Even though single parenthood and premarital sex have been common among both Russian peasants and workers, marriage has traditionally been an important institution. It has traditionally been an economic contract between families with the groom’s family footing the costs for the wedding and the bride’s family providing a dowry. Among peasant families, marriage traditionally involved an exchange of goods, land rights and labor commitments. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

Marriages are registered at the local Citizen's records and Licensing Bureau. No marriage ceremony is required. Couples today marry much later than they did in the Communist era. Many wait until they have good jobs, are relatively financially secure and have a decent place to live. Urban couples tend to get married later than rural couples.

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Because of the economic collapse, the institution of marriage is in a deep crisis. In 1992, there were 20 percent to 30 percent fewer new marriages concluded in Russia than in 1990. In the same period, the number of divorces has risen by 15 percent. About half of all Russian men and women have at least one divorce during their lifetime. About a third of the divorced are young couples who live together less than five years. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

According to one informal survey, a third of all marriages in Moscow are shams. The majority of them are set up so that someone living outside of Moscow can get a residency permit to live in Moscow, where there are greater opportunities to get ahead. Brokers charge $2,000 to set up the marriages for out of town men and often enlist prostitutes to serve as brides.

Marriage is regarded as a sacrament in the Orthodox church and called “the crowning.” In many rural areas there is a shortage of marriageable young women. This is because many women leave for cities to find jobs and better marriage prospects while young men stay behind to tend family farms.

Russian men, it is said, can be very romantic during the courtship period. They open doors and light cigarettes for their dates and almost always pay. Women dress up in fancy dresses and wear lots of perfume. They expect to be flattered and receive gifts such as flowers and candy. After the wedding the honeymoon period ends.

Russian Weddings

Russian weddings are held in churches, homes and Communist-era wedding palaces. Peasant weddings traditionally were marked by highly elaborate ceremonies, some of them with a pagan origins and theatrical aspects. A religious ceremony occurred separately and often took place a period of time after the initial ceremony when the couple had lived together for some time. Sometimes it wasn’t held until after a child had been born. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

Wedding parties feature lots of feasting and vodka drinking. In Slavic countries the bride and groom have traditionally been showered with corn, wheat, hops or rice. Taking the wedding wreath from the bride's head and replacing it with a bonnet still occurs. In some parts of Russia, the wedding reception features a mock bridal capture.

Newlyweds often visit a monument or go on a mini-honeymoon in a specially-decorated wedding taxi. Rather than pulling strings of rattling cans, these cars usually have a doll tied to the front bumper and wedding rings and streamers displayed at the top. For good luck, newlyweds are expected to place flowers on the grave of a famous person, such as a composer, military hero, actor or pop singer

Thresholds such as a door are where brownie-like creatures known as “domovoi” dwell. “Domovoi” are believed to follow the head of the household when a family moves. There are elaborate rituals to attract “domovoi” when a new household is established after marriage. A newlywed groom, for example, does not carry his bride over the threshold, but rather lets loose a cat call which is supposed to summon a “domovoi”. Cats are the only creatures that can communicate with “domovoi”.

Folk dance have traditionally been a fixture in Russian weddings. In the old days weddings usually took place in the fall after the harvest and lasted for three days, with different dances accompanying each phase of the event. A round dance, for example, was performed when the bride was prepared for the wedding and her “maiden braid” was loosened. Other dances included the one that accompanied the transfer of the bride to the friend of the bridegroom, a dance for people coming back from church and an old people’s dance, A highlight of a wedding was when the bride and groom danced together at the request of the guests.

Communist-Era Wedding

Most people in Communist countries took civil wedding vows. Weddings were usually held, often at a rate of one every 10 or 20 minutes, at wedding halls near the registration offices or the Marriage Room in the Town Hall. Church weddings were uncommon because religious worship was discouraged and many churches were closed or used as museums or mental institutions.

The bride usually wore a wedding dress and veil and the groom wore a wedding suit. They took their vows at a state-witnessed ceremony that included expressions of love and promises to be good citizens in the Communist state. After saying they would perform the duties of a good Communist family they were pronounced man and wife.

