Russians Thrive on Own Turf

Posted July 24, 2009 at 4:58pm

The imposing white structure that houses the Embassy of the Russian Federation is not exactly a study in inconspicuous design. Located on Mount Alto, the third-highest hill in Washington, D.C., the enormous building stands out among the red brick houses and clustered storefronts on nearby stretches of Wisconsin Avenue Northwest in Glover Park.

Set as it is behind a wrought-iron gate, just slightly removed from the rest of the neighborhood, it is perhaps inevitable that the embassy has taken on, for some, a mysterious air. The famed establishment is even a stop on the Washington Walking Tour’s “North by Northwest— spy tour.

But at least inside the protocol building, the embassy has less an air of clandestine affairs and more a stately sense of Old Europe.

And even though mysteries swirl about underground tunnels and defectors-turned-patriots, those who work within this compound are less concerned with myths and more focused on Russian interests and improving Russian-U.S. relations.

“All those sensational stories are not for us,— said Natalia Batova, cultural attaché at the embassy. “We need to keep working.—

For Batova, that work means exposing the Washington, D.C., community to Russian culture and strengthening relations between her country and the United States. There is a certain fascination on both sides, she said, although long-held prejudices and dated Cold War mentalities have sometimes hindered progress between the two nations.

Perhaps the air of mystery and ongoing fascination isn’t all that surprising. Despite the Cold War having ended 20 years ago, U.S.-Russian relations have often been tumultuous, and for some, old mentalities and suspicions have been hard to let go.

Seated on a deep leather couch and surrounded by colorful oil paintings and intricate glass chandeliers in the Northern Room (known as the Ukrainian Room under the Soviet Union) of the embassy, Batova discussed why it is vital that the embassy work to promote cultural exchange and strong relations. Despite a mutual interest in each other’s culture, Russians and Americans are often shown the darker side of one another’s customs.

“The American people are a focus of our interest, to look at, to get acquainted and in some ways to take from— their lifestyles, she said. “The reason why this fascination is shadowed by the negative is if there is some scandal or something, certainly the press will pick that up and show that, and the Russian press will do the same.—

What’s Inside the Embassy

Despite dark memories of the former Soviet Union, there is much art and beauty to be gleaned from Russian history. In the same way, the embassy’s intimidating facade belies the elegant craftsmanship and rich cultural artifacts inside.

The building that houses the embassy today was completed in 1985 but was not officially opened until 1994. It was commissioned under the Soviet government, but an agreement with the United States stipulated that the new embassy would open at the same time a new American embassy was completed in Moscow. Batova noted that after it was discovered that spies had bugged the American establishment, plans for both were stalled. Eventually, the Americans relented on the original agreement but by then the Soviet Union had collapsed and it was opened as the Russian Embassy.

Nonetheless, remnants of the Cold War era remain in the structure. The Northern Room is decorated with the symbolic Ukrainian walnut tree and a blue and yellow tapestry, reflecting that country’s national colors. Next door is the Southern Room, known during the Soviet period as the Belarusian Room. A cluster of churches and World War II symbols are woven into a tapestry there, along with a figure carrying salt and bread. Batova explains that each of these is integral to Belarusian culture — the World War II symbols recall the heavy losses that nation suffered (they were the only country to not recover their population, she said), while the salt and bread are national symbols of welcome, comparable to the pineapple in America.

Elaborate and massive chandeliers are hung throughout the second floor of the building, each crafted with Bohemian crystal from the former Czechoslovakia.

A great ballroom is decorated in a Russian style, with art painted on the ceiling, which Batova said is typical of similar structures in her home country. At both ends of the room, large panels are designed to further reflect Russia’s past. On one wall, an enamel panel depicts the founding of Russian territories through images of great cathedrals, including St. Sophia’s in Kiev, where Prince Vladimir embraced Christianity and declared his country a Christian nation. At the other end of the room, panels are illustrated with countries that were once under communist rule and are now independent, such as Armenia and the Ukraine. According to Batova, those panels were covered for several years, as they were deemed difficult reminders for those countries of their years under Soviet control.

Of course, not all the art in the embassy reflects the recent past. Great murals outside the ballroom show the Russian seal, as well the emblems of various orders. Other rooms are dedicated to Russian Emperor Peter the Great, as well as one that showcases artists who paint in the Palekh style, referring to a small town outside of Moscow.

A Thriving Compound

While the inside of the building seems as far removed from Washington as one can be, it is only one part of a thriving compound that caters to the needs of those who work there. The ambassador himself lives at the old embassy on 16th Street Northwest, but diplomats and their families have access to on-site apartments, medical facilities, a duty-free shop and a school. That does not mean, however, that they do not engage in the greater community.

“We go to Old Europe, Whole Foods,— Batova said. “It’s a good neighborhood for the locations and connections. That’s what political Washington is about.—

Still, Batova said they are aware that the embassy compound stands out in the neighborhood.

“Sometimes I am joking we are like an artificial tooth, an implant,— she said. “We are here in this neighborhood, but like an implant.—

Their reach expands beyond Glover Park, as well. Batova was the original executive director of the Russian Cultural Centre, which opened in 1999 as a means of making culture and events more accessible to Washingtonians. According to Evgeny Agoshkov, the current director, the center works with several diplomats to bring Russian language, food and art to the city through a range of regular events.

Americans and Russians “have a stage where they can meet each other and speak to each other,— Agoshkov said. “Americans are able to communicate directly with Russian artists and the Russian public.—

The embassy itself also opens up to the public, with events like a Russian Orthodox Christmas party and a Mardi Gras celebration, where traditional Russian stories and dances are performed.

As the mysteries behind both Russian and American culture are cleared, the suspicion and misunderstanding created by the Cold War will continue to break down. Agoshkov summed up the mission behind efforts to make that happen: “The motto is that never again will our nations polarize.—