Cloistered Existence in Washington; No American Friends : Life Is Lonely, Full of Questions for Soviet Diplomats

Associated Press

Anna, a Soviet scholar who came to the United States to learn English, was curious about American life--but afraid.

Afraid to depart from the cloistered existence led by the 277 Soviet diplomats in Washington, Anna never ate in an American restaurant or visited an American home during her three-month stay in the U.S. capital.

Except for Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin, a familiar face at Washington's large, official functions, most Soviet diplomats never are seen on the social circuit.

Americans are rarely invited inside the Soviet Embassy complex. And American scholars and officials specializing in Soviet affairs are so protective of their Russian contacts that they avoid talking for attribution.

Despite an obsessive secrecy about their life here, the Soviet presence in Washington can hardly be overlooked.

The new Soviet Embassy, a sprawling complex of white marble, looms over Washington, a city within a city, walled with white brick, fenced with black iron. Camera eyes focus on every corner, every sidewalk, every fence.

Located on a prime piece of real estate, one of the highest points in the city, it includes a 165-unit apartment building, a four-story consulate building, an auditorium, a school, an olympic-size swimming pool, a playground and an underground parking area.

Some U.S. officials observe that the compound's location high on a hill is an ideal spot for electronic eavesdropping.

"You play by their rules," said an American contractor who worked on the embassy's construction but spoke on the condition he not be identified. "Everything you take in has to be checked. They're wondering if we're putting bugs in. I understand their security precautions, but we wouldn't take those risks."

What goes on inside the embassy is a mystery. One can telephone the embassy press office for days and no one answers. Calls that are answered are never returned by the press officer. Requests for interviews with Soviet families are filed and forgotten.

Anna--a fictitious name--wasn't authorized to meet with Americans. Through an intermediary, she agreed to sit down with a reporter in a neutral location where she wouldn't be seen and on the condition that she not be identified.

Her experience personalized general information and statistics provided in more than two dozen interviews, including Soviet experts inside and outside government, individuals doing business with the embassy and neighbors whose property overlooks the embassy.

Anna avoided direct answers to questions. Asked if she would like to be invited to the American's home for dinner, she said yes. Yet when pressed to set a date, she said no.

Could the reporter call her at the embassy?

She said she had no phone.

Could one leave a message at the gate?

Anna shook her head. "Please, no."

She accepted the reporter's phone numbers but never called.

Yet, in a 90-minute conversation, the young woman asked dozens of questions about America: The scope of salaries, a week's grocery budget, the cost of housing, the kinds of vacations possible. She expressed surprise that the government doesn't provide free skiing, that doctors' bills are so high.

She also provided a glimpse of what life is like beyond the electric gates that close off the embassy from the rest of America.

Like more than half of the diplomats or official Soviet guests, Anna lived in one of the apartments in what Soviets call "the Complex." She said apartments are furnished alike.

Senior diplomats and top officials are permitted to live in private apartments around the city, but their addresses must be filed at the State Department, American officials said. Most Soviets stay in Washington an average of three to four years, compared to the usual two-year posting of American diplomats in Moscow.

Many residents in the middle-class neighborhood that surrounds the embassy say they have little contact with embassy diplomatic life. They say children who play on the grounds sometimes talk to them through the fence. Some complain about interference on their television set from electronic equipment, while others worry that the Soviets eavesdrop electronically on private conversations.

"It's like living next to Siberia," said Rufus Lusk III, who lives in the Glover Park neighborhood. "It's like a skyscraper in your back yard."

According to American officials, Soviets are permitted to travel for about a 25-mile radius around the city, except to military bases. With notice of one or two days, they say, the Soviets may be allowed to visit such recreation spots as Kings' Dominion amusement park near Richmond, Va., and Ocean City, Md., or such historical sites as Annapolis, Md., or Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

State Department officials said the Soviets must receive special permission to travel to closed areas such as Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis--as well as the metropolitan areas that surround Boston and Chicago.

As is true with American diplomats in Moscow, about 20% of the country is closed to Soviets at all times, State Department officials said.

Recreation Spot

The Soviets operate a country retreat called Pioneer Point on the Eastern shore of Maryland which they use for recreation, as well as meetings, American officials said.

But what is everyday life like in the city?

For Anna, it was lonely.

Like most "temporary guests" from the Soviet Union, she was not allowed to bring her husband and two children to the United States with her.

Anna attended a private language school with other foreign students. She mingled with them after class, but said she had no contact with them outside of school.

For recreation, she attended Russian movies shown in the embassy three or four times a week. She said she sometimes watched American television on the Japanese color set that is provided in every apartment.

She played volleyball three times a week on the women's team but thought the men had a better deal because they played against other embassy teams.

Soviets Buy Basics

Anna shopped in local neighborhood stores, sometimes with other people from the embassy. The manager of the deluxe Safeway grocery in Georgetown, a few blocks from the embassy, said Soviets ignore the gourmet items and buy basics--meat and potatoes.

Twice a week, they were taken in one of the embassy's unmarked, blue and white buses to discount grocery shops in the suburbs. The embassy provides some top officials with cars.

Anna's taste in clothes reflected American fashion of 25 years ago. During the interview, she wore heavy blue eye shadow and bright nail polish, a hot pink mohair turtleneck with a plaid skirt. She fingered the gold chains around her neck as she talked.

She said she missed her husband and children and daydreamed about the gifts she would take home--automobile parts for her husband, video games and a Barbie doll for the kids.

American officials say the Soviets are frugal with their money in the United States, but stockpile quality appliances before they leave the country--washers and dryers, stereos, televisions, videos.

Soviet children in the embassy watch a lot of television and rarely meet American children, Anna said. They are not permitted to attend American schools but attend the embassy school, taught by Soviet teachers, until they are 10 or 12. Then they usually return to Moscow to continue their education. Anna added that the Soviet children love to go out for a pizza or to McDonald's for a hamburger and french fries.

Anna said that when she got lonesome, she would have dinner with a neighbor and ask to wash the dishes afterward, a mundane chore, perhaps, but one that brought pleasure to her lonely life: It reminded her of home.

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