Russia Articles & Reviews
St. Petersburg in Summer
Returning to St. Petersburg for a friend’s wedding, Gary Shteyngart finds the city glowing in summer’s light and tipsy with matrimonial bliss.
By Gary Shteyngart
"Only love is matter," some besotted loverboy has scrawled along one of St. Petersburg’s ethereally romantic canals. Whether this is merely bad English or some newfangled law of physics we will never know, but one thing is certain: it’s summertime in Russia’s loveliest city, and everyone seems to be tying the knot. They couldn’t have picked a better place. Petersburg’s over-the-top czarist architecture obliges even the humblest newlywed with pomp and drama. Wedding parties composed of tall, gangly men in short sleeves and pretty girls aglow in makeup crowd beneath the hooves of the famously airborne Statue of the Bronze Horseman, a.k.a. Peter the Great. Grooms sweep brides off their feet and smooch them on cue beneath the 15-foot-tall granite Atlases stoically holding up the roof of the New Hermitage’s portico. The streets are crowded with flower-bedecked Hummer limos and, on at least one occasion, a motorcycle wedding escort whose yuppie members have misguidedly christened themselves "The Busy Riders." Everywhere mothers are weeping with joy and terror, and papas are panning the pale summer beauty of their children and their native city with video cameras, while "witnesses," the Russian equivalents of best men and bridesmaids, uncap bottles of cheap but effective "Soviet" champagne and fill the air with cloying sweetness.
I come to St. Petersburg on a chilly week in early August for the wedding of my good friend K. and his betrothed, Yana. They are two progressive smarties with their share of diplomas from the prestigious St. Petersburg State University, not to mention an unusually diverse couple: he has Russian and Ukrainian blood, and she is one of the fewer than a half million Yakut, an Asiatic people many time zones away from Petersburg and Moscow, whose frozen landscape is rife with diamonds, reindeer, and throaty shamanistic arias. Baby-making seems to be at an all-time low in Russia—even President Putin has spoken out about a "demographic crisis"—but while they are loath to multiply, Russians still marry young. "Whfen I came here I was 26," a Dutch expatriate tells me, "and they thought I was old. Now I’m 33 and they’ve lost all hope for me. There’s not even a word for ’boyfriend’ in this language."
Having just crossed the Rubicon of 30, K. is ripe for a band of gold. He certainly is taking the traditions and rituals of matrimony seriously. Whenever I return to Petersburg, K. and I usually go on a rampage, consuming vodka by the bottle and eating skewers of lamb and hunks of lard. This time he takes me to a vegetarian Indian restaurant and orders some puri bread. He explains to me that tomorrow he will be in church taking confession with Yana, and so, according to custom, he cannot consume meat, milk products, or alcohol. It’s touching to hear this brazen carnivore say to a young waitress in some faux-Indian getup, "May I have the soy-based substitute, please?"
After the confession comes its diametric opposite: K.’s bachelor party. We’re hanging out with a friend of K.’s who claims to be a descendant of Russia’s beloved poet Pushkin. He’s got several gold teeth and worships Deep Purple. After getting kicked out of the suburban Klub Kangaroo for reasons I cannot discern (maybe K.’s antigovernment T-shirt set off the meathead bouncers), we end up at Fireball, at the edge of town. It’s a rockabilly joint festooned with Confederate flags where a clientele that looks like it’s been imported from the worst disco in England grooves along to 50’s standards. Disturbingly, a large woman comes out to show the crowd her breasts. The women at the club try to mimic the stripper’s thrusts and parries, as if taking notes for their lovers. Perhaps they too dream of dragging their men to Wedding Palace Number One, where K.’s wedding will take place the next day.
The palace sits magnificently on the English Embankment by the Neva River, an unparalleled vista of the sun-burnished city unfolding from its steps. Since Soviet times, this elegant former mansion has seen countless weddings, known for their gilded backdrops and 30-minute assembly-line haste. Beneath an enormous chandelier, guests sit on a set of couches, the striking Yakut girls resplendent in their green dresses, Yana’s mother in slacks and a traditional amulet and shawl. In Petersburg, like anywhere else in the world, no romantic gathering would be complete without a piped-in rendition of the score from†Titanic. The ceremony takes place in a great mirrored hall beneath the insignia of the double-headed Russian eagle. The government’s emcee, who looks like a younger Judge Judy, gives a rather rambling speech along the lines of "One day…love comes. The weak become strong. And then come the responsibilities." The appropriate documents are signed at an ornate desk, the cameras zoom in for the kill, the organist mysteriously plays Abba’s "The Winner Takes It All," a tender kiss is exchanged, and with little fuss but with many sincere wishes from their international friends, the smiling K. and Yana have become a family.
