drink up to impending cirrhosis. I can’t think of anyone’s
wedding I could bear celebrating over the course of almost a week, including
my own. I had also been duly warned about the Russian propensity for
fist-fighting and general violence at weddings, when future in-laws meet
over several gallons of vodka. In fact, there is even a Soviet film in which
the groom is killed at his own wedding. It was probably a mercy killing.
Saturday morning, and we’re driving halfway across Moscow to pick up the
groom and his family. Mikhail meets us in a tux and tails. Outside Katya’s
building, Mikhail, Sergei and Pavel, a friend-cum-master of ceremonies, were
greeted by a group of women, including the bride’s svidetelnitsa, or witness.
What followed was a highly complicated tradition of games that the groom,
or if he fails, his witness, must complete before they can see the bride.
Once upon a time, in pre-revolutionary Russia, these games had actual
significance, but now, as with so many other things in Russia, the meaning
has gone, but the song remains the same.
PENNIES FOR A BRIDE
Mikhail, Sergei and Pavel were first made to pay 200 rubles (a few cents)
to enter the building. Once inside, the stakes were raised and included
identifying birth dates chalked on stairwells, reciting and singing love
poetry and songs, and choosing the sugared water among three cups of sweet,
bitter and salty water – which symbolize the character of their married life.
Inside the apartment, the bride was waiting. The process, called vykup, or
ransom, can, depending on the difficulty of the challenges, last for several
hours. Finally, Misha and Katya were as one. We rushed forward to congratulate
them, suffocating the the newlyweds in bouquets.
Now, having brought our bride, we were on our way to ZAGS, the Russian equivalent
of a town hall, where births weddings and deaths are registered. Misha and
Katya’s brisk civil ceremony took place at Moscow’s Wedding Palace #1.
FREEDOM OF CEREMONY
Even though today Russians can have religious weddings (prohibited during
the Soviet era), a preliminary civil ceremony at ZAGS is still legally mandatory,
and, it seems for many people, enough. The ceremony was definitely a learning
experience, a mixture of flowery platitudes and bureaucracy: as with everything
else in Russia, don’t even think of getting
married without your passport. I did enjoy, however,
the live jazz band playing ‘Girl From Impanema’ during the wedding.
Seeing the sites in Moscow
Finally, Misha and Katya were as one. We rushed forward to congratulate them,
suffocating the the newlyweds in bouquets. Now married, the day was half
done: hallelujah. On to Park Pobedy (Victory Park, a World War II memorial)
for the traditional post-wedding champagne-drenched romp, after which we
raced to the restaurant for eight more hours of fun.
Since Sergei was the best man, we couldn’t leave until all the little old
ladies with purple hair had left; until the last party game had been played;
until the last meat course was choked down; until the last slice of wedding
cake was ‘auctionedö off; until basically even Katya and Misha were
wondering if and when this wedding would ever end.
Sometime later, much later, driving home in a stupor of vodka and thick salad,
Sergei’s father casually asked us if there would be more celebrating the
next day. Silence, like the tomb, enveloped those words.
E-mail your congratulations to Katya and Misha:
The Independent (UK), 31 August 1999
FOR TEENAGED RUSSIANS, LOVE CONQUERS ALL
By Helen Womack
OVER THE years, some of the children of Samotechny Lane have come to call me
Tyotya Lena or Aunt Helen. One boy, Dima, whom I have known since he was 10, is
19 now and in the army. He has been going out with a girl called Tanya, one year
his junior. The other week they invited me to their wedding. I was touched, and
at the same time uncertain; I knew the wedding was likely to be a tense affair
as Dima’s parents had recently been involved in a bitter divorce. But he said he
wanted me to be there, so I accepted.
There is a popular Russian folk song in which a young girl begs her mother to
wait awhile before sewing her a red dress – in other words to delay a little
longer before giving her away in marriage. Most Russians still marry at what
seems a terribly early age. Partly, this is because of the housing shortage.
Young people simply do not have anywhere to have sex, so they marry to be able
to sleep with each other under their parents’ roofs. Separately, both Dima’s
mother and father had advised him not to rush into marrying Tanya. Her parents
had told her the same thing. This was another source of tension but the young
people said they loved each other.
ceremony was set for 3.30pm but Dima and Tanya, being inexperienced, had not
known that the first thing a marrying couple must do when they arrive at the
office is to hand over their passports for registration. They had waited shyly
on the pavement while other couples in the queue had overtaken them. Their
wedding was reset for 5.30pm. At last, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March sounded for
Dima and Tanya and they made their vows before the registrar, who managed to put
remarkable feeling into words she pronounces over and over each day.
Afterwards, we repaired to Tanya’s grandmother’s for the reception. Tanya’s
grandma is one of the hero babushki of Russia. In a one-room flat in the suburb
of Pechatniki, she had managed to put together a spread for 30 guests. We were
packed in like sardines for the feast of red fish and Russian salads, drenched
in mayonnaise and washed down with vodka.
First, though, two traditions had to be observed. Tanya’s mother had to
welcome the newlyweds with bread and salt, the symbols of hospitality. Mum stood
at the door of the flat, thinking the couple would come up, while Dima and Tanya
waited outside at the entrance to the building. Finally, Mum descended in one
lift while, in the other, the couple rode up to the12th floor. For a quarter of
an hour, the bread and salt in one lift and the meringue and liquorice in the
other kept going up and down and missing each other. After that, the guests all
had to shout “gorko, gorko” (it is bitter) to encourage the pair to
sweeten the occasion by kissing. Then we could all attack the food.
Dima’s parents were put at opposite ends of the table where they could not do
much damage to each other or spoil the fun. One after another, those who had
made messes of their own marriages stood up and gave toasts that amounted to
moral lectures. When it was my inescapable turn to speak, I just said: “Dima
and Tanya, you’re very brave. I wish you luck.” Four days after the
wedding, Dima had to go back to the army. Tanya must now wait for him for
another year and a half. If the adults stop nagging them, maybe they will find a
way to survive.