A RUSSIAN EMIGRANT on his way to America rarely thinks about where exactly he might want to live. The very word "America" is so overflowing with condensed emotional information that from a distance it is hard for a Russian even to distinguish East Coast from West, cowboys from skyscrapers, constitutional rights from jazz music. Where are you headed? To the States. But where in the States? I'll figure that out when I get there.

It took us quite a while to figure it out. We spent several weeks in New York, three months in Ann Arbor, half a year in Santa Monica. We crossed the continent by car twice, carrying all our belongings in the trunk and on the roof. Everywhere we went we had a vague feeling that something wasn't quite right. After living for 25 years in Moscow, maybe we suffered from some kind of capital complex? Maybe we had a need to feel part of an "empire?"

Washington, however, had never figured in our plans, at least not until I was invited to become a fellow of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Washington? Wouldn't it be strange to come to the United States and not live in any one of them, to end up in the un-united District of Columbia, which doesn't even rate a star on the flag?

In Los Angeles people told us not to think of Washington as a real international capital. "It's just a small Southern city," they said. "You have our deepest sympathy -- a whole year in a backwater like that."

Compared to what? I thought glumly to myself, reflecting on Los Angeles' streets, which die out after sunset, and on the chic living room with the bubbling Jacuzzi in the middle.

Our New York friends did not add to our enthusiasm, either. When discussing our impending move to Washington, one old friend, an artist, got downright depressed: "Like it or not," he said, "those government departments down there are going to remind you of our native Russian empire." He lives in Soho, on a street that looks like it has been through bombing raids and fires, and is now being vandalized constantly.

"This is precisely the place I emigrated to," says the artist. "This New York loft is the only place I could find to match my Moscow attic."

As for me, I've always suspected that I suffered from a lack of Bohemianism. I have to admit that I feel rather comfortable walking among Washington's official buildings.

For example, I enjoy the surprising Gothic form of St. Dominic's Church against the background of carefully balanced contemporary shapes and blocks. There is little in this to remind me of my "native empire." Our native empire would sooner collapse that permit its official buildings and sacred places to be interrupted, say, by abstract sculptures that sometimes have a mysterious appeal to our philosophical nature, and sometimes these remote whimsies have nothing to do with imperial pretensions. Try to imagine an abstract mobile revolving in front of Lenin's Tomb on Red Square. Impossible!

We rented an apartment in Southwest Washington because it was close to the Wilson Center in the old Smithsonian castle on the Mall. This, we explained to friends, made more sense than looking for an international center for scholars close to our apartment, since we didn't yet have an apartment.

But there were also certain nostalgic considerations at work in our choice of locales. Washington's Southwest is a little reminiscent of Moscow's new Southwest region, and even more reminiscent of new suburbs near Moscow, the so-called "officers' cities," such as Star City, where the Soviet cosmonauts live. Functional residential areas everywhere are much alike.

Nearly everything is connected with nostalgia; everything either reminds us of something or doesn't remind us anything. From the start our circle of Washington acquaintances reminded us of our Moscow social life; we were surrounded by the same diplomats, journalists, professors of Slavic studies -- precisely those we referred to as "the Americans," or just "the foreigners," in Moscow. (This is fairly typical, incidentally, of Russian emigrants: The natives of the countries to which we have emigrated strike us as "foreigners," but it is beyond all our powers for us ever to think of ourselves as foreigners.)

There seem to be more Americans in Washington than anywhere else we've been who either speak Russian or have connections to Russia. We've even found groups of people here who seem to consider it chic to spice their English with short Russian phrases. And on social occasions I've had some amazing encounters. For example, the night a tall diplomat tapped on the shoulder and said like an old friend: "Hi, Vasya, remember the time in 1966 when a big gang of us went to Nova-Devichy Monastery for Easter services and a guy with a beard tailed us the whole way, and some of us started referring to him as 'the K-G-Beatnik'?"

The distant past flooded back into my mind. "Hi, Bill. Was there really such time, a time when we were young?"

The parties kept coming, one after another. My wife and I even have a private joke about how hard it is for a Soviet refugee to get used to a multi-party system. There is no doubt about it: Washingtonians outdo even Californians in the field of hospitality. They even compare to Georgians (the ones whose capital is Tbilisi, not Atlanta), the inventors of hospitality, who conquered me way back when with a single toast: "Let us drink this wine to the famous writer Remind-Me-Once-More-What-Your- Name-Is."

