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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The People's Registry Marks a Rite of Passage

"Guests, get off this rug! This is only for bride and groom and the witnesses!"

Ask Russians what they remember most about ZAGS, and that phrase, or something like it, may well leap to mind.

But love it or hate it, most citizens of this vast land cannot be born, die, marry or get divorced without touching base at the Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya -- the Registry of Acts of Civil Status.

One of the most enduring of Soviet-era civil service agencies, ZAGS officially celebrated its 80th birthday Monday.

Nobody was getting married Monday, the agency's regular day off, and its Moscow employees gathered to celebrate at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater. They were treated to a performance of the classical ballet "Giselle," and good-service medals and orders were passed out.

"A man after he is born and when he dies -- at the beginning and at the end -- goes through ZAGS. This is how important your work is," said Moscow Deputy Mayor Valery Shantsev at the ceremony.

Founded after the 1917 Revolution, ZAGS was the new atheist state's way of keeping track of its citizens, replacing the church books that once served that purpose.

It became best known for its dry, efficient wedding ceremonies conducted by servants of the state, prescribed to satisfy the popular yearning for ritual associated with matrimony.

ZAGS perhaps became better known for the special coupons it provided newlyweds to visit special shops for choice food and drink not available in ordinary state stores.

Despite the changes that have engulfed Russia and the Soviet Union before it, not much has changed in the basic structure of ZAGS. Though it is permissible in the post-Soviet era to get married in a church, it still isn't legal until you've been to ZAGS.

The agency employs about 500 people in Moscow alone, practically all of them women. Olga Vilkova of the Moscow ZAGS headquarters acknowledges an unwritten policy favoring women over men when it comes to hiring.

"We don't think men could do this job. Women are just by far more sensitive, especially when it comes not to joyful events like weddings, but registration of deaths or divorces," Vilkova said.

She said, however, that ZAGS is trying to change its image as a dreary government agency stuck in its old Soviet ways. One of its main achievements seems to be the end of the practically compulsory performance of Felix Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" at each ceremony.

"Now people can choose from about a hundred tunes or have no tune at all," Vilkova said. "We also provide various scenarios of how a ceremony can go."

Judging from some ZAGS patrons -- especially foreigners, who generally find the experience unnerving -- the agency's efforts to romanticize its civil ceremonies after the Soviet collapse didn't amount to much.

"ZAGS is an efficient, no-frills marriage factory," said David Filipov, an American correspondent for The Boston Globe, who tied the knot at ZAGS with his wife, Lena. He said the experience left her with tears in her eyes, not from joy, but from the rudeness of ZAGS officialdom.

For all its drawbacks, ZAGS is at least relatively cheap -- 85 rubles ($14) for a marriage, and about twice that for a divorce. So far, registration of births and deaths remains free.

Perhaps the biggest change is the demise of the special coupons, no longer necessary in an era in which quality goods are widely available for anyone with the cash. The once-prestigious Gastronom No. 4 on Lubyanskaya Ulitsa, where many such coupons were used over the years, is now the Sedmoi Kontinent supermarket and open to everyone.

That change has deprived newlyweds of one of the main Soviet-era wedding rituals: figuring out how to milk the system.

In the 1980s, when the retail price of gold doubled in the Soviet Union and made rings far too dear for average citizens, the state then offered newlyweds a compensation of 100 rubles -- half of an average salary at the time -- for each purchased ring. Some newlyweds would borrow rings of friends to use at the ceremony, then spend the cash on a nice honeymoon.

Later, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his campaign against alcohol, ZAGS initiated special coupons allowing newlyweds to purchase large quantities of alcoholic beverages, as well as hard-to-get food products, for their wedding parties.

That led to a thriving gray-market business in which a couple would apply for a wedding, get the coupons and never show up for the ceremony.