As readers of American society pages know, Maria Baibakova has long tried to position herself as the most progressive of Russia’s oligarchettes.
At just 28, Baibakova is an art collector and philanthropist who serves on the boards of Barnard College, where she studied for an undergraduate degree, as well as venerable cultural institutions like Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim, and the Tate. She first made a name for herself straight out of graduate school through a series of flashy contemporary art exhibitions in Moscow that led The New Yorker to write, “If anyone is to become Russia’s Peggy Guggenheim, it is Baibakova.” She went on to earn an MBA from Harvard and fundraise for President Obama’s 2012 campaign.
Though Baibakova is fond of speaking of her impoverished childhood, her father, Oleg, is a former executive at Norilsk Nickel, a giant metals company that maintains metallurgical plants in northern Siberia built by slave labor from Stalin’s Gulag.
Recently, Baibakova became the target of ridicule on the Russian internet after writing a 2,000-word article in the Russian edition of Tatler on how to manage a household of servants.
Baibakova, who “hosts one formal dinner and one cocktail party” on average every month, told The New York Observer she was “speaking to and empowering women who work, not housewives.” She claims to have picked up the pointers from a legendary English butler who runs a finishing school in Switzerland, but much of the insight appears to be all her own. Here are 13 tips from her:
1. Stock up on 10 different categories of servant.
According to Baibakova, a fully staffed house needs administrators, housekeepers, cooks, security guards, gardeners, drivers, nannies, maintenance workers, party planners, and wardrobe attendants. Her wardrobe attendant “organizes my wardrobe on Pinterest, because I live in three homes.”
2. Hire a $200,000 butler to manage all of them.
“If you don’t have a butler, you’ll have to do all the things they usually do yourself. After that you won’t ask yourself why the work of this highly prized specialist is paid so well. And, incidentally, if you have a main entrance and a staff entrance, as proper large homes should, then the only members of staff who are allowed to walk through the main entrance are the butler and the governess.”
3. Instil a “code of etiquette” to manage your “army” of servants.
“Proper household management is always ethical, because it is efficient, on the one hand, and comfortable, on the other — it doesn’t impinge on your interest and it doesn’t make things inconvenient for anyone. Etiquette is the weapon of an experienced commander of the house and the serving staff are her army.”
4. Don’t hire Filipinas though. Big mistake.
“I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. We forget that, although they don’t speak Russian, they’re still not deaf, dumb, and blind. And they understand everything. They are particularly attuned to my relationship arguments with my husband or arguments with my girlfriends. And their language deficiency means you’ll have to be their nanny or translator. For example, a Filipina will hardly go to the store to get food herself — your driver’s going to be the one stocking up her fridge. And you yourself will have to translate the cause of her frequent migraines to the doctor.”
5. Dispose of unwanted servants as quickly as possible.
“Since we’re talking about firing. It needs to be done quickly, with a clear explanation of the reason, without time for excuses and tears, in accordance with all laws and agreements (on paying two weeks’ salary, for example), and — this is a must — in front of witnesses. (Incidentally, the witnesses should be of the same sex as the person being fired. That’s how sexual subtexts are legally excluded from the story in some countries.)”
6. If you do fire them the wrong way, make sure they’re not undocumented immigrants.
“One well-off Arab family in London hired a maid from Indonesia. She worked for them for 15 years and stole the whole time… She was fired immediately, but incorrectly — with no witnesses, in a personal conversation with the lady of the house. The Indonesian woman sued them. … It got more complicated because the ex-maid was hired illegally. The Arab family had to make more excuses when the court tried to work out whether they’d taken the Indonesian woman’s passport and kept her in London against her will, like she claimed… How can you sue, and, more importantly, find a Moldovan maid who’ll make off with your grandmother’s diamond earrings one fine day? How can you fire a Russian nanny in America you didn’t like who is threatening to sue you for hiring illegals?”
7. If you wrongfully accuse a servant of theft, apologize insincerely.
“If you realize that you treated your staff wrongly, say, you suspected your maid of terrible things, but found the spoons [you thought she had stolen], then you can and should apologize. But don’t pour out tears of repentance on her shoulder — ‘Ah, Olenka, forgive me, for the love of God!’ Instead, say, “Olga, there’s been a misunderstanding for which I would like to offer my apologies.” And that’s it.
8. Don’t treat your servants like part of the family.
“Nothing good will come of this in the end. As a rule, you’re losing a good maid, but you’re not obtaining a sister or a friend. Although the temptation to turn a maid into a confidante or something like a poor, but sweet relative is great.”
9. Your servants are unworthy of your anger.
“It’s not even because it’s unethical (although it is, of course, unethical). It’s because we should only express our strongest emotions to our equals. If you overreact to a speck of dust on the stem of a Baccarat glass, then you’ll inevitably feel your conscience gnawing at you afterwards. From there it’s only one step to capitulation. And there you are, moaning in each other’s embrace, and your maid almost becomes your friend, and still nobody knows how to wipe the dirt off the glasses.”
10. Don’t let your maids sit with you at the dinner table.
“The only person with the right to sit at the same table as you is your son’s governor. A boy needs to be brought up by a man, and, obviously, the boy needs to respect him, or he won’t listen. If your son doesn’t feel that you’re respecting his governor, demand the same impossible thing of him as well. This rule doesn’t apply to the woman who brings up your daughter.”
11. Don’t let your maidservant wear your expensive designer clothes — she’ll forget who’s boss.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with it: your Prada trousers are from two seasons ago, and Lusya’ll be happy to take them. At first sight, it seems logical, but you’re actually crossing a line. Your maid moves around your house alone — and in your your clothes. You’ll have to try to remember who’s boss. You can make an exception for a nanny who’s worked for you for many years and who has a daughter. If her daughter causes a furore at the college dance party with your old Louboutins — no problem. The important thing is that it doesn’t happen in your house.”
12. Don’t consort with the help — they should know their place.
“At night, you feel the insurmountable desire to share the minutiae of the day gone by with your maid, you write her texts from your yacht about how your mother-in-law’s driving you nuts, and when you come back from Fashion Week, you gush to her about how Riccardo Tisci stunned everyone again. With so much head-spinning information, your maid starts to feel that she’s a part of your world, and not hers. In this world, dusting and carpet-cleaning are unthinkable.”
13. Learn how to do everything yourself so your servants don’t “blackmail” you.
“You don’t know what to use to clean the oven, how to make the bed, how to serve a table. To stop this from happening, you need to know how to run the house yourself. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to do everything yourself, you just don’t have to feel helpless if one of the staff gets the idea of blackmailing you by threatening to quit.”
Baibakova apologized for the column in a Facebook post Wednesday:
I profusely apologize for my offensive article from October 2014 issue of Russian Tatler. The text is heavily edited and when I translate it to English I can see it is insensitive and crude. I am ashamed of these words and apologize wholeheartedly to all who were offended.
The concept that I was attempting – running a household like a corporation - was lost in translation. My general goal was to share some Western best practices in staff management that I learned at Institut Villa Pierrefeu from Butler John Robertson when I attended the school as a lark after completing business school. There is an unfortunate history in Russia of mistreating household staff, so my underlying hope when I was given this assignment was to incentivize Russians to treat staff fairly by giving employers a financial incentive to behave in a more ethical manner (e.g. dismiss staff professionally without emotional abuse and provide fair severance pay, etc). I was hoping to inspire the Tatler audience to set clear boundaries with employees, as any boss in a professional setting must do.
As a woman who lived a very humble childhood I consider myself a balanced person who places the highest value in hard work and mutual respect. I see this an opportunity for self reflection.
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