Sometimes on the way out of the room the groom carries the bride over a ribbon hung with pacifiers and plastic dolls to wish them luck in raising a large family. Often the entire wedding party would visit a famous monument such as grave of the unknown soldier and Marx memorial and have their picture taken there

Palace of Wedding Ceremony

The Soviet-era Palace of Weddings in St. Petersburg should have been called the Factory of Weddings. In the 1990s assembly line marriages were performed there ten hours a day, seven days a week. The price with a photographer back then was about the same a dinner at McDonald’s for a family of four.

The ceremonies began with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto Number One and lasted about eight minutes. Wedding parties queued on a marble staircase until it is their turn. When the ceremony was over the newlywed couple climbed another flight of stairs and exited to the left.

The veiled bride usually wore a white dress and carried a bouquet. The groom usually wore a black suit. The ceremonies were performed by city officials and couples usually exchange rings, signed a registry and were pronounced man and wife, while tears were shed and cameras clicked.

Soviet-era wedding halls and palaces were often grand looking and contained a statue of Lenin. Many of the places are still functioning today. The bride and groom often laid bouquets at the base of Lenin statues for good luck. If they were married in Moscow they laid the flowers at Lenin’s grave. More and more churches are holding wedding ceremonies. Space is still a premium and money is tight, thus mass weddings are still held.

Russian Orthodox Wedding

Marriage is regarded as a sacrament in the Orthodox church and called “the crowning.” During Orthodox weddings the bride and groom have traditionally exchanged “crowns of glory” instead of rings but these they often exchange rings too. In the ceremony neither the bride or the groom make any promises; they merely express their consent to marry one another. According to the BBC: “Marriage is celebrated through the rite of crowning, showing the importance of eternal union of the couple. Although marriage is seen as a permanent commitment in life and in death, remarriage and divorce are permitted in certain circumstances. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

Orthodox wedding ceremonies have traditionally been part of a full mass. The central elements of the ceremony are the presentation of rings and the exchanging of crowns. According to Russian Orthodox custom, married couples wear their wedding bands on their right hands.

During some Orthodox Christian ceremonies rings are given to the bride and groom by a priest. The couple approach a table at the altar. Incense smoke pours out of swinging sensors that are carried before them. The priest recites a litany, invokes a prayer and blesses the couples. He gives the bride and groom each a ring from the table and proclaims them "married now and forever" three times as the couple exchange rings three times. Sometimes the couples’ hands are bound together with a long embroidered scarf called a “rushnychok”.

The priest takes the rings and makes a cross on the foreheads of the bride and groom. The rings are then placed on their right hands and the priest recites passages from the Bible and declares that the ring is a symbol of "union, honor and power.”

Crowning the Bride and Groom

During other Orthodox Christian ceremonies the bride and groom don crowns. Two laymen bring in two imperial-style crowns with a cross and give it to the priest. After the blessing the bride and groom, the priest places a crown on each of their heads. A cup of wine is sipped by the priest who gives the cup to the bride, who each take three sips.

After more prayers, the priest takes the bride and groom by the hand and leads them around the table three times while chanting, "Be thou magnified, O bridegroom, as Abraham! Be thou blessed as Isaac and multiplied as Jacob." He also utters an another passages that states the couple should be "as joyful as Rebecca and multiply as Rachel."

There is no exchange of rings. Instead crowns are placed on the newlyweds by the their parents while the bride and groom each hold a candle. As part of the "Dissolving the Crowns" ritual, the candles are extinguished, the couple receives congratulations from the guests and the bride and groom race towards a white carpet. According to tradition, the first one to stand on it rules the home.

Events Before and After a Russian Orthodox Wedding

A shower is held for the bride and groom before the wedding. Closes friends and relatives are invited and they give presents to the bride. The groom sits with the bride. After a large dinner they open the presents. Before the church wedding, a blessing is given by a priest at the home of the bride. After the blessing the wedding party heads to the church. The groom and people accompanying the bride often carry bouquets of flowers. After the guest are seated in the church, a deacon walks down the aisle and meets the bride and groom at the door, where he gives each a lighted candle and makes the sign of a cross three times on the couple's forehead.

Dancing and feasting often continues for three to eight days after the wedding. When the reception begins the bride replaces her wedding veil with a kerchief to indicate she is a married woman. The veil is then passed among single women who wear it while dancing with boyfriends.

