Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Foreign Governess Comes Back in Vogue

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 Russian 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 who married a Russian.

"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 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 on children used to ruling the roost.

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.

She blamed the children's bad behavior on a lack of parental attention. One of her charges once deliberately urinated on the kitchen floor in front of several staff members, prompting "no reaction whatsoever" from the mother, she said. And then the housekeeper had to clean it up.

"If you say no, they'll have a tantrum, full-blown on the floor," the governess said, adding that the children have also bitten and spat at her. A trained teacher, she told the mother that a child would be excluded from school for spitting, she recalled. "She thought it was funny."

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.

"She's really little and there's a lot of time to grow with her," Carrick-Chernova said of her 3-year-old charge. The nanny has vacationed with her employers, a company director and a gallery owner and curator, in Dubai, London and Paris. "I would love to stay with them until she's in school or settled in France or Switzerland."

Meanwhile, Nikolayeva recommends that parents hire first an English-speaking nanny and then a French one, so that the child becomes trilingual. Some parents might not even stop there, she said.

"The new trend is Chinese," Nikolayeva said.