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St. Petersburg in Summer

courtesy of Gary Shteyngart Newlyweds in St. Petersburg

Photo: courtesy of Gary Shteyngart

Video: See the Slideshow Narrated 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?"

Video: To Russia for Love

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.


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