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

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

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

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