- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

It was another celebration of Russian New Year's Eve in the Mayflower Hotel's Grand Ballroom Friday night, where 300 Russians, Russian-Americans and special friends raised their glasses (repeatedly), danced (enthusiastically), dined and then drank and danced some more.

The lively black-tie ball has been run for years by Prince Alexis Obolensky, 81, and his wife, Princess (Selene) Obolensky, 71, and it tends to be more about preserving the fading past than looking to the year ahead. The traumas that Russia endured in the 20th century still weigh on and define them his family fled the Bolsheviks during the revolution and it remains to be seen whether future generations will attempt to take on their role as the glue of the gathering.

Luckily for the younger folks, the Obolenskys are not ready to give up the reins quite yet. "As long as we have our marbles, we're going to keep doing it," Princess Obolensky said. Besides, now that the ball is 31 years old, "It kind of runs itself."

She, like several other guests, wore a period headpiece: Hers was a traditional kokoshnik, a tall, white, bejeweled headdress with loops of pearls hanging below her chin, from ear to ear. It's a replica of the kokoshnik worn by the prince's grandmother at an imperial ball in 1904.

Prince Obolensky, a small, mustachioed man, wore a traditional Russian falconer's costume and amused guests by joking that he was a "Byzantine mummy, exhumed once every year" for the party. But he's serious about the importance of the unique "Old Russian" emigre community he presides over. "We are an elite, a striking force," he told the crowd. "And nothing in Washington can match the style and elegance of this ball."

The guests, who included Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and wife Svetlana, and former Missouri Rep. James W. Symington and his wife, Sylvia, were mostly friends or relatives (or friends of friends or relatives) of the Obolenskys, who met in Rome in the 1950s. Mr. Symington said his love for Russia began around that time, when he went there as a student with a guitar and "sang on the street and wandered around." More recently, he helped bring to Washington the statue of the 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin, which now sits on the corner of 22nd and H streets NW.

Proceeds from the evening's ticket sales ($130 each) and the $2,700 from the auction of a painting and a tea set go to the Boarding School for Special Children at the Obolensky family's former estate in Kozelsk, Russia, and to the Tolstoy Foundation and American-Russian Aid Association, both of which assist the elderly. Washington weatherman Bob Ryan led the auction, peppering it with some weather quips "Look at those clouds," he said, pointing at the landscape painting, and throwing in a free forecast for the winner.

Also in attendance were Vladimir and Suzanne Tolstoy. Mr. Tolstoy is writer Leo Tolstoy's grandnephew, and though his elegant wife is, as she puts it "a good Italian girl," she seems nearly as Russian as Anna Karenina or, for that matter, Princess Obolensky, who was once Selene Smith of Alabama.

Most of the original emigres, who fled Russia in the period from shortly after the revolution through the mid-1920s are, of course, no longer alive. "They are no longer with us," Mrs. Tolstoy said, her fur coat draped across her shoulders, "but their spirit is."

Entertainment consisted of fourth-generation Russian-American girls doing folk dances, a balalaika troupe, traditional dancers from the country of Georgia and a big band orchestra that played Western-style dance music (including a tongue-in-cheek version of "Georgia on My Mind").

Politics didn't find much of a conversational foothold in the lively ballroom, despite the fact that the presidential inauguration was a mere week away. Boris Shiriaed, a professor of international relations from St. Petersburg University, said he was nervous that the new Bush administration would be tougher on Russia; Mr. Ushakov felt it was "better to avoid such questions tonight."

Real estate agent Allison LaLand, a perennial guest, said that the ball's atmosphere changed after the Soviet system collapsed. During the Cold War years, there had been an element of illicit excitement "as though you were doing something you shouldn't be doing," she said, "like when they played the Russian national anthem."

But the bejeweled and graying crowd is not really rebelling against anything anymore. Modernity has relegated its beloved traditions to the history books. The ball, nowadays affected only marginally (if at all) by changing political winds, is the only constant.

"It's not that the ball has changed," Princess Obolensky said, "so much as the world has changed."


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