By Anna Malpas
With free reign over one floor of the family mansion, tummies swollen with treats and scores of Barbies, two Rublyovka children have everything but the attention of their parents — who leave even the bedtime stories to the nannies.
They are among those who have never learned to take “no” for an answer in any language. That was until their parents hired a British governess to give them a flawless accent and a smattering of etiquette.
Alexander Pushkin had one, as did Vladimir Nabokov and Nicholas II. An English nanny or governess was once the norm for wealthy Russian families, teaching children manners and a cut-glass English accent. Now the trend has returned among Moscow’s new rich, although today’s governesses are just as likely to come from the United States.
Earning up to $6,000 per month — far more than most English teachers — governesses are hired to teach children as young as 3, but they do not generally perform domestic duties. Their charges live surrounded by domestic staff — often including Russian nannies as well — and enjoy luxuries such as country estates and exclusive vacations.
Maria Nikolayeva opened an office of her recruitment agency, Bonne International, in 2001 in southern Moscow, focusing exclusively on providing native-English-speaking governesses and nannies. The office is furnished with prints of London sights and dark wooden furniture. Its other office is on London’s Harley Street.
Nikolayeva educated her three daughters in England and is enthusiastic about overturning Soviet-era child-care methods. She has opened a kindergarten with expat staff in the same building, which she watched via remote camera as she talked.
Often it’s Russian fathers who see the need for a governess, she said. “Suddenly they realize, especially the fathers, ‘Oh, he doesn’t look like a gentleman who can inherit my business. Now we have to make a gentleman of him. How do we do that? Right, we get an English nanny and then we send him to Eton.’“
“They want a better future for their children,” Nikolayeva said. “For example, the Russian father has business contacts with foreigners. ... He wants to be friends with them, but he doesn’t understand their way of thinking, the way they joke.” The idea is that the son, educated by a native speaker, will be “one of them,” she said.
The agency ensures that British nannies have a preliminary visit to Russia and follow-up support, she said, recounting how one nanny arrived in Moscow for the first time and began crying as they drove away from the airport. She left three days later.
When nannies join the agency, they must sign a confidentiality agreement, Nikolayeva said, adding that her clients include politicians. “At least three are on the Forbes list,” she said.
Several governesses said they didn’t know what their employers’ occupations were. “One of the first rules of this work is never ask how they got their money,” said Kira Hagen, an American who has worked as governess for five families in Moscow.
Formerly a Russian teacher in Alaska, Michelle Mitchell said she believed that her employers worked in real estate. They have a country house with a swimming pool as well as a large apartment in an elite housing complex. “I think they have eight or nine bathrooms,” she said.
This winter, she holidayed with the family and her 5-year-old charge — who already speaks fluent English — at Courchevel ski resort in France, working only after 4 p.m. each day. “This is one of the coolest teaching jobs I have ever had,” she said.
Although aristocrats used to employ British nannies, nowadays it’s not essential to speak the Queen’s English. “My accent’s pretty neutral, so I’ve never had a problem with getting a job,” said Amy Carrick-Chernova, an American nanny.
“Some families are quite strict, they don’t want anyone from England who doesn’t have a very posh accent — they don’t want their child to be speaking in a Cockney accent,” she added.
Conflicts can arise over childcare beliefs — from serving drinks at room temperature to dressing children very warmly and making them take naps.
“Russian children sleep for two or three hours during the day — even 5-year-olds — then they hang around till 11 and go for a walk when it’s dark,” Nikolayeva said. “None of the English nannies can understand it.”
“Here, they’re convinced that if you’re exposed to cold water, you’ll die,” Hagen said. She added that “about the worst trouble” she ever got into was after allowing her charge to run through a sprinkler in summer — when the grandmother was visiting.
Pay starts at an absolute minimum of $28 per hour, the governesses said. One said she was paid $3,000 per month for a four-hour day. Another said she was offered a live-in job paying $6,000. Agency director Nikolayeva said salaries started at $2,000. By contrast, Russian nannies may earn as little as $600.
Hagen said her employers are always paid in cash. “They don’t want their income to be traceable.” On payday, she wears a sports bra, which she stuffs with rubles in order to transport them home safely. One of her employers — who was married to an investment banker — used to leave her salary, $100 per day, in her shoe in the hallway, she said.
Despite their relatively high salaries, they have little job security. One said she had no work permit, while another said that only one employer had given her visa support. One warned that agencies work on commission, so job stability isn’t their priority.
Unlike old-style staff, none of the governesses contacted for this article lived with their employers. “It would drive me crazy,” Hagen said. “I think you need some space of your own.”
