HERE IT IS May Day again, yet something's missing. Where are the tanks, the missile launchers, the fossilized party leaders on the Kremlin reviewing stand? Can May really begin without fluttering red banners and a chorus of "The Internationale"? Actually, that probably hadn't occurred to you. Few Americans are nostalgic for the Soviet Union, which is entirely understandable. Still, the U.S.S.R. was America's foreign-policy obsession for more than 40 years, and we thought it would be interesting to see what remains of the "evil empire" in Washington today. Looking for Soviet culture in Washington is not quite the same thing as looking for French or Irish or even Ethiopian culture. The United States defined itself in opposition to the U.S.S.R. (or C.C.C.P., to use the Cyrillic acronym). Some of the most prominent local reminders of the Soviet Union are such public rebukes as Andrei Sakharov Plaza, the space named for the Soviet dissident outside the former Soviet (now Russian Federation) Embassy at 16th and L streets NW, or Raoul Wallenberg Place, next to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and named for the Swedish diplomat who apparently died in a Soviet prison. Even innocuous-sounding Freedom Plaza, at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, was renamed in 1988 (from the historic Western Plaza) during the final flurry of official anti-Soviet posturing. Yet Washington is not entirely Moscow's antithesis. Both cities, for example, once indulged a fondness for cold, forbidding modernist structures. It may be named for a 19th-century Frenchman, but L'Enfant Plaza might as well be Stalinist architecture. Change the signs outside the National Museum of American History to "National Museum of Soviet History" and no one would blink. And the final irony of J. Edgar Hoover's anti-Communist career is that the FBI building that bears his name could not be more totalitarian. Washington's subway has also often been compared to Moscow's, although ours has an abstracted, poured-concrete grandeur, while theirs is more a literal-minded people's palace of marble panels and crystal chandeliers. Other local Cold War landmarks are less conspicuous. It's been reported, for example, that Soviet spies used to meet at the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Park. By some accounts, high-level American and Soviet diplomats ended the Cuban Missile Crisis while dining at Yenching Palace in Cleveland Park. And there's always Au Pied de Cochon, the Georgetown bistro where prominent Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko slipped away from his American handlers in 1985 and began his track back to the U.S.S.R. Found in Space One of the most significant aspects of the American-Soviet rivalry was the contest to dominate space, which yielded such technological breakthroughs as Tang, Pink Floyd and pens that write upside down. A current exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum, "Space Race," details the battle that began with Sputnik, the first Soviet satellite, and culminated with the American moon landing. Most of the gear on display is American, but also included is a Soviet Soyuz TM-10 spacecraft. A smaller nearby exhibit features examples of the American and Soviet missiles that were decommissioned between August 1988 and June 1991 under the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Soviet missile is a suitably bellicose SS-20 Saber, complete with a red star logo. That all this missile-rattling turned out for the best is the message of "Mission to Mir," an IMAX film the museum shows three times a day. The movie is an account of the two countries' recent outer-space cooperation aboard the Russian space station whose name means "peace." The museum is at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW (202/357-2000). Post-Cold-War Sales If capitalism won the contract for the world's future, then it must be time for Communism to reduce its inventory. That's just what it's doing at places like Full Metal Jacket, at the very bottom of Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria (703/683-3795). This military surplus store sells Soviet hats, shirts, daggers, uniforms, watches, medals and insignia -- "some collectible, some fashionable," says owner Mark Richards. It's a good time to be shopping for such items, apparently. Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed, "stuff was pouring out of there," says Richards. But "the demand is way down today on most Soviet items." Real Soviet stuff is also available at the Russian Store at the Shops at National Place (202/737-8030). This emporium's stock is diverse both in quality and ideology: You can buy portraits of Lenin, Gorbachev or the last czar, Nicholas, and choose between fine Russian crystal and ceramics or baseball caps that proclaim "KGB/CIA Moscow Softball Team." The place has books, stamps, coins, pillows, banners, watches, CDs, postcards and "KGB pocket spy binocs." Also those ubiquitous nesting dolls ("matrioshka" in Russian), available with either political or religious themes. A few blocks from Full Metal Jacket at 101 N. Union St., Alexandria (703/683-3795) is the Icon Gallery, where the cross has completely supplanted the red star. This gallery sells Baltic amber jewelry and Russian religious icons from the 17th to 19th centuries. Prices range from a few hundred to more than a few thousand dollars, which may make that $9.95 "KGB/CIA Moscow Softball Team" hat look more appealing. As has been widely reported, a new $13 gift edition of "The Communist Manifesto" has just been published, commemorating the document's 150th anniversary. Workers of the world can save almost 10 bucks, however, if they buy the less opulent version available at Adams-Morgan's