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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent