Moscow is a city of anomalies, a world capital where nearly 8 million people appear to exist in apathy, answering life with a shrug; where cars and cabs and buses and ambulances move noiselessly through the streets, neither honking nor screeching. At the Bolshoi Theater, many of the Soviets sit in stony silence while the foreigners applaud.
Moscow's people boast of things that are Russian, but often would rather have things that are not. The best restaurants want foreign currency, cabdrivers sometimes refuse rubles, waiters sneer at kopeks and everyone, it seems, can be paid in filter-tip Kents. On the radio, the TV and billboards, American violence is shown and American missiles are excoriated; but American recordings and American clothes are prized possessions.
Moscow is a city of anachronisms: painted buildings that look lifted from Italy or Greece, czarist palaces that have become the work places of Soviet bureaucrats, Orthodox churches filled only with tourists. The Kremlin itself, a slab of gray in the minds of many Americans, is really a series of yellow palaces, set off by golden domes during the day and topped by large, lighted red stars at night.
Sometimes there is a small show of Soviet elite outside the Kremlin as high-level officials are whisked in or out in their long black Zils. A meeting with the foreign minister may bring the American ambassador, who travels in his dark blue Cadillac limousine, the Stars and Stripes flying at the front.
The ambassador lives a mile from the Kremlin in an official residence called Spaso House. Set back on a small square of look-alike buildings, it bursts upon the visitor, a daffodil yellow mansion with bold white columns and curving portico. A sugar baron built it in 1914 for his mistress, but the new Bolshevik government expropriated it after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1933, when diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and the United States were established, the Soviet government leased it for the use of the U.S. envoy. In the early years of Spaso House's diplomatic career, it was the scene of extravagances that included nude dancing girls, trained seals and an unhousebroken baby bear. Since World War II, things have quieted down, but for 50 years it has been home for the American ambassador and a place of delight for American visitors. Sometimes they come as houseguests, like Vice President Bush, who has stayed at Spaso House for the funerals of the last three Soviet leaders, but more often, as was the case recently with House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, they come to attend large receptions.
Spaso House is a mansion of grand proportions. Its 82-foot main hall is illuminated by a crystal chandelier that was said, when it was made, to be the largest in Europe. Its ceilings soar, its balconies exude drama, its moldings are carved like the wedding cake of a queen. An immense fan light floods the room with a sense of light and air.
Against this background of Russian grandeur, the current residents have supplied a tone of American informality. Ambassador Arthur Hartman and his wife Donna have filled the house with folk art along with fine art; life-size 19th century woodcarvings, whimsical sculptures, whirligigs and weathervanes, contemporary wall hangings, landscape paintings and abstract oils. Music floats through the air; Bach fugues, New Orleans jazz and the Star-Spangled Banner, which, Donna Hartman reminds the visitor, was an 18th century drinking song.
It is a house made for entertaining. The Hartmans favor relaxed events. "We don't often have dinner parties," said
Donna Hartman, because the
Soviets stay away, avoiding
the embarrassment of
conversation at a provocative
dinner table or even seen at
an intimate party at a foreign
embassy. "We try never to
have any event that Soviets
cannot join," she said. They
do tend to come to large-scale
occasions although, even
then, there are problems. If
there is a jazz player, for
instance, "we try to get the
jazz people from the Soviet
world. Not all in vited will
come. Some are naturally
cautious. Others are told not
to come because it is
threatening . . . We know
who has a lot of courage
because those are the ones who come."
John Denver and Kermit the Frog, jazz musicians Chick Corea and Gary Burton, and Pearl Bailey have all brought out large, international audiences. Bailey, strutting up and down the ballroom, even got the crowd to join in and had several guests dancing on the stage. There are movie screenings such as "A Passage to India" (three times) and "Amadeus" (four times), parties for actors such as Vanessa Redgrave and Omar Sharif, who are making a mini-series about Peter the Great, dances for Valentine's Day, and barbecues on the Fourth of July.
