A three-part series by Helen Womack
The ceremony was set for 4.15 on 3 February 1987 at Moscow’s Palace of Weddings Number One. My fiancé and I had no choice about the date or venue. The bureaucrat at the single registry office that handled marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners gave us a slot three months on from the day of application. There was only one moment in time, one place in the world for my marriage to Konstantin Gagarin. We gratefully seized the chance the Soviet state gave us, for we both knew it was a miracle we were marrying at all.
I used to tell myself the lack of choice in the old Soviet Union was a blessing. The months, even years, of planning for a traditional English wedding—the endless consideration of dresses, invitation designs, hotel menus etc.—would have appalled me. Kostya and I had only three months to organize a wedding within the limited scope of the Soviet shops. It was strange but the Communist set-up made me feel freer than my own free market system, free to concentrate on the main thing, which was that I loved Kostya.
Having taken our booking, the bureaucrat at the Palace of Weddings gave us a wad of coupons with which to buy clothes and food for our reception. “Defitsit” was the word you heard everywhere in Moscow in those days. Shortages. In all the shops, there were shortages of the most basic items, not to mention wedding luxuries. But along with Communist Party bigwigs and veterans of the Second World War, young couples were allowed to jump the queues for the inadequate supply of goods. The bigwigs had permanent privileges, of course, whilst ours was a oneoff chance to go shopping in Vesna (Spring), the department store for the officially betrothed.
I used to tell myself the lack of choice in the old Soviet Union was a blessing
Here we bought Kostya the first suit he ever possessed. He was vehemently against brown crimplene, so we took one in grey wool, even though it was a touch too tight for him. We also bought our ration of caviar and smoked salmon and our entitlement to gold in the form of two simple rings. But the kipper ties were too revolting to contemplate, as were the meringue-like wedding dresses. In the end, I cheated a bit. Kostya had no exit visa but wasn’t I a free human being? Despite my fine theories about the improving effect of deprivation, I flew home. In Leeds, which seemed like Paris or Milan compared to Moscow, I bought a grey and red silk tie for my future husband and an off-the-peg, knee-length dress in cream silk for myself. My high-heeled shoes were mauve to match the delicate amethyst necklace that had belonged to my grandmother.
Back in Moscow, Kostya and I began to make arrangements for the reception by going on an inspection tour of the city’s restaurants. Many Russians choose to have their wedding parties in the privacy of their own homes. But I lived in a golden cage, a comfortable ghetto for foreigners, while Kostya came from a closed town in Leningrad region. We had nowhere to invite our guests except to a restaurant.
In 1987, before Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the opening of “cooperative” cafes in the first step towards private business, Moscow had only a handful of state restaurants, named after and serving the ethnic dishes of 15 Soviet republics plus the socialist countries of the Warsaw Pac
We sampled lobio (beans) and khachipuri (cheese pie) in the room where Stalin used to dine at the Aragvi Georgian restaurant. We also braved the stuffed bear at the entrance of the Restaurant Berlin to see what culinary delights East Germany had to offer. Finally, because the waiters were friendly and gooey chocolate cake was the house specialty, we booked our reception at the Prague on the old A
On the day of the wedding, there were 30 degrees of frost. That is the temperature at which cats and dogs hop along on three paws to minimize contact with the frozen ground and nylon stockings can stick to your legs so that you have to have them surgically removed, or so my Russian friends used to tell me. I was never quite sure whether or not they were joking. Whatever, the members of our party all wore heavy sheepskins over their best clothes for the short walk from the taxis into the Palace of Weddings.
Although we were on time, we were kept waiting. Mendelssohn’s Wedding March sounded at 15-minute intervals for several other couples on the conveyor belt ahead of us before we too were summoned before the registrar, a woman with a chain of office like a Mayoress. The experience was not quite as tacky as it sounds. The music was live, played by a small palm court orchestra that included a harp. The registrar managed to put feeling into words she must have pronounced hundreds of times. Kostya and I both giggled when she congratulated us on forming a new “Soviet family”. We exchanged the rings. I decided to remain Helen Womack, tempting though it was to become Mrs. Gagarin, a relation in name if not in fact to the first man in space. Kostya was the one who, after the wedding, changed his name. Konstantin is spelled with a “k” in Russian but he said he wanted to be like the Emperor Constantine and started spelling his name with a “c”.
From the Palace of Weddings, we drove straight to the reception at the Prague, avoiding the usual patriotic ritual of laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the edge of Red Square. We drank champagne, ate sturgeon and kissed to cries of gorko (it’s not sweet enough, kiss again). But, since the plates were not our own, we refrained from smashing the crockery to bring good luck in the traditional Russian way. (The next day, my mother slipped on the ice and broke her wrist, which Russian friends took to be an even greater sign of luck but for some reason, she didn’t see it that way.)
Our group was small, as Russians in those early days of perestroika were still quite nervous about meeting foreigners. Kostya had gathered only his closest friends, most of them young men he had met while dodging the army by logging in Siberia. Plus their wives and girlfriends, of course. I was represented by my parents, who came from Yorkshire with armfuls of daffodils and a homemade fruitcake that airport customs officers had wanted to cut open and that the Russian guests christened the “concrete cake” because of its outer layer of hard, white icing.
My parents and new in-laws had common memories of the Second World War, which gave them something to talk about. The rest of us were children not of the war but of the Cold War. We had grown up with a fascination for the “enemy” on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Now here we all were, rapidly breaking the ice at our wedding party.
While we caroused, Igor Borisenko, a photographer from Tallinn, went round the table taking pictures of all the guests. Igor went on to become an award-winning film director, so perhaps the photographs have more than sentimental value now.
He zoomed in on Alina, an actress who had been my witness at the registry office. She was married to a famous counter- tenor, who was building an opera career, defying his music professors who told him to “stop singing like a woman”
Kostya’s witness was his best friend from youth, fondly nicknamed Little Kostya. A railway worker, he was to go on to make a success as a small businessman. He was accompanied by his wife Ira in an alluring midnight blue dress.
Our toastmaster was eloquent Sergei, son of a famous writer, and his wife Lyuba, a doctor. Then there was Mikhail, a poet, with his girlfriend Vera, and Anton, an icon painter, with his wife Tamara, a ceramic artist.
Svetlana came too. The daughter of a cosmonaut, she was herself a very clever scientist. Her boyfriend, Oleg, was a Japanese scholar with a passion for haiku poetry and martial arts.
A rather sad figure on his own was Vadim, a biologist. His partner Irina had just emigrated as a Jew. In those days, if a person accepted an exit visa as a Jew, he or she had no right to return to the USSR. This did not trouble Irina because all her family had left with her. But Vadim could not go so easily because his parents wanted to remain in Moscow. The only way out for him was to marry a foreigner and leave the Soviet Union, not as a Jew but as a spouse, in which case he could return to visit his parents. This he eventually did, making a marriage of convenience with an American to reach Irina in the US. Such were the lengths to which the totalitarian system forced people to go to live the lives they wanted.
Kostya and I were luckier. We were together, just married and looking forward to the future. We had narrowly escaped the fate of the so-called “divided spouses”, couples who had been apart for years because the Soviet authorities frowned on mixed marriages and would not give exit visas to Russians married to foreigners or entry visas to foreigners married to Russians.
But times were changing. Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, a grand love affair was blossoming between East and West, making possible the small loves of individuals.
This is a true story. Read the next episode to learn how we met and dodged the KGB during our courtship.