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RUSSIANS REDISCOVER THE ART OF `BONTON’

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"Do not spit out bones and other such things onto your plate."

"Do not describe your illnesses at the table.""Do not boast about your expertise in art or technology."

These are just some of the social tips to be found in "Contemporary Etiquette and Business Protocol," a recently published Russian guide to good manners by Eduard Solovyov, a retired Soviet protocol officer who served in Afghanistan, among other places.

There is also a new etiquette program on the Russian educational channel titled "Bonton," which is French for good taste. And the word's growing usage is one of many signs that Russians are trying to rediscover the good manners that were stamped out by Soviet rule.

Russia is a disrooted society in search of a self, and its yearning for propriety is in some ways as telling as the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church or mass conversions to ultra-nationalism or cults. The novelty of freedom has long worn off. Today, most Russians crave order, but many are groping for rules that are dictated by decency, not dogma.

The pervasive image of Russians as louts who bang their shoes on the table to express displeasure outlived Khrushchev in the communist heyday. But even many Russians complain that no sooner had communism collapsed than the torch of rudeness was passed on to a new generation of mafia businessmen.

Even some of them are studying etiquette.

Suddenly, there are adult-education courses, magazines, books, brochures, home decoration shows and dozens of new cookbooks that concentrate not just on recipes but also on gracious living.

When communism finally collapsed, one of the first banned books to be reprinted and sold on the streets was "A Gift to Young Housewives," by Yelena Molokhovets, a voluminous cookbook that was required reading in well-off families from 1861 to 1917.

Ordinary Russians now peruse in awed astonishment more than 3,000 recipes ranging from suckling pig in aspic to stuffed hazel grouse.

Etiquette intrigues the new rich, who eagerly read Domovoy, a glossy magazine that offers its readers advice on, among other things, how to treat maids, cooks and nannies who have a higher level of education than they do (kindly but firmly). It also fascinates some of Russia's most recondite thinkers.

"Conversations about Russian Culture: Everyday Life and Traditions of the Russian Landed Gentry," a collection of scholarly lectures by Yuri Lottman, an avant-garde cultural critic who died last year, was published in April. Lottman used semiotics to deconstruct the deeper mysteries of Russia's vanished upper class.

But most of the shows, books and courses are aimed at Russia's ordinary citizens, people who do not ever expect to own an apartment or car but who have enough money to occasionally splurge on a bottle of French wine, a silk blouse or new curtains - luxuries that have been available to ordinary people only in the past four or five years.

"Good morning - may I help you?" said Irina Boyarskaya as she sprang to her feet to assist a Russian customer.

Boyarskaya, 26, is a saleswoman at Kellerman for Business Ladies, a tiny clothing boutique that caters to busy Russian businesswomen.

Boyarskaya, a high school graduate, said that before applying for the job, she pored over magazines and newspaper articles to learn the proper demeanor. She dresses as the customers do, in simple, classic skirts and matching blouses.

"People say Russian salespeople are rude and indifferent," she said. "But that is because we weren't trained."

One pair of striped silk pants there cost $100. Boyarskaya, who earns $175 a month, said she liked the job because unlike the case in most places she has worked, the store manager treats his employees with respect.

"He never addresses us as `girl,' " she said. "He calls us by our names."

The Russian fascination with style and civility is more than just a novelty after 70 years of communism. It is rooted in a growing nostalgia for an airbrushed pre-Revolutionary past. And that is fueled by anxiety over a brutish, uncertain present.

"People tell me that there are more important problems than etiquette," said Yelena Ilina, the host of "Bonton." "But just because our lives are so hard doesn't mean we don't need good manners."

Before the Soviet Union fell apart, Ilina worked at the Soviet department of forestry while secretly researching gentility in the novels of Tolstoy and Alexandre Dumas.

The daughter of factory workers, Ilina said she created the program because ordinary Russians are desperate to learn how to behave properly.

"Maybe they have saved up some money to go to a restaurant, but they are embarrassed," she said. "They don't think it is for them."

Using actors, her show demonstrates how to tip, how to ask for the check, how to greet a hostess. The actors, she added, wincing, were often as clueless as her viewers. Even after several rehearsals, she said, "They still froze over what fork to use, and men kept forgetting to stand when a lady entered the room."

Russians have a reputation for swinging from one extreme the other, and that is evident in the exaggerated courtliness favored in Moscow and St. Petersburg. On "Bonton," viewers are taught that when a man is introduced to a woman at a party, he must bow from the waist and tenderly kiss her hand.

Not that good manners disappeared under communism. Among the intelligentsia, particularly in St. Petersburg, academics and artists often affected an elaborate courtesy of manner and speech as an act of defiance against Soviet culture.

Even among Bolsheviks, there was a sense of decorum of sorts. When Lenin denounced Stalin in his final testament, it was because of Stalin's rudeness to Lenin's wife.

There are more than 150 students in each session of "European Etiquette," a course taught in five four-hour classes, $10 a class. And while students are mostly intent on learning how to dress and behave for business, the instructor, Vera Murashova, insists that they also learn how to serve tea to the queen of England.

Murashova, who said former students had opened their own etiquette courses in such remote places as Tashkent and Murmansk, also teaches telephone manners, cocktail-party small talk and how to identify and use flatwear.

She has also lectured in Parliament, trying to instill civility and good deportment in Russia's unruly deputies.