International 08/04/2022

Getting married in the middle of a war

Conflict means many unmarried couples are now deciding to get married in the Ukrainian capital

4 min
Roman and Natàlia give each other a kiss after getting married at the registry office in Kíiv.

Special envoy to KyivNo one uttered the fabled words "I pronounce you man and wife," no guests, no wedding banquet. Roman Kunichak and Natalia Nosach wait in the lobby of the registry office of the Shevchenkivskyi district in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. It is a sober, small room with a couple of benches and a few pictures on the wall. A grumpy official asks for their ID and then disappears into an office. After a while she returns and asks them to sign this document and this one, and hands them a certificate. That's it, they are married. Austere and cold. Roman is 45 and works for a gas company. Natalia is 44 and works in marketing. They have been a couple for 22 years and have two daughters, aged 20 and 14. Despite that, they have decided to get married just now, in the middle of a war.

Viktoria, another civil servant who seems much nicer, explains that there are still as many marriages in Kiyv now, with the war, as before. The only difference is that before, the future spouses had to make an appointment 30 days in advance to formalise the marriage at the registry office, and now they don't. They can show up on any day and at any time they want, as long as it is during office hours. In Kyiv's Orthodox churches there are no weddings scheduled for these days, but not because of the conflict, but because it is a tradition not to marry during Lent.

"On March 23 a shell fell in the garden of our block of flats," Roman explains to justify why he and the woman he has been with for almost half his life have taken the step to get married now. "It's just that we love each other very much," she comments, trying to play down the reason that brought them to the registry office. "All the cars in the street were destroyed, as well as the windows of the first, second and third floor apartments. We, luckily, live on the ninth floor," he continues. In Ukraine, he says, unmarried couples have the same rights as married couples. However, they prefer to get married: "Just in case, you never know what might happen".

As the official hands them the marriage certificate, Natalia puts on a pretty pink and maroon flower tiara to match her dress. She also covers one forearm with a kind of embroidered cloth, which, she explains, is traditional in Ukraine. Her eldest daughter, Olga, immortalises the moment with a few photographs. The little girl is away; she was sent to her grandparents' house, who live in a part of the country that has so far not been bombed. "We would like to go to a restaurant to celebrate, but we don't know which one is open," they say. "Luckily we have a bottle of red wine and a bottle of vodka at home."

Changes in the capital

Since Russian troops withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv and Ukrainian forces regained control of now infamous municipalities such as Bucha and Irpin, the capital seems to be starting to revive. Some establishments have reopened, more people are seen on the streets, there is more car traffic, stores are selling alcoholic beverages again, and the curfew is now from nine at night to six in the morning, not from eight to seven as before. In fact, the anti-aircraft sirens barely sound once a day. Still, the city is not the Kyiv of yesteryear.

That is precisely why Alexander Hrechanyi and Olena Kolot have radically changed their plans. They had planned to get married in March, celebrate properly and go on a wedding trip to Portugal. They are also at the registry office waiting for the civil servant to do the paperwork to become husband and wife. They look super in love: they keep hugging and cuddling each other. She is a financial manager, wearing a beautiful green dress and carrying a fragrant bouquet of white roses. He is a businessman and wears a sweater that matches her outfit. They are both 45 years old.

Alexander and Olena waiting at the registry office to receive their marriage certificates.

"I wanted to surprise Olena. I ordered the rings from a jewellery store, but it closed because of the war and I could never pick them up," Alexander laments. So they have had to improvise. Olena travelled a few days ago to Poland to collect her son, from a previous relationship, and took the opportunity to buy other wedding rings. In fact, Poland is where she plans to return after the wedding. He will leave Kyiv just 48 hours from now: that's how little time they have to enjoy their new marriage. "The situation here is too dangerous," he argues. "I hope I can come back soon," she sighs. Once they have the marriage certificate in hand, they go through the ritual of putting on their wedding rings and take their own wedding photos with their cell phones.

An elderly couple are also waiting at the registry office, but to make a different arrangement: they say they had to flee Irpin, the town 8 kilometers from Kyiv that was occupied by Russian soldiers, leaving all their belongings and documents behind. They prefer to keep their names anonymous. "We couldn't stand living under bombs any longer, so we decided it was better to die on the road than there," they declare. They were evacuated on March 13 through a humanitarian corridor. "A Red Cross bus was in front with children from an orphanage, and the private cars followed behind. Despite that, they continued firing. They were Chechens, men with long beards," they say. Seeing the steady stream of couples arriving at the registry office to get married, the elderly couple also feel encouraged to get married, even though they were not planning to. They have lived together for 37 years. "This way the Russians will see how united we are," they argue.

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