By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006
Alexis N. Obolensky, 86, a descendant of White Russian exiles who became a recognizable figure on the Washington gala circuit with his graying walrus mustache, elaborate falconer's outfit and carved ivory cigarette holder, died Feb. 26 at his ancestral property in the Kaluga province of Russia. He had congestive heart failure.
Because of the prominence of his family in czarist Russia, he often used the honorific title of prince during his long career in U.S. government.
For nearly 25 years, he was chief of the State Department's Russian translation section and helped draft arms-reduction treaties at a tense time in U.S.-Soviet relations.
Of the communists who prompted his family's exile, he once said: "They have without exception, even at the worst times of the Cold War, always treated me with a certain respect and a certain deference, not due to my person but due to the family's standing. . . . If you want a flippant answer, I think that's the way it ought to be."
With his Leo Tolstoy-era tailoring, he was a diminutive but distinguished figure at balls and parties that celebrated Russian life and culture. He hosted the annual Russian New Year's Eve Ball at the Mayflower Hotel, which saluted Czar Nicholas II along with Russian music and cuisine.
Sometimes he came gowned as a falconer, with a gold brocade tunic, red sash and leather boots. Other times, he was in similar aristocratic mode, wielding a brass cane. It was his ritual to joke of being like a "Byzantine mummy, exhumed once every year."
However, he found deep satisfaction in reviving the sumptuous lifestyle from the time before his parents fled the 1917 Russian Revolution. "This is recognized as the closest thing to a genuine Imperial Court ball," he said of the New Year's festivity, a cash-bar event attended by tuxedoed and bejeweled diplomats, fellow princes, exiled kings and the occasional U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Mr. Obolensky traced his family to the Rurik dynasty that preceded the rule of Ivan the Terrible. His paternal grandfather helped draft the 1905 October Manifesto, which brought Russia its first constitution. His father, Nicholas Obolensky, was a member of Nicholas II's regimental guard and helped organize a group to rescue the imperial family from Bolsheviks who kidnapped and eventually killed some of its members.
A marked man, the elder Obolensky fled to Germany, where his wife awaited him. Alexis, their only son, was born Oct. 28, 1919, in Heidelberg, Germany. The family settled in Florence after inheriting a villa there.
Alexis Obolensky received a doctorate in international law at the University of Rome. He said he also helped find safe houses in the country for persecuted Jews during the Fascist regime. For this, he once said, he was nearly sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, but friends worked successfully for his release.
In the late 1940s, he began a long career as head of the Russian broadcasting section of Italian state radio. "I read the news, reminded my listeners about historical dates and religious holidays," he told an interviewer in 2002. "We certainly didn't call for a violent overthrow of the existing regime, but we were frank enough in our estimates of the current developments."
An early marriage to Marta Fernstrom ended in divorce, and in 1956 he married Selene Rountree-Smith, an Alabamian studying opera in Rome. He became a U.S. citizen and settled in the Washington area in the mid-1960s, becoming the Commerce Department's top expert on Soviet fisheries.
In 1970, he helped in asylum negotiations for a Lithuanian sailor who had leapt from a Soviet fishing trawler moored alongside a U.S. Coast Guard cutter about a mile off Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Mr. Obolensky reportedly failed to persuade the Coast Guard officials to take the sailor ashore and resolve the situation through diplomatic channels. In consultations with his superiors, the Coast Guard ship's commander allowed the Soviets to board his boat and fetch the kicking and screaming seaman.
The sailor, Simas Kudirka, began to serve a 10-year sentence in a Soviet prison but was released in 1974 when it was found that he was entitled to U.S. citizenship because his mother was born in Brooklyn, N.Y.
According to his family, Mr. Obolensky felt powerless to help Kudirka doing fisheries work, and this had a role in his decision to join the State Department. Through his social connections, he also aided in raising money to help Soviet scholars and writers in exile.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he returned to his immense ancestral estate, Berezichi, about 200 miles south of Moscow. It was then a government-run school for orphans and children with disabilities. The once-lavish building lacked running water, heat and other basic living conditions.
Mr. Obolensky gave up hope of reclaiming this estate and other family properties but worked to raise funds to pay the school's teachers and encourage the children to learn basic trades. A Boyds resident, he was visiting the estate when he died.
A master of nine languages, including Dutch and classical Greek, Mr. Obolensky also developed a keen taste for American jazz piano, preferring the work of Jelly Roll Morton.
Survivors include his second wife, of Boyds; their three children, Sophia Obolensky Day of Columbia, Dimitri Obolensky of Boyds and Selene Obolensky Leatham of London; and three grandsons.