Traditional bread, braided chalah (egg-rich bread) and perogies are served a the banquet. God parents of the newlyweds present the bread, symbolizing avoidance of hunger, and salt, representing an absence of bitterness.

Russian Jewish Wedding

A traditional Jewish wedding in the southwest mountains begins with a veiled bride traveling by horseback to the grooms house, where guests have gathered. Before entering the house the groom’s mother throws rice and wheat over the bride. According to tradition, the bride avoids the groom's parents and the groom avoids the bride's parents for couple of years. Folk songs and dances are performed to music from drums and clarinet.

Bukharan Jews nearly always married other Bukharan Jews. Marriages have traditionally been arranged with the help of matchmakers and involved the payment of a bride price and a large dowry. In the old days children were sometimes betrothed while still infants and rich men sometimes had two wives if their first wife was barren.

Wedding celebration included an inspection of the dowry payment and the bride price, a ritual bath for the bride and the painting the bride’s hands with henna. The approval of a marriage contract took place on Tuesday and the marriage ceremony was conducted under a canopy by a rabbi on Wednesday. After the ceremony there was a large feast.

Muslim Wedding

Muslims in the Caucasus tend to marry within their religious group and marriages with blood relatives are regarded as the best. Among some Muslim ethnic groups, traditional wife kidnapping takes place. Girls are sometimes abducted without their consent; sometimes couples elope with the consent of their parents under the pretense of a kidnapping to escape from an arranged marriage or high dowry payments.

Many marriages among Muslima are arranged by parents or matchmakers when the bride and groom are relatively young. Girls are sometimes around 14 and young men are about 18 when the wedding takes place. The marriages contract is signed in the presence of a mullah and witnesses.

Before the wedding, the girl collects a dowry. The marriage is accepted after the exchange of gifts. Often, a brideprice is given by the groom to the bride's mother and a horse and dagger or rifle are given by the groom to the father. During the betrothal party, the bride and groom are presented with gifts of clothing and jewelry. The wedding festivities last from two to seven days. Feasts are held at the home of the groom's and bride's parents.

Russian Mail-Order Brides

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American mail order bride business was taken over by women from Russia and the former eastern bloc. Before then the business was dominated by Filipinas. Since then Filipinas have made a come back.

Around 6,000 marriages take place each year between American men and Russian women. The American men tend to be middle-aged divorced, men who are fairly well off financially, tired of the bar scene and want to get married. The Russian women, often 10 to 20 years younger, have struggled to make ends meet in Russia. Many are divorced with children.

Some girls and young women from Siberian ethnic groups such as the Mongol-like Buryats are making their way to China to be brides there. In the Soviet era the textile town of Ivanovo was known as the “the city of brides” because it was filled with women from Central Asia who arrived with the cotton to work in the mills. The ratio of women to men was 10 to 1. It was immortalized in the 1981 film “Honest, Intelligent, Unmarried”

Matchmaking Services for American Men

In the early 2000s, there were around 250 introduction companies operated in the United States and 400 websites that specialize in finding Russian and Eastern Europe women for American men. They had a data base of around 150,000 foreign women. Nearly all had opened since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Some services operated by sending American men to Moscow for meeting parties. Others had files with 1,000 single women or more that men could browse through and choose women they wanted to correspond with, with the hope of a meeting. Others had web sites that allowed users to search on the basis of height, weight, age, hair color or eye color. The women paid nothing to be listed. Men typically paid $7.50 to get a mailing address for one woman.

For a membership fee of $1,850, American men could join Encounter's International which supplied men with photos, videos and E-mail addresses of available Russian women, arranged package tours to Russia and the Ukraine and hosted parties in the United States attended by Russian women. The company guarantees its clients that a a marriage will be arranged within a year. Some agencies with "2,000 different ladies" were regarded as nothing but meat markets or covers for escort services.

Why American Men Sekk Russian Brides

American men say they seek out Russian women for wives because they are often quite beautiful and they are more likely to play the role of a traditional woman and wife than their American counterparts and are "untainted by Western feminism". Western men are regarded as less macho and more sensitive and less likely to be a drunk or a wife beater than their Russian counterparts. Dave Besuden, the head of Anastasi tours, told AP he tells American men the perennial good-news-bad-news joke before they come: "The bad news is that women's lib is coming. The good news is that it's still 100 years away.

