MANILA, December 19, 2005 (STAR) THE X-PAT FILES By Scott R. Garceau - I’d never met a prince or a princess before. So I wasn’t sure what to expect as I waited in the lobby of the Peninsula Manila for Prince Alexey Binetsky and Princess Nataly Golitsyna of Moscow to arrive for our interview. What was the protocol? Was there any bowing or curtsying involved?

When Alexey and Nataly finally did arrive, they were the antithesis of what I’d pictured in my mind – visions of regal balls and ceremonial pageants. First of all, Prince Binetsky was dressed in shorts and a loose short-sleeved shirt, and sported an interesting handlebar moustache. In short, he looked like a tourist. Princess Golitsyna was more formal, in a flowing white blouse and an array of jewelry. They were both very down-to-earth, though – as casual as you would expect any visitors to Manila to be – as they talked about how much they’d grown to enjoy the Philippines, its natural beauty, its culture and its people.

Nataly and Alexey are modern-day nobles, descended not from the Romanov family – whose bloodline effectively ended in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution and the murder of Nicholas II and his family – but from the 12th-century Golitsynas and the 16th-century Binetskys. Once upon a time, there were some 200,000 royal families living in Mother Russia. This number eventually dwindled to around 2,000 through the Stalinist "purges" and their forced emigration to the United States and Europe.

We talked about this royal couple’s yearly sojourn to the Philippines, a place where they – along with an increasing number of Russians – first sought "healing" for medical problems seven years ago. To Pangasinan they went, advised by friends from Europe that this was the place to be "cleansed." During our talk, the Prince translated for the Princess.

"Nataly was between life and death," explains Alexey, who, like Nataly, is somewhere between 40 and 50 years old. "So we decided – it was a choice – go to the doctors and pass through an operation the normal way, or try something else. So we choose this way, and win."

They were so pleased with the results that they now return here once a year, if only for a check-up. "Me as well," adds Alexey. "We call it cleansing the body."

Their first healing session lasted four days. "It depends on what kind of problems you have, what the healer will tell you," explains Alexey, though he declined to elaborate on what procedures took place.

"It may be our imagination," he continues, "but we consider these visits like a cleaning of our body. It’s like every year the car has to pass the DMV inspection, so we’re coming here for the healing inspection."

It turns out that many Russians – and perhaps European royals as well – come here for this reason. According to Alexey: "Prince Albert of Liechtenstein comes here from time to time" for treatment. "Maybe some other noble families as well, but they are trying to keep it in the shadows." Alexey, a lawyer by profession, cites last year’s DOT figures of 3,500 visitors from Russia. "Most of them visited the Philippines because of their health problems," he claims.

Whether true or not, the arrival of Russians is welcome news to the Department of Tourism. Just recently, Filipinos have "discovered" Moscow and St. Petersburg as tourist destinations. Hopefully, more Russians will want to visit the Philippines for all the natural – and maybe supernatural – wonders it offers.

"We are now explaining to our friends in Russia and Europe they can find here the same luxury service and very good food, and the nature of the people with an open heart," says Prince Alexey. "It’s a very good place to be."

You may wonder, as I did, what the function of royalty might be in this modern day and age. While Prince Alexey and Princess Golitsyna have little official role in modern Moscow, they keep very busy championing the arts and culture – Princess Golitsyna, in particular, heads the Russian Club of Art and Culture and organizes a yearly "Hats Party" to display headgear designed by herself and others. Of course, they run in the same social circles as high-ranking government officials, but their role is less clearly defined.

"Officially, we are like all other citizens of the country," explains Prince Alexey. "Maybe we have a little bit more popularity among certain people, and there’s more obligation in our behavior. It’s an obligation to be in front of others.

"From a political point of view, it is interesting. We are still, unfortunately, under the control of Special Services (formerly the KGB) because we have so many friends among the ambassadors and foreigners." As descendants of noble families that were persecuted under communism, their public speech is somewhat closely scrutinized. But Prince Alexey, who specializes in political science, offers his expertise and research on the subject of government corruption and other matters to American and European clients.

