On May 10, a shiny red van pulled up to Janney Elementary School in Northwest Washington. The children who got off wore the same kind of wash 'n wear "American pie" outfits that Sears, Roebuck sells across the street. But appearances are deceiving. These children are not like the freewheeling Janney kids in most ways. They live within a walled compound. Their exposure to American life is premeasured, infrequent and highly chaperoned outside their compound's walls. This day was no exception the visiting students were accompanied by the second secretary of their embassy, the press secretary, their headmaster and a half-dozen other adults.
Upstairs in her office, Janney School's principal, Harriet Murphy, glanced at her wristwatch. Someone poked her head into the office and repeated a movie title: "The Russians are coming!"
"They're 15 minutes late," said Miss Murphy who runs a very tight ship.
This was the third encounter between a handful of Soviet and American children who live in Washington. They were brought together under the aegis of a small, federally funded Embassy Adoption Program, which this year linked 25 city elementary schools with as many foreign countries. Through embassy tours, culinary demonstrations, pen-pal exchanges and the holding of a "mini U.N.," where each school represents its "adopted" country's position on an issue, the program is designed to teach American children that there is more than one way to wear a hat.
But when the Janney School asked to "adopt" the Soviets, they got a real communist school in the bargain. Unlike any other embassy personnel in Washington, the Soviets do not entrust their children to outsiders. Their offspring are entirely educated by them. And while the Soviets rarely open the electronically operated gates of their compound, they did for the Janney fifth and sixth graders who took part in the program. Before the exchange was over, a number of overexposed, media-wise American children gained a firsthand, insider's view of what it was like to be a Soviet child. They also experienced the pain of losing friends they wanted to keep seeing.
"Here's the thing about this program," wrote one Janney student. "You might as well not try to make friends with Russian kids because you'll never see them walking on the street again."
Downstairs in the Janney hallway, two women hurried toward each other with arms extended. Irina Davydov, sixth-grade teacher at "The Little Red School house" in the Soviet compound and Ursula Cossel, her counter part at Janney, embraced in the hall.
"We are the best negotiating team in the world," said Davydov, referring to the many meetings and telephone calls that preceded this encounter. "When it's all over," said Cossel, "I think the two of us should go out and get drunk."
Meanwhile, the Soviet children apparently unmoved by this grass-roots hug between superpowers flowed past them into the gymnasium. "Olga," cried Janney student, Kafi Watlington, "Come sit by me, pleeease!"
Olga, a shy, pigtailed sixth grader in a Red Pioneer kerchief, had formed a deep, hand-holding relationship with Kafi, who was obviously planning pajama parties in her head. But fear was not entirely absent as the Soviet and American children began to warm up to each other.
"One of the Russian girls asked my friend who would attack first," said Janney student Ursula Helminski. "But my friend was to polite to say."
The first two diplomatic visits between the Soviet and American children (both at Janney) revolved around benign, nonideological subjects.
"No cloak and dagger questions," the Janney students had been forewarned in class. Using oldfashioned wooden pointers as they spoke about their motherland, the Soviet children (who speak fair to excellent English) talked about Moscow museums, national dishes and the outerspace docking of Soyuz with Apollo.
"All people have equal rights, and there is no national or racial discrimination in Russia," said one of the Soviet students.
The American children listened, kept their own counsel and were given take-home quizzes, prepared by the Soviet school. The best scores would win Janney students prizes from the Soviets on the final day of the exchange.
One enterprising Janney student decided to telephone the Soviet Embassyt to get his information. A Soviet diplomat checked into a reference work and gave him the facts.
"If you don't get a prize," said the diplomat, "Call me back. I'll give you one myself."
But on the afternoon on the third visit last May, all academic and cultural matters were tabled. The United States and the Soviet Union were going to play a basketball game. Tension was high.
Rumor, confirmed by reliable sources, had it that neither team was stockpiled with deadly weapons,and the best thing about the Janney Jaguars was their cheerleaders a ragged string of sincere but unsynchronized girls who stamped their sneakers on the gym stage to cheers that nobody could hear.
The second secretary of the Soviet Embassy ("The difference between me and the first secretary," said Yevgeniy Afanaslyev, "is salary") was diplomatically hopeful. "Perhaps we can achieve detente right here."
But a certain kind of detente had allready been aachieved. Over the last several weeks, the Soviet and American children had been sureptitiously inspecting each other's prejiudices, they discovered that they liked each other, up to a a point. "The Russian people are not different, except for their beliefs," said Sharon Henderson. The Soviet children were virtually indistinguishable from the American children on the playground. "I worry," said Irina Davydov, "that the wrong children will get back on our bus." But when singled out for questioning, the Soviet children were shyer and less forth coming than the Janney students. Some admitted to a backlog of fear.