Pathfinder Bookstore, which gives its address as 1930 18th St. NW, but whose entrance is actually around the corner on Florida Avenue (202/387-2185). The revolution lives at this small shop and political-activity center, which offers the basic texts of Marx and Engels in English, Spanish and French. Like most contemporary American leftist organizations, however, Pathfinder shows little enthusiasm for the direction of the Soviet Union once Stalin took over. The store has volumes by Lenin and Trotsky, but subsequent Soviet leaders are not represented. For the writings of Lenin's successors, visit Victor Kamkin Bookstore at 4956 Boiling Brook Pkwy. in Rockville (301/881-5973). This venerable Russian-language shop, founded in 1953, boasts that it's "the largest Russian bookstore outside of Russia." Most of Kamkin's inventory of "hundreds of thousands of titles" is in Russian, but it also carries English-language books printed in Russia. Thirsty after all that browsing? "Chai" is the Russian word for tea, but the milky, spicy concoction that's currently chic in local coffee bars is not very Russian. Still, you can purchase real Russian tea in Washington -- Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown has a colorful selection -- or just get a feel for Brezhnev-era shopping by visiting the so-called "Soviet Safeway" at 17th and Corcoran streets NW. (This mocking sobriquet has actually been applied to several in-town supermarkets known for their long lines and understocked shelves.) For Art's Sake Soviet art is widely derided for glamorizing happy workers, bustling machinery and production quotas at the expense of truth and beauty. In the first decade after the revolution, however, the Soviet Union nurtured artistic as well as political radicalism: Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, sculptor V.I. Tatlin and filmmaker Dziga Vertov were prominent examples. The city's biggest cache of Russian art will remain hidden till after the millennium; it's at Hillwood, the Northwest Washington museum that's closed for renovations until at least 2000. A small sampling of avant-garde Soviet art, however, is on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW (202/357-2700). On the museum's top floor are two abstracted marionettes, "Judy" and "American Policeman," made by Alexandra Exter in 1926; they're related to Soviet theater and are examples of the radical Soviet art movement known as Constructivism. In the same gallery is a cubist gouache by Daniel Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine, "Capriccio Musicale (Circus)." (Painted in 1913, it's technically pre-Soviet.) One of the Soviet Union's liveliest arts was cinema, exemplified by the avant-garde work of Dziga Vertov and the more traditionally narrative-oriented (but formally experimental) films of Sergei Eisenstein. Such influential films as Vertov's "Man With a Movie Camera" and Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" can be rented at some of the area's hipper video stores. Try Video Americain at 1704 Connecticut Ave. NW (202/588-0117), Potomac Video at 3418 Connecticut Ave. NW (202/362-6695) or Video Vault at 323 S. Washington St. in Alexandria (703/549-8848). If you don't require English subtitles, Victor Kamkin also has a large selection of videos. Also of interest are World War II-era movies like "Mission to Moscow," which document the brief period when Hollywood propagandized on behalf on the Soviets. Russia has long been known for orchestral music and ballet, and such 20th-century composers as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev managed to add significant works to the tradition despite conflicts with Soviet officials. Prokofiev also contributed music to some of Eisenstein's best-known films. His "Romeo and Juliet" will be performed as part of the National Symphony Orchestra's 1998 Russian Festival, Wednesday through May 16 at the Kennedy Center. Also included are two works by Shostakovich, the first performed by the Emerson String Quartet and the second by the orchestra with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the U.S. premiere of a composition by hip post-Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating, American record companies developed an interest in such Soviet rockers as Boris Grebenshikov and Kino. That interest quickly faded, however, and today you'll have to visit local used-vinyl and CD stores to find Soviet rock. As anyone who saw "The Saint" knows, Moscow now throbs to house and techno. For genuine Russian house, check out the beats on the new "USSR Reconstruction" by Soviet-born (but now London-based) DJ Vadim, who appeared two weeks ago at Buzz at the Ballroom in Southeast Washington. Despite lacking an American record contract, Grebenshikov is currently touring the United States. His scheduled show earlier this week at the Bayou in Georgetown, however, was canceled due to low ticket sales. But he and his '80s peers started as anti-Soviet rockers. To find music that's more sympathetic to the Soviet era, turn to British old-left post-punks like the Mekons, whose '80s logo featured a hammer and sickle, or Billy Bragg, who recorded part of his "Help Save the Youth of America" in Moscow. And then of course there's the Bee Gees' 1969 concept album, "Odessa." (Just kidding.) The dissident Russian novelist is a tradition that predates Communism, but Soviet officials certainly did their part to send acclaimed writers into exile. One of them was Vassily Aksyonov, whose "The Burn" was hailed as a masterwork upon its American publication in 1984, four years after it got him ejected from his homeland. Solzhenitsyn has gone home, but Aksyonov still lives in Washington. He's currently teaching two courses, one on two centuries