Thursday, November 4, 2010

Let's Steal the Bride!

When I think of a Russian wedding, I always conjure up a procession of black Volgas – the old Soviet luxury cars, decorated with ribbons, silk flowers, balloons, and sometimes even porcelain dolls. Honking fearlessly because no militiaman would ever give a wedding cavalcade a ticket, the cars whizz by, a heap of white fluff hiding behind one of the tinted windows, quivering like an unbaked meringue foam my aunt used to whisk in her bowl, high and lacey.

The Soviet Union was a secular country so Russian grooms didn’t lead their brides to the altar, Tatars didn’t marry in mosques, and Jews didn’t wed in synagogues. Regardless of their ethnicity, every couple went to the Department of Registration of Civil Statuses (as non-romantic as it may sound), usually a mammoth edifice, depicting balance and stability, and received their stamped piece of paper legalizing their union. There were no pompous speeches, no statements like “what God has joined together let no man put asunder,” or “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Even the question about any circumstances potentially precluding the marriage was blissfully omitted. Moreover, there was no such thing as an official engagement and a diamond ring. Diamonds, at least back then, were considered a symbol of vanity, an excessive and unnecessary luxury unworthy to be worn on a woman’s finger or be used as a declaration of love.

Wedding rings in a form of simple golden bands with no stones or other decorations were acceptable. At a brief wedding ceremony, usually planned no more than three months in advance, the bride and groom exchanged the rings, slipping them onto their fourth fingers of their RIGHT hand. (A ring worn on the fourth finger of the LEFT hand meant that the person was either divorced or widowed, but not married currently.)

The bride traditionally wore a long white dress, often handmade by either her mother or some crafty old aunt, and the groom usually opted for a simple black suit. They each had a witness, who constituted their entire small entourage. There were no expensive gowns with trailing tails to schlep around, no bridesmaids in matching dresses to worry about, no ornate stationery with hundreds of envelopes to lick, and no flower girls to toss rose petals in the air.

But there definitely was a party! Although less expansive than in other cultures – usually only close friends and family circles were invited – the parties were fun, loud, and endless. A typical Russian wedding started on a Friday afternoon and lasted until Sunday night, followed by a horrible hangover that not only tormented you the entire following Monday, but lingered for a few days afterwards. The guests were supposed to eat enough to feel full for three days and drink so much vodka that they wouldn’t remember what happened at the festivities. When that was true, the wedding was considered a success. The couple’s biggest concern was not to run out of liquor!

Seating charts were skipped altogether; guests seated themselves as they pleased along one long, usually T-shaped table, while the lovebirds were positioned at the head to be in everyone’s view. Russians toasted profusely and creatively; saying a clever, intelligent, witty toast, sometimes in a form of a rhyming poem, a song, or an old proverb turned into a timely tale, was considered a talent. Usually every wedding designated a toastmaster, an emcee of sorts, who could turn anything into a toast, and thus could get the crowd to successfully drink themselves into oblivion. Most toasts resulted in guests summoning the lovebirds to kiss by hailing “Gor’ko,” and then loudly counting how many seconds (or minutes) they endured. “Gor’ko” means “bitter” and like with many Russian idiosyncrasies, there is no explanation why it signifies what it does. Perhaps, kissing makes the bitter vodka taste disappear.

Russians may not bother with extravagance and appearance, but do they dance! At larger weddings, there were musicians. At smaller ones, there were tapes, or back then records, and the music lasted from sunset to dawn. Men took off their ties and unbuttoned their shirts, women kicked off their high heels and danced barefoot, and even little kids hopped and jumped until they fell asleep under the tables. Guests challenged and dared each other to tricky steps and moves, often nearly acrobatic.

There was no ritual of cutting the cake in Russia, but there was a tradition of stealing the bride. Yes, that’s right. Some time during the evening, the bride would disappear and the groom had to find her, while she could only hope that he was still coherent enough with the amount of alcohol consumed! Moreover, once he found her, the poor man had to pay the ransom – usually to his friends, who orchestrated the kidnapping.

Just like the “gor’ko” hail still remains a mystery to me, to this day I have no idea why Russians steal their brides.


  1. This post makes me wish I had a Russian wedding. How fun! And I agree, who needs diamonds?

    What I want to know though is who steals the bride? And what happens if the groom can't find her?

  2. What a fun post, Lina! It sounds like lots of fun and I can imagine the best friends carting off the bride in the middle of the celebrations. What a great tradition!

  3. But what about Russian Orthodox weddings? I had an Orthodox wedding in a convert church in California, which was really a beautiful thing! But whether Russian or Greek, the ceremony is the same - just the type of crowns that are used are different.

  4. Yes, a Russian Orthodox wedding is done in a church, and, from what I heard, the ceremony is very long, and can be quite exhasting, because you are supposed to stand a lot. It is very similar to the Greek Orthodox - Russians basically adapted the Greek traditions way back when. But, growing up in a secular country I never got a chance to experience one of those. I don't know if Greeks steal their brides though, of it's the old Slavic tradition, or even a Pagan one.

  5. Those weddings sound like a lot of fun, Lina. I imagine that the reason for the gor'ko tradition is to protect the couple against bad luck. So if you say "bitter" during the wedding, then maybe there will be no bitterness in the marriage. Sort of like warding off the evil eye.