Cultural ambassadors popularize Russia in D.C.

The Zaitsevs sitting in the Russian-style kitchen, complete with samovars in the Russian Cultural Center in D.C. Source: Press Photo

The Zaitsevs sitting in the Russian-style kitchen, complete with samovars in the Russian Cultural Center in D.C. Source: Press Photo

A handful of Russians live and work in Washington, D.C., with the purpose of bringing the best of Russia to the Beltway.

Yuri and Galina Zaitsev are in the process of transforming the Russian Cultural Center (RCC) from a well-kept secret to an intimate, salon-style venue for cultural study and debate.

Since their arrival in Washington D.C., the married couple has cultivated a homey, warm-hearted atmosphere, at the same time inviting Russian and American academics, museum directors, authors and researchers, to engage with each other—often for the first time. Their approach, at the very least, is advancing the Russian-American conversation.

One Dec. 4,  the Zaitsevs hosted Sergei Myasoedov, a university professor and presidential appointee who finds himself at the heart of Russia’s excruciating educational reform. He spoke candidly about generational differences and the long hard road ahead. He compared the process of change to “Moses in the desert for 40 years.”

Other panelists, including Georgetown University professor and Senior Associate Dean at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, Paul Almeida, offered up the possibility of educational exchange as “a way out of the desert faster,” through more extensive and codified educational partnerships. Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow, discussed his use of distance learning with students and colleagues to modernize education. 

A home for learning

A few weeks earlier, a group of 35 honors students with 6 teachers from Omaha, Nebraska visited the RCC.  The students are focusing on the history of space exploration; many of them are also studying Russian intensively for a program called “Academic Decathlon.” Along with the Russian Embassy, the RCC has become one of the few oases where students can learn the Russian language in a group setting or through one-on-one tutorials.

And early in the fall, RCC invited Russian and American experts for a lively discussion on the enigmatic history of Fort Ross. The historic site celebrated its 200th anniversary this past summer. The former Russian settlement and colony, which is now a national park, involved the cooperation of Russians, Spaniards and Mexicans, as well as Native Americans before it was abandoned and sold to an American in the 1840s. Its mysterious unraveling is the subject of great academic debate.

From Isolation to Renovation to Reset

The Russian Cultural Center is the offspring of a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia for providing cultural centers in both countries, and is supported by the Russian government and the American nonprofit, Friends of the Russian Cultural Center.

RCC found its home in a magnificent mansion of yellow brick nearing the crest of a hill in D.C.’s  Kalorama neighborhood. The Soviet Union bought the Phelps Place building in 1957, when it was first an embassy school. In 1999, it underwent extensive renovations to become the Russian Federation’s 53rd cultural center abroad.

“There really was an Iron Curtain,” Jack Matlock, ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991, told The Washington Post in 1999. “We didn’t have a cultural center [in Russia].

“Sometimes we forget how far we have come in our dialogue,” Galina Zaytseva said as she gave a tour of the Phelps Place palace this autumn, with its carved oak staircase and .

The Zaitsevs sat in the Russian-style kitchen, complete with samovars and walls Galina hand-painted to look like exposed brick.  They enjoy their roles as host and hostess, and find there is much more ongoing collaboration, at least more than people know about. “We hope our center is a place where Russians and Americans can come and talk about our shared past and our future, together,” said Zaytseva.

For more information about the Russian Cultural Center in D.C. visit its website

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