of the Russian novel and the other on the 20th-century Russian avant-garde, at George Mason University in Fairfax (703/993-1000). Those who aren't George Mason students may be able to audit the courses, Aksyonov says. Before and After Marx famously labeled religion "the opiate of the people," but the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the many traditional institutions that survived Soviet Communism. So it seems only fitting that the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a parish founded in 1949, built itself a new church as the Soviet Union began to totter. The church, at 4001 17th St. NW (202/726-3000), had its first service in 1982. Although no competition in sheer size for the city's largest cathedrals, it's a pleasing red brick structure topped with three distinctive gold domes. The cathedral's services are open to all, but most of them are in Church Slavonic, the Russian church's equivalent of Latin. Some services are in English, however, and they're listed on the church's Web page (www.stjohndc.org). To meet the congregation under less formal circumstances, attend the church's Russian Bazaar, May 9-10 from noon to 6. The bazaar promises Russian food, a book sale and a flea market. While St. John's maintains Russian tradition, a few miles away Edward Lozansky helps forge Russia's free-market future. He runs the Russia House, a combination of restaurant, performance space and investment business at 1800 Connecticut Ave. NW (202/986-6010). Lozansky and his wife, both Soviet emigres, try to match American capital and expertise with Russian entrepreneurs and inventors. They also present Russian chamber music and poetry performances in a small hall; the next event is an evening of Russian poetry set for June 5. Downstairs is the Russia House restaurant, an upscale traditional eatery where reservations are required. Just this week, the restaurant has started to open for lunch, where simpler, less expensive fare is available (and reservations are not necessary). "We want Russia to be part of the West," explains Lozansky, and he mobilizes both blinis and mutual funds to serve that goal. May Day. May Day? May Day! LIKE SO many contemporary Western holidays, May Day was originally a pagan festival. Known to the Celts as Beltane and the Teutons as Walpurgisnacht (and many other variations), it was a commemoration of the arrival of the growing season -- and as such a celebration of fertility. This was the day for worshiping such deities as Bel, Walpurga, Diana and Eostre, whose name survives as "Easter." May Day was a time of drunkenness, disrespect for authority and sexual license. The maypole signifies not only the ancient European worship of sacred trees; it's also a phallic symbol. Eventually, May Day revelries were banned by austere Protestant sects, and were outlawed in many parts of Europe. When revived, the occasion became a children's holiday, its eroticism carefully modified into a celebration of purity. The maypole dance, once a ruse for lustful young men and women to become entwined, became a frolic for innocent pre-pubescents. Just as threatening as May Day's carnality was its anarchy. One of the holiday's British incarnations was Robin Goodfellow, also known as the Green Man and Lord of Misrule. A predecessor of Robin Hood, this character was a symbol of good-natured sedition. He encouraged common people to mock nobles and priests, turning the tables for a day on the ruling class. This aspect of May Day was kept alive by European trade guilds and ultimately led to the holiday's association with the international labor movement. The modern political notion of May Day began with American workers' battle for the eight-hour workday, the goal of a national strike in 1886. Strikers marched in many cities on May 1 that year, but the Chicago protest became the most famous after a bomb exploded on May 4 in a crowd at Haymarket Square. The source of the bomb remains a point of contention, but the subsequent trial of eight anarchist workers (four of whom were executed despite scant evidence) galvanized the movement. Three years later, the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First International) declared May Day an international worker's holiday. They adopted a red flag in commemoration of the blood of those who had died fighting for labor's cause. This was the flag, institutionalized by Communism, that would eventually fly over much of Europe and Asia. During the Cold War, efforts were made to supplant May Day in the United States with "Law Day" and "Loyalty Day," observances that proved short on long-term appeal. May Day is still celebrated as a labor holiday around the world, although in this country it's been officially supplanted by Labor Day, an event designed to have little odor of radicalism. And what does all this have to do with the international distress call, "may day"? Actually, nothing. Used to call for aid, "may day" is merely a corruption of the French "m'aidez," which means "help me." CAPTION: At Alexandria's Full Metal Jacket, owner Mark Richards will sell you the same daggers, insignia, medals and hats that our great enemy used to wear. CAPTION: Baranoff-Rossine's "Capriccio Musicale (Circus)," a blast of (pre-Soviet) Russian art. CAPTION: Gold domes top the oh-so-Slavic Russian Orthodox Cathedral on 17th Street NW. CAPTION: At D.C.'s Russian Store, nesting doll fans can buy a set of Russian leaders, from Yaraslov the wise (far right) to Boris Yeltsin (far left). CAPTION: Rosa Garmendia browses through some of the left-wing reading material at Pathfinder books. CAPTION: Alexandra Exter's 1926 Constructivist marionette "American Policeman." CAPTION: Before the U.S.S.R., May Day meant the maypole, not the hammer and sickle.