Inside London’s Russian doll parade
The Russian Debutante Ball has become one of the most opulent engagements in the London social calendar. Katie Glass dons a frock to party like it’s 1899
In the blue- lit ballroom under vast crystal chandeliers, women bedecked in sequins and men in impeccable tuxedos bustle for the best position to watch the entrance unfold. At tables heaving with Moët & Chandon in silver buckets, they hold iphones aloft, pointed towards a vast double- staircase where the debutantes will emerge. Some, the ‘super VIPS’ – a combination of wealthy parents and society guests – have paid £590 for their seats.
On the balcony, 44 girls aged 16 to 25 appear. Encased in billowing white tulle and organza, sparkling tiaras crowning perfectly coiffed hair, their faces made up like dolls. With some trepidation, and the help of whitetied male escorts, they negotiate the stairs, streaming down the grand double staircase into the ballroom, gripping bouquets like the brides of a mass wedding. They look utterly petrified.
This is the fifth year of London’s Russian Debutante Ball but it echoes a history that is centuries old, paying homage to the lavish affairs of tsarist Russia at which young ladies of the Russian aristocracy were presented to court. After 1917, when the Russian Revolution dismantled the tsarist autocracy, giving way to communism, such events died out. Now, increasingly, they’re back, appealing to a new Russian elite as keen as their ancestors to establish their place in society by flashing their cash. Even if doing so feels as distasteful as it ever was.
It’s perhaps unsurprising the evening has been revived in so-called ‘Londongrad’. The modern ball retains its heritage under the patronage of Princess Olga Romanoff ( greatniece of Tsar Nicholas II), a Russian princess born in London. The ball’s organiser Dr Elisabeth Smagin-melloni says she was inspired to start it in London because expats desire a ‘taste of Russian history and a feeling of togetherness’. Still, as I squeeze myself into my diamanté-flecked ball-gown, I wonder if, in the 21st century, the pomp, elitism and outright sexism doesn’t now feel very dated.
Earlier in the evening, backstage at The Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, I snuck backstage to meet the debutantes as they prepared. More than 500 girls applied to participate. Mainly Russian, some are also Ukrainian, Kazakhstani and Polish. A couple are also English. They all speak several languages, must have a job or be studying, and at interviews are asked questions about Russian culture and history. Most noticeably, however, they’re all beautiful. Elisabeth insists, ‘ This is not about looks… I don’t want longlimbed idiots. But no elephants, either! If
a girl is 150 kilos then I’m sorry, but no.’
They arrived in London today to be paired with their partners and, since 10.30am, they have been waltzing to Tchaikovsky in T-shirts and jeans. Now, in just an hour, they’ll make their entrance. While out-front guests mingle at the champagne and caviar reception, in a side room, girls in bras and giant hooped skirts frantically apply eyeshadow. Coathangers and safety pins fly. Crouched on the floor, taking a pair of scissors to her dress, is Muscovite Daria Storozhkova, 20. ‘It’s too long to dance in,’ she explains, frantically hacking the tulle. She read War And Peace at 15 and idolised Natasha. ‘In Russia, everyone dreams of coming out,’ she says.
A girl wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Feminist’ checks her tiara is in place. I wonder how pop politics fit with an evening at which women are paraded like chattel? I find Violetta Moshkova, 25, fluffing her skirts and ask her opinion. ‘ Maybe it’s old- fashioned,’ she considers, but – like all the girls I asked – she didn’t see that being an issue. ‘It’s like a game. Every girl wants the chance to feel like a princess,’ she says. A junior medical advisor, the glamour is an escape from her real life. ‘I’m usually in jeans and T-shirt on campus,’ Katya Gordyokhina, 22, who reads economics at Oxford University, agrees. She comes from an aristocratic Russian background and wanted to recreate that past. ‘And I love dancing,’ she explains. Maria Burgess- Omelchenko, 18, from Chippenham, is half-russian. ‘I’m not from a posh background, but I liked the idea,’ she explains. She bought her dress from Dorothy Perkins’ bridal section for £85 and learned her Viennese Waltz on Youtube.
Outside, the scene glitters like the set of Dynasty. ‘Don’t forget: smiles and boobs,’ a man taking pictures of two women shouts. This year, many of the debutantes’ escorts are Scottish. Maxi Hamilton, 25 – a trainee architect – and his friend William Hall, 36, were invited to attend by a fellow member of The (very private and posh) Caledonian Club. ‘He said he needed some chinless wonders so we said why not,’ William laughs, explaining they’d come for the fun. Did they hope to meet girlfriends? They laughed as they told me neither of the debutantes they’d been paired with seemed interested in them. The boys’ main role is window dressing – and to help the girls down the stairs. A call goes out for the debutantes to take their places and the boys scuttle off.
The grand debutante entrance begins. The girls and their partners stream down the double staircase, a white flutter, like the Swan Lake corps. Beside me, a man in his fifties ogles them, lasciviously telling his friend how attractive they look. I point out some are as young as 16. He leers: ‘ I’d better not say anything inappropriate then.’
After performing the waltz to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, the couples retire to their tables and the performances begin. Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina Evgenia Obraztsova twirls, Sopranos sing. Swing music starts and waiters in white jackets swirl between tables pouring the champagne and serving six courses, starting with foie gras. I don’t see the debs eat. Instead, everywhere you look they are floating about the room in frou-frou pairs looking like child brides, nesting at tables like meringues, taking selfies and uploading them to Instagram. Most have abandoned their dates.
The guests are a mixture of glamorous Russian expats, although they seem to be mainly dancers and actresses rather than mega-rich Abramovich types. When I ask the organiser for the full guest list I’m denied it and told Russians are ‘very secretive’. Still, it seems the event is now more a celebration of glitz than elitism. The diamonds in tiaras are mostly paste, and the girls are less interested in finding Prince Charming than actual careers.
Although it strikes me too that, in this recreation of the past, people always seem to imagine themselves as a princess rather than a peasant. But at a time when social inequality is still so great, the elitism such balls celebrate feels very uncomfortable.
As I head off, I find some of the debutantes are back in their jeans, one eating the berries from her bouquet. ‘I’m starving’, she laughs. And, outside, girls with leather jackets slung over their gowns run for their coach.
the Girls float about looking like child brides, taking selfies. most have abandoned their Dates
Girls aged 16 to 25 resemble brides at the lavish ball. Right: backstage, they make lastminute adjustments
Above: the couples waltz. Right: the girls capture their ‘princess’ moment