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Tying the knot at Nuptial Palace No. 4

TO an outsider, it may have seemed like just another wedding at Nuptial Palace No. 4. Just like the 6,999 other weddings that take place each year at this nondescript building in central Moscow. But for Sergei Sangalov and Lena Skvortsova, a taxi driver and a student, it was the day they had awaited for six months. And they weren't going to let the bone-chilling cold and drizzle spoil it.

``We met at a birthday party. It was love at first sight,'' said the 25-year-old Sergei, smiling confidently, as an adoring Lena, also 25, looked on. ``We decided right then to get married.''

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What followed was the standard procedure for any Soviet couple that wants an official wedding ceremony. Three months before they hoped to tie the knot, Lena and Sergei went to the wedding palace to have their intention to marry recorded in their internal passports and to reserve a time for the ceremony. Pre-marital counseling is offered, as well as a pass to a special store where brides can buy household supplies. (Some Soviets are known to apply to get married just so they can get into one of these stores.)

The three-month wait is meant for couples to think through their decision, and 20 percent change their minds, according to the palace director.

But on this recent Saturday, the high-ceilinged waiting hall is full of couples that are set to take the plunge, along with their witnesses and other friends. No parents are in sight.

``They're off getting the wedding dinner ready,'' says Lena, who then vanishes to the ladies room to check her makeup.

Sergei, meanwhile, explains that this is his second marriage and that he has a six-year-old daughter. This is Lena's first marriage. Nadya and Nikolai, looking like beauty pageant contestants in the red sashes that identify them as Lena and Sergei's witnesses, pepper their American visitors with questions about weddings in America.

``We have very few church weddings here,'' Nikolai says. (Fewer than 1 percent, the palace director had said earlier.)

``You know, you really should go to a village wedding to see how it's done right,'' Nikolai adds.

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Lena reappears, just as she and Sergei are called for last-minute paper work. Sergei decides to spring for the 47-ruble extra charge (about $68) for color photographs of the ceremony.

Moments later, it's time.

``Sangalov,'' a voice announces.

The wedding party lines up at the door to the small ceremony room, and we march in to the strains of a classical chamber group (another 4 rubles [$6] extra). At the end of the room stands a young woman, the official Soviet seal emblazoned on the wall behind her. She solemnly delivers a proclamation calling for marital harmony and sound children. Lena, Sergei, and the witnesses then sign the official register. Next comes the exchange of rings, performed to a recording of peeling bells from the Kremlin's Spassky Tower. Lena and Sergei are declared man and wife, and the ceremony is over. In all, about 10 minutes.

Time to pile into taxis for the standard newlywed odyssey around Moscow: first to the Lenin Hills for a quick toast, then to the Kremlin for the laying of flowers at the flame of the unknown soldier and Lenin's mausoleum. At each location many other Happy Couples are doing the same.

``I don't know why we go to these places,'' Lena says. ``It's just the tradi-tion.''

At last, it's on to Sergei's apartment for warmth and food - and one final ceremony. The doors open, revealing the newlyweds' parents standing poised and holding before them a round loaf of bread with a container of salt on top. After teary speeches by each parent, Lena and Sergei dig into the bread and feed each other pieces, a tidier version of the American wedding cake scene. With future domestic happiness assured, the party begins.

The table fairly groans with all manner of delicacies - salads, fish, caviar, even a roast pig, head included - which Sergei's mother spent days preparing. ``This is all so simple,'' Mrs. Sangalov moans. ``If only I had known we were having foreign guests.''

It was better this way, more genuine, she is assured. And certainly tastier than what is found in most Moscow restaurants, where many couples hold their wedding receptions.

The crowd is small - 14 in all - but the spirits are high, especially as the evening (and the toasts) progresses. Periodic chants of gorky (``bitter'') oblige Lena and Sergei to kiss, which they do with great gusto as Foma the dog sits contentedly at their feet. Throughout the evening the TV flickers silently, first with cartoons, then a biography of Lenin, then the news. When Mrs. Sangalov can find no more takers for the jellied meat or beet salad, the younger crowd retires to the bedroom for dancing.

The next day, Sergei and Lena were to head for a honeymoon in the Caucasus Mountains. Once back in Moscow, Lena planned to practice her cooking on her new husband.

What is your specialty? Lena is asked.

She giggles.


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