Russian Language Blog

How to Celebrate a Wedding по-русски Posted by on Jan 18, 2012 in Culture, Traditions

Doesn’t look like much, does it? Yet this fairly unassuming doorway, with a four-letter acronym ЗАГС, leads to a life of (hopefully) married bliss. This particular door is for the ЗАГС is in my hometown of Volgograd. I walked by it countless times as a child and was inside the office only twice, at a friend’s wedding and at my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary.

I am going shopping for a set of two фаянсовые чашки (earthenware tea cups) today. It is a gift for a friend who is celebrating девятая годовщина свадьбы (ninth wedding anniversary). In Russia, the ninth is known as фаянсовая свадьба (earthenware wedding). So let’s talk weddings today.

Have you ever had a chance to be a guest at a Russian wedding? If not, you can still observe some of the traditions while vacationing in Russia and touring the sights. So what exactly is свадьба по-русски (Russian-style wedding).

To begin with, it’s a really big deal. Most weddings are celebrated с размахом (in a big way). This doesn’t necessarily mean шикарная церемония (lavish ceremony). The emphasis is on число гостей (the number of guests) as well as on celebrating от души (from the heart).

Let’s start by learning Russian words for the most important participants in a wedding ceremony:

Жених – a groom

Невеста – a bride

Свидетельница – a maid of honor (lit: a witness since she will be witnessing the registration of the marriage record)

Свидетель, also known as шафер or дружка – a best man (lit: a witness, for the same reason)

Nowadays many Russian couples венчаются в церкви (have a church wedding ceremony). Венчание literally means crowning. During the ceremony свидетели (see above свидетель and свидетельница) hold венки (wedding crowns or wreaths) over the couple’s heads.

The official paperwork is not handled by the church, but instead the happy couple goes to расписаться (register the union, lit: sign) to a local отдел записей гражданского состояния (registry office), ЗАГС for short.

But before that happens, a groom must go through an ordeal known as выкуп невесты (paying ransom for the bride). It is a game in which the groom and his friends are met at the entrance into bride’s house or apartment building by bride’s friends and guests.

To advance, a groom must pass through a series of tests, such as come up with as many ласковые имена (tender names) for his суженая (bride, lit: the intended one) as there are steps to the door. He might be challenged to remember meaningful dates and numbers – date of первое свидание (first date), date when he сделал предложение (proposed), the bride’s clothing sizes, etc. Or he might have to dance or sing or pass other tests. If he doesn’t pass a test, he can buy his way to the bride’s door by giving away candy, chocolates, Champaign, vodka, or money.

Once the groom gets to the bride, they make their way outside to свадебный кортеж (a wedding train or cavalcade). It is easy to tell the bride-and-groom’s car in the procession.

Not only will it be the front car, but also the fanciest looking one and the most decorated. Some of the most popular decorations include large golden обручальные кольца (wedding bands), цветы (flowers), ленты (ribbons), куклы-невесты (dolls dressed up in wedding dresses), воздушные шары (balloons), and колокольчики (bells).

At this point, the bride and groom are driven to ЗАГС (registry office) where they will go through a short церемония бракосочетания (marriage ceremony):

The bride and the groom enter под звуки свадебной музыки (accompanied by the wedding music). Traditionally, it’s Свадебный марш Мендельсона (Mendelson’s Wedding March). Регистратор (registering official) greets everyone and addresses the couple with a pretty standard spiel.

She  reminds everyone that this is самое прекрасное и незабываемое событие в жизни (the most beautiful and unforgettable event in life). She mentions the importance of family and великий долг друг перед другом и перед будущим детей (great obligation to each other and to the future of children).

Then брачащиеся or брачующиеся (entering into the marriage; an official and infrequently used word) confirm that their decision to create a family is искреннее (sincere), взаимное (mutual) and свободное (here: of free will). Once the bride and the groom both answer да, they sign the registry.

And that’s when the words объявляю вас мужем и женой (I declare you a husband and a wife) are finally said and the newlyweds целуются (kiss each other). The official then says a few напутственные слова (parting words), congratulates the couple and the guests and everyone gets to raise the first Champaign toast to the new family.

Now that the official part is over with, the semi-official поездка по городу (city tour) begins followed by a reception. More on that later. Now I have to go buy my чайный сервиз (tea set or tea service) or I risk turning up at the friend’s party с пустыми руками (empty-handed).

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  1. Stephanie:

    So Lovely. It was actually a video of a Russian wedding in a Geography class when I was 10 yrs old that sparked a passion for Russia and all things Russian. Thanks for this post. Loved it!

  2. Richard:

    Thank you for the post Yelena, it’s very interesting (beautiful pic!).

    My question however, concerns the “word of the day” post. In the sentence illustrating the use of гнев, there is the word охватить. To me, the letter “в” sounds completely silent in this word. Is there any general rule regarding silent letters in Russian? Are there some letters that are not pronounced when part of certain consonant clusters?


  3. Minority:

    Yelena, you’ve forgotten about wedding rings =)

    It should be mentioned, that we don’t need witnesses for getting married anymore, it’s just a tradition, but they shouldn’t sign any papers during the wedding as they did in the USSR.

  4. alys:


    Could you speak about the word “Горе” or “Горечь” one can hear when the couple is going out the weedding palace?
    I’have never known witch one it was, and never understand why people say such a think on such a day …

    Thank you very much

    • yelena:

      @alys Excellent question, alys! Glad you asked ’cause otherwise I would’ve forgotten about it 🙂

  5. Minority:

    alys, it’s a tradition… When somebody gives toast at the wedding, he drinks a glass of vodka and says that it tastes bitter [Горько!].

    Bitter vodka for sweet life. Something like that.

  6. Rob McGee:

    Alys, I would guess that this custom of saying “горько” most likely originated as a защита от сглаза — “defense against the Evil Eye”.

    As the wikipedia article explains, the Evil Eye (сглаз in Russian) is most commonly understood as a bad-luck curse that is created unintentionally, as an expression of subconscious envy.

    Thus, if a guest at the wedding said to the bride and groom, “May you have a sweet life!”, he might subconsciously be resentful of the fact that he himself is a lonely bachelor, or unhappily married, and feel envious of the “sweetness” in the new couple’s life. And from such envy, the Evil Eye is born!

    So wishing them bitterness instead of sweetness helps to avoid the Evil Eye.

    For the same reason, Ни пуха ни пера! was meant to bring good luck to hunters, by literally wishing that they would catch “Neither fur nor feathers”. And English-speaking actors say “Break a leg!” with the meaning “May you be successful.”

  7. Delia:

    Rob: I don’t think people say Горько для сглаза (defense against the evil eye:). At a wedding party, people usually drink vodka and say Bitter (see Minority’s comment above) and then ask for something sweet (a kiss!)подсластить (to sweeten “the aftertaste”). The guests do not wish Горько, they state the fact that the taste it bitter. See more explanation or versions here