When he was a child in the Soviet Union, Konstantin Volosov studied Lenin and Marx. But now, 30 minutes before taking Britain's new citizenship test for immigrants, he focused on the queen's ceremonial duties, the Liverpool accent and the rituals of Boxing Day.
"It's a good idea to learn these things," said Volosov, 32, a mathematics student working on his doctorate at a London university. "I find it ridiculous that people are living here 25 years and know nothing about this country."
Starting Tuesday, the tens of thousands of immigrants who apply for British citizenship each year must pass a new "Britishness" exam, designed to test familiarity with this country's politics, life and customs. The prime minister's official residence is at 10 Downing Street; a dog must wear a collar bearing its owner's name and address -- those who want to hold a British passport are to learn this and much more. The test was designed by government officials who are increasingly worried that immigrants are not integrating into British society, preferring to live in urban enclaves where language, culture and food are separate from this country's traditions.
Fears about immigrants feeling no connection or loyalty to their new country surged following the London transit bombings in July, which killed 52 commuters and injured 700 others. Police have said that the men who carried out the attacks were immigrants or sons of immigrants who were radicalized against Britain w
hile living in this country's South Asian or Caribbean communities.
Last year, in another effort to encourage connection with Britain, the government also instituted a ceremony in which new citizens are required to declare their allegiance to the queen, as well as promising loyalty to Britain and "its democratic values." In the past, a new citizen simply swore an oath of allegiance before an official and received a citizenship notice later in the mail.
British commentators have poked fun at the new test, wondering how many native-born citizens would know some of the more arcane information the newcomers were being asked to learn -- that about 25 percent of British children live in single-parent homes, for instance, and that women, and initially only those over the age of 30, won the right to vote in 1918. Others have also expressed doubts that the test will make immigrants suddenly feel an overwhelming craving for fish and chips and a pint of ale.
People applying for U.S. citizenship also must pass a test, but its questions have tended to focus on history, the system of government, the symbolism of the flag and other civics class-type subjects.
Volosov, 32, who came to London from Moscow nine years ago and has been a student here since, said he believed the British test was a good idea, though he said he would rather be working on his dissertation than poring over his 145-page government handbook, "Life in the United Kingdom," which among other things explains that if you spill someone's drink in a pub, it's "good manners" to offer to buy another.
Volosov said that if he got citizenship, it would be "easier to get a job, a mortgage -- even tuition would be cheaper." He hopes to work in risk management for a financial firm.
Sitting in a test center last Friday, waiting for the exam to begin, he reviewed underlined passages in his handbook, including: "Until 1857, a married woman had no right to divorce her husband."
Seated next to him, Abi Sirokh, 27, a film producer from Morocco, asked a potential test question out loud: "How many countries in the Commonwealth?"
Sirokh, who has lived in London for 17 years, said he was eager to get citizenship because of the growing hassles of international travel. As a young man born in Morocco, he said he often fits the "profile of a terrorist" and is constantly chosen at airports for extra screening. He said he didn't mind taking the Britishness test, but doubted it would have much effect.
"This test is about knowledge," he said. "It's not going to help people integrate with one another."
A third test-taker, Rob Berrington Smith, 30, a motorcycle mechanic from South Africa, said he just wanted it to be over. He failed on his first attempt and had paid another $72 to try again.
All three showed up for the test Friday because they knew they wouldn't be finished with their citizenship applications by Tuesday, Nov. 1, when the test became a requirement.
As Volosov began looking at the questions, in a room full of computers in west London, one of the 90 approved test sites throughout Britain, he was trying to keep straight all the information from his booklet. The dialect in Liverpool is called Scouse. The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day because "servants, gardeners and other trades people used to receive money (a Christmas box) in appreciation for the work they had done throughout the year."
He was given 45 minutes to answer 24 multiple-choice questions and was warned not to discuss the questions afterward. A lot of people are going to be quizzed on the same information: More than 140,000 people were granted citizenship last year.
Volosov finished in less than 15 minutes, and after waiting outside the room for a few minutes, he got the good news: He passed. So did Sirokh and Berrington Smith, who had to run off to work. Volosov and Sirokh, who had never met before, went to celebrate at the Kiwi Kitchen, a New Zealand restaurant down the block.
There, Sirokh smiled and asked the London-born waitress: Do you know when St. George's Day is?
St. George's Day is the national day of England. The English waitress guessed April 12. Then she tried April 30. Sirokh smiled. He knew the correct answer was April 23.