Babinsky. Adulthood (1963 – 1967). 6: Kiev Wedding Palace

Babinsky. Adulthood (1963 – 1967). 6: Kiev Wedding Palace

Wedding ceremony of Michail Shklyanoy and Bena Babinskaya. Kiev. Sept. 5, 1967.

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September 5, 1967: Kiev Wedding Palace

We spent our first date braving March drizzle and slush. We did try to get a table at a new café that looked as funky, they said, as cafes abroad. It had some tables for two. The waitresses ejected customers who lingered after their meals but the queue still stretched around the block.

We did not want to go to a restaurant and share the table with strangers. At the café we could order additional pastry and stay longer; at a restaurant that tactic would be costly.

Restaurant menus listed items perpetually not available. To speed up the ordering process, waitresses brusquely pointed to the dish or two they had not run out of: “that’s all we have; take it or leave it.” A sign on the wall said “Soviet waiters do not take tips; tips insult dignity.” Well, they did and did not look insulted. The tips and the control over food gave them a mandate to rule – one did not argue with a waitress.

As we approached my building Dima said: “When I left your house yesterday I was too excited to take the trolley. I walked home and wondered if I would be able to give you the life you deserve.” Had he not looked solemn I might not have understood that he had just proposed marriage.

The disbanded shtetl traditions notwithstanding, Polina conducted an abbreviated derfragen: her landsman had lived in Rokitnoye and remembered Dima’s father fondly.

In late July, we submitted our marriage application at the all-the-rage Kiev Wedding Palace. Queues formed at dawn. The staff sold the most desired days and times on the side. A weekend ceremony had to be booked six months in advance. Agreeing to a weekday cut the wait to about six weeks. Because of my busy schedule during school year we chose September 5, Tuesday, the beginning of my fifth year at the university.

Rakhil’s blat helped get a length of off-white silk for my dress. My recently married girlfriend lent me her veil, long white gloves, and her seamstress who, at her own initiative, adorned the dress with glass pearls.

Most notably, marriage presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get deficit legally, at government prices, and without standing in lines. The personalized certificate issued by the Wedding Palace gave engaged couples the right to shop at Kashtan (Chestnut,) a wedding store chockful of mostly imported clothes and shoes. It also carried some books by Stalin-condemned authors whose names were cleared de jure though not de facto.

Like all newlyweds-to-be we were, understandably, a little jittery for our visit to Kashtan because we were not accustomed to such places. It was clean and brightly-lit, the staff polite, the goods neatly displayed—no wonder people joked that the atmosphere tempted a customer to jump over the counter and ask for political asylum, a term that enriched our vocabulary after Rudolf Nureyev’s and other celebrated escapes.

I had to borrow the money from Rakhil to buy all we needed, from socks, stockings, slips, and ties to shirts, and a two-piece wool sweater set, not to mention shoes: two pairs for me, black and white, and one for Dima, fifty rubles each but – Yugoslavian-made! Cufflinks, handkerchiefs, a wool shawl. A delectable hat from nameless-fur for me and a Czech-made beret for Dima who, thankfully, favored it over a rabbit-fur hat with ear flaps that didn’t appear too furry. These purchases would look imported even in ten years.

Needless to say, the pyzhik hats remained off limits even to the Kashtan store. Pyzhik is the fur of a reindeer calf, just a baby, up to six months; it’s very warm, soft, firm and shiny.

In the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy, the Soviet male athletes sported the posh earflaps, in spite of the warm weather, such demonstrating the superiority of communism. Stuff of dreams reflected in movie plots, this headdress was attainable to the party elite, recipients of extra-special merit awards, and the upper echelon of the black market. Enterprising youngsters, among them supposedly Viktor Yanukovych, the future president of Ukraine, responded to the demand by lifting that dream off with a long hook.

(Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, a church or synagogue registered marriage, birth and death. A month after the revolution, the decree “On civil unions, children, and keeping track of vital statistics” created the Department of Recording Events of Vital Statistics. Its offices looked dreary, the clerks filled out the registers wearing the expressions their colleagues had entering a payment for electricity.)

In the late 1950s a wedding became an officially recognized festive occasion. The first Wedding Palace in Leningrad was followed by those in other cities.

Marriage ceremony at Wedding Palace in 1988. (Photo from

Marriage ceremony at Wedding Palace in 1988. (Photo from

Kiev’s occupied a pre-revolutionary building with a full-length mirror in the lobby and architectural extravagances on the wall (see Khrushchev (Urban Housing.) )

Wedding ceremony of Michail Shklyanoy and Bena Babinskaya. Kiev. Sept. 5, 1967.At the appointed time, our wedding party proceeded up the stairs and into a large hall.

A woman in a white above-the-knee dress and an over-the-shoulder satin sash admonished us to keep our union, the building block of the Soviet society, strong and unshakeable; watched as we and our witnesses signed the register and we exchanged rings,

Bena and Mike Shklyanoy. Wedding bands. Sept. 5, 1967

then “in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” pronounced us husband and wife.  My last name changed from Babinskaya to Shklyanaya; Shklyanoy in the United States.

We celebrated in our apartment on Saturday with relatives, on Sunday with our crowd. Normally low-key, Avram suddenly started quietly to sing the Yiddish wedding toast: “Lo mir alle in eynem, lo mir alle in eynem, trinken a glezele vine (let us all together, let us all together, drink a glass of wine.)” Dima and some guests joined in. The door to the balcony was open. Our gentile friends fidgeted in their seats.

We received practical gifts, stuff we badly needed in everyday life. Leib sent the most extravagant present, a cube-sugar bowl with a silver-plated rim that we used for special occasions, e.g. almost never.

Bowl for cube sugar. Wedding gift to Bena from Leib Averbukh. Sept. 5, 1967

It came with us to the United States where it’s displayed in a cabinet and hopefully won’t ever be discarded by my future generations.

Marriage allowed changing one’s address to that of the spouse regardless of the sanitary norm. My passport now sported a propiska stamp with Dima and his mother’s address. Dima moved in with us. Polina’s sofa relocated to the larger room. Besides the sofa and my parents’ bed, it fit a Czech-made dining table and book shelves, and a television set on a low Romanian-made sideboard.

Dima and I had the smaller, 140-square-foot room to ourselves. Avram and Rakhil gave us a couch as a wedding gift.

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