ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Descendants of the czarist Romanov dynasty were married in the country's first royal wedding in over a century — kicking off a weekend of lavish events that sparked public curiosity, awe and derision in seemingly equal measure.
Under the dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral in Russia's former imperial capital city, Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov, 40, married his Italian bride, Victoria Romanovna Bettarini, 39, in an Orthodox ceremony on Friday before priests and several hundred guests.
Czarist trappings included an engagement ring "traditionally exchanged in the House of Romanov," according to a press release. "The ring centers a ruby cabochon gemstone that represents love and nobility and two diamond brilliants that represent purity and strength."
The Russian Orthodox Church's top official in St. Petersburg, Metropolitan Varsonofy, blessed the ceremony.
The clout of Russia's ultra-conservative movement was also on display — with the controversial "orthodox oligarch," Konstantin Malofeev, taking a prominent role in the ceremony and the nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin among prominent guests.
"It's a kind of imperial wedding. A remembrance of eternal Russia — of sacred czars and patriarchs and (the) church," Dugin said in an interview with NPR.
"In an age of 'cancel culture,' when everybody in the West tries to forget your own identity — your own history — Russia offers an alternative process," he added. "We are trying to return to our roots."
It was in this city in 1917 that the last sitting Russian czar, Nicholas II, was overthrown — setting in motion a grim series of events.
The czarist family — Nicholas, his wife and five children — were eventually banished to the city of Yekaterinburg and later executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in a merchant's cellar.
"Nicholas only had time to say, 'What?' before the bullets starting flying," says Olga Vdovichenko, 32, who guides local tours about the last czarist family.
"In the Soviet Union, no one talked about them," she adds. "But growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on."
The Romanovs' later story included a decades-long hunt for the location of the royal family's remains after the Soviets hid the bodies in a surrounding forest and continued debate over their authenticity once discovered.
The interment of most, though not all, of the family's remains in 1998 only further fed the never-ending association of the Romanov name with tragedy and conspiracy.
In that sense, Vdovichenko welcomed Friday's nuptials. "All that matters is that he's ideal in the eyes of his bride," she said.
For once, the Romanovs were not only happy — they were very much alive.
Grand Duke George is the great-grandnephew of Nicholas II. His great-grandfather, the czar's brother Kirill, fled Russia after the Revolution.
Yet the grand duke insists even amid a life spent in Western Europe, he never lost his Russian ties.
"My first language was Russian even though I was born in Spain and raised in France," Romanov said in a recent interview.
"My grandparents raised me on Russian history and culture and poetry. It's always been in my soul," he said.
The grand duke insists he's the hereditary crown prince of the Romanov dynasty — a claim challenged by some family members and Russia-based royal watchers.
"The hereditary laws of the monarchy in Russia are very strict," says Anton Bakov, head of the Russian Monarchy party, which backs a different distant Romanov as the rightful heir to the dynasty.
"I wish George and his bride all the luck, but the rules are the rules," Bakov says in an interview with NPR.
Despite taking up residency in Moscow three years ago, the grand duke insists he has no intention to impose his reign.
He currently runs a royal charitable foundation — issuing grants, not edicts — in celebration of Russian culture and history.
Meanwhile, his bride — Bettarini — comes from a non-noble diplomat's family and converted to the Orthodox Church for the wedding. With her conversion, she replaced her birth name Rebecca with the more Russified Victoria Romanovna.
Outside of St. Isaacs, a crowd of well-wishers and curiosity seekers debated the meaning — if any — of the return of these royals, however distant.
"Without an emperor, Russia can't exist," said Viktor, who like most of the assembled crowd, declined to give his last name. "Russia needs a czar, not a Soviet premier or a president."
"We always knew the Romanovs would return," added his wife, Olga. "We've waited and now it's finally happened."
The long-awaited royal atmosphere included goose-stepping soldiers, a parade of women in those English wedding hats, and dukes and duchesses of minor European royal families striding by.
Alexander and Ivan, two visitors from Siberia who happened on the scene, looked on in confusion. They tried — incorrectly — tried to suss out the grand duke's pedigree.
"So let me get this straight," said Alexander. "He's the great great great grand-nephew of Nicholas's third cousin?"
"This royal blood is too watered down," added Ivan to laughter and nods.
Nearby, a man named Oleg was trying — and failing — to sell tickets for canal cruises to tourists. He was slightly miffed that the wedding was pulling away his customers.
"Besides, we already have Mr. Putin," he said, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin was himself practically a monarch after more than two decades in power.
"I'm not sure he needs the Romanovs," he added.
Indeed, the Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the Russian leader had not sent a congratulatory message to the royal couple.
"In Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities across Russia, there are weddings every day," Peskov said. "We're happy for all our newlyweds."
Still, in a country like Russia — with its revolutions and twists of history — seemingly no one was willing to entirely rule out a larger role for the royals.
Certainly, Grand Duke George looked the part as he and his new bride emerged from the church to cheers and an honor guard sword salute.
"It's very unlikely that George Romanov would play some political role in the future of Russia, but who knows?" mused Dugin, the nationalist philosopher, who counts George a friend.
"But we cannot say never," he added. "Never is not Russian."