"I was sort of scared when I first came to this country," said Soviet sixth grader Mikhail Borisov, some of the American boys threw rocks and apples at us. They always say, Hey, come here. You want to fight?"
Gleb Davydov, 12-year-old son of Irina and Boris Davydov, first secretary at the Soviet Embassy, picked up the diplomatic tablecloth before it hit the pavement. "But most, Americans," the boy added, "are nice."
Meanwhile, back on the basketball court, Janney parent Vincent Rocque blew his whistle aand tossed up the ball. The Soviets scored first. Magnanimous cheers filled the air. The Soviets scored again. Russian headmaster Edward Nikitin leaped to his feet, punched the air with joy and then settled down, gripping his wind breaker around his shoulders. Better not to be triumphant too soon.
Then Janney's star player, Carlos Merritt, got the ball. He made an impossible basket from center court. "Whooo, now we're smokin'," said Cossel.
A call against the Soviets sent their headmaster to his feet again with both palms extended in outrage. A stream of Russian poured out of his mouth. "He is saying," said Davydov, who seemed to take a maternal view of Nikitin's volcanic tendencies, "What kind of a walk was that? We had the ball.'" Diplomacy began to wither in the heat of passion.
"Isn't it amazing," said Janney fifth-grade teacher Barbara Phillips to Cossel, "how good our kids are, even though they're younger and smaller?"
"Well, I don't care, Ursula," defended Phillips, "facts are facts!"
In the end, the Janney Jaguars won, 59-56.
The Soviet team captain, a diminutive, curly headed blond from Lithuania, dropped onto a chair and looked as if he were about to cry. The Soviet headmaster, visibly disappointed, took the boy's head between his two large hands and ruffled his curls.
"We always lose at basketball," conceded Soviet second secretary Afanasyev, who did not look particularly crestfallen.
But before the Soviets left the school that day, Carlos Merritt, Janney's star player, walked up to Irina Davydov and extended his hand. "It was a honor to play against you," he said solemnly.
"Oh thank you," said Davydov, taking Carlos' hand within her own. Davydov was unaware that Carlos, who is a special student in the learning Center, ordinarily does not put his words together so gracefully, or shake hands with strangers. His teacher was amazed. Then, with a clap of the headmaster's hands, the Soviets were on the bus and gone.
There are 159 separate diplomatic communities in Washington. But the Soviets have always had the strongest reputation for secrecy, inaccessibility and a desire to remain among themselves. Only their highestranking officials mix with outsiders regularly. More often than not, they leave their wives at home. In 1979 the Soviets drew the curtain of privacy even closer, erecting a city within a city on several acres of high ground off Wisconsin Avenue on Tunlaw Road.
The Soviets say they built the compound for security. They say there have been "incidents" that they would rather not discuss. But when it was the Janney childrens turn to visit the Soviet school, unaccompanied by any adults, who dropped them off at the entrance, most of them took a look at the high walls and iron gates and had second thoughts about crossing over into alien territory. Would they ever return?
"When I first arrived at the gate, I was scared to death," said a Janney student.
To compound their anxiety, when one of the carpool parents was searching for the embassy, she saw several Soviet children in Red pioneer uniforms being escorted to school. She stopped the car and asked where the school was. "They said they didn't know where it was,' said one of the Janney children who had been in the car. "But we saw these same kids in the school an hour later."
Later, one of the Janney teachers tried to drop off some school papers for Davydov at the compound; an unseen guard denied, over a loud speaker, that it was the Soviet compound or that there was a Mrs. Davydov.
The basketball loss was recouped by a Soviet cultural performance. For their fourth visit to Janney, the entire Soviet school-about 200 students-arrived, including the youngest children, who sat in their blue-and-white school uniforms, with their tightly braided hair and puffy hair ribbons, in the front rows. Several of them wore red buttons with a chubby-cheeked portrait of a little child on the surface -- Lenin as a boy. They sat very politely, with their hands on their laps.
Irina Davydov had been apprehensive about the performance. She made several trips to the faculty lounge beforehand, to adjust her hair and pull her nerves together. One of the Janney adults had plucked a white carnation from a vase of flowers in the faculty lounge and given it to Davydov, as a token of encourgement. Davydov was too nervous to pin it onto her collar. When she stepped to the microphone there was a tremor in her voice.
"We have prepared a little entertainment for you," she began. "We hope that the songs we sing for you will find their way into your hearts."
