GLASNOST, they said. I thought it meant the Cold War was over, so to reestablish relations with our old allies and new friends, I set out to see what there is of Russians and their culture in the Washington area.

My experience of Russian culture in Washington included the infrequent appearances of the Bolshoi Ballet, which always sell out the day before I hear they're coming, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which folded its tent in 1963.

Our Russian community is fairly small compared to that of San Francisco or Long Island, but it's very active. The influx of Russians has been more or less regular, but three distinct waves of immigration brought most of them to these shores. Just after the 1917 revolution, the immigrant group was largely aristocratic. When a woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia settled near Charlottesville, an entourage of immigrants maintained a rump court around her. From time to time interest flares in the Anastasia mystery, most recently in a television miniseries which NBC aired last December and plans to re-run later this year or in 1988. The decades between the wars and after WWII marked the arrival of many two-time refugees who had first tried living in western European cities and then fled the Depression and conflict for the United States. The third wave, washing round us now, is largely driven by religious and political tensions.

Stalking Russian culture in Washington starts at cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post's mansion at 4155 Linnean Avenue NW.: HILLWOOD

Overlooking Rock Creek park, this magnificent mansion claims to contain the largest collection of Russian art treasures outside the motherland. When she died in 1973, Post left it all to us; the museum now is operated by the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation.

Post set her table with fine porcelain and glass, decorated her rooms with priceless antiques and decorative objects, and filled her coffers with precious gems and metals. Many were acquired in 1937-38, when she was in Moscow with her third husband, ambassador J. E. Davies, and the Soviet government was selling off Czarist treasures to finance industrial development. Her passion for things Russian endured, and for decades the world's dealers brought their Russian works to the mistress of Hillwood.

Portraits of Romanovs line the walls, imperiously overseeing tourists, scholars and the occasional Soviet diplomat curious about the bad old days. Hillwood's assistant curator Anne Odum says, "Probably these paintings are some of the many copies of official portraits which were hung on the walls of provincial offices, similar to the photographs of presidents in U.S. embassies."

Princess Dashkova smiles down into a stairwell. A mathematician appointed director of the Russian Academy of Sciences by Empress Catherine the Great, the Princess met and evidently impressed Benjamin Franklin, because he subsequently nominated her to the American Philosophical Society. In turn, the American inventor was accorded a place in the Russian Academy.

About an hour into the tour, treasure torpor glazes the eyes, numbs the brain. The approximately 90 gold-and-enamel bibelots by Faberge' run together in my mind despite the instructive comments of the expert guide. How could one person have obtained so many fabulous pieces? Here are, for instance, the porcelain dinner services with the insignia of the four secret orders of knights appointed by the crown and used once a year when the knights would dine with the Empress or Czar. Could it be that Post was really Anastasia and managed to smuggle out the family silver and plates?

The tour isn't over yet; the Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical treasures are a must-see. Next year marks the beginning of the second millennium of the Byzantine Orthodox rite, and Hillwood's remarkable metal icons will be part of a major international exhibition coordinated by the Smithsonian. In the former staff dining room, a magnificent gold chalice studded with diamonds competes for sighs with elaborate vestments embroidered with gold thread.

Amid the cunning enameled Faberge' boxes, the filigree jewelry and gold notebooks perhaps used for writing billets-doux to that handsome hussar at the court ball, one display case is filled with stark simple Art Deco objects: cigarette boxes, lighters, pen sets. Seen among all the gold and silver, they remind us that one era's ordinary objects become another's objets d'art.

Nearly hidden among the trees on the grounds is a dacha (summer house) full of decorative articles given Mrs. Post by her friend Mme. Augusto Russo, wife of the Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1936-41. The humble wooden cottage, derived from old-fashion peasant dwellings, contrasts vividly with the malachite vases, Faberge' silver coffee set, porcelain, glass and textiles.

Entry to the Hillwood gardens costs $2 and includes admission to the dacha and an American Indian museum. The gardens are open 11 to 4 daily. Hillwood museum is open daily except Tuesday and Sunday, for reserved tours (call 686-5807, well in advance). The $7 admission includes the two-hour guided tour of the mansion, a short film and admission to the gardens, dacha and Indian museum. Hillwood Museum will commemorate the millennium of Russian Orthodoxy with lectures and tours; call Susan Wright, 686-0410.

