Some things have changed from the days when our parents got married as Soviet citizens. Some things remain the same.
The double doors to the main hall of a civil registry office, or ZAGS, as it is known in Russian, open. An ancient man in pressed slacks and a white oxford shirt peeks in.
“They want that Whitney Houston song,” he tells the middle-aged women assembled with violins.
“Not a single normal Wedding March ceremony today!” One of the middle-aged women rolls her eyes.
“They want what they want,” the ancient man replies, shrugging.
The musicians, all in matching dark skirts and white blouses, take on a face of steel. The doors, still smelling of a fairly recent paint job, open. A smiling couple in their twenties walks in holding hands, a group of giggling guests and one crying about-to-be-mother-in-law follow. The violins spring to life and play I Will Always Love You. They will play it again when the ceremony is finished. They won’t have a choice - the couple wants what they want.
As I observed this scene recently while sitting in line at the Perovsky ZAGS in eastern Moscow to get my child’s birth certificate, I recalled how back in the Soviet days, registering one’s marriage at the ZAGS was solely a matter of putting up with the whims of the employees - never the other way around. My mother still recalls coming face-to-face with an organizer who said: “There will be a choir. Because there is always a choir. Those are the rules.”
A group of imposing-looking women and men waited on the sidelines to serenade my parents’ union. Only a hissy fit from my mother, complete with the requisite “I am going to complain to the higher authorities” temporarily banished the choir.
By contrast, when my husband and I put in our application to get married at Moscow’s ZAGS 4, or “The Palace of Wedding Ceremonies 4” as it is otherwise known, we were immediately accosted by a ferocious woman who demanded to know how we were going to customize our ceremony.
“We’re not really looking to customize it,” Alexey said trying to fend her off. “We just want to arrive, get married, and leave.”
“Look at the price lists for the different limos!” The woman insisted, thrusting more and more papers in our faces. “You can even get a retro pink one, if you want! Aren’t you going to get a special frame for the wedding certificate? There are different colors available!”
The woman was so pushy that we barely escaped with our lives, or that’s how it certainly felt.
Couples getting married in Russia today have more options, but the manners of the people presenting the options have not changed much. The average Russian government worker has not evolved much as a species; they still want to tell you exactly what to do.
The enormous harp inside the main ceremony hall remained untouched during our ceremony, I am happy to report. We refused the horrible videographer and the overpriced pink champagne. We did notice that the most charming workers at the ZAGS, the younger women with the blinding smiles, were the ones who orchestrated the actual proceedings. We listened to a fairly tolerable official speech about how lucky we were to be in love - a departure from the old “you are now part of a family unit” speech that my parents got. I spent a long time in the car ride to the reception wondering just how transparent those deals between various limo services and civil registry offices actually are. I decided to save those worries for another day.
I also wondered if Alexey and I missed out by not having a zombie wedding, but decided that fake blood would have clashed with my blue suede boots.
Complain as discerning couples might about the modern Russian ZAGS, there is a certain charm in mixing consumerism with Soviet stiffness nowadays. It’s a bit reminiscent of wandering in one of those nostalgia-themed bars where you can drink imported beer out of mugs emblazoned with red stars. It prevents your civil registry wedding from being too bland, as far as state-sanctioned frivolity goes.
And if you want to have a religious ceremony afterwards, as more and more Russian couples are choosing to do, you will then be particularly grateful for the fact that in the House of God, music from Kevin Costner movies is usually banned.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.