Matchmakers from Zamoskvorechye and fortune-tellers from Zaryadye. How Moscow lonely hearts looked for love in the 19th century

June 12, 2020

For many years, Moscow families followed the Household Book rules, with several generations living in one house, a man as the head of the family, and a woman responsible for the home. This tradition began to change during Peter the Great’s reforms and continued to evolve in the 19th and 20th centuries.

At the request of and the Mosgortur agency, curators of the Family Values exhibition Irina Karpacheva and Polina Zhurakovskaya spoke about the marriage traditions that existed in Russia.

Lonely hearts looking for love

In the 18th and 19th centuries, all marriages were arranged, and the girl saw her future husband only two or three times before the wedding under the supervision of her relatives — private dates were not allowed. But at the end of the 19th century, brides and grooms began demanding to meet their sweethearts long before the wedding. At the same time, the girl could refuse to marry if she did not like the groom.

“We made an installation of two mirrors with photographs of actresses and stars of different eras. Here we collected both 100-year-old and modern images, and in the niches on the walls you can see ties, handbags, gloves – everything that we use when getting ready for a date,” says curator Irina Karpacheva.

Lonely hearts looked for one another through advertisements in special newspapers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Amur Post, Matchmaker and Marriage Newspaper were popular. Young people wrote letters to the editorial office with requirements for potential spouses, sometimes enclosing their photos, and waited for an answer. “I want a cheerful, educated, young and pretty wife, wealthy enough to live well together...,” “I’ll definitely get married if I find a modest, pretty, hardworking blonde with a nice figure, 27 to 34 years old,” “An intelligent, pretty young lady 23 years old, who is upstanding, musical and wants to get acquainted with a wealthy gentleman for marriage. ”

The matchmaker knows best

Matchmakers helped young people find a good fiancé or fiancée. Matchmakers from Zamoskvorechye were well-known throughout Moscow. Do you remember the character of Lidia Smirnova in the film Balzaminov’s Marriage (1964), stubbornly looking for a bride for a dreamy and strange guy? The film is based on the eponymous play by Alexander Ostrovsky, who took the character of the matchmaker from real life.

In addition to many customers, a good matchmaker should have had a number of other important qualities, for example, the skills of a psychologist. Also, they needed to have enough money, as matchmakers collected information about grooms and brides by bribing servants in house courts. It was enterprising widows who usually chose this troublesome job.

Still from the film Balzaminov’s Marriage directed by Konstantin Voinov, 1964

Some 150 years ago, nobles and merchants liked to go to fortune-tellers. According to legend, the most famous sorcerers lived in Zaryadye. Matchmakers took advantage of this, coming up with stories that were favourable to customers and bribing psychics. Grooms often came across this trick.

Bed-clothes procession

By the 19th century, the tradition of marriage agreements, which involved the parents of the bride and groom, had taken root in society. A marriage could not take place without making an agreement and determining the size of the dowry. A special dowry list included all the things that the bride would bring to her future husband’s home.

The dowry was put into chests and examined according to the dowry list by the groom’s friends. When everything was approved and verified, the chest was sealed with a wax seal, and it remained closed until the wedding. On the wedding day, the girl’s family put the dowry in carts, and the future wife went to church. In Zamoskvorechye, the bride, fearing the evil eye, took one road to church and a different one back.

Merchants had a special ritual of transferring the dowry from the bride’s house to the groom’s house. Only women transported the dowry, and the matchmaker was in charge of the entire process. For help with heavy things, they hired draymen. All the belongings were transported in five covered carts, and this was called the bed-clothes procession. An icon and a samovar went in the first cart, dishes – in the second one, the bride’s bed clothes – in the third one, and various furniture and a carpet in the fourth cart. The matchmaker and mother or aunt of the bride with the dowry list rode in the fifth cart. The bride’s dowry included bed cloths, pillows, money, gold jewelry, samovars, dishes, measuring icons, carpets and even sewing machines, which were considered a particularly expensive gift.

In Soviet times, newlyweds received wedding gifts from Komsomol, party and work collectives, parents and friends: money, clothes, household appliances, dinnerware sets, vases, bed clothes and furniture. Today, a dowry is no longer as important as in the past, but in modern Russia this tradition still exists, and newlyweds receive items for their wedding that will be useful in their family life.

Wedding parties

By the end of the 18th century, folk wedding parties gave way to luxurious European ceremonies with dresses and rings. Previously, girls wore any new dress or their mothers’ dress for their wedding, but in the middle of the 19th century,  brides could not imagine themselves without a white lace dress and a veil. In the hall devoted to the main rite in family life, wedding clothes of the 1860s - late 20th century are on display.

“A wedding is an ideal event to demonstrate your status. It is held and directed in such a way as to emphasise this status. This tradition existed in pre-revolutionary times and in Soviet times, and still exists today. A wedding confirmed vast ties,” says Polina Zhurakovskaya.

After the 1917 revolution, religious elements gradually disappeared from wedding ceremonies: newlyweds simply registered their relationship with the civil registry office. However, by the end of the Soviet era, the tradition of large folk festivities returned with the main wedding rituals: paying a ransom for the bride, throwing rice and welcoming the couple with bread and salt.


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