Tolstoy with minders at the War and Peace Ball
Anna Blundy watches new-rich and old-rich Russians polka the night away
Sunday 19 February 1995
The ball is held "under the gracious patronage of the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, the Grand Duchess Wladimir of Russia and the Grand Duke George of Russia", and is sponsored by some lofty-sounding Russians and Greeks and then some lowlier sounding patrons such as the Earl and Countess of Portsmouth. To illustrate the eminence of these folk there was a soft- focus photograph of the Grand Duchess Maria wearing her tiara in the programme.
Among the wealthy Greeks, members of the British upper classes and young Russian businessmen, were all kinds of real White Russian aristocrats. Tolstoys and Galitzines, Obolenskys and Grocholskys were slipping fur coats from powdered shoulders, smoothing down their period costumes and sparkling into the reception area, hoping for an evening to rival Natasha Rostov's fictional first ball: "The looking glasses along the staircase reflected ladies in white, pale blue and pink gowns, with diamonds and pearls on their bare arms and bosoms . . . Natasha was wearing dcollet for the first time in her life."
Olga, who had come over from Finland for the festivities, looked as though she had probably worn dcollet before. "I'm just looking for a husband, really," she declared over her ostrich feather fan. There seemed to be plenty of men to choose from in the flurry of champagne flutes and silver trays flashing in and out of conversations. The nostalgic costumes made even the merchant-banking ex-public schoolboys look eligible, and of the 400 guests who had contributed their £135 to the cause, at least a third looked worthy of Olga's consideration.
The really moneyed husbands were the new-rich Russians, out in force at the ball for the first time. Some had flown in from Moscow for the event. Bodyguards and drivers were slumped in the hotel lobby, smoking furiously, scowling and occasionally glancing out at the Rolls, while their employers made themselves conspicuous by drinking more than everyone else, handing out business cards announcing "Mikhail. Import-export. Great Britain-Russia" to anyone they could lay their hands on.
The illustrious Obolenskys were mingling furiously (Princess Obolensky turns out to be from Alabama) and one woman in her eighties, who announced herself as Tatiana, was playing the role of embarrassing dowager empress and staggering around clinking glasses with anyone who took her fancy. Elaborate hairpins askew and tottering on her satin slippers, she could be heard shouting triumphantly in no known language from every corner of the room.
Eventually, the guests were assembled and the ballroom beckoned. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, vodka was on ice at every table and the choir of London's Russian Orthodox Church was straightening its black robes ready to sing the Lord's Prayer. The stage was hung with a huge tapestry of the imperial double-headed eagle, presumably to represent the monarchist tendencies of the guests - one of whom was His Excellency the Russian Ambassador and another, the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster.
By the time the princes and commoners had taken their seats for dinner even Nikolai Tolstoy had begun to relax. He had started the evening looking most dashing in a green tail-coat, smiling affably at the arrivals, but he became slightly more dishevelled as the blini and caviar slipped down with the vodka, and bottles were upturned in their ice buckets. He concluded the ball by dancing a flailing Mazurka with a tall woman wearing a white fluffy get-up that shed like snow as she twirled.
The revellers were so keen to live up to the pretensions of the evening that the ballads of Russian folk singer Sergei Podbolotov (whose CDs were on sale in the foyer) failed to rouse the peasant in them.
They were content to forget London in February and waltz their way into a Tolstoyan idyll of fluttering fans, cigars and flickering candlelight. By midnight Olga appeared to have made her choice - an elderly Cossack in an astrakhan hat.
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