Eager to have their cake and eat it correctly

28th June 1996 at 01:00
RUSSIA. Ira Krasnopolskaya dreams of going to balls dressed in silk dresses, her blonde hair plaited with ribbons, her dancing partners young noblemen with exquisite manners.

Margarita Alexandrovna Shomakhina, headteacher at Ira's school for young aristocrats in Moscow, also has a vision. She dreams that by the time six-year-old Ira and her blue-blooded classmates are being presented at their first coming-out parties, Russia will once again have a tsar. "The people of Russia yearn for one," she says.

Her views may appear unrealistic, but preparing children of old noble families for lives governed by etiquette and civility is a different matter.

Four years ago Margarita Alexandrovna founded the Russian Nobility League school to keep alive the courtly traditions of a class toppled in 1917.

Communism destroyed much of the fabric of the noble way of life and traditions, and five years of nascent democracy has done little so far to restore the old manners and culture to Russia society, she says. "I was at a classical concert at the Moscow Conservatory and through my opera glasses I could see the top executives and their wives sitting in the best box. One of them was chewing gum."

Etiquette occupies a key position in the daily curriculum for the school's 50 pupils, aged five to nine.

Together with The Education of a Russian Nobleman, published in Moscow last year, the children study a reprint of the 1890 classic Social Life of the Nobility at Home and Court.

The books include advice such as: "If a young woman is buying a special dress make sure she tries it on several times before buying, to ensure that the fit of the dress is never a reason for delaying a meeting at court."

Rules for proper conduct in public, private, at concerts and in company - including the correct way to eat moist and dry cake at banquets - are taught.

A full academic timetable is also covered by the 12 members of staff at the school, which occupies a warren of cramped rooms in one wing of a crumbling mansion once owned by the noble Dolgorukiy family.

On the ground floor is a bank and the offices of the Russian Nobility League, which offers scholarships to families which can't afford the 300,000 rouble (Pounds 42) monthly fees for each child.

Moscow is today one of the world's most expensive capitals and the wealth of the nouveaux riche is conspicuous. Everywhere leather-jacketed, crew-cut young men sport mobile phones and fur-clad women step from expensive chauffeur-driven foreign cars.

But such riches are not necessarily found in the pockets of the old families: Margarita Alexandrovna cheerfully says that her school offers the cheapest private education in Russia.

She presides over rather spartan rooms decorated with the occasional countryside view torn from an old calender.

In her tiny office, a copper samovar balances perilously on top of a book-filled cabinet and an icon of a saintly-looking Tsar Nicholas II is propped on the window-sill.

Russian schoolchildren do not normally begin studying history until they are 10, but here the past is inseparable from the present. The six and seven-year-olds can already recite the significant dates in the annals of Kiev-Russ, when ninth-century Slavic nobles laid the foundations of the Russian empire.

And when the 1917 era looms - for example when children drawing up their family trees notice the numbers of great grandparents who died then - there is no flinching from the facts.

"It's rather early to tackle this subject with such young children, but when it does come up I always talk about events before and after the coup of 1917.

"I never call it a revolution because that simply is not true. It was a Bolshevik coup. When they ask why so many members of their family died, I tell them the truth: no matter how cruel the truth is, they should know it."

The children's parents agree. Ira's mother, actress Yulia Zhevenova, joined the Nobility League to learn more about her family history.

Russian state archives offer virtually limitless help for those of humble origins wishing to trace their worker or peasant backgrounds, but are less forthcoming about the aristocracy, she says.

"I brought Ira along here to perform in a children's play and she refused to leave, she was so happy. It's an excellent school and the children get individual attention. I think it's wonderful that she's learning about her noble heritage and how to behave properly."

Natasha Davidova, a professor at the Moscow Diplomatic Academy, sends her eight-year-old daughter Anna to the school so that she can learn more about her noble Polish ancestors who were part of the Russian court.

"Our family were musicians and one performed with Paganini, who gave him his violin as a gift. Unfortunately the family sold this heirloom during the war when we had to find money for food."

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