Russian debutantes have paid the price for a breakdown in relations between Britain and Moscow after their annual ball in London was cancelled because wealthy visitors cannot get visas.
The Russian Debutante Ball has been held for the past five years in the splendour of the Grosvenor House ballroom in Mayfair, with scores of women dressed in white ballgowns “coming out” to high society.
After the Salisbury poisonings, however, and an increasingly icy reception in the UK for oligarchs, the ball has been cancelled for the next two years because visa restrictions have made it increasingly hard for Russians to attend.
In previous years Princess Olga Romanoff, a descendent of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, has been patron of the ball and has welcomed British royalty such as Princess Michael of Kent. Those paying between £290 and £590 for a ticket would watch debutantes dance with men in cavalry uniforms in one of Europe’s biggest ballrooms.
Elisabeth Smagin-Melloni, the Viennese organiser of balls in Rome, Riga, Baden-Baden, Biarritz and Montreux, said: “Russians are facing big problems in getting visas and often they are being denied. These people could get Schengen visas [to travel passport-free in 26 European countries] without any problem. They are normal middle-class people and attended our balls in Riga and Vienna. It has become much worse in the last year.”
Russians wishing to visit Britain as a tourist can apply for a £93 standard six-month visitor visa, a £350 two-year multiple entry visa, with five years costing £636, and ten years £798.
Dr Smagin-Melloni said that Russian guests, businessmen and VIPs had been reporting that it was getting increasingly hard to obtain visas to the UK. Many were forced to hand back tickets and ask for refunds after problems last year.
Charlotte Lewis, a spokeswoman for the ball, said: “We sell the majority of our tickets to Russians and they are finding it hard to come to London and attend the ball. I’m sure the poisonings haven’t helped.”
The government is reviewing the right of more than 700 wealthy Russians to live in the UK as it seeks to curtail the power and influence of the Kremlin after the Salisbury poisonings.
Dr Smagin-Melloni is instead focusing on the new big market for debutante balls: China. She organised her first Viennese ball in Shanghai last year and there is great demand for more.
The organisers of Queen Charlotte’s Ball, England’s oldest debutante ball, can testify to that. They were asked five years ago to set up a Shanghai debutante ball and for the past three years they have been selecting three Chinese debutantes to attend their London ball alongside three American girls and 14 English girls. Jennie Hallam-Peel, organiser of the ball, said they introduced the Chinese debutantes after being approached by “some sort of trillionaire” who said “we would love Chinese girls to be involved”.
Asked whether Russians could be invited to be debutantes, she said: “You cannot buy a ticket for the Queen Charlotte Ball, you have to be invited. The Russians have their own debutante ball so would be more concerned to go to that. We keep the ball to 150 guests and I want it to be by personal invitation. It feels more like a private dinner party rather than a big corporate bash.”
A merry dance
- George III held Britain’s first debutante ball in 1780 in honour of his wife Queen Charlotte’s birthday. A debutante was traditionally a young lady from an aristocratic family who had reached maturity and was able to be introduced to society to find a suitable husband. Debutante comes from the French meaning “female beginner”.
- “Debs” would be escorted in front of the monarch and curtsey. Only girls who had a relation who had herself been presented at court could apply, and they had to wear virginal white.
- The Queen ended the tradition in 1958 as the age of deference fell away and criticism of the royal family became overt. Lord Altrincham called it an embarrassing ritual which should have been “quietly discontinued in 1945”.
- The Duke of Edinburgh declared the tradition “bloody daft” and Princess Margaret would later explain that they had to end it because “every tart in London was getting in”.
- Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s cousin, said the growing demand to become a debutante became “unmanageable”.
- Queen Charlotte’s Ball has been continued ever since by high society enthusiasts as a charitable event in the London season.