Over the past few centuries, a weird and wonderful variety of wedding traditions have evolved in Russia. Who would have thought that traditional weddings involved so much crying, that the groom would often bribe a sorcerer not to harm the wedding, and that the original ‘Red Wedding’ occurred in Soviet times! I wanted to share some interesting facts, both from what I have researched and experienced at my own wedding this year.
Traditional Russian weddings were heavily influenced by folk symbolism and rituals. They could involve the whole village and last for many weeks, with days of feasting and festivities.
It turns out that the hen do, «девичник», is certainly not a modern invention! Nevertheless, traditional hen dos certainly weren’t all vodka shots, fancy dress and fun. A custom which was common at milestone events in Northern Russia was «причитания», which means ‘wailing’. The women lamented throughout the девичник, and the bride-to-be wailed to mourn the loss of her girlhood as she transitioned into family life – the more the bride wailed, the more she showed her gratitude to her parents!
But it wasn’t all tears – the девичник was a large communal gathering with lots of singing and the exchange of gifts. The groom arrived with baskets of presents for his fiancee, and the bride-to-be gifted her future husband a wooden Tikhon bear, symbolising his future role as the strong and hardworking head of the family.
On the eve of the wedding, the bride and her friends would go to the баня (bathhouse), and bathe together. This was to protect the bride from the evil eye, and to wash away misfortune and trouble. Sometimes a sorceress prepared the bride’s bath, for extra good luck before the wedding. One odd tradition involved the sorceress collecting the bride’s sweat at the bathhouse, and putting it into the groom’s drink at the wedding!
On the morning of the wedding, the groom would go to collect his bride. Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t a simple process – another wedding tradition was the ‘ransom’ of the bride. The groom had to pay his way through the front gate, past the front door into the house, and past the bride’s family and friends. He would often pay a fee to the local sorcerer not to harm the wedding procession.
During the church ceremony, the couple’s hands were tied with a special scarf, they would blow out a candle together, and crowns would be held over their heads. After the ceremony, there would be a feast which could last two or three days! There was a special wedding loaf which was baked by happily married women, and broken over the heads of the newlyweds. Luckily for the bride, after the wedding itself she no longer had to lament or wail, as she had entered into happy family life.
Given that the essence of marriage was husband and wife united into a traditional family under God, weddings were a troublesome concept in the early Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks were opposed to the gender and family roles enshrined in marriage, and wanted to reduce the church’s power as the registrar of births, deaths and marriages, and as the judge of relationships and morality.
But of course, the desire of Russian people to have a life partner and start a family certainly did not change overnight, even if the ideology governing them did. Many people continued to practice traditional religious ceremonies in private, or even conduct unofficial ceremonies. In the 1920s, the Soviet state introduced the «Красная свадьба» (‘Red Wedding’). The ‘Red Wedding’ was a secular event, devoid of religious or family connotations, which emphasised the obligation of the couple to the Soviet state. It was conducted at a table covered by a red cloth, with l’Internationale playing in the background (the anthem of the early USSR.)
In the late Soviet Union, the rejection of tradition was relaxed somewhat. The wedding was again accepted as a celebratory family event, and traditions such as rings, white dresses, and wedding feasts returned. Weddings were conducted at a specially constructed ‘Дворец бракосочетания’ (Wedding Palace) which provided a luxurious venue for the wedding day, but which remained under secular state control. Your wedding date and venue were assigned to you, and couples were given special coupons to buy clothes and were able to skip the queues at the shops.
Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ was played at the start of each ceremony, and the registrar read a speech welcoming the new Soviet family and congratulating the couple and their parents. Rings were exchanged and medals given to the couple. Interestingly, some wedding ceremonies included multiple couples at one time!
Wedding receptions were usually held at home, and couples were given coupons to obtain special delicacies for their reception. Alternatively, receptions could be held in state-owned restaurants which served varying cuisines from the republics of the USSR or the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Often a friend was the master of ceremonies at the reception, and there was plenty of dancing, singing, and food.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the legalisation of religion, Russian people today can get married in a church. However, most Russian couples still choose to get married in a registry office – ‘Органы записи актов гражданского состояния’ – (The Authority for Registering Acts of Marital Status’, more commonly known as ‘ZAGS’). This was the case for me and my husband, Sasha, when we got married a few months ago.
Many aspects of contemporary Russian marriage have evolved to meet the times. The man doesn’t need to ask his girlfriend’s parents’ permission, wedding dresses don’t have to be traditional or white, and it is enshrined in Russian law that the bride and groom can choose which surname they will take.
However, while researching for this article, I realised that many elements of the modern Russian wedding ceremony, from the music, proceedings, and layout, still remain from Soviet times. Weddings continue to take place in the Wedding Palace – and the name really is suitable!
Bureaucracy and documentation remains an important part of the process (although I had to do much more than a Russian couple would, as I was a foreigner marrying a Russian citizen.) You are assigned a wedding date by ZAGS unless you submit your documents far in advance of your desired date, and the cost of the ceremony itself is 350 roubles (about £5).
At the start of the ceremony, Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ is played, and the couple enter the hall with their witnesses, who are typically the best friends of the bride and groom. The registrar makes their speech, and the couple only need to say ‘да’ (yes) when prompted. (I was much relieved about this, as I was very overwhelmed during the ceremony and wouldn’t have managed to utter any other phrases in Russian!) The ‘hymn’ of the city is played, and the guests come to congratulate the couple and give them flowers.
After the ceremony, the couple and guests can have champagne and закуски (appetisers to accompany drinks) at the Wedding Palace. They often lay flowers at the war memorial and visit monuments or famous buildings in their town. At the wedding reception, every guest in attendance makes a toast. If you have drunk with Russians before, you’ll know that a ‘toast’ can be a couple of well-wishing sentences, or a lengthy and hilarious anecdote – so it’s always fun to hear what the guests have to say. Then, finally, the couple will set off on their honeymoon! In Russia, this is called a «медовый месяц», which translates as ‘honey month’.
There are many customs which are present at Russian weddings today.
One tradition which has made a comeback is the ‘ransom’ of the bride. The groom must pass several challenges and bribe the bride’s friends with money (real or fake!) or sweets to collect her before the wedding. I read in one article that for one poor groom, the bride’s friends blocked the lift and made him walk up the stairs, saying a compliment about his bride-to-be with every step he took. His bride lived on the 13th floor. Unsurprisingly then, sometimes these ‘ransoms’ take so long that couples are actually late to their own wedding.
Another folk custom is the theft of the bride’s shoe after the wedding. One of the bride’s friends steals her shoe, and asks the groom to pay for its return. Allegedly, this was to see how much money he had!
A ubiquitously popular tradition is for the guests to shout ‘горько!’ after the wedding. ‘Горько!’ (pronounced ‘gor’ko’) means ‘bitter’, and the couple must kiss to ‘sweeten’ the moment. The other guests count, and the longer you kiss, the stronger your marriage will be.
One tradition which has evolved since folk times is the breaking of the bread over the heads of the couple. This has transformed into the cutting of the wedding cake. (I’d wager that this is probably a wise decision – no bride wants bread in her hair after spending hours getting ready for the big day, and paying for a professional photographer!)
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article, and found out some interesting facts about Russian weddings through the ages. Maybe one day you’ll be able to attend a Russian wedding and get clued up on even more of their traditions!
До встречи, Rachel.
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