Saturday, February 14, 2009

Arctic Wedding

I just returned to Moscow having (barely) survived that most quintessential of Russian experiences- the shotgun wedding. Not any shotgun wedding mind you, but one that required me to jump on a plane, fly due north several hours and then drive into the Arctic wilderness from Arkhangelsk to find a little-known town who's raison d'etre is building nuclear submarines (those things are HUGE), and as such until several years ago was closed to the outside world. I was the first foreigner that many people I ran into had ever met.

Legend has it that problems with the nuclear plant at the factory is responsible for out of control birth defects, strange illnesses, and glowing, funny-smelling water flowing from the taps, but we didn't let that bother us (I don't think we drank anything but Sovetskoe Shampanskoe or vodka for the 36 hours we were there). The locals assured us that in summer the local beaches (currently buried under 10 feet of snow) are pristine and have great swimming. Apparently using icebergs as diving platforms is also a fun custom for the local children.

The delightful town of Severodvinsk recently celebrated its 70th birthday, yet like many small Soviet towns, it seemed somewhat stuck in the past, with the main streets of Karl Marx, Gagarin, Soviet Avenue and of course Lenin (with a rather chilly-looking Lenin peering out over the square) marking all points of the compass, and seemingly all points of life in this forgotten corner of the world.

Undeterred, Katya, Luda & I boarded a plane to this wilderness (a delay allowing us to demolish several bottles of wine at the airport), and were soon careening through the frozen wilderness with the Arctic's answer to Michael Schumacher at the wheel of his hotted up Lada (little did we know he was to be the Best Man). The local landscape reminded me of a f**king cold version of Azerbaijan, as we flashed past rusting derricks still pumping oil out of the icy tundra. Even in this strange frozen universe we were reminded that smoking was probably not in our best interests.

As this was the hometown of the soon-to-be husband of Katya & Luda's friend (that none had met), we were billeted to the best accommodation to be found- an ancient one-room apt with fold-out couch supported by a board on a fifth-floor walkup on Industrialnaya Avenue. Not to be deterred, Katya & I shared a romantic Valentine's Day dinner of salami, frozen vegetables and ramen noodles procured from the local Produkti (which sold little else).

The next morning dawned bright, snowy, and a balmy -15, warm weather for these parts. For those of you unfamiliar with Russian weddings, there are many fascinating traditions that may strike Western observers as curious. As Luda (the Maid of Honour) and Katya prepared for the festivities, I watched in alternate wonder, shock and horror as generously-sized middle-aged female family members contorted themselves into outfits better suited for svelte 15-year olds, with a sense of fashion and colour palette to match. The first tirade of the morning from our highly-strung bride was directed at a hamster-sized dog, whose minute teeth had apparently feasted on the bride's shoes during the night. I took the opportunity to open the first of many bottles of sickly-sweet (warm) Soviet Champagne, to calm the hordes of stressed out women roaming the apartment.

It's unclear exactly what happened next. The groom and his entourage appeared at the door to the apartment complex and were confronted by Katya & Luda, apparently intent to either safeguard the bride's chastity, or at least extort the highest price possible from the poor groom (this is Russia, after all). Eventually, after writing her name on the floor in cash, the groom was permitted to enter and we prepared for the trip to ZAGS.

ZAGS- I'd heard this term uttered in hushed tones since my arrival in Russia, one of the revered four-letter acronyms (like the all-powerful MKAD*), that can strike fear, envy, or passion into the heart of the Russian soul. Unlike Western weddings, most Russian ceremonies are not performed in a church, so this relic from Soviet times performs a ceremony and marriage register all-in-one in an ingenious conveyor-belt-like function.

At any given time, there were approximately six brides and entourages present, and the waiting hall looked like someone had set off a grenade in a fluorescent taffeta and flower shop. Each wedding party had approximately ten minutes to be hustled into the waiting rooms, convene in the hall, get obligatory photos taken (with Putin and Medvedev looking on), and then convene for the ceremony itself, solemnly sworn in under the watchful eye of Russia's double-headed eagle. The wedding party is told to clap, and then shunted through a side-door into an ante-room, where an assistant has already poured more Soviet Champagne, and the whole group is given a generous three minutes to drink.

After that, another side door opens, and it's back into the snow, while another fur-clad bride is hustled into the entrance. Money is hurled in the general direction of the married couple (occasionally causing minor lacerations) while street children scurry around scooping as much change up as possible. It's quite surreal.

The next exciting tradition is that the bridal party tours around the city eating caviar and drinking more Soviet Champagne while having photos taken in special places, such as the entrance to the city in -20 degrees, next to Lenin's outstreched hand, outside the submarine factory, and on a promontory sticking out into the White/Barents Sea. This last one got me particularly excited, as I could satisfy a lifelong dream of running around on top of the frozen ocean. Given it was cold, snowy, and the damn frozen ocean went on forever, I quickly tired of this and joined the rest of the wedding party for vodka shots.

After the bride's third tantrum of the day, we retreated under fire to the nearby Stolovaya (Soviet canteen), where the tables were laid with all the russian specialties we could think of, and more vodka than I could jump over. More Russian traditions ensued, but as the evening became increasingly blurry, I'm not sure exactly how they all fit together.

Patchy memories include stashing vodka and Soviet champagne in the snow (in such a cold country, why is it so hard to get a chilled drink?), dancing Can-Can, a strange furry-costumed character attacking the groom, Katya losing her phone, trying to prevent the chain-weed-smoking bridal party from sliding off the front steps, being locked out of the Stolovaya by an aggrieved bridesmaid because I refused to kiss her, wowing the crowd with my stunning duet rendition of "Hotel California" by karaoke (it wasn't difficult, Luda & I were the only English speakers), paying 1000r for a slice of wedding cake, and somehow making it back to our little apartment, with Luda ending up on a camp bed in the kitchen after trying to persuade the bride and groom not to divorce the next morning.

At 4am, Katya and I hauled ourselves back on the road to Arkhangelsk and Moscow, still trying to piece together the randomness of the previous 36 hours.

All I can say is: Russian weddings are a lot of fun.

Photos are here.
Worldguide: Are you kidding?

* The MKAD is the outer ring road of Moscow, a twenty-lane behemoth that seems to be held in great reverence by Muscovites, and trips beyond it are held in regard similar to those reserved for early-century Antarctic explorers.

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