(The Malcolm Forbes collection of Faberge' eggs at The Forbes Building in New York City is open to the public. Closer to Washington, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond owns more than three hundred pieces by Peter Carl Faberge', including five imperial Easter eggs. The Walters Museum in Baltimore owns one of the largest collections of Byzantine icons in the United States and two Faberge' eggs.) PIECES & FRIENDSHIP: IT'S OFFICIAL

As part of the rapprochement between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., major cultural exhibitions are being exchanged. The American show opened in Moscow in June. On November 25, the Soviet exhibition "U.S.S.R.: Individual, Family, Society" opens at the Departmental Auditorium and continues through December 22, daily 10 to 6, free. Soviet guides will be available to answer questions and escort groups. Most visitors will probably take the promised goodie-bag of souvenirs and wander through the displays of arts, crafts, fashion, folklore. Soviet scientists, cosmonauts, athletes and children will be on hand to participate in meetings and discussion groups and there will be slide shows and films. THE CHURCH

The Russian Orthodox Church is a focal point of Washington's Russian community. Even emigre's who have relaxed their personal adherence to the ancient religious rituals look to the church for cultural and community cohesion. This past Easter, for example, St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral, 4001 17th St. NW., held open house and served a massive feast that attracted the whole spectrum of the local Russian community.

A children's Russian folk dance troupe performs at Church functions, the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap and other area folk festivals. Under the direction of Rebecca Nazaretz, the children have added Polish and Ukrainian dance routines to their repertoire. Twirling and turning to the accordion music of Michael Nazaretz, the dancers create a colorful moving collage in their bright costumes, copied by their mothers from traditional Russian clothes dating back to the 17th century. Young people age 8 and older who are interested in participating in the Russian folk dance group may call Mrs. Nazaretz at 521-9654.

Russian culture and the orthodox symbolism and ritual cannot be separated. For centuries, the religion has been a principal cultural reference point for all Russians, particularly for the peasant class who had virtually no other access to the arts. The liturgy, church architecture and ritual derive from Greek Orthodox heritage and are closely related to that most immediate reference point, the human body. For example, the cupola dome and spire pointing upwards symbolize the human head striving for close mystical association with God. (It has also been suggested that the rounded "onion" dome was used to keep the snow off. I think it represents a pregnant woman, the Great Mother of Us All.)

Typically quite plain, the church exterior symbolizes the need for humility and modesty. The inside is elaborately ornamented with icons, gold leaf, frescos and carvings to show the rich interior life of the spirit. Church layout also communicates the structure of the religion. The nearly hidden sanctuary area represents the invisible participation of the godhead, i.e. God and His Son Jesus; the main public room represents the body of the congregation. The space most removed from the sanctuary, the narthex, is where nonbelievers and penitents stand during the ceremony.

A Russian Orthodox service is complex and lengthy. Bells signal the beginning of the service composed of choir and priest singing and chanting a melodic dialogue. Although I understood not a word of the Russian-language service I attended, the haunting melodies pleased my ear and moved my soul. Serving a congregation of Russians, most services are in Slavonic, but St. John the Baptist occasionally holds services in English. Father Victor welcomes visitors and asks only that appropriately modest clothing be worn. Call 726-3000.

In the heart of Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue NW, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox congregation is under the spiritual guidance of Father Dimitry Grigorieff. The congregation at St. Nicholas differs from St. John the Baptist in that "most of our parishioners are either descendants of Russians or descendants of related Slavic peoples, or converts," Father Grigorieff says. Except during July and August, Sunday Services are conducted in English at 9 and in Slavonic at 10:45. Evening Russian language classes are open to the community at nominal cost. The annual St. Nicholas' Bazaar Russe (October 24 & 25 this year) with handicrafts, imports, books and records on sale is also a good place to sample authentic Russian food. Call 333-5060. ART

The Dumbarton Oaks art collection contains two post- Byzantine icons that can be attributed to Russian origins, though all the Byzantine and Greek objects could be viewed as sources for Russian ecclesiastical art. "The entire jewelry collection is not always on display," assistant curator Stephen Zwirn warns, "but Dumbarton owns a curious pair of earrings called Kolti, attributed to the Kiev area, which are large and hollow because they would be stuffed with perfume-scented material and they are on display." There is only one other pair in the U.S.A., at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. Dumbarton Oaks, at 1703 32nd St. NW, is open 2 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. Admission $1. 338-8278.