The curtain was pulled. Three tiers of Russian children were lined up on the stage. A blond boy from the tundra region of the Soviet Union sang the reprise from "Kalinka," in an achingly pure sporano. There followed an aerobics dance by four pre-teen Soviet girls all of whom wore closely fitting long pants, T-shirts, scarves and a dash of makeup. They did a restrained, slightly sensuous routine to the theme of "The Godfather" in the background. Katya Dobrynin, the grandchild of the Soviet ambassador, Anatoliy Dobrynin, was in the front row of the dance. A blond, blue-eyed, self conscious sparkler, she is said to be the apple of her grandfather's eye.
The Soviet press secretary, Vladimir Mikoyan, was asked whether this sort of dance would have been approved by lenin. "Why not?" he said. "Lenin was a human being."
But the most human moment in the Soviet children's performance occured just after their gymnastic performance, which was not exactly up to Olga Korbut, but sincere. The next act was a solo dance. Suddenly, the curtains slammed shut and several Russian teachers dashed backstage. The performer had been stricken with a nose bleed.
A substitute act, a little girl with a long braid who played a creditable "Fur Elise" on the piano, came to the rescue. Then, the curtains parted again and a tiny 8-yearold girl with downcast eyes and pigtails stood on the stage.
She did a soft, almost noiseless little dance without music that softened every adult face in the room. When she finished, she skittered through the appluase back to her seat in the audience and dropped her head into her hands with embarrassment. The girl next to her looped a sympathetic arm around her neck.
The final song was Davydov's biggest worry. She turned to the audience and pleaded, "Please sing along." And so, in English, the whole room sang an American Classic that tthe Soviet children had been practicing for weeks: "It's a Small World After All."
Comments from Janney students who visited the Soviet school:
"The Russian school is a lot more modern than our school."
"The kids aren't noisy like us."
"The bathrooms were very clean."
"They aren't allowed to go out because they might be kidnapped."
"Whenever they want to do anything, they go to this one place where there aren't any cameras, in the park."
"The only thing that wasn't fun was lunch."
There is nothing playful about the Soviet compound. You do not round the corner of one beige concrete building to come upon an oasis of trees or flowers. You come upon another utilitarian beige building, designed with the same sharp, modern lines.
The Soviets may be invisible in Washington, but a rough count of the balconies that warp between apartments indicates that they are numerous. . . and well taken care of. The compound has a full-scale gym, commissary, dining room, theater and swimming pool.
On May 21, the day of the final exchange, headmaster Edward Nikitin stood somewhat uncomfortably before about 50 Janney fifth and sixth graders in the biology classroom of "The Little Red Schoolhouse." A portrait of Lenin hung above the blackboard. He stared at the Janney children in their Izod, Batman and Rolling Stones shirts, as Nikitin delivered his speech.
"Before the revolution of 1917, over 90 percent of the people of Russia were illiterate," he began, using Davydov as his translator. "The czar of Russia dreamed of eliminating illiteracy by the year 2000, but by 1982, there are 40 million Soviet children sitting at school desks every day . . ."
"The difference between your schools," added Nikitin, "and ours is that we have a universal program of education in our country. All subjects are obligatory." Soviet children may, on top of that, take other subjects, in math or literature, for example, Nikitin said. All children, when they graduate, receive certificates that note what they are trained for, which enables them to apply for a job.
As disparate as two kinds of schools could be, the Soviet Embassy school is strongly reminiscent of a Catholic parochial school of the 1950s. Discipline is strict. The children stand when reciting, address their teachers formally and are expected to work extremely hard. After the third grade, the children attend school Monday through Saturday. And at the age of 14, all Soviet children are shipped back to the Soviet Union to continue their education, whether their parents remain in Washington or not.
"Frankly speaking," said the Soviet children's English teacher, Olga Smirnov, "the children here have so much homework to do that they don't have much time for other things." She said, though, that last month the children went to Ford's Theatre. "The children admire Abraham Lincoln very much." Soviet children are also selectively taught to admire Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. "They were for the people," said one Soviet student.
Throughout the school halls, Leonid Brezhnev frequently appears in poster form -- receiving flowers from a crowd of smiling children, standing shoulder to shoulder with communist workers. Brezhnev's image has a powerful dignity, his face seems jackhammered out of rock. There are no pictures of American presidents hanging in the halls at the Janney school. The only picture there is of Bernard T. Janney, a former superintendent of education in the District.
Over the entrance to one classrom in the Soviet school s a Lenin quote: "The language of Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dobrolyubov, and Chernyshevsky is great and powerful."
