- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Something about Russia and winter seems a natural fit. Perhaps it is the way the elements conspire to mimic our conception of Russian climes, with gray skies, long nights and the kind of cold that seeps into your bones. Or maybe it has something to do with the strains of “The Nutcracker.” It takes more than Tchaikovsky, though, to get a true sampling of Russian soul.

Want to experience something of the medieval city of Novgorod? Head up to Baltimore to the Walters Art Museum’s new exhibition, “Sacred Arts and City Life.”

Interested in Faberge or other art and artifacts from 19th-century Russia? Make your way to Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Northwest, where collector Marjorie Merriweather Post’s assortment of Russian art is showcased.

Afterward, kick back with some pelmeni and Russian Standard vodka at Dupont Circle’s Russia House Restaurant and Lounge, a favorite of transplanted Russians.

Finally, take in a service at St. Nicholas Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, the Orthodox Church in America’s see for all of North America. There light, music and soaring iconography come together in an experience designed to soothe the soul and transform the spirit. Russian Christmas, this Saturday, is the perfect time for such a spiritual adventure.

Much of this and more is featured in the upcoming Smithsonian Resident Associates’ ambitious all-day study tour, “All Things Russian,” which showcases the Walters exhibit.

“What’s interesting about Russian art is that it was at the periphery of the art culture and art elitism that was centered in Paris,” says Anne Odom, former chief curator of Russian art at the Hillwood Museum and author of several books on the Hillwood collections. She will lead the Smithsonian program at the end of the month.

Though the “All Things Russian” program is nearly sold out, you still can sniff out a few things Russian for yourself, although you won’t have Mrs. Odom’s expertise to help you along.

• • •

A good place to start is at the Walters Museum, where “Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod” examines life in Russia’s oldest medieval city. There, the intersection of tradition and trade routes allowed for a vibrant city life that reflected both sacred and secular concerns.

“The degree to which the exhibit tackles the historical aspects of Novgorod is remarkable,” says Mrs. Odom, who will be talking on the exhibit in depth during the return bus trip with the Smithsonian. “It puts what might be seen as just pieces of metal and bits of leather into a historical context.”

So much of Russian art is large and colorful that it’s easy to let some of the smaller, more mundane pieces pass you by. Thankfully, the Walters enables you to experience them both.

Carefully written on a scrap of birch bark is a message from one monk to another, still legible after almost 900 years. What is it? A prayer perhaps, or a plea for intercession with a saint?

Not at all. “You get angry for no reason,” the long-ago monk wrote. “It hurts me that you spoke ill to me.”

Meanwhile, a small child’s boot from the late 14th century provides mute testimony to a life lived in the town. Who crafted it? Who wore it? Most important, what happened to him or her?

In one section devoted to a recent archaeological excavation, something of the iconographer’s art is revealed as the display takes the viewer through the various stages of icon making.

“It’s fascinating,” Mrs. Odom says. “I’m far more taken with it than I normally would be.”

Even for those who are not Russian specialists, the exhibition is a revelation.

“I thought all there was to Russian art was icons,” says Jody Siegel, visiting with her sister from New Jersey. “Now I can see that there is a whole lot more. It’s really captured my interest.”

• • •

Somewhere between interest and obsession lies the substantial Russian collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), cereal heiress and hostess extraordinaire. Mrs. Post developed a serious interest in Russia in the 1930s, says Karen Kettering, curator of Russian art at Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Northwest.

“Russia was such a revelation to her,” Mrs. Kettering says. “She loved the bright colors.”

By the time of her third marriage, to Joseph E. Davies, Mrs. Post already had honed her collecting skills. During her husband’s tenure as ambassador to the Soviet Union (1937-38) she was able to acquire a fairly substantial collection of art and art objects from imperial times, including chandeliers from Russian palaces.

Today, her undertaking is considered one of the most important collections of Russian imperial art outside of Russia and includes about 80 works by Carl Faberge.

