Russians revive church weddings Nuptials: A Russian couple did an unusual thing for children of the Soviet era. They married in a church.

November 03, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YUDINO, Russia -- The unsmiling bride and groom seemed a little confused standing on the steps of the 230-year-old village church.

Tanya Klimov and Valeri Nosov were eager to have a traditional Russian Orthodox wedding. But, typical children of the Soviet era of official atheism, they'd never seen a church wedding before except in movies.

"Do we go in?" 19-year-old Klimov asked the knot of family and friends standing in the chilly autumn morning.

No one was certain, not even the usually omniscient Russian mothers. The traditional church wedding just isn't a modern tradition in Russia.

So Klimov, nervous in her satin gown, and Nosov, the 23-year-old groom, stiff in his black suit, gripped each other and hesitatingly stepped into the church.

There, in the thick aroma of incense and amid mystical medieval choir chants, they wore crowns and carried burning candles as they stumbled through a 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox ritual that 70 years of communism never completely squelched.

Their wedding two Fridays ago is part of a national revival of church weddings.

No one at the Russian Orthodox Church headquarters keeps track, but Patriarch Alexei II has said that church weddings have increased "twenty-fold" since the late 1980s when Soviet society began loosening up under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Out here in the countryside 50 miles north of Moscow, the revival trend is just beginning. The Nosov-Klimov church wedding is still a rarity. They're the first in their circle of friends to do it.

The sudden popularity of the church wedding -- like much of the religious resurgence after the fall of communism five years ago -- involves equal parts social fashion and Christian belief, says the Rev. Vladimir Yangycher, who repaired and reopened Yudino's Church of Christmas in 1990, 55 years after Stalin's repression closed it down.

"They're really starting from zero in religious knowledge," says Yangycher.

His five-minute premarital counseling session with couples is about the need to confess and take communion before the wedding ceremony. The discussion is conducted in the chilly church vestibule. Yangycher concludes it with the strong admonishment, "Don't even think about abortion! If a doctor says it's necessary, just run from his office."

Young people coming to get married know they aren't supposed to lie or steal or kill, he says, "but the sad thing is they don't know the First Commandment, their relationship to God."

The Nosovs are typical of the young couples married in his church these days, he says.

They were baptized as infants. They don't attend church regularly. They know a few of the Ten Commandments. They have little knowledge of the Bible, or Orthodox practices, but they profess a strong religious belief.

Their very devout grandmothers, both dead now, were their main religious mentors. And their parents "who are compensating for what they didn't do themselves," he says, were the main push for the young couple to have a church wedding.

The priest is pragmatic about it.

"If it weren't for their marriage, they probably wouldn't come to church at all. I'm not expecting all the seeds I'm planting in souls will grow immediately," he says. "Peasants know how you need to wait for seeds to grow."

The young couple admit they aren't churchgoers. But they would never remove the crosses from their necklaces, and they volunteered their work five years ago to reconstruct the crumbling brick church that was originally built by peasants here in 1765.

They've learned more about their church in the brief two weeks between their request for a church wedding and the wedding itself than they'd ever known.

First of all, it's not easy to pick a wedding day. They found that church holidays and fasting days eliminate more than half the year and all Saturdays as possible wedding days. When the priest told them their ceremony would be on a Friday morning -- when most people would have to take time off from work -- they were slightly disappointed.

They were also disappointed to discover that the hefty $20 wedding fee didn't get them a service conducted by Yangycher but by a young monk they didn't know.

Nor were they sure what was appropriate to wear to a church wedding. They were relieved to learn that Nosov could wear a black suit and his bride could use the elaborate satin gown and long gloves she'd bought for the civil ceremony and reception.

The civil ceremony is still an integral part of getting married in Russia. While a couple need only sign a document and have their passport stamped to be legally married, the Soviet tradition was to have a civil ceremony in an official, Las Vegas-like "wedding palace."

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