- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Music played, vodka flowed, and the caviar got portioned out in little dollops just as expected at last week’s two-day extravaganza marking the grand opening of the Russian Cultural Center.
With a Russian diplomat caught bugging the State Department at the top of the news, speculation was rife as guests arrived for a celebratory dinner and ball at that country’s embassy compound on Wisconsin Avenue NW Friday night. Chatter began the moment they got past the grim-faced security guards at the fortified gates.
“It had to be an inside job,” pronounced Prince Alexis Obolensky, who claimed to know the State Department floor plan quite well after a long career there as chief of Russian language services.
Others thought the eavesdropping Russian was being fed “disinformation” all along and that his arrest was retribution for espionage charges leveled against an American diplomat in Moscow the previous week.
“I think it was payback time and they decided to pull the string,” said a former U.S. ambassador, one of several foreign policy types who asked not to be named.
On the Russian front, the official reaction also was guarded.
“Better not to comment on nasty things,” said Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, who nonetheless put his own perspective on the incident when a reporter approached him at his table.
“There are too many problems in our bilateral relations. This week was just as difficult as other weeks,” Mr. Ushakov said, referring to serious areas of disagreement between the two countries, including Chechnya, the Balkans and what to do about the precarious state of the Russian economy.
Despite tough times and a lack of funds, the Russian government remained steadfast in its commitment to create a cultural center in Washington. After nearly two years of work, it opened last week in a 33-room mansion at 1825 Phelps Place NW in Kalorama that once served as a visa office and a school for embassy children.
The point was driven home by special guest Valentina Tereshkova, the former cosmonaut and “first lady of space” who heads the Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Information Agency.
“The fact that we did find the money shows our government’s willingness to expand and better relations with the U.S.,” Miss Tereshkova said just before guests dined on a troika of various caviars, beef strogonoff and a Pavlova Faberge ice cream surprise in the embassy’s great marble hall.
The food at the party at the cultural center the following night was far less extravagant, but with plenty of cold meat and fish dishes and vodka, of course to suit the craftsmen, artists and contractors who were honored for their painstaking efforts to complete the job on a shoestring budget.
With less than $200,000 allocated for a project that should have cost five or ten times as much, the result was regarded as nothing short of miraculous by those who came to inspect the hand-finished moldings, decorative inlays, pilasters and other details of the first-floor rooms. Almost all of the work, they noted, was done by embassy staff members working nights and weekends in addition to their regular jobs.
“I’m happy there is now a little corner of Russia in Washington,” said the smiling Sergei Sokolov, an embassy carpenter who said he was most proud of his work on the Russian-American Room, where the words “So that our two nations never again polarize” are carved prominently onto the richly polished mahogany-paneled wall.
The center will be the site of a full schedule of programs in the new year when director Natalie Batova and her American counterpart, Lloyd Costley, head of the nonprofit Friends of the Russian Cultural Center, pool resources to produce music performances, art exhibits, lectures and other activities.
But as far as politics go: nyet.
“Politics,” Mr. Costley said, will be “left at the front door.”

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