“Most Americans, if they knew anything about Russian art, they knew about icons,” Mrs. Kettering says. “She even saved scraps of old textiles that had been picked apart after the Revolution.”

The result is a wide-ranging array of decorative art objects, paintings, textiles and, of course, the famous Faberge eggs.

Hillwood itself arose from the bones of an already established 1926 residence in 1955, after Mrs. Post had divorced her third husband. Mrs. Post made substantial renovations with an eye toward updating the house not only for her own needs, but for those of future generations. Throughout its 36 rooms, pieces of Russian, French and other European art are displayed together.

“She wanted it arranged in the way she lived,” says Mrs. Kettering, who notes that visitors are encouraged to get closer to the art than they could at some other museums. “At Hillwood, we’re all about examining things close-up.”

Though Mrs. Post may have loved all things Russian, she was more than practical when it came to the Soviet Union. The house and grounds contain no fewer than five fallout shelters, completely equipped in case of a nuclear attack, with current magazines that were changed weekly.

• • •

Not had your fill of imperial Russia? Head over to Russia House, tucked away in a turn-of-the-20th-century mansion just north of Dupont Circle. The artwork is large and dramatic, the woodwork is old-style European, and the vodka is icy-cold. Well, at least some of it is.

“Most Russians don’t like their vodka too cold,” says co-owner Aaron McGovern, who, along with partner Arturas Vorobjovas, opened the upscale restaurant and bar in 2003. “They say you can’t really taste it that way.”

If you are wondering about Mr. McGovern’s last name, which doesn’t sound very Russian, you’re right. Mr. McGovern grew up in Northern Virginia and served in the military before joining Mr. Vorobjovas, who is from Lithuania. He has had a long-term interest in all things Russian and Eastern European, from food to art to vodka.

Thanks to Mr. McGovern’s expertise, the bar part of this restaurant and lounge features more than 50 brands and blends of vodka. Some are even mixed in-house.

Of course, the food is Russian, too,with a bit of a twist. Don’t expect to find the same old pirogi and borscht. At Russia House, it’s all about the art — even in the food.

“We took traditional dishes and tweaked them,” says Mr. McGovern, who can be found in the kitchen doing his own tweaking at least a couple of times a week. “For example, we do pelmeni,” he says of the Russian dumplings usually stuffed with pork, “and serve them with chanterelle mushrooms and cream sauce. And we serve game throughout the year.”

The restaurant attracts plenty of homesick Russians, Mr. McGovern says, along with the requisite number of out-of-towners from nearby hotels. There’s always a sprinkling of State Department types and members of the diplomatic corps, too, as well as everyday folk.

“We get a little bit of everyone,” Mr. McGovern says, “but we’re very popular with the twentysomethings.”

• • •

If the long skirts hastily pulled over bluejeans are any indication, a number of twentysomething Russians end their weekend with a visit to St. Nicholas Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest. The place has been a favored stop for Russian-themed Smithsonian tours, Mrs. Odom says.

Except for the old and infirm, most congregants stand throughout the service. As in many churches, worshippers reveal a mix of attitudes toward tradition. Some women, young and old, still wear a head covering upon entering the sanctuary. Some people wear bluejeans; others attend in Sunday clothes and fancy furs. One man goes up to receive Communion proudly sporting a Virginia Cavaliers sweatshirt. Some children stand quietly; others squirm and wriggle their way through the 11/2-hour service.

Nevertheless, for many, regardless of approach, a visit to St. Nicholas is like a visit back home.

“The church is always a home for me,” says Tatjana Kostrova D’Arcangelo, who has been attending services at St. Nicholas for the past three years.

“It’s actually been a first home for me. I was a little shy at first, but I grew into the services and grew into working with the people here.” Now married to an American, Mrs. D’Arcangelo, who is from Vilnius, Lithuania, also works in the church’s gift shop, which sells prayer books, icons and other religious art.