One American man told AP as he waited to meet his prospective wife Tanya, "She satisfies my first requirement—she's extraordinarily beautiful...There's a 99 and one-half percent this will lead to marriage." Though he'd never set eyes on her before, he had sent her a paper confirming his $60,000 a year salary and exchanged photos, letters and phone calls with her."

One man in his forties told the Washington Post, " I wanted a drop-dead gorgeous woman." He said in the United States his chances of finding such a woman were near zero but in Russia "you're batting close to 100 percent."

Some American men claim they have been taken for a ride by their Russian brides, who have used the marriage to get a green card and then ran off. Some of the women claimed their husbands were charming before the marriage and turned into beasts after the wedding, demanding group sex and making threats.

Matchmaking Visits to Moscow and Fiancé Visas

In the early 2000s, American men paid around $5,000 each for matchmaking trips to Moscow, where they spent two of three days at meeting halls or night clubs socializing with Russian women. Translators were on hand to lend their services for the often-awkward conversation. The women, who often outnumbered the men four to one, sat silently near the walls, waiting to be approached.

If a couple hit it off they generally went off to dinner with a translator. If they decided they wanted to get married a three-month "fiancee visa" was arranged for the women to go to America. About 25 percent of the women returned home.

Generally, before a Russian woman can obtain a fiancee visa, the prospective husband must travel to her home country to meet her in person. A photograph of the couple usually suffices as evidence. The visa is good for 90 days. The couple must marry within that time or the woman must leave the United States.

In the 1990s, there was a sharpest increase in fiancee visas from Russia and the Ukraine. In 1996, about 350 Russian women entered the United States as fiancees for American men. In 1988, only 11 women came from the entire Soviet Union to marry American men.

Polygamy and Polyandry in Russia

In 1997, Sergei Semyonov, a deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's Committee for Women, Family and Youth, proposed making a law that made polygamy legal. Semyonov lived with three women that he called his wives. He once said polygamy would improve the "quality of the population" since "only the fittest will be able to have several wives—it will be a form of natural selection."

In his proposed bill, Semyonov wrote a man with more than one wife must "support all his women financially and emotionally, satisfy them physically, treat them with more respect than they are treated now, and not let them work under hazardous conditions." Failure to meet any of these conditions was ground for divorce and financial compensation.

Polyandry us practiced by several Siberian tribes. Among the Gilyaks of Sakhalin Island polyandry is practiced.

Married Life in Russia

Newlyweds traditionally moved in with either the groom’s family or the bride’s family, usually the former. If a groom moved in with the bride’s family and they had no son it was not uncommon for him to become obligated by a contact to support his parents-in-law in their old age and pay for their burial. Marriage often entails obligations by the bride and grooms to take care of older female relatives in the whatever family they move in with. In return the female relatives help with child care and may pass on their homes as an inheritance. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

In the Soviet era—and to some degree today—newlyweds often had to live with their parents for several years until a flat opened up for them. For some that flat never opened up and the couple’s dream was have a television in their room and someday maybe have a car so they could get away from the in-laws every now and then.

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “As in the West, individualization and intimization of the marital relationship have been taking place in Russia over recent decades. Sexual harmony is playing an increasingly important role here. According to Golod’s (1984) surveys, sexual harmony invariably takes third place among factors contributing to perceived marital success and stability, after spiritual and psychological compatibility, among spouses who have been married for up to ten years, and after spiritual and domestic compatibility for those who have been living together for between ten and fifteen years. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

Married Sex Life in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Sexual satisfaction and general satisfaction with the marriage are closely interrelated. Practically all couples maximally satisfied with their marriages believed they were sexually compatible, while only 63 percent were sexually compatible among the maritally dissatisfied (Kon 1995, 158-177). [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality ==]

