Sun, May 12, 2013 - Page 9 News List

How the Russians came to Hogwarts

The number of Russians at British private schools is rising as the rarified world of Harry Potter is increasingly seen as a fashionable passport to a better life

By Luke Harding  /  The Guardian, LONDON

“I believe British schooling is good for Russian children and good for Russia,” Shumovitch said. “They are learning different values, and will return to Russia more aware, more tolerant and more open.”

Russia’s darkening politics has prompted growing numbers of Russian parents to send their children to Britain. Numbers are up 27.4 percent this year.

Natasha Semyonova-Bateman, who helps wealthy Russians relocate to the UK, finding homes and schools, says some of her clients are “patriotic about Russia.”

Others are opposed to the Putin regime. Both groups are united by a lack of faith in the country’s future and see a British education, and a British passport for their kids, if they can procure one, as an “exit strategy,” she said.

“They think the next generation should be out of Russia. This idea has grown in the last couple of years,” Semyonova-Bateman said.

“The atmosphere inside Russia is like [British author George] Orwell’s 1984. It’s a suffocating society. They [Russians] don’t believe in the future. They don’t trust anyone including the authorities. Parents think: It’s too late for us. We have business here. We speak Russian and we can’t change our lives dramatically, but can change it for our kids,” she added.

Official relations between London and Moscow have been largely dreadful since the 2006 polonium murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Nevertheless, many ordinary Russians are enthusiastic Anglophiles. Harry Potter — or Garry, to give the boy magician his Russian pronunciation — is extremely popular in Russia, as is the British queen. Younger members of the country’s affluent, Westernized elite speak English.

“I like the humor and the irony,” Sergei says of Britain, in perfect English, when we meet in an upscale cafe in Sloane Square, London.

“Like the Roman empire, Britain has an assimilating culture,” he said.

Educated, self-made, and casually dressed in jeans and a V-neck, Sergei grew up in a St Petersburg intelligentsia family. He studied theoretical physics, but with science in disarray in the post-Soviet 1990s, he turned his hand to business, first owning a St Petersburg radio station, then setting up a successful chain of high-end tea shops. He is now worth between £15 million and £20 million (US$23 million and US$30 million).

“We are pretty wealthy,” he said.

Does he have a yacht?

“A small one, 44 foot [13m]. I’ve been sailing with my dad since I was a boy,” he said.

During a recent recce to London, Sergei says he bumped into two friends from St Petersburg on the same flight who were also looking at schools for their children and a flat in London. Sergei says he has no plans to leave Russia — “you can live partly here, and partly there,” he points out — but hopes Gosha will emerge from the UK with an international education.

And a normal childhood: “We don’t want him to be spoiled,” he said.

This is understandable. Back in Moscow the super-rich travel with armed bodyguards and live in fortress-like mansions.

For some Russian parents the merit-based British system is a bit of a shock. There are stories — not apocryphal, I am told — of prospective parents trying to bribe headmasters with bags of cash.

In fact, there is a more respectable route to bump your child’s application up the list, with most private schools running a “development fund.”

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