Trauma fades for mixed marriages in new Russia

IRINA married a foreigner last Saturday

IRINA married a foreigner last Saturday. The event that was so special to her and her new husband, Michael, was to the rest of the world a common place event - which is cause for celebration since, until recently, East-West love relations were fraught with trauma.

In Stalin's time, Russians who dared to love "the enemy" risked being seat to labour camps. After the second World War, there was a famous case of a group of Russian brides, who had fallen in love with British sailors from the Arctic supply convoys, and took refuge from the KGB in the British embassy. The British government was embarrassed by the situation and the embassy persuaded the women to go. One by one they left their haven, only to be arrested by the secret police. Only one woman who refused to leave was eventually reunited with her husband.

Leonid Brezhnev did not jail Russian women - it was mostly women rather than men who married foreigners - but his regime made sure that if, they did not co operate with the KGB they were separated from their spouses. When I first came to the Soviet Union in 1985, there was a long list of, divided couples, husbands and wives who had not seen each other for five, 10, sometimes even 20 years because the Soviet authorities would not give them visas to meet.

In 1987 I married a Russian. The Cold War was not quite - over and my engagement to Kostya Gagarin, a young man - from what was then Leningrad, caused something of a scandal. My employer, a leading Western newsagency, considered firing me because I had "compromised my objectivity" by getting too close to a Soviet citizen. Meanwhile, the Red Army, almost certainly prompted by the KGB, was threatening to send Kostya to Mghanistan.


It looked as if our names were going to go to the bottom of the list of divided couples - when the mutual infatuation of two politicians saved us. Margaret Thatcher was about to come to Moscow for a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev and the British diplomats preparing their visit managed to persuade the Russians that our modest little wedding might be better for public relations than yet another human rights case.

So it was lovely to see Irina, a pianist, and Michael, an optician, going without any drama to the registry office. There is still only one such office in Moscow which deals with marriages involving a foreigner, a small hangover from the xenophobic old days, and the couple faced some extra bureaucracy. But otherwise they were just like the half dozen Russian couples, all in their best clothes, queuing up for the office is like a conveyer belt. Hardly has the Mendelssohn finished sounding for one couple than the next pair is going forward to be married. It was particularly busy last Saturday because it was the last day before the start of Lent in the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church, which Russians respect far more now than they did in Communist times.

The registry office has become commercialised in these days of market reform. If Irina and Michael wanted a little palm court orchestra to play them the wedding march, they would have to pay. But Michael, a rock fan, said if he could not have a heavy metal accompaniment, he would rather have silence. The couple also turned down the chance to book a party to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, a tacky offer from the registry office considering that Russians are highly superstitious about taking the future for granted. But they could not resist buying what they laughingly called the video nasty of their wedding, which a cameraman had been filming without their noticing it.

The ceremony was conducted by a woman in a black suit with white embroidered rings on the sleeves who flourished a long ivory pointer to show them where to sign. She looked like a magician and certainly performed wonders of elocution in giving meaning to words she must pronounce dozens of times a day. In the Communist era, before they exchanged their rings, couples were asked whether they were ready "to form a new Soviet family". Now they have to say da or nyet to the question: "Are you entering into this marriage freely and sincerely?"

Patriotic couples in Russia lay their wedding flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but Irina and Michael simply walked, in the bright spring sunshine on Red Square before going home for an intimate family party. Ahead of them lies an interview at the British embassy in order to get permission for Irina to go and live in the West. Embassies are becoming tougher now in weeding out marriages of convenience made for the purpose of illegal immigration.

Oh, I forgot to mention, Michael is my brother. Mixed marriages may be common now, but I think there are still not many Western families in which two children have married Russians.