The church began in 1930 after a group of Russian emigres who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union started a small church in a row house in the Dupont Circle area.

The current building, which is based on the 12th-century Cathedral of St. Demetrius in Vladimir, Russia, was completed in the early 1960s.

“It was consecrated and dedicated as the National War Memorial for those who died fighting the Bolsheviks,” says Sergius Miller, a subdeacon at the church. “Later on, that was expanded to include those who had died in American wars.”

Until 1991, the walls of the main sanctuary were white, Mr. Miller says. Then, after negotiations with the Moscow patriarchate, a series of iconographers came over to cover the walls. In 1995, a new icon screen was added as well, the better to harmonize with the new iconography.

Among the prized icons are those behind the choir loft, honoring the victims of communist persecution.

The cathedral is actually a multi-ethnic church that worships in the Russian style. In the 1970s, when English-language services were added, many congregants feared that services in Old Church Slavonic would fade away. However, thanks to the influx of new immigrants, the Slavonic-language services are well attended by young and old.

Many older immigrants, such as Helen Mikhalevsky, attend the English-language liturgy on Sundays. Mrs. Mikhalevsky began coming to St. Nicholas when she was about 12. Her father had been a colonel in the Russian army before he came to the United States during the Great Depression.

Today, Mrs. Mikhalevsky’s fellow worshippers include people from every corner of the former Soviet bloc as well as newly transplanted immigrants and American converts.

Whatever their language preference, it will be the sonorous tones of the Old Church Slavonic that they’ll hear at the cathedral tomorrow night, Christmas Eve, and Saturday, Christmas Day.

Clearly, you don’t have to be Russian to enjoy a Russian church service. Whether you wrap yourself in sables or just your old cloth coat, you should find something Russian in the Greater Washington area to pique your interest, rekindle your spirit or warm your soul this winter.

Finding Russia around Washington

Looking for all things Russ- ian as we approach Russian Christmas? Here’s a sampling to get you started.

• ‘All Things Russian’: This all-day study tour sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates will motor by bus to Baltimore to take in the Walters Art Museum’s exhibit “Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod” and, after lunch, will return to Washington for a talk about Eastern Orthodox tradition at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral. Tour leader is Anne Odom, former chief curator of Russian art at the Hillwood Museum. 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Jan. 28. Admission $102-$148. 202/786-3275 or residentassociates.org/tour-jan/russian.asp

• ‘Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod’: Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles St., Baltimore. Organized by the Walters in collaboration with the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, and the Novgorod Museum Federation, Novgorod, this exhibit shows 290 objects, including 35 icons, that trace the material and artistic culture of Russia’s oldest medieval city. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through Feb. 12. Admission $2-$10. Children under 6 and members free. Admission to the permanent collection only is free on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and all day on the first Thursday of the month. Admission to “Sacred Arts and City Life” will be half price at those times. 410/547-9000, www.thewalters.org

• Hillwood Museum and Gardens: 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. The estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post holds the most comprehensive collection of imperial Russian fine and decorative arts outside Russia. Closed during January. Otherwise open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission $5-$12. Reservations and deposit required. Guided tours may be arranged. 202/686-5807, hillwoodmuseum.org

• Russia House Restaurant and Lounge: 1800 Connecticut Ave. NW (corner of Connecticut and Florida avenues). Dinner 5-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6-11 p.m. Saturday. Lounge open 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday. Russian New Year celebration Jan. 14 will feature a special menu. 202/234-9433, russiahouselounge.com

• St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral: 3500 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Sunday divine liturgy at 9 (English) and 10:45 a.m. (Church Slavonic). Christmas Eve liturgy 7 p.m. Jan. 6, Christmas Day 10 a.m. Jan. 7, both in Church Slavonic. Children’s liturgy 9:30 a.m. Jan. 14, followed by a “yolka” (Christmas tree) party. 202/333-5060, www.stnicholasdc.org

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