After tiring of the unreliable pupils she encountered while teaching business English, Hagen decided to become a governess. She cautioned, however, that working for families also has instability because parents may suddenly go abroad, for example. “You really do have to remember, ‘don’t get too involved,’“ she said. “This work can last a long time or just dissolve.”
Yet many complain of the difficulty of imposing discipline.
One governess, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job, complained of “appalling behavior” from her Rublyovka charges. Though they spoke no English and she only knew a few words in Russian, she soon set aside four hours per day to teach them to mind their manners — and not to bite the staff, which included a bodyguard, a security guard, a gardener, a driver, a housekeeper and two Russian nannies.
Despite the horror stories that come with spoiled children, governesses also spoke of their job satisfaction. The Rublyovka governess said her charges were now beginning to speak English and that one had even hugged her. “I’ve discovered depths of patience that I never knew I had,” she said.
© Copyright The St. Petersburg Times 1993 - 2007
The St. Petersburg Times The Foreign Governess Comes Back in Vogue
by Bill Kouwenhoven
Sunday, 3 July 2011
When the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 to study the fledgling country and a moment of economic and territorial expansion, he noted a tendency towards a disequilibrium of wealth, as great fortunes were made. It was a period that reached its apogee 50 years later in what became known as the "Gilded Age". This new wealth came from steel, railroads, mining, oil and banking – and the fortunes amassed by families such as the Mellons, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Gettys led to a blossoming patronage of the arts, the likes of which had never been seen before. The finest painters of the day, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, became the court painters of the new rich and produced exquisite, and occasionally controversial, portraits of both them and their families.
Fast forward to the Russia of today – as captured in the work of the young photographer Anna Skladmann – and you might reflect that some things never change.
The upheavals that marked the end of the Soviet Union in the 1990s ushered in a new era of rampant capitalism that resembled nothing so much as America's Gilded Age. Fortunes were made and lost over the subsequent 15 years as the Soviet Union transformed itself into the "New Russia". By 2008, according to the Russian business paper Finans, there were 101 billionaires in Russia – more than in any other country – and the annual Moscow Millionaire Fair was, perhaps, the gaudiest party the world had ever seen. It was as the dust settled on this brave new world that Skladmann – who was born in Germany of Russian parents in 1986 – began to photograph the children of the emerging elite.
She had first visited Moscow in 2000, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her parents took k her to a New Year's masquerade ball held in the Grand Opera, where there was a table around which children sat and ate their dinner, dressed up for the occasion. The formality of the event and the preternatural poise of the children made a strong impression on the teenage Skladmann: the seriousness in those so young is something one does not often see in the West, where children are encouraged to be more rambunctious. It made her think about the new society forming in Russia and about how its inheritors are being shaped. She thus made it her project, when she herself reached maturity, to portray her subjects, all aged between six and 12, in their own environments as they play "dress-up", trying out roles for their lives in the future; and the almost otherworldly self-assurance of her subjects inspired the project's title: Little Adults.
Over the course of several trips to Russia, working on assignments for The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire and Tatler Russia, she explored the lives of children and adults in Moscow and elsewhere. "The series explores what it feels like to grow up as a privileged child in Russia, a country where its radical history still rules k the daily life," Skladmann explains. "It is an exploration of the recently growing society of the new rich, in which these children have been raised to become the elite and to behave just like little adults. It touches on the control of family aspirations, ideas of normality, the loss of childhood and the constant desire for fame."
Skladmann uses the conventions of classic portraiture but her subjects are identified only by their given names – Alina, Vasilisa, Roman, Antoshka. Partly this is to protect the children, but it also provides for a portrait of a generation, virtually all of whom have been born in this new millennium and more than 10 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As Irina Tchmyreva, the chief curator of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, notes, these are "children who are aware of their unique place as distinct from the majority. [They are] children who are aware of their mission and who are members of a very elite club. When the children do know that they are different – be they little wizards or kings – a mark of the knowledge reveals [itself] on their faces."
Indeed, Skladmann's "little adults" are totally aware of being photographed. They are as complicit in their self-representation as the artist is in representing them. And it is in their faces that the photographer, only 25 years old herself, finds what she is looking for.
Beyond the bling and trappings of the new rich, their directness of gaze and knowing looks of confident authority mark out her subjects as inheritors of a country emerging after chaotic change into its own Gilded Age. They will be the ones, when they grow up, who will fulfil De Tocqueville's celebrated prophecy of Russia, that country between East and West, taking its place on the world stage as a rival to the United States. These "little adults" seem to be ready, for all their childhood years, to take on the world.
Photos: What is it like to grow up as part of Russia's new elite?
Anna Skladmann: personal-->Little Adults
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