Gender inequality and sexism manifest themselves in the marital bed as well (Kon 1995, 129-157). The natural and widespread disharmony of sexual-erotic needs and desires between wives and husbands, which should be the subject of exploration and discussion, is often seen by Russian spouses and those about them as a manifestation of an ineradicable organic sexual incompatibility; the only way out is divorce. Even in the professional literature, this problem is often discussed not in process terms - how the spouses adapt and grow accustomed to each other - but in essentialist terms - whether spouses and their individual traits are compatible to each other. ==

“The woman is almost always the first to suffer from poor sexual adaptation. The lack of a common language and the sexological ignorance create a mass of communication difficulties among married couples. Instead of exploring their problems together or going to a doctor, the spouses run off to their same-sex friends. ==

“Another major problem is the lack of privacy, the shortage of housing, and poor housing conditions. Millions of Russians spend many years, or their whole lifetime, living in dormitories or communal flats, sometimes several families in one room, where every movement is seen or heard by others. Among 140 Soviet immigrants living in the U.S.A. asked by Mark Popovsky in 1984, “What hindered your sexual life in the Soviet Union?” the absence of a separate apartment was mentioned by 126 (90 percent), the absence of a separate bedroom by 122 (87 percent), and the excessive attention from the neighbors living in the same apartment by 93 respondents (66 percent). The lack of privacy is an even worse problem for nonmarital sex. “Where?” is the desperately important and difficult question to answer. Lack of privacy is detrimental for the quality of sexual experience and produces anxieties and neuroses. ==

“Cohabitation is more and more widespread among younger couples. Sometimes it is a first stage of marriage, until children are born, and sometimes an alternative form of marriage. Public opinion, especially among younger people, is gradually becoming more and more tolerant of cohabitation. ==

“Extramarital sex, both casual and long-term, is quite common; according to S. Golod (1984), more than three quarters of the people surveyed had extramarital contacts in 1989, whereas in 1969, the figure was less than half. But public opinion is critical of extramarital sex. In the VCIOM 1992 survey directed by Professor Yurt Levada (Kon 1995, 275), only 23 percent agreed that it is okay to have a lover as well as a husband or wife, while 50 percent disagreed. Extramarital affairs seem to be morally more acceptable for men than for women (Kon 1995, 21, 45, 63, 166-167).” ==

Divorce in Russia

Russian divorce rates are very high. Marriage is often viewed as a charade. In the 1990s, approximately one marriage in three ended in divorce, with the rate increasing 20 percent in the early 1990s after the break up of the Soviet Union. About 60 percent of Russian marriages now end in divorce.

More than half of all divorces are initiated by the wife. Some men are also leaving their wives, apparently because they can't stand living with a successful woman.

Divorce was rare in traditional Russian peasant communities because it was usually associated with some scandal or conflict. In the Communist-era many couples stayed together because a divorce or separation mean that one person had to find a new hard-to-get apartment or move in with a relative. These days, more women are able to escape from unhappy marriages because they earn enough money to afford an apartment for themselves.

In the Soviet era, divorce was legal but politically incorrect. In the early years after the Russian Revolution, a husband or wife could divorce his or her spouse by sending a postcard that announced their intention. The practice was terminated after the postal service lost too many announcement and people who had been divorced weren't aware of their status. In 1944 laws were enacted that made divorce prohibitively expensive. Bonuses were paid to large families.

In the Soviet era, divorces were simple if no children were involved. At most it took an hour for a official to divide the property. Divorces of parents with children could take several weeks and the wife usually ended up with the children and a portion of her husband’s wages. The traditional Muslim divorce was illegal under Soviet law. So was polygamy and the payment of brideprices.

Orthodox Christian Views in Divorce

The Orthodox church allows divorce and remarriage but permits no more than four marriages. “Such a practice does not seem to be incompatible with the belief in that sanctity of the union between man and woman which linked the mystery of human life with love which Jesus Christ has for his bride, the Church.

The Orthodox realize that requiring members to ascribe to an ideal for of single wedlock is unrealistic but divorces are not supposed to easily given. They are supposed to be granted if a family has been damaged, by the disappearance of one’s partner or they have committed a crime, gone insane or been unfaithful.

The ceremony for a second marriage is different than that of a first marriage. Rather than a crowning there are acts of penitence that address the failure of the first marriage. Widows and widowers are treated the same as divorcees when it comes to remarriage.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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