I'm struck by the sensitivity with which Washingtonians discuss the question of their city's cosmopolitan standing. Once I saw a large group shocked into silence when one of the guests said that as far as he was concerned, New York had become much more provincial than Washington. Then everyone started buzzing excitedly, saying this was a bit much, compare the number of theaters, compare the literary life, magazines, art galleries. But the cheeky, patriotic Washingtonian held his ground. "Soon everyone will understand what I mean," he replied.

The rivalry between two capitals is a familiar Russian theme. We all knew how the great Moscow-Petersburg rivalry ended. Pomposity was united with the gaudy wedding-cake style of Stalin's Soviet capital. Many specialists now even believe that a move back to Petersburg- Leningrad is inevitable.

Happily, America does not suffer from a shifting capital like this. As far as I know, for 200 years New York has not tried to get Capitol Hill to move north, and Washington's ambitions go no further than a desire to swipe the Big Apple's cosmopolitan atmosphere.

There are places in Washington where you have to remind yourself that you really are in the "center of the free world," the capital of all modern humanity: among those depressing rows of townhouses turning slowly into slums, dirty sidewalks, dusty trees, dusty rusty blues of the Godforsaken South.

But these things have all been pushed into the background, and the main stage is dominated by the new architecture of downtown, or Georgetown's sleepless international carnival. We've been able to watch Washington change with our own eyes. Just in the last year the area around 19th and M Streets N.W. has turned into something out of St. Germain des Pres in Paris.

If there were buildings with corners as angular as those of the East Wing of the National Gallery, it would scarely be a sign of flourishing provincialism. Of course, Washington doesn't have its own Champs-Elysees yet, but for two years now we have been watching the brigades of workers on Pennsylvania Ave. They are so slow that even Soviet workers would envy them, but one way or another they do go on digging along the proud thoroughfare.

Basically, one can say that the only leftover of Washington's past provincialism is its terrible climate, its provincial humidity. But then, the whole continent, which is almost as humid and just as heavily forested or covered with underbrush, has very much been inclined towards isolationism. To those of us who have come to these shores repeatedly, it seems strange that American provincialism -- or, rather, American remoteness from the rest of the world -- still exists today, in spite of an ethnic variety unheard of in any other country.

Looking from Moscow, through cracks in the Iron Curtain, one imagines the United States as the only citadel of modern cosmopolitanism. One thinks that France or, say, Holland are only separate pavilions at the world's fair, and that the Atlantic is not much of an obstacle.

But after you've lived here for a while, you understand that for most people America is still a separate planet, that they do not have a very clear idea of where the devil their historical homeland is or what it's like today. It's a victory if a schoolboy knows that Russia is located between China and Germany, but my experience has convinced me that most people believe Russian is not much different from German.

In a sense the Soviet Union turns out to be more like Europe than America. For example, Russians play the same sports as Europeans. It is paradoxical that soccer players get across the Iron Curtain with relative ease while American tackles, quarterbacks, pitchers and batters find it much more complicated to jump across the Atlantic.

Until very recently Americans knew little about European film stars, never mind European writers. One has to be very highbrow to follow the European theater from here. This is true in spite of the absence of any "curtains," and in spite of the fact that at any given time thousands of people are crossing the Atlantic in both directions.

Last spring when everyone here was upset by the size of the anti-American demonstrations in Europe, I chanced to talk with a professional politician. I asked how he explained this prejudice against America. What harm had America done to Europe by freeing her from Nazis and defending her Eastern frontiers ever since?

The professional's answer was simple: We're rich -- they envy us. A 30-year-old stereotype. Forgive me, sir, but is Europe not rich today? Does Mercedes envy Cadillac? Doesn't it seem to you that what we have here is a kind of xenophobic crisis, a clash of American provincialism with European provincialism?

Everything in Washington, of course, reeks of politics, and even the outsider picks it up immediately.

Among the joggers bouncing along the Mall one sees the faces of political stars familiar from TV. You are not likely to see fellows of this caliber in Moscow: They prefer to move around in limousines with cream-colored blinds.

At the Kennedy Center you can see important political realignments taking place. At the next table in a Chinese restaurant there is a conversation about the boycott of the Siberian pipeline. At a party the conversation can shift easily from the food to the comparative cost of American tanks (in rubles) and Russian tanks (in dollars). In these cases people inevitably turn to me as an expert, and all I can do is advise them to use blackmarket prices for arms.

I drive along and I see street signs saying "Pentagon" or "CIA." My God, I sigh, those are words used to frighten little children in the Soviet Union, and here they are just exits from the freeway.