A comprehensive collection of post-Stalinist art is owned by Washington economist Norton Dodge, who began documenting Soviet art in 1962. "It's my biggest form of sublimation," he says. "I wanted to be a painter, but early on I realized that I had too many interests. Art didn't consume me as it should if you're going to be an artist, so I began collecting."

Why collect Soviet art? "There is a great deal of neglect in analyzing what happened in Soviet art during the thaw after Stalin's death. Soviet art was not written about, not shown. Dealers had no sources. Even if the art isn't good, and some of it isn't, it's worthy of collecting just to see what survives even under a regime."

Now maintained by the Cremona Foundation, the collection of more than 3,000 works is not on public display but Dr. Dodge lends generously to galleries, museums and colleges around the country. "Viewers find the (Russian) art interesting. It's representational, mostly, and that's what people are interested in again."

One gallery that benefits from Dodge's largess is the Firebird Gallery, 814 North St., Alexandria, managed by Dennis Roach and open by appointment (684-0377). A show of the Russian emigre' painter Victor Skersis' work is planned for this winter.

Alexandria dealer Robert F. Murray specializes in contemporary Soviet art. His Von Brahler Gallery at 304 Russell Rd., open by appointment only (683-7474), represents several Russian-emigre' artists including Otari Shiuk and Yury Kokoyanin. Von Brahler Gallery also promotes Russian emigre' fashion designers Lali Bailey and Luba Taubvurtzel. MUSIC

Washington music lovers are fortunate that the city is visited by a wide variety of Russian musicians, and a few make their homes here. Levine School of Music professor Sieva Lezhnev is one. He came to Washington 17 years ago after leaving his cellist position in the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Lezhnev makes up the Russian third of The Levine Trio (the other two are Bulgarian and Australian). For an insider's view of Russian musical education and contemporary Russian music, be at the Folger Library at noon November 5 for Lezhnev's turn in the Midday Muse lecture series. Levhnev also performs for schools as part of the Fairfax County Creative Arts Program. LITFUND

Who in Washington would you turn to if you were a newly arrived emigre' or defector? Or if you were a visiting Soviet official? Doyenne of Russian culture in the Washington area, Helen Yacobson welcomes both groups to her home. A George Washington University professor emeritus of Slavic languages, Yacobson promotes literary and cultural exchange through LitFund, a cultural group with a name and history that date to pre-revolutionary Russia. Today, Litfund has a mandate to preserve Russian culture abroad.

Yacobson is involved with worldwide preparations for the 1988 celebration of the millennium of Byzantine Catholicism. She edits and reviews publications, organizes scholarly conferences, leads small tours through her private collection of Russian art and, through it all, nurtures newly arrived emigre's. With her own heritage rooted in the Russian aristocracy, Yacobson comments, "I have a duty to provide continuity for the cultural traditions that I left behind as a girl."

"LitFund offers the Russian speakers of this area an opportunity to practice their language skills and a chance to mix with people of a different social or political milieu," Yacobson says. "We are a forum for Russian poets and writers who might not otherwise be heard." Musical programs might be more accessible to the non-Russian speaker, though occasionally the LitFund program is in English (as when the guest speaker was Tom Clancy, author of The Hunt for Red October, et. seq.). Membership is $6 per year. Information and a schedule of events are available from LITFUND, 3518 Porter St. NW, Washington DC 20016. DA, VIDEO SPOKEN HERE

Would you believe that BBK Electronics at 15873 Redlands Rd., Rockville (near the Shady Grove Metro), has the only video club in the D.C. area that specializes in Russian films? "Mostly Americans rent the films," owner Boris Kofman says. "They want to learn Russian or they are already taking Russian courses." With 150 Russian titles including classics from the '50s and a few movies with English subtitles, BBK has cornered the local market. Fees are $2 for the first day and 50 cents each additional day to a three-day maximum. 670-0698. LANGUAGE STUDY AND PUBLICATIONS

During one of my conversations with Washington area Russians, a GWU colleague of Mrs. Yacobson, Nikita Marovsky, proffered a copy of the Russian-language daily newspaper known in English as New Russian Word and published in New York. "It has a nationwide circulation of 25,000 to 30,000 now, but a few years ago it was much less. There is much interest now."