"When we talk on the TV, on political matters or on questions of law, you need to control yourself, your mouth. Most of the politicians can talk however they want. There’s no control. But we cannot be like they are. The people – maybe it’s not very polite to talk about politicians – but the people are listening to what people like us are talking about. Because we are not involved" in politics, explains the Prince.

On the other hand, the presence of actual royalty adds some much-needed luster and glamour to "New Russia" – a place teeming with young millionaires and billionaires, but little connection to its historic past. "The ‘New Russians,’ they are looking at the way Nataly and others from royalty are dressing," notes Alexey. "Ten years ago, it was difficult to see a man or woman in Russia with rings and jewelry, but now it’s okay." That’s one thing Filipinos can relate to: Imelda Marcos always did provide a bit of high-maintenance glamour, whatever her other faults. "Practically, royals have small effect culturally," Alexey continues. "It’s a very small percentage that survived. We’re free, actually. We have good professions and some money, so we’re free to do what we want and free to choose whom we want to be with, and whom not to be with. So it’s good."

And royalty is good for society, despite all the scandals and brouhaha attached to, for instance, the British royal family. "Let’s compare, say, Thailand. They have a monarchy, and they have a very stable life. In comparison to, say, Burma nearby. Now they have a military government and there is poverty and no freedom. So it depends. I think it’s a tradition, and if we believe that tradition is the main root on which the tree of society grows, then it should be. But if it is a bad root…" Prince Alexey trails off, leaving us to finish the analogy.

In the modern age, where celebrity is the new royalty, and the appearance of Jennifer Lopez at the opening of a boutique in Moscow raises more of a stir than any government edict, it’s important to remember that the Russian nobles were as persecuted as any other group under Stalin’s rule. Many – like Princess Golitsyna’s family – were forced to migrate to Europe. Her grandfather was killed under Stalin in 1937. One part of her family survived in Paris, while her grandmother and the rest of the family stayed in Russia. "The communists… were afraid of the restoration of monarchy, afraid of the smart people and the noble families, and they killed most of them, actually," explains Alexey. "Our grandfathers, fathers and mothers, they passed through all this horror, and we have something inside us – we just feel it. On the genetic level, we feel it."

This is one of the reasons this royal couple likes traveling: there’s a certain anonymity when visiting, say, the Philippines. "We want to be more familiar with outside people," the Prince says. "Nobody knows who we are, and we feel more comfortable." And they also want to share some of their experiences with other Russians. Toward this end, Princess Golitsyna plans to make a documentary film next year, using Russian and local crewmembers, to document Philippine tradition, nature, culture and art. "We’ve spent the past three days in meetings with painters, officials from the Department of Tourism, the department of culture. She decided she would do something to make our experience more public in Russia. And we’re also talking about exchange projects with local artists and painters."

All this would tie in with next year’s 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Russia. Expect Prince Binetsky and Princess Golitsyna to be back next year for that. "We’re not ambassadors," says the Prince, "but we’re trying to get things moving, so that people will have more knowledge of each other, and they will have their own view – not from books, movies and magazines – and that will bring more Russians here."

In the meantime, they’re enjoying blending in. "It’s interesting, because the rich people have the same life all over the world," the Prince notes. "And if you want to feel how the people are living, it is necessary to go and to see what they’re eating, what kind of a house, what is the furniture, how the kids are playing."

As we finish our talk, I ask the visiting prince and princess where they plan to spend their final day in Manila before heading back to Moscow. "Maybe we will go to Greenhills," says Prince Binetsky as he and Princess Golitsyna cordially rise. "We will go see some pearls."

And I can’t help thinking of Peter the Great, the popular tsar who was said to have spent years in disguise, living among simple Russians to get a better understanding of their lives. Maybe every royal needs to have a bit of the common touch nowadays.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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