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School for aristocrats gives youth gilt-edged future

Muscovites are anxious to establish social credentials. Phil Reeves reports
Moscow - Margarita Shemakhin extended a limp-looking hand, and fixed me with a gaze which hovered somewhere between pity and haughtiness. You must wait for a woman to offer you her hand, she explained, as I planted a kiss on her freckled knuckles. Don't just snatch at it.

We were in her office, surrounded by pictures of Russian tsars and saints, where Mrs Shemakhin - a middle-aged woman dressed in striking purple - was delivering an impromptu lesson on her favourite subject: the restoration of the etiquette and manners practised by the nobility of the pre-revolutionary era.

It is an issue in which she has a professional interest. She is director of a school in Moscow for children whose families claim to be of noble blood. They are among a small but growing lobby which is trying to restore the values of a gilded past to post-Soviet Russia.

Some 50 children, aged between six and 13, have enrolled for a curriculum which includes lessons on how to walk (using the books-on-the-head routine), how to eat (with books under the armpits, to prevent elbow-flailing) and how to talk (no swearing; no grunts or loutishness on the telephone).

Whenever she runs up against a point of finesse which she cannot resolve, she turns to her supply of books. On her desk lie aging copies of How a Noble Russian Person Was Brought Up, and Life in High Society at Home and at The Court. Next year, she is contemplating introducing classes in rhetoric.

"People have such bad habits," she complains. "They don't know how to behave at a buffet; they know nothing of the fish knife and - nightmare of nightmares - they actually eat fruit with their hands.

Her school opened as the Soviet Union fell apart six years ago. Though struggling for cash, it has built up a clientele among whom, she claims, nine out of 10 are from noble stock. This is a statistic of which she is proud to the point of snobbism. "I won't say they [the nobles] are mentally better than anyone else, but they are spiritually higher," she declares.

Her $95(pounds 58)-a-month establishment operates under the aegis of the Russian Noble Assembly, one of a plethora of organisations that have grown up as Russians begin searching for roots which the Soviet system tried to deny. It is a world in which rivalries abound, not least because of disagreements over who is entitled to a title.

Nor is there any shortage of outright imposters. New Russians, anxious to establish high social credentials, have reportedly been paying up to $6,000 to unscrupulous genealogists in return for a cooked-up, rewritten family tree linking them to the former gentry.

The motives propelling Russians on their quest for history differ among individuals. At one end of the scale, there are fervent monarchists, who believe that the Romanov dynasty should be restored, but disagree over who should be the heir to Nicholas II, who was murdered with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. At the other end, are apolitical Russians, who merely enjoy rummaging around a history that was, for decades, forbidden to them.

Earlier this year, the former appeared to be on the verge of a success. There were reliable reports - offically denied- that the Yeltsin administration was mulling over giving the Romanovs some kind of symbolic status in the hope of creating a figurehead. For now, the idea appears to have been been shelved, partly because of the outrage it would cause among the large rump of Communists, who are already fuming over proposals to bury Lenin.

But not everyone is driven by the passion of the monarchist political lobby.Maria Lopukhin, a 20-year-old medical student from Moscow, resembles other young Russians in all but one respect: she claims the title of princess, being a descendant of one of the best-known Russian noble families.

Miss Lopukhin is one of a group of people who are now relearning tradition - notably, how to dance. Last weekend, several dozen decked themselves out in dinner jackets and evening gowns for a ball, organised by a nobility association.

It was in a small oak-pannelled room within a nineteenth-century mansion over- looking the Moscow River. For several hours, they danced to French waltzes, polkas, and minuets played by a chamber orchestra, pausing only to drink cheap champagne and vodka and eat chocolates.

Such events are held several times a year, and Miss Lopu-khin enjoys them. Despite her heritage, she does not believe in the restoration of the monarchy, at least not in any serious sense. They could, at a pinch, be "a symbol". But there would be no decision-making.

Immaculate in a dinner jacket, clutching a pair of white gloves, Pyotr Kaznatcheyev, a 20-year-old philosophy student, was more adamant. "The return of the monarchy would be dangerous. We could never do that here," he said. "There is already too much state in our country."