BRUSSELS -- It’s past nine in the evening when 12 young couples enter the chandelier-lit parquet of the Concert Noble Hall. They start off with a polonaise and then a grand waltz.
The annual Russian ball, one of the hottest tickets in town, had just opened up its doors.
It all started some 40 years ago as a social event for the exiled Russian nobility in Belgium. It was an occasion to preserve a culture and a tradition that seemed to be disappearing as their children became more detached from their roots. The ball was also a chance to keep those dances, songs, and customs alive, if only for a night.
The increased popularity of the ball -- held this year on February 4 -- has also served as a means to support that culture's preservation, financing winter and summer camps for Russian youth living in Belgium. The camps have the same raison d'etre as the ball -- namely, to save the special spirit of the Russian soul.
And two of the honorary members attending this year's ball epitomize this spirit more than anyone else.
'Our Mentality Is Russian'
Alexander and Maria in their Brussels apartment, with a portrait of Pushkin behind them
In an apartment in a leafy Brussels suburb, Alexander Pushkin and his wife, Maria, are preparing for the evening’s festivities. He is the great-great-grandson and the last direct descendant of the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.
"We love the country where we live and where we were born," he says, "but our mentality and our inside is Russian."
A portrait of his famous ancestral namesake hangs on the wall behind him, together with the Pushkin family shield. Alexander lacks the wild and curly black mane and the characteristic sideburns of his famous ancestor. But as Maria explains, there are similarities.
"He is impulsive and he loves women," she says. "The first thing he looks at is their legs!"
Maria is herself a descendant of both Pushkin and another renowned Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. But despite the couple's impressive literary pedigree, neither of them harbors any ambitions to write.
"I am an electric engineer," Alexander says. "I love everything electric -- why something is working or not."
Maria adds that Pushkin once said his descendents wouldn't need to write since he had written enough for the whole family. Warm Welcome
While the pair’s family tree might represent an extraordinary part of the Russian literary landscape, their fate in the last century mirrors that of several other noble Russian families in Belgium today.
After siding with the anti-Bolshevik White Army in the 1918-21 Russian Civil War, large parts of the Pushkin family fled together with its general, Pyotr Wrangel, from Crimea to Constantinople.
Alexander’s grandfather then continued via Yugoslavia to Belgium in 1923. Belgium gave a warm welcome to the White emigres and opened up their Catholic schools to the Orthodox Christian newcomers. The fact that Belgium was a monarchy and largely francophone eased the mostly French-speaking emigres' integration.
But when Wrangel unexpectedly died in Brussels in 1928, the dreams of a quick return to Russia evaporated. Instead, more Russian nobility came to Belgium, especially from France when the left-wing prime minister, Leon Blum, came to power there in 1936.
Maria’s family initially remained in France but kept contact with Alexander’s, which was in Belgium. The two met for the first time in 1949 when both were children; he was 7 and she 6. Twenty years later, they married and settled in Brussels. 'Russia Is Sad'
Despite receiving Russian citizenship from Vladimir Putin a few years ago, as well as being revered whenever they visit Russia, the Pushkins have ruled out settling back there.
"We’ve lived here for almost 70 years now," Alexander says. "We have everything here -- our flat, our friends. To move there would be to start a new life."
Maria and Alexander’s main regret is that they have remained childless.
"We are sad and Russia is sad that we don’t have a child," Alexander says. "After almost 1,000 years of existence, the name will disappear."
It was this regret that led the couple to establish the International Pushkin Foundation during the bicentennial festivities of the poet’s birth in 1999. The foundation popularizes Pushkin's works and also sponsors the Children's Oncology Center in St. Petersburg, funding the purchase of medication and equipment.
"We wanted to do something for the Pushkin legacy," Maria says, "and since we don’t have any successors, we felt it that it would be best to focus on helping children."
The family dynasty may be vanishing, but Alexander says he is convinced that Pushkin’s philosophy of openness and respect for other people will endure. He cites the legacy of Abram Gannibal, an Ethiopian prince who Peter the Great looked after from an early age and who became a trusted aide.
"Pushkin was a very open man, a bit like Peter the Great," he says. "Just look at the history of the little black boy of Peter the Great. He wanted to show that a black person, with the right education, was as capable as a white boy to succeed."
As the Russian Ball's official program winds down just past midnight, the parquet is filled with as many Eurocrats as Russian aristocrats and the rhythms of the balalaika mix with disco anthems and rock 'n’ roll essentials.
The recent popularity of the ball might have compromised the authenticity of the original purpose of event. The goal of reliving a glorious and distant past, far away from home, can be as difficult as the relationship between fiction and reality in Pushkin’s "Eugene Onegin."