A sign of the times at the Russian Embassy? No sign

January 02, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- The switchboard operator now answers "Hello, Russian Embassy." The Russian tricolor of Peter the Great now flies from the roof. And the wall by the front door is blank where a sign once declared this to be the Embassy of the Soviet Union.

"Frankly, we don't have a new one," said a neat, mustachioed man, who would identify himself only as a diplomat at the former Soviet Embassy in Washington. A new sign is on order.

"It would be strange to say Soviet Embassy when there is no such a country," the man explained after relinquishing his post at the switchboard on New Year's Eve. The operator had gone home early. A video of "Mutiny on the Bounty," with Marlon Brando, played above the desk.

Since Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared all Soviet embassies to be the property of the Russian Republic, the diplomat and the rest of the staff had expected a change in the flag, sign and embassy stationery for several weeks.

Russia, the largest of the former Soviet republics, has since joined with other newly independent republics in a Commonwealth of Independent States.

The embassy on 16th Street in northwest Washington made the formal transition to Russian status on Dec. 26, the day after Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union.

It's not a new role for the old building, which housed the last of Czar Nicholas II's diplomats from 1915 until 1918, the year after the Russian Revolution. The United States refused to recognize the new Soviet Union until 1933, but after that, the building was home to Soviet diplomats.

The diplomat on duty recounted this history while standing in a long foyer lined with mirrored panels.

So far, he said, there are no plans to look for a new building. And as for the deep red carpet -- a symbol of the Revolution and the color reserved by most nations for greeting dignitaries -- the diplomat laughed and said, "a very convenient color."

Since the change from Soviet to Russian status, he said, "we have received a lot of calls from Americans [asking] if we want to sell our old flag," as well as the Soviet embassy stationery and other memorabilia of the old U.S.S.R.

The diplomat had no idea what would become of these newly outmoded emblems, but he expressed distaste at the thought of their fetching high prices as collectors' bric-a-brac.

"We don't sell them," he said.

Already, friends have told him of flag stores selling out supplies of the old hammer and sickle. He mentioned one on Wisconsin Avenue, in the heart of toney Georgetown.

Actually, the location he suggested was not a flag store, but a Britches Great Outdoors clothing emporium.

But the diplomat was right in the end because the store has sold out of a multi-flag rugby shirt that included the old Soviet emblem. Jay Hughitt, the store manager, said the hammer and sickle on a field of red adorning the right sleeve was the reason that 300 of the shirts had been snapped up since the week after Thanksgiving.

As customers browsed through the pricey $59.50 shirts, Hughitt said, he'd point out the Soviet flag and advise them, "Like this you'll never see again. . . . Buy it."

And they did. Hughitt said he was sold out two days before Christmas, and that no new shirts were being made. Already, they are collectors' items.

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