There are also smaller events: Protestant church services and Sunday school meetings two or three times a month and Saturday afternoon films for Soviets who don't quite fit into official evenings -- dissidents and people waiting to emigrate. This past April there was a Passover seder, arranged and led by an embassy staffer and attended by the ambassador.
The guests included two of the Soviet Union's most famous Jewish "refusedniks," Vladimir Slepak and Alexander Lerner. They, along with 50 other participants, ate bitter herbs and matzot, the traditional seder foods, while stern-faced Soviet waiters served them dinner. As the guests read from the Haggada about the Jews' escape from Egypt, one young guest passed up the food. He was on his 33rd day of a hunger fast that began because he and his family had been refused an exit visa from the country.
A few nights after the seder Spaso House was the scene of a reception for Speaker O'Neill and a delegation from the House of Representatives. Part of the representatives' agenda was to help those who want to leave the country. The Americans and their Russian counterparts drank scotch and vodka in the grand main hall, one of the embassy rooms that has been refurbished in the past few years. The State Department hired Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen to help the Hartmans restore the house. Before he began his work, the place -- in Donna Hartman's words -- was "in shambles." Jacobsen says, "It was like being inside a big white petit four. The house had lost almost all of its historic overlay. The furniture had been scattered as if it had fallen off the back of a truck."
Jacobsen wanted to restore Spaso House to its original Russian splendor with strong colors, marbleized columns and highlighted moldings. Since the Soviet government must approve any work and, like most landlords, must pay for the maintenance and repairs, he met with his Soviet peers. Somewhat to Jacobsen's surprise, given the chilly state of U.S.-Soviet relations at the time (1983) the Soviet architects suggested gold-leafing the ceiling medallions, a costly undertaking. Jacobsen estimates that just painting the room alone would have cost about $100,000 in the United States. The vaulted ceiling, trimmed with gold leaf, is now a deeper- than-Wedgwood shade (Hartman calls it "Hugh Blue") that echoes the deep blue inlay in the fan windows at the far ends of the room.
When he saw the room, Jacobsen told Hartman that the plain wood panels covering the doors to the dining room did not look right. Workers stripped them and found beautifully carved moldings and beveled mirrors underneath. The adjoining music room was painted a mauve shade that picked up on the ceiling ornamentation. Hartman chose a rug to be made by Edward Fields Inc. from an 18th century Aubusson pattern that reflected the molding of the ceiling.
Functional problems had to be solved: "How do you enter the house, hang up your coat and put away your boots when it's 40 degrees below zero?" asked Jacobsen. The entry hall had to receive guests and their gear in a gracious way.
Soviet guests who have visited the house since the renovation offer mixed reviews. They are most interested in things that look Russian and love to see good examples of what is their own. An exhibit of Russian theater designs and costumes from the early 1900s, which was borrowed from a collection in Texas, drew great interest. But they are put off by the starkly modern furnishings by Knoll International in one room and look aghast at the Rothko painting on the wall. "They really cannot relate to Abstract Expressionism, however much we try," said Donna Hartman. "The official people that we are interested in pleasing have a hard time with it. They'll look at the Rothko in the new room and say, 'I don't understand it,' and refuse to look again." Some are bewildered by the room. "The first glimpse turns people off . . . It upsets some people who are used to a certain kind of stability," she sighs. As for the canvas canopy that is suspended over a third of the room, "It confuses people. It's not utilitarian so therefore, why is it there?" Even a drawing of Lenin causes a stir, not for its likeness to the Soviet leader but for the artist's attempt to make him appear human.
Hartman has spent the past three years scouring the storerooms of museums, mainly the National Gallery in Washington and the Whitney in New York, and worked with museum directors, artists and private collectors. She has brought in, among other things, a seven-foot cigar-store Indian, a similarly sized carving of Columbia, a pair of six- foot wall hangings representing Faberg,e eggs and a contemporary sculpture of an Indian and a bear. Now, as the renovation approaches completion, some of the lenders are beginning to recall their works, many of which were lent for only two years. An efficient and persistent fundraiser, Hartman is always in pursuit of donations. The problem is to balance American art with Russian taste. "We're always looking for good American stuff that will have appeal to Soviet eyes," she says.