2021-10-01 20:37:08 After 100 Years, a Royal Wedding in Russia Evokes Days of the Czars

After 100 Years, a Royal Wedding in Russia Evokes Days of the Czars

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIAN FEDERATION — The bride walked slowly down the aisle, guarded by a ceremonial honor guard, while a swarm of young attendants held her 23-foot train aloft. The groom, dressed in black coattails, stood expectantly beneath the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, while his mother looked on from a throne-like marble enclosure.

“The Romanovs are Back,” a conservative Russian news outlet declared on Friday, and with wedding rings by Fabergé, a tiara by the French jeweler Chaumet, and an Imperial eagle embroidered onto the veil, they certainly appeared to be back in style.

A gathering of Europe’s noble families gathered to celebrate Russia’s first royal wedding since the days of the imperial monarchy, more than a century after the last Czar and Czarina were assassinated in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov, a descendant of the Russian imperial throne, was the groom, and Rebecca Bettarini, 39, was his Italian partner.

Assembled aristocrats wore fur, feather, and fascinator hats as they watched a slew of gold-clad priests bless the union.

Since the dynasty’s overthrow in 1917, the Romanovs have had no official legal standing in Russia, and they have made no attempt to reclaim the throne. However, the wedding represents the pinnacle of their efforts to re-establish themselves in the country’s public life since the fall of communism 30 years ago, and perhaps restore Russia’s sense of imperial glory.

“This is a tremendously significant historical event for one of the world’s most consequential dynasties,” said Russell Martin, a history professor at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, with an exaggeration befitting of the occasion. Mr. Martin, the author of a book on Romanov wedding traditions, is a volunteer adviser to the family who helped ensure the ceremony followed royal protocol.

Among those in attendance were Princess Leia of Belgium, Queen Sofia of Spain, Prince Rudolph and Princess Tilsim of Liechtenstein, and Bulgaria’s last czar, Simeon II.

The groom, 40, said the wedding was part of a series of unlikely events that his family could not have predicted when he was born in Madrid in 1981. He is the great-grandson of Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich Romanov, the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II.

“No member of the Romanov family ever imagined we would return here,” he said in an interview on the eve of the wedding.

Mr. Romanov was raised in both Spain and France, attended Oxford, and worked for several European Union institutions as well as the Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel group before launching his own consultancy. According to his official biography, he is related to every European royal family.

He and Ms. Bettarini, now Romanovna, met in Brussels and began dating, but the couple moved to Moscow two years ago to run the philanthropic foundation they founded together in 2013. Ms. Bettarini, who also runs a consulting firm, revealed in an interview that she wrote two novels during the Covid-19 pandemic, one of which was titled “Aristocrazy.”

Mr. Romanov first visited Russia when he was 11 years old, in 1992, for the funeral of his grandfather, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov. By chance, Vladimir and his family had escaped the fate that had befallen Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Aleksandra, and their children and relatives in 1918: execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks who had taken over Russia.

The wedding on Friday, at least in part, represents the evolving memory of the Russian empire and the family that ruled it for 300 years. Under communism, the Romanovs were frequently portrayed as backward and to blame for familial and societal breakdown. However, since the 1990s, the powerful Russian Orthodox Church has embraced the family’s legacy, canonizing Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their five children in 2000.

“The veneration of the royal family is the embodiment of the church’s monarchist attitude,” said Andrei Zolotov, a Russian journalist who has covered the Orthodox Church for three decades.

In 2008, 90 years after their execution, the Romanovs were legally “rehabilitated,” or recognized as victims of “unfounded repression” rather than as state enemies.

Metropolitan Varsonofy, the Russian Orthodox Church’s top official in St. Petersburg, and Mr. Romanov’s mother, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, both blessed the couple’s union. While the church’s leadership recognizes Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna’s claim to the throne, other Romanovs disagree. The bride became a Russian Orthodox Christian and took the name Victoria Romanovna. Her mother-in-law decided to limit her access to royal titles because she is not of noble blood.

During the ceremony, friends and relatives of the bride and groom took turns holding crowns above their heads, as is customary in Russian Orthodox churches.

Despite its grandeur, the three-day wedding extravaganza included some contentious elements. Mr. Romanov’s entourage included Konstantin Malofeev, a conservative businessman who has been an outspoken supporter of a return to monarchy since falling in love with “The Lord of the Rings” as a teen. He wrote his dissertation as a law student on legal avenues to restore Russian royalty.

Mr. Malofeev, on the other hand, has been sanctioned by the US and the EU since 2014 for allegedly funding pro-Russian separatists fighting in Ukraine.

In an interview, he expressed his delight at what the couple’s wedding means to conservatives.

“This wedding is a restoration of tradition,” he said, adding that the wedding and the re-emergence of the Romanovs should not be viewed through a political lens.

“This is not a discussion of current political events. This is Europe’s heritage. The families represented here are responsible for the formation of Europe as we know it.”

Mr. Malofeev is thought to have close ties to the Kremlin, as is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the owner of a catering company that supplied food for some of the wedding events. Mr. Prigozhin was indicted by US prosecutors for alleged ties to a troll factory that led Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 US election, according to investigators. He was added to the FBI’s “wanted list” this year.

Despite ties to Kremlin-connected officials and tacit government approval for a limited monarchial presence, Moscow’s reaction to the wedding was muted.

“Putin does not intend to congratulate the newlyweds,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, whose daughter attended the celebration. “This wedding has absolutely nothing to do with our plans.”

In Russia, there is mixed support for restoring the monarchy. According to the independent Levada Center, only 3% of respondents in a 2016 poll supported a return to the pre-1917 monarchic system. According to a survey conducted the following year by the state-owned VTsIOM, 68 percent of Russians are “categorically opposed to autocracy as a form of government,” while the same number of 18-34 year olds are “tolerant” of the idea of monarchy.

Olga, 57, was giddyly photographing the wedding guests as they emerged across the street from the cathedral.

“I wish I had known about the wedding ahead of time; I would have come earlier to see the event,” she lamented, declining to give her last name. She stated that she would prefer the United Kingdom’s constitutional monarchy, in which the royal family plays a ceremonial role above politics.

Mr. Zolotov, the journalist, stated that some Russians were dissatisfied with the results of 30 years of democracy and would be willing to try a different model, though not necessarily with the Romanovs.

“The idea is very appealing to some because of the pervasive perception that ‘democracy doesn’t work anyway,” he said, noting that the 1990s transition from communism to capitalism remains a source of national trauma, and that Russia after two decades of Mr. Putin’s rule is far from democratic.

“The perception is, ‘Whatever system you have, you end up with a czar anyway, that the Russian people have a monarchist mentality deep down,” he said.

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After 100 Years, a Royal Wedding in Russia Evokes Days of the Czars