Boom in Weddings Is Packing Palaces

RmjmAn artist's rendition of the City Palace Tower, site of a future wedding palace.
Love is in the air. And it's causing problems for the Moscow city government.

As the wealth and population of the Russian capital have grown, so has the number of weddings: More than 78,000 couples tied the knot in 2006, an increase of 15 percent compared with 2000.

Yet no new divisions of the State Registry Office -- better known by its Russian acronym, ZAGS -- have opened since 1992, which means that more and more Muscovites are cramming into wedding halls to hold the brief, Soviet-style ceremony that continues to join Russians in the institution of marriage.

"We have days you wouldn't believe," said Tatyana Ushakova, deputy head of the State Registry Office in Moscow. "Sometimes a single ZAGS or wedding palace has up to 60 ceremonies per day. This is simply a catastrophic overload."

But officials hope the crunch will be alleviated by an ambitious plan to upgrade the city's strained wedding infrastructure.

The flagship project is a wedding palace -- the term for an upscale ZAGS that deals exclusively with weddings, not births or deaths -- located in the City Palace Tower, a 48-story skyscraper planned as part of the Moskva-City development in western Moscow.

Meanwhile, couples looking for a more historic setting will have the chance to get married in an actual pre-Revolutionary palace on Strastnoi Bulvar. The building currently houses a hospital, but officials plan to boot out the doctors and restore the palace to its 18th-century glory.

Both wedding palaces are tentatively scheduled to start operations in 2010, along with two new ZAGS divisions to be opened in southern and northeastern Moscow, Ushakova said.

Further plans call for 11 new ZAGS divisions to be built by 2025, although Ushakova added that some of the older, less appealing sites could be closed down. "Their premises are on the first floor of residential buildings," she said. "This is not very comfortable. It's not contemporary, and it is not presentable either."

Overcrowding is especially common at the popular wedding palaces, which offer festive ceremonies in an attractive setting.

Nikita Pavlov, a 26-year-old Muscovite, said he and his fiancee waited in line for three hours before they got a time slot for their wedding. "There were 12 couples and only one person sitting behind the desk," he recalled.

Summer weddings are especially coveted. A U.S. citizen who asked to remain anonymous said he paid a $250 bribe to schedule his wedding on the July date that he and his Russian fiancee wanted.

The ceremony itself is an often hasty affair in which the bride and groom sign their wedding papers and are then rushed out to make way for the next couple. On summer weekends, several wedding parties can often be found in different parts of a ZAGS at the same time, creating a conveyor-belt effect.

"They really hustle you out," the U.S. citizen said, although he stressed that he was still glad he got married in Russia rather than the United States.

"For all their faults, Russians are more fun to go to parties with," he said.

Ushakova said ZAGS officials were aware of the problems facing couples that want festive ceremonies. "We do everything we can to ensure a festive atmosphere," she said. "Naturally, people entering into marriage do not want to have big crowds around."

But the two new wedding palaces -- one high-tech and one old-fashioned -- might provide some relief for the next generation of newlyweds.

The first is set to open in a glass-and-metal structure at the base of the City Palace Tower, a skyscraper designed by RMJM, an international architecture firm headquartered in London.

The tower, located in the Moskva-City business district, will have an unusual spiral shape that bears some resemblance to a piece of fusilli pasta.

The shape was inspired by Auguste Rodin's famed sculpture "The Kiss," which features an embracing couple, as well as the spiral-patterned cupolas of St. Basil's Cathedral, said Tony Kettle, the British architect who led the design team.

"It's part artwork and part architecture," Kettle said.

After attending numerous ZAGS weddings for research purposes, Kettle and his team incorporated their findings into the design of the 2,000-square-meter wedding palace, to be located at the foot of the tower.

"When you get married, you need a richness to that day," Kettle said. "You need it to feel special. We built that into the fabric of the building."

The wedding palace will contain two separate halls for ceremonies, and guests will enjoy views of the Moscow River and the city. "Pictures will turn out beautifully," Ushakova said.

Ushakova declined to say how many nuptials the complex could accommodate on a daily basis, but a statement from RMJM put the number at 100.

Construction of the City Palace Tower will begin later this year, said Kirill Zavrazhin, deputy director of RMJM's Moscow office.

RMJM is not new to Russia, but its record so far has been controversial. In 2006, the firm won a contest to design a 300-meter skyscraper in St. Petersburg to serve as Gazprom's headquarters, a project that has triggered complaints from UNESCO and street protests by city residents, angry about its potential effect on the St. Petersburg skyline.

For those couples that prefer nostalgia over futurism, there will be the wedding palace set to open in the former Gagarin estate on Strastnoi Bulvar, near the Chekhovskaya metro station.

Built between 1786 and 1790 for the aristocratic Gagarin clan, the building was taken over by Napoleon's troops in 1812. An apocryphal Moscow tale holds that one of its occupants was Marie-Henri Beyle, a French soldier who would later become famous as the writer Stendhal, author of "The Red and the Black." Rumor has it that Beyle looted wine from the building's cellar.

After the Napoleonic wars, the building became a hospital -- the function it serves to this day.

The hospital will be relocated later this year to make way for the wedding palace, and then restorers will begin work on it, Ushakova said.

"Since this is a listed building, there will be no alterations to the original design," she said. "The palace will be restored to the way it was originally built."

The Moscow Heritage Commission will review any plans for adapting the building, said Natalya Loginova, a spokeswoman for the commission.

When the renovation is complete, the palace will contain two halls for weddings and a third devoted to the festive registration of births, Ushakova said.

"This has become quite popular with Muscovites," Ushakova said. "They don't just come to register a birth, but they make a celebration out of it, inviting guests and so on."

Unfortunately, foreigners will not be able to enjoy the two new wedding palaces unless ZAGS changes its rules. Currently, marriages involving non-Russian citizens can only be registered at one place, Wedding Palace No. 4 on Butyrskaya Ulitsa.

Although the growing number of Moscow weddings may be a headache for ZAGS workers, it is probably good news for politicians -- including President Vladimir Putin -- who have warned about Russia's declining population and taken measures against what they call the "demographic crisis."

Ushakova said the main cause of the wedding boom was the growth of Moscow, which has gained people even as the country's overall population has declined. But cultural factors may be at work too, she said.

"Forgive me for using this word," she said, "but it has become fashionable to get married."