I was unsure how to answer when my girlfriend, Julia, asked me if I wanted to go to her parents’ wedding. I remember thinking: a Russian wedding? That sounds like two hours of tradition that I won’t understand. After my initial reaction, I decided that this was a unique opportunity and resolved to attend. When I asked Julia for more information about the ceremony I discovered that it is is now uncommon in Russia. My girlfriend estimates that only one in a hundred couples complete it every year. “Why so few?” I asked. In her mildly accented English, she explained the history to me.
In the nineteenth century, the Венчание (Venchaniye) ceremony was common in Russia. Before the Soviet Union was formed, Russian couples getting married tied the knot with a Venchaniye. The vows take place inside an Orthodox church and upon completion, the bride and groom will have agreed to be together in this life and the next. Additionally, those who are joined cannot be divorced by Russian Orthodox church law . It is a promise made for life. Although not particularly religious, I find this idea particularly compelling. However, the USSR didn’t agree.
Julia summed it up when she said “The Soviet Union’s intentions were to make the country atheist” The USSR destroyed churches and closed/repurposed a great deal more. They extended their heavy-handed influence across Russia and swept religion underground. Under this regime, the only marriage that mattered was what the one government recognized. Uniting as man and wife meant a trip to the courthouse, the signing of documents and a stamp in his and her internal passports (used in Russia instead of ID cards).
Little has changed since Russia’s independence in this regard. The legal wedding takes precedence and is conducted at the courthouse. Afterwards the bride and groom arrive at the ceremony and from what I’ve been told that many customs are similar to Western weddings. Drunken guests, speeches, and the bride in white included. However, I was surprised to learn that on a wedding day most people never step foot inside a church!
The wedding we went to was actually a second wedding. Julia’s parents, Oleg and Rita, were legally married fourteen years ago. In November, I spent a day with them at their dacha (a Russian country house). My lasting impression is that they are a wonderful couple. When I asked Julia “why have they decided to have a Venchaniye now? They’ve already been married for fourteen years.” She informed me that “2014 was very bad for their health.” In December Rita was in the hospital for two weeks. It was a miserable time not only for her, but for Oleg as well. Discontent with the visiting hours, or lack thereof, Oleg checked himself into an empty bed in the hospital. He used the room to sleep in the hospital and be close to Rita whenever he had the chance. Their devotion to one another is self-evident and their commitment to renewing their vows makes it clear that they are meant for one another.
Sunday started off simple. Everyone met at Oleg and Rita’s apartment on the fourteenth floor. In the first ten seconds, здравствуйте (The formal-Russian greeting) was passed around to new faces. Rita was already in her white dress, and Oleg wasn’t in sight. The weather being unseasonably warm, Oleg’s mother preferred to wait outside. Julia and I volunteered to see her out. I was happy to stand in the street with the two ladies, away from the main party. As a trio we took the lift down.
We were loitering in front of the apartment building when Oleg showed up. The groom was happy and effusive, a hearty smile was etched on his face. I asked him “как дела?” (“how are you?”) And he enthusiastically replied “отлично!” (“awesome!”) Formalities aside, he strode through the door to meet his wife in the penthouse apartment. Upon Oleg’s instruction, we set out to find the limousine. After three minutes of subduing our pace for the older generation, the limo came into view. From a distance, the stretched out Chrysler 300 looked like a white hotdog. Closer inspection revealed that the interior is decorated in spill-proof material and the ceiling is oppressively low. I had to bend my knees and duck my head before I could scoot to the farthest seat. The rest of the guests got in behind us. After everyone had found a seat, Oleg issued directions and the limousine pulled into traffic.
Ten minutes later and it became like a scene from a circus in front of the Orthodox church as we arrived. Nine people piled out of the Chrysler like clowns from a Volkswagen. Sunday’s service wasn’t yet over and the church was brimming with bodies . The grandmas arranged themselves into the back of the church and the rest of us milled around outside, making inconsequential small talk. Oleg asked me “что новости?” (what’s new?”) I had trouble coming up with an answer in my second language. Julia walked around taking pictures with her Nikon. Rita’s son Dima jumped up in the air, kicking his boot mid-flight to knock off the snow.
After the regular service ended, we kicked the snow off our boots and quietly walked through the oak doorway. The church was small and decorated in gold. Icons, painted in that unique Russian style, were held in golden frames, and candles burned in brass holders. The floor was hidden beneath a red carpet the color of a ripe cherry. After several minutes of confused idleness, a chorus formed behind a door to the right and a young man in black told us where to stand. By the time I realized that I was standing in the wrong section, the priest had already revealed himself.
Standing five feet eight, he looked like a man in touch with god. A luxurious snow white beard wrapped under his chin and came up in front of both his ears. From there it got lost in the blizzard white hair on his head. Befitting a Russian priest, a smile never betrayed itself on his lips. His facial features had aligned into permanent concentration. Imagining him working in some capacity, outside of the church, was a brow-wrinkling challenge.
With a reverential voice he began to speak. His rich, deep voice reverberated, trapped in the small center hall of the church. The ceremony started with Oleg and Rita taking hold of two wax candles. The young boy lit them as the priest began to speak. Together they stood on a white piece of ornate cloth, one foot deep and four feet long.
Like any service in a Russian Orthodox church, this ceremony is in Old Slavonic. Modern Russian is a challenge for me. Old Slavonic? I’m as lost as a tourist in New York. Once a minute the priest hits upon a key phrase and everyone in our group, save for me and Julia, crossed themselves. Our snow-capped orator spoke for five minutes with his back to the couple before acknowledging their existence. An impressive robe flowed in front of him as he turned to Oleg and Rita, bestowing sanctity upon them with a magnanimous wave.
The ceremony was short and the ending held some suspense for me. Our sturdy priest had Oleg and Rita clasp hands. He took a fold of his robe and smartly wrapped their joined hands in it. They were attached to the priest with one hand. In their other hands the candles remained. With no regard for the difficulty of the maneuver, the priest began to lead the couple in a series of circles around the inside of the church.
I became interested in the practical side of this ritual. Rita was wearing a wedding dress and the priest was pulling them along at a healthy pace. I was worried that she may trip on the dress, sending her candle flying and upsetting the ceremony. Luckily this didn’t come to pass. The Venchaniye ended minutes after the two untangled their hands from the priest’s robes. The chorus sang a final song, the father collected his holy books and cross before departing into the recesses of the church.
We didn’t linger after his disappearance. Without ceremony our whole group left the church, leaving behind the church staff and the icons. Oleg and Rita were beaming. A congratulatory mood prevailed as Julia snapped photographs. I stood off to the side feeling like a fifth wheel, soaking up what little Russian I could understand. A few feet away a two year old trundled around with a miniature shovel.
When I came to Russia I could never have imagined I would attend a Venchaniye. I’m thrilled that I got to witness such a tradition. Furthermore, I feel wonderful whenever I see Rita and Oleg together. Life has shown me that healthy, loving relationships are an exception, not the rule. That they choose to commit themselves in heaven, as well as on earth, illustrates their love for one another. After five minutes of pictures the limousine pulled up in front of the church . We loaded ourselves into the low-clearance craft one person at a time. Whiskey, toasts, and smoked salmon awaited us at the re-married couple’s apartment.