The unique values of my socialist background make themselves felt almost every day in my new life. Freedom is freedom, but gentlemen of the press, but how can you abuse your government the way you do?

On Tuesdays and Fridays at the Wilson Center, friends and fellows meet in the Rotunda at noon to have a drink of sherry and chat for a while. A Russian emigre scholar asks me in amazement what this means. As an old-timer, I explain to the novice the British tradition of sherry and cocktails.

"I can't believe my eyes," says this "child of sinful socialism." "How can anyone drink sherry twice a week at a time like this? Cambodia, Poland, Afghanistan -- totalitarianism is on the a move everywhere. Don't you understand -- and these people drink sherry instead of . . ."

Instead of what? "Well . . ." he makes an expressive gesture.

Calm down, sir, I say, it's simply a tradition, as unchangeable as a May Day parade. The sheery hour will end, and the whole bunch will start cleaning their grandfathers' carbines.

Of course, socialism is not the same everywhere. From time to time there is a Chinese diplomat from Peking in this sherry-drinking crowd; he and I have neighboring offices in the flag tower of the Smithsonian Building. With Confucian imperturbability, he sips his Bristol Cream, and every time he meets me he expresses his sympathy for my having been deprived of my Soviet citizenship, as if he were backed by the British Parliament or at least the Third Imperial Russian State Duma.

My wife and I returned to Washington for the second time after a European vacation. If you are not indifferent to the fact that the shabby hovels on 14th Steet are being replaced by many-storied reflecting windows, that someone has gotten the good idea of restoring the noble Willard Hotel, if you obviously feel in your element at the Cafe Afterwords on Dupont Circle, Washington is no longer just the place where you make a living.

A chance glance at the reflection in a store window: Amid the crowd you see yourself and your wife, and you notice that someone is waving at you from the other side of the street. Now that's not bad at all -- you have become part of this place, and now your fellow citizens include such big wheels as Lenny Skutnik and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Just a day before in Paris we had asked a passerby how to get to Montmarte, and he turned out to be an American from Baltimore. "And where are you folks from?" he asked us. From Washington, D.C. "That's great, folks, to live so close to Baltimore -- congratulations!"

Life in America develops a special kind of spirit of neighborliness. Perhaps it's connected with the Pilgrim traditions. In any case, now I've learned how to sympathize with people who live close by. For example, I have a neighbor -- he's a man whom people all over the world talk about, but rarely do they say anything good. He doesn't keep his promises, people say. But for me he is first of all my neighbor, and that's more impotant than anything else.

The other day, toward evening, another neighbor of ours, Maurine Bunyan, informed us that this neighbor had come back from his latest vacation. My wife and I turned to the TV curiously -- we looked to see if he had gotten tan or turned pale, thinner or heavier. Our neighbor emerged from his airplane, and the first thing he did was look to find the TV camera aimed at him. That's a habit with him -- second nature. He'll never forget to say a few optimistic words as he walks by, and I really like that about him.

We go out driving to Georgetown to a movie, and just then he comes flying across Constitution Avenue in the direction of his house. We can see the belly of his helicopter, and if the red light stays red long enough, at the right time, you see the helicopter land on the green grass alongside the white columns, and he exits, slightly limping. His job is not an easy one.

Even my Moscow friend, the internal emigre Fil Filofanov, even he is interested in my neighbor. Not so long ago he wrote me: "You know, my neighbor is mad at your neighbor. You see, your neighbor is always talking about my neighbor, saying you can't believe what he says, that he is always lying. No one has ever said that kind of thing about my neighbor before, so he's terribly offended, and now he's spreading it all over the world that your neighbor is a boor."

"Generally speaking," continues Fil Filofanov from Moscow, "neighbors are a terrible thing. It's all right if you just see your neighbor on TV, but not if he comes into your house and starts ordering you around -- either you haven't got the right pictures hanging in your apartment or you listen to the wrong things on the radio. . . . And just recently he cut off our atelephone line. They say that the spirit of neighborliness is quite strongly developed in America. Is that true? And, Vasily, does that keep you from seeing that your neighbor's veins stand out and that he looks pretty old?"

I confess that this last sentence annoyed me a little -- I'm not used to Moscow dissident stuff anymore. "Well, Fil," I replied to my friend, "I'm ready to admit that my neighbor is no longer young and that he is pretty wrinkled -- and he has a bullet hole in his side -- but I can tell you this: He gallops along on horseback rather jauntily."