Interest in Russian language studies is increasing, but the statistical base is so small that even a 25 percent increase represents a miniscule portion of foreign language students. John Bennett, program representative at the Washington Square branch of the Berlitz School, says "It's not one of our top languages. Given the world situation, it's a shame that we have so few Washingtonians studying Russian. The Russian embassy people come to us at a very advanced level, just to polish their English skills. The difference is quite striking."

You can teach yourself Russian using the video and/or audio cassettes of Linguitronics, an Arlington-based company specializing in preparing business people and commercial publications for the Soviet market. The 30 lessons in the "We Speak Russian" program rent for $10 a week per cassette. Audio cassettes cost $7 for each lesson, purchase only. Twelve cultural orientation videotapes produced in all VCR formats cost $49 each, or rent for $10 a week. Write Tammy Sherman, President, Linguitronics, P.O. Box 9504, Arlington VA 22209 or call 920-7098, 9 to 5 weekdays.

The Library of Congress European Reading Room boasts the largest reference collection on the Soviet Union outside of the U.S.S.R. Scholars in search of Russian materials would also go to the main reading room of the library, but to peruse issues of Soviet Life or Ogonek, a Russian-language picture magazine, or Sovetskaia Zhenshchina, geared to Soviet homemakers, the European reading room is the place to go. It's in the Jefferson Building and open 8:30 to 5 Monday through Friday. Saturday hours have been temporarily suspended, but may resume in December.

You don't have to know Russian to read Pravda. The English edition of the official Soviet organ is kept in the Library of Congress Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room, Room 133 of the Madison Building. Local periodicals vendors such as The Newsroom and Periodicals Plus sell it, though copies are generally a few weeks out of date.

Would you be surprised to hear that the Metro area has a bookstore devoted exclusively to Russian publications? With all the Russians moving here and all the Americans studying that country, the capitalist seed was bound to sprout into this hybrid commercial enterprise. Tucked in the crammed bookshelves at Victor Kamkin Bookstore, 12224 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, (881-5973) are museum guidebooks published in the Soviet Union in English, thousands of Russian novels, philosophical tomes, children's books, postcards and magazines. Their worldwide mail-order department also stocks English translations of Russian texts on subjects ranging from machine-tool design to cinema studies. Kamkin's gift shop on the first floor displays imported shawls, samovars, china figurines and what appears to be a wide variety of Russian cassettes and records.

The glossy edition of the party line, Soviet Life, is sold at Kamkins bookstore and by subscription (1706 18th St. NW, Washington DC 20009, 328-3237). USIA publishes a counterpart, Amerika, which is kept in the European Reading Room in the Library of Congress.

And if you do know Russian, join other Russian speakers in the U.S. who for 35 years have turned to the densely packed pages of Cyrillic prose and poetry known in English as The New Review for contemporary Russian literature (available from 2700 Broadway, New York NY 10025). Russian- language periodicals are also sold at International Learning Center on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle. PERSON TO PERSON

"Take a defector to lunch" isn't on the Jamestown Foundation list of programs, but the not-for-profit organization does rely on volunteers to shepherd defectors through the resettlement process. With its stated objective being "to improve Western understanding of the Soviet Union and its allies," the foundation assists some thirty high-level defectors a year. Washingtonians interested in adding their energy to the efforts of other volunteers at The Jamestown Foundation should call program director Ute DeFarlo at 483-8888.

Since 1934 the Russian Pen Friend Project of the International Friendship League, 55 Mount Vernon St., Boston MA 02108, has been matching American and Soviet pen pals. College students who want to practice language skills make up the majority of applicants to this free service. Letter writers (over age 18, please) interested in picking up a Russian pen pal should send a stamped, self-addressed business size envelope for the application form.

Ground Zero Pairing Project, P.O. Box 19049, Portland OR 97215, conducts a Global Ladder program for communication between U.S. and Soviet citizens. International Pen Friends, Box 3276, Washington DC 20007 and Letters for Peace, 59 Bluff Ave., Rowayton CT 06853, also will match Americans with pen friends in the Soviet Union.

