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St. Petersburg in Summer

courtesy of Gary Shteyngart Newlyweds in St. Petersburg

Photo: courtesy of Gary Shteyngart

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.


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