ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Under the watchful eye of a ceremonial honor guard, the bride slowly walked down the aisle as a flock of young assistants held her 23-foot train aloft. The groom, dressed in a black crow’s tail, stood under the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral as his mother watched from a throne-like marble enclosure.
“The Romanovs are back,” conservative Russian media reported on Friday, and with wedding rings from Fabergé, a tiara from French jeweler Chaumet and an imperial eagle embroidered on the veil, it certainly looked like they had returned in style.
More than a century after the assassination of the last Tsar and Tsarina in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, a group of European noble families gathered to celebrate Russia’s first royal wedding since the days of the imperial monarchy . The groom was Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov, 40, a descendant of the Russian Imperial throne, and his Italian partner was Rebecca Bettarini, 39.
The gathered aristocrats wore furs, feather hats, and fascinators as they watched a crowd of gold-clad priests bless the union.
The Romanovs have had no official legal status in Russia since the overthrow of the dynasty in 1917, and they do not seek to return to the throne. But the marriage represents the culmination of their attempts to re-establish themselves in the country’s public life since the fall of communism 30 years ago, and perhaps restore a sense of imperial glory to Russia.
“This is an extremely important historical event for one of the most important dynasties in the world,” said Russell Martin, professor of history at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, with an exaggeration that seemed appropriate for a draped occasion. opulence. Mr Martin, who has written a book on Romanov wedding traditions, is a volunteer family advisor who helped ensure the ceremony was in keeping with royal tradition.
Among the list of royal participants were Princess Leia of Belgium, Queen Sofia of Spain, Prince Rudolf and Princess Tilsim of Liechtenstein, and the last Czar of Bulgaria, Simeon II.
The groom, who is 40, said the wedding was part of a chain of unlikely events his family could not foresee when he was born in 1981 in Madrid. He is the great-grandson of the cousin of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich Romanov.
“No member of the Romanov family ever thought we would come back here,” he said in an interview on the eve of the wedding.
Raised in Spain and France, Mr Romanov was educated at Oxford and worked for several European Union institutions as well as for the Russian mining group Norilsk Nickel before setting up his own consulting firm. According to his official biography, he is related to all the royal families in Europe.
He and Ms. Bettarini, now Romanovna, started dating while living in Brussels, but the couple moved to Moscow two years ago to lead the philanthropic foundation they founded together in 2013. Ms. Bettarini, who also founded a consulting firm, said in an interview that she wrote two novels during the Covid-19 pandemic, including one titled “Aristocrazy”.
Mr Romanov first traveled to Russia at the age of 11, for the funeral of his grandfather, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov, in 1992. Born in Finland by chance, Vladimir and his family had escaped the fate suffered by Tsar Nicholas II. , his wife Alexandra, their children and their relatives: execution in 1918 at the hands of the Bolsheviks who had seized Russia.
Friday’s wedding represents, at least in part, the evolving memory of the Russian Empire and the family that ruled it for 300 years. Under communism, the Romanovs were often described as backward and responsible for family and societal breakdown. But since the 1990s, the family’s legacy has been adopted by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which canonized Nicholas II, Alexandra and their five children in 2000.
“The reverence of the royal family is the embodiment of this monarchist attitude that exists in the church,” 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 enemies of the state.
The couple’s union was blessed by the top official of the Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, Metropolitan Varsonofy, and Mr. Romanov’s mother, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna. While the church leadership recognizes the Grand Duchess’ claim to the throne, other Romanovs challenge it. The bride converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Victoria Romanovna. She is not of noble blood and her stepmother has decided to limit her access to royal titles.
During the ceremony, in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition, friends and relatives of the bride and groom took turns holding wreaths over their heads.
Despite the grandeur, the extravagance of the three-day wedding had controversial elements. Among the men in Mr Romanov’s coterie was Konstantin Malofeev, a conservative businessman who has been a staunch advocate for the return to the monarchy since he fell in love with the “Lord of the Rings” as a teenager. As a law student, he wrote his thesis on legal avenues to restore Russian kingship.
But Mr Malofeev has been subject to US and European sanctions since 2014 for allegedly funding pro-Russian separatists fighting in Ukraine.
In an interview, he said he was delighted with what the couple’s marriage means to the Conservatives.
“This marriage is a restoration of tradition,” he said, adding that the nuptials and the re-emergence of the Romanovs should not be viewed through the prism of politics.
“These are not current political events. It is the heritage of Europe. The families present here have built Europe as we know it.
Mr Malofeev is believed to be well connected with the Kremlin, as is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the owner of a catering business who provided food for some of the wedding events. Mr Prigozhin has been indicted by US prosecutors for alleged links to a troll factory which investigators say spearheaded Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 US election. This year he has been added to the FBI’s “wanted list”.
Despite ties to Kremlin-linked officials and the government’s tacit consent to a limited monarchical presence, Moscow’s response to the marriage has been lukewarm.
“Putin does not intend to congratulate the newlyweds,” said President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov, whose daughter attended the celebration. “This wedding has nothing to do with our agenda.”
Support for a return to the monarchy in Russia is mixed. According to the independent Levada Center, only three percent of those polled in a 2016 survey said they would support a return to the pre-1917 monarchical system. A survey conducted the following year by the state-owned company VTsIOM revealed that 68% of Russians are “categorically against autocracy as a form of government”, although the same number of 18-34 year olds are “tolerant” of the idea of monarchy.
In front of the cathedral, Olga, 57, took giddy photos of wedding guests as they emerged.
“I would have liked to know in advance for the wedding, I would have come earlier to see the event,” she lamented, refusing to provide her last name. She said she would favor the UK’s type of constitutional monarchy, in which the royal family plays a ceremonial role above politics.
Mr Zolotov, the journalist, said some Russians were not impressed with what 30 years of democracy had brought and would not hesitate to try a different model, but not necessarily again 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 transition from communism to capitalism during the 1990s remains a source of national trauma, and that Russia after two decades of Mr. Putin’s rule is hardly democratic.
“The perception is, ‘Whatever system you have, you end up with a czar anyway, that the Russian people basically have a monarchist mentality,” he said.