Smirnov is complimented for the number of great writers that Russia, over the centuries, has produced. "Oh, but you, too, have some great writers," she protested. "We very much admire Theodore Dreiser and Mark Twain."
Soviet Embassy children, because of their American locus, study English more intensively than their counterparts in the Soviet Union. There are four English teachers who drill them. Smirnov was curious to know whether her own accent seemed American or British. (It was a combination.) She admitted that the students study English grammar more than English or Americaan writers. Fairy tales and Russian writers in translation, or ideological fables about heroic communist children in adverse circumstances are preferred.
As for American television, that silent penetrator of all ideological curtains, the Soviet children watch it, preferring cartoons or suspense programs. Smirnov did not have an opinion as to whether television had any particular impact at all. But the cloistered life that the Soviet children lead seems to make them more polite than inquiring.
While the American and Soviet children played a version of dodge ball on one of the playing areas, Press Secretary Mikoyan strolled toward an upper terrace that was particularly designed for toddlers. Wooden climbing equipment was full of 2and 3-year-olds, whose mothers supervised from a distance. Kneeling down before one little boy who was busily sucking his T-shirt, Mikoyan asked, in Russian, "Are you hungry?" The toddler nodded, "Da."
"They say," said Mikoyan, "that in America, the strawberries do not taste, flowers do not smell, and women have no heart. But it is not true."
Mikoyan, like all the Soviets involved in the students' day at the compound, seemed eager to mend fences and just before lunch, Nikitin could be seen, through a classroom window, gesticulating impatiently at several Soviet employes who were laboring to remove a massive cooked turkey from the back of a station wagon.
The turkey was the centerpiece of a buffet prepared for the Janney faculty. The children were served a snack in the cafeteria downstairs.
The finale of the exchange took place in the massive great hall auditorium. Across the top of a red curtain was emblazoned the slogan: "Forward to the Victory of Communism." The Soviet headmaster, Irina Davydov, Janney principal Murphy and the Janney sixthand fifth-grade teachers, Ursula Cossel and Barbara Phillips, sat on the stage.
Davydov stepped to the microphone. She was nervous again. "The first words we heard when we came to your school," whe began, were, "'Welcome, we have been looking forward to seeing you.'" (Cossel, who spoke those words, remembers that Davydov's eyes had filled with tears.). "I would like to tell you the same thing."
The Janney test papers were on the podium in front of Davydov. She said, "All of the children have gained from this experience, but some of tthe best comments come from these papers, and here are ssome of them." She read several excerpts and singled out this one: "All of the articles and books tells a different story. All I know is that the Russian children were fun and open, not like in the articles."
"Of course, I must tell you that there were some funny answers to our questions -- such as the largest border between Rusia and another country is Finland, and the Russian national dish is Swiss cheese."
Then the prizes were awarded. The headmaster distributed several large boxed dolls, numerous books and calendars to 12 Janney children, one of whose fathers had fled the Ukraine in the 1950s. The first prize went to Regina Grimmett, who later said that it had been the best day of her life.
Then the Soviets showed a movie of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which the United States had boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afhanistan. It was a powerful piece of propaganda. Entire flashcard sections of the stadium turned into shimmering needlepoint pictures of the kremlin or the Soviet seal, orchestrated to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
The exchange was officially over at the end of the movie. But, unofficially, the most poignant exchange had already taken place:
While Cossel had toured the Soviet school that morning, she had dropped in on a fourth-grade class and admired some paintings. "I see by the pictures on your bulletin board," she said, "that you also have cherry blossoms in Russia. Who did this picture?" A handsome young boy raised his hand.
"May I have that?" Cossel asked. He nodded and Cossel went to unpin the picture from the wall. At that moment, another little boy came over to her with his picture and said, "Me, too."
When she left the classroom, she fond herself facing headmaster Nikitin, who was holding an armful of picture to give her. She was reminded of the story of a friend who visited Moscow and complained in her hotel room that her lamp was broken, only to discover, after leaving her room for several minutes, that the lamp had been replaced. Had the fourth-grade Soviet classroom been bugged?
But while Cossel stood in the hallway, the Soviet fourth-grade teacher came outside with a folded piece of paper and said, "The children made something for you."
On the inside was a message in English:
"Hello kids of American school. We are happy to see you. We want to be your friends. We want peace between kids on earth. Our people don't want war, we want peace. We never went to your school, but we will go next year.
Signed the Students of the 4 Grayd."
One of the children had drawn a picture under the message of a missle that was broken in half, with a flower growing out of the middle. Cossel cried.