In the U.S.S.R., at least two organizations match pen pals: the Committee of Youth Organizations (KMO) of the Young Communist League, Bogdan Khmelnisky 7/8 Moscow and the International Friendship Club, Moscow City Pioneer Palace, Lenin Hills, Moscow U.S.S.R. FOOD

The Serbian Crown restaurant in Northern Virginia serves Russian dishes. Order Kulebiaka for two (Russian-style salmon with lobster sauce) for two, after you've finished your Zakuska (Russian hors d'oeuvres) laced with selections from the extensive Russian vodka list. Listen to the gypsy music, have some more vodka, and you won't even notice that the Serbian Crown is really a Slavic restaurant, not strictly Russian. LEARNING MORE

The Department of Agriculture Graduate School has low-cost introductory Russian courses. 475-4280. Georgetown University's continuing education department offers conversational Russian. For deeper study, contact the Slavic Languages departments of area universities.

Home base to many scholars pursuing Russian studies, the Kennan Institute also conducts seminars of interest to the general public. A discussion group meets every Wednesday at noon during the academic year. Seminars on Soviet films, literature, history and politics are held later in the day. Call Valerie Hawkins at 357-2415. CONVERSATION CLUB

With a modicum of proficiency in the language, you may be ready for MARS (Metro Area Russian Speakers), the brainchild of John Clinton, a marketing representative who majored in Russian. "At the university there are a lot of things that you hear about or see on bulletin boards," says Clinton. "I noticed my Russian language skills were slipping and I was losing contact with current Russian culture. I wanted to stay in touch, so I started MARS." The Russian conversation group meets about four times a year; the newsletter, which is primarily in English with a few items in Cyrillic, appears monthly. Though it erodes the founding premise, MARS social gatherings are also a convenient mix of English and Russian. "Differing levels of language ability make it difficult to conduct the entire meeting in Russian," admits Clinton.

An eclectic mix of serious news and offbeat items that have a Russian twist culled from other sources, the MARS newsletter has a circulation of just under 100 but includes the Library of Congress. "Where does one go to get news that is from last month? If someone isn't a Russian reader, they can go to the documents that I use or they can go to me, because I'm picking out the most fun, relevant things," says Clinton. A future project is to make a Russian comic book which would be available to MARS members.

MARS Newsletter is usually out the first week of the month and contains a calendar of events. Subscribe for $20 a year (12 issues); for a sample copy, send $2. to MARS, Box 53305, Washington DC 20009. RADIO

The Voice of America broadcasts daily to the Soviet Union. Included in the public tour of the studios at 330 Independence Ave. SW is a chance to listen and observe the show beamed to the Great Bear. Tours are free, take about half an hour and are scheduled weekdays only, five times a day, beginning at 8:45 with the last tour at 2:45. Call Margaret Jaffie at 485-6231. COMING ATTRACTIONS

The National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program are co-sponsoring a lecture series called "People and Politics in the Soviet Union." The first three lectures will be held in the National Geographic Society's Grosvenor Auditoriumm, 1600 M St. NW and the remainder at the Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History, 10th and Constitution NW. The series runs six weeks, October 7 through November 18. Tickets may be purchased from either sponsoring institution. The cost is $36 for the series, and individual lectures cost $6 for members of either of the two sponsoring organizations or $7.50 for the public. Call 357-3030.

The Biograph Theater, 2819 M St. NW (338-0707) screens Russian films occasionally. Showing through October 1 is "Come and See," a wartime drama set in the Soviet territory bordering Hitler's Germany.

The Moscow Ballet is performing through Saturday at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House. Soloists from the Bolshoi will join the troupe for the first American tour by this relatively young Soviet ballet company, founded in 1979. Tickets are $23 to $42. 301/792-4001.

Just when I thought I had begun to get a handle on Russian culture in Washington I came across The Scholar's Guide to Washington D.C. for Russian/Soviet Studies, published by the Kennan Institute and distributed by the Smithsonian Institution Press, $15 in paperback. More than 400 small-print pages later, I realized that Russian culture is everywhere here, from one end of the Mall to the other, from Bethesda's National Library of Medicine to Beltsville's Goddard Space Flight Center. There are Russian coins, medals and stamps in the National Museum of American History and Russian fairy tales in the Children's Literature Center at the Library of Congress. A full-scale replica of the first earth satellite, Sputnik I, is in the Air and Space Museum, and the Hirshhorn boasts a remarkable collection of Russian emigre' art. Washington even has the Tsar's Library, some 2,000 volumes in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress.

Now, if you can't get along with the Russians, it's not our fault.

L. Peat O'Neil is a Washington area artist and writer.