New schools turn back clock to train Russia’s girls in virtues of nobility

The Military Girl Boarding School. Source: Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti

The Military Girl Boarding School. Source: Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti

Five schools that turn out ‘noble maidens’, just like in the times of the tsars, have recently opened in Russia. RBTH reports on the purpose these so-called ‘institutes for noble maidens’ served in the days of the Russian Empire and what their modern-day equivalents are like.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1764, Russian Empress Catherine II (the Great) issued a decree establishing Russia’s very first Institute for Noble Maidens – the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg. This institution was tasked with “giving the state educated women, good mothers, and useful members of the family and society,” as the decree reads.  

School for royal ladies

The institute accepted girls no older than six and provided them with a 12-year training course. According to the charter, their parents could be ranked no lower than colonel and state councilor. The institute also accepted the daughters of hereditary nobility for an annual fee. All pupils were prepared for the life of the royal court.

Today Russia has five educational institutions for noble maidens. They are:

- Ministry of Defense of Russia Boarding School for Girls

- Ministry of Defense of Russia Boarding School for Girls in St. Petersburg

- Natalya Nesterova University Institute for Noble Maidens (Moscow)

- Academy for Noble Maidens attached to the Novosibirsk Cadet Corps

- Mariinskaya Boarding School for Girls, Republic of Buryatia

Including 2013 recruitment, more than 740 pupils are currently enrolled at the largest such institution – the Ministry of Defense of Russia Boarding School for Girls.

The training program included Russian literature and language, arts, geography, arithmetic, history, foreign languages, music, dance, drawing, conventional manners, and home economics.

The girls lived according to a regimented daily routine and could only see their relatives on weekends and holidays, and only in the presence of the headmistress.

They did not have the right to leave the institute prior to graduation, either of their own volition or at the wishes of their families. With the help of this institute, the Empress planned to snatch schoolgirls from their familiar surroundings and create a “new breed of people.”

After Catherine’s death, the institute started accepting girls from a later age (nine or older) and deliberately preparing them for marriage to military men. Military wives needed to be educated women capable not only of rearing children, but also of engaging in small talk.

The Smolny Institute existed right up until the 1917 revolution, producing women such as Maria Budberg (Maxim Gorky’s lover and an NKVD agent) and the writers Nina Berberova and Maria Dobrolyubova (a teacher, nurse, and revolutionary).

Smolny Institute. Source: Lori / Legion Media

The Russian Empire had a total of 12 Institutes for Noble Maidens in different cities, including far-off Siberia (Irkutsk), the Urals (Orenburg), and present-day eastern Ukraine (Kharkov).

Boarding schools for the children of the military

Today, announcements recruiting girls for schools or preparatory courses for ‘noble maidens’ are becoming ever more commonplace. The largest such institution is the Ministry of Defense of Russia Boarding School for Girls, which was founded in 2008.

This establishment uses as its inspiration pre-revolutionary ‘institutes for noble maidens’, leaving the old terms of enrollment, list of subjects, and daily schedules intact.

A youth ball. Source: Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti

In order to matriculate at the Boarding School, a girl must come from a family of “servicemen who completed military service at remote military garrisons, from single-parent families, and large families, the daughters of deceased servicemen and of combatants decorated with government awards for the fulfillment of military duty,” according to the institution’s charter.

“Neither my parents nor I knew what sort of education was provided in these institutions,” said a graduate of the Boarding School who is now studying at a military university in Moscow and requested anonymity. “My enrollment was my parents’ decision. We lived in a remote garrison, and I could hardly imagine where I would end up.”

“This type of school is adapted to the modern social environment. We don’t isolate the girls at all. We teach them things that are not taught in ordinary schools,” said Yelena Venediktova, director of studies at the Academy for Noble Maidens attached to the Novosibirsk Cadet Corps. Such subjects include homemaking, social practices (etiquette, behaviour and so on), and choreography; girls from the school dance the waltz together at balls with boys from the Cadet Corps.

In contrast with pre-revolutionary noble maidens, modern ‘noble maidens’ prefer to continue their education, usually in the humanities or in the military field.

This is the key difference: The girls not only leave the institute’s walls as cultured women and homemakers, but they can also compete with graduates from general schools for university admission.

Read more: Why are Russia’s universities struggling in international ratings?

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