But this is only the beginning. The next 24 hours are given over to drinking, endless toasts, and shouts of "Gorko!" meaning "Bitter!" which inspires the newlyweds to make the wedding wine sweeter with a kiss. We head downstairs to the reception, where a table is packed with salmon and cold veal sandwiches and plenty of champagne. The young men up the ante by passing around a bottle of vodka. "You’re young, you’re beautiful. I hope you have a full set of children," Yana’s mother tells the assembled.
"How many is that?" K.’s mother asks.
A tearful aunt sounds the typical Russian lament: "Please…please, don’t forget the parents."
"To our Siberian princess, our diamond," one so-called nonconformist friend says, raising a glass to Yana, then adds a political coda: "May the clouds lift over our homeland, so that your lives may be well."
With more champagne in hand, we crowd into a limousine of the non-Hummer variety and circle the town. First, we go to the beautiful campus of St. Petersburg State University, the couple’s alma mater. We hew to tradition by visiting the bronze Peter the Great rearing up on his steed, and then, in a bit of a departure from the usual, we head to the Stalinist-era Moscow Square, where we pose beneath the mighty Lenin statue in various mock-heroic revolutionary poses (K. has brought along a suitably Leninesque worker’s cap for the occasion). Teenage skateboarders popping ollies at Lenin’s feet ask us for a sip of our celebratory champagne, and, this being Russia, we oblige.
Yana’s mother lives nearby, and once we enter her snug little apartment, we are treated to a variety of Russian and Yakut customs, not to mention a king’s ransom in booze. The Russian bread-and-salt ceremony is performed, part of which involves the bride and groom tearing off a piece of bread, the larger hunk supposedly determining the head of the household. The mother, who is a Yakut shaman, uses black and white horse’s tails, symbolizing water and fire, sky and earth, to purify the couple. Then there is the kidnapping and ransoming of the bride, an ancient ritual that once symbolized the passing of the bride from one family to another, but now mainly entails guests dumping 500-ruble notes into a hat for the wedding fund. We dig into a freshly hunted duck, pieces of pellet still lodged in its succulent flesh, and drink Yakut vodka that was reportedly made from an iceberg. The celebrants get rowdier and begin to express themselves. "I’ve written some poems," a sweet old lady tells us. Another begins a mind-bogglingly long speech with the familiar Russian words: "My husband, well, he is sitting on a pension." Then Yana’s mother, red-cheeked and proud, the traditional Yakut silver draped around her neck, sings a polytonal song in her language, which hushes us with its sinuous beauty. If this isn’t a mournful ballad about love and its consequences, I don’t know what is.
The next day the ceremonies continue, this time with a religious bent. A thermos of coffee gets me to the church on time. The bearded, ponytailed priest tells any lightly dressed women to cover their bellies, and the rest of us to turn off our cell phones. We are at a recently built church, the freshly painted cupolas glowing brightly amid the drab Soviet-era surroundings. K. wears a traditional Ukrainian shirt embroidered around the cuffs and collar. Small Yakut women huddle together, adjusting their head scarves. The choir sings brightly, adding light to the multitude of flickering candles and golden icons. "God have mercy," the priest chants. Bride and groom cross themselves. Holy water is drunk from a little golden cup. Hanging on to the priest’s heavy saffron robe, K. and Yana circle the altar three times, a symbol of eternal marriage. The priest gives a speech centering on the Adam and Eve-rib story. The idea seems to be, "Man has dominion over women, but, hey, don’t go nuts with that dominion." Exhausted by the ceremony, I walk out into the paltry northern sunshine, knowing that the party will now resume at Yana’s mother’s house. More iceberg vodka and happy toasting await. Russian weddings remain the maximalist and sentimental affairs they have been since the time of Ivan the Terrible. Regimes come and go, lives worsen and improve and worsen again, global warming may yet cause the Neva River to cascade out of its granite banks, but in the end "only love is matter."
Gary Shteyngart is a contributing editor for†Travel + Leisure.