President Bill Clinton (right) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin toast during a dinner at the Russian Embassy in Washington, September 28, 1994. Source: AP
A casual visitor or passing jogger might be tempted to compare the Russian embassy in Washington D.C. to Russia itself.
The sleek, marbled exterior of the embassy, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this September, is as white as a blizzard on the tundra. Its eight stories symbolize the eight time zones from Moscow to Magadan. Its spherical shape is like a block of ice cut from the Neva, which runs through St. Petersburg.
In contrast to Russia’s colorful culture and rich art, however, the Russian embassy building situated on Mount Alto, the third highest hill in Washington, D.C., is austere.
Its 12.5 acres are home and workplace for close to 700 Russians, including employees’ families, according to Yury Melnik, first secretary of the embassy. Its buildings include the chancery, a ceremonial building and a nine-story apartment complex.
The complex was designed by Soviet architect Michael Posokhin, who also designed the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow. Source: AP
Although the embassy was inaugurated in 1994, with President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin sitting at a great oak-and-birch table, its history began more than 20 years earlier as an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.
By the 1960s, the Soviet Union had outgrown the historic mansion on Sixteenth Street that served as their embassy, and is today the ambassador’s residence. Most embassy employees had to commute between several office spaces and work in cramped quarters. According to Melnik, who is also the chief of the ambassador’s staff, the number of Soviet personnel then was comparable to Russian staff now.
“If you compare building sizes, it must have been amazingly crowded. In a room like this,” Melnik said, looking around a tea parlor, “six or seven desks would be crowded.” The new complex “gave people space to breathe and work naturally.”
When it became clear that more space was needed, the State Department approved a new Soviet embassy at the site of a razed veterans’ hospital on Wisconsin Avenue.
The ceremonial building hosts diplomatic meetings, press conferences, and celebrations.
The FBI and other intelligence agencies were quick to point out the property had a direct line of sight to the Capitol, the Pentagon and the White House, facilitating eavesdropping on radio communications and capturing telephone calls by microwave, writes espionage author and D.C.-based journalist, David Wise.
In contrast, following a 1969 reciprocal agreement leasing land in Moscow to the United States, Moscow granted Washington a permit to build a high-rise embassy there on one of the lowest points in the city, along the banks of the Moscow River.
“There is a joke,” Melnik said, that “the Russian embassy observes
D.C., and the only thing that observes the embassy is the National Cathedral,”
which towers overhead only four blocks away.
Despite the benefits of the site, the Mount Alto location was not the Soviets first or even second choice. They had requested property closer to the National Mall and their existing embassy, but when the veterans hospital closed, the U.S. government found it logical to assign the expansive property to the Soviets, according to Melnik.
Although the Washington Post made only a small mention of the construction when the Soviets broke ground on the site in 1977, U.S. intelligence agencies were paying closer attention. In a tit-for-tat mini-Cold War, both embassies faced repeated setbacks at every turn as each country searched each slab of concrete and window frame for unwanted transmitters or vulnerable points.
Work on the biggest and most expensive intrusion, a tunnel under the Soviet embassy, began as soon as the State Department assigned the location to the Soviet government, although serious digging had to wait until major construction could mask it.
The tunnel yielded few insights into Soviet secrets, David Wise writes in his book “Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.” The most likely reason: Robert Hanssen, an FBI double agent, had given away this colossal secret. In 2001, after unearthing Hanssen as a mole, American intelligence agencies discovered the Soviets knew about the existence of the tunnel a decade before the embassy opened its doors.
Despite setbacks, the staff moved into the apartment complex in 1980, and the embassy was completed in 1985, although use of the ceremonial building and chancery was delayed until 1994. The “two-end deal” stipulated that neither embassy could begin functioning until both countries were satisfied with their embassies, Melnik explained. However, when it came time to open both embassies, the Soviet Union no longer existed.
“These halls never served the purposes of representing the republics that initially signed the agreement of the Soviet Union,” said Melnik. All symbols directly related to the Soviet Union, such as the flag, the coat of arms, and state colors, changed before the embassy officially opened.
Nevertheless, the buildings are a “quintessential representation of the Soviet Union and modern Russia,” said Melnik. It’s easy to spot vestiges of the Soviet Union and even the Russian empire in their decoration and names. The space where visitors enjoy tea and cookies is the Belarus room; across the hall is a blue room, designed to represent Ukraine; and a third ceremonial room stands forRussia, representing the three original republics of the Soviet Union.
The rooms on the upper level of the building more closely reflect the imperial period of Russia, with wall colors of nautical blue and emerald green and regal gold, rich hues that give these rooms their names. Diplomatic meetings, receptions and press conferences take place in these lushly decorated rooms, which recall the grandeur of St. Petersburg’s palaces and the stately elegance of Moscow’s Kremlin. The building is also used for state holidays, such as Russia Day on June 12, when the ambassadorial staff grills Russian shish kebabs known as shashlyk and hosts a picnic for guests.
The grounds of the embassy are complete with a school, day care, grocery store, movie theater for personal and educational use, pool, play area for children and bar. The structure of the courtyard is similar to the yards of Russian apartment complexes, with a communal atmosphere in the center of the living quarters.
As Melnik walks through this mini-version of a Russian neighborhood, he points out beautiful peach trees next to the playground that never grow ripe. “The kids pick them off before they are ready,” says Melnik, ruefully. “They do bloom beautifully, which must be why they’re here, because the children never let us enjoy the fruit.”
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