In few cities do public buildings reflect the character of their times so well as in Washington. The simple clean lines of the White House and the stately grace of the Capitol are testaments to the best instincts of our earlies period.The massiveness and pomposity of the Rayburn House office building and the forbidding ugliness of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters are - well, they speak for themselves about our worst. The soaring and airiness of the National Gallery's new East Building show the city that Washington is now becoming, freer, less rigid, less monumental.
But no builing here, public or private, stands as such an appropriate symbol as one on 16th street, a few blocks from the White House.I speak of the Russian embassy.
What it was like in the beginning - it was built in 1910 by Mrs. George M. Pullman, widow of the railroad sleeping car magnate - is of no consequence. What it's like today is there for all to see who wish. It's a Charles Addams dream, or nightmare, of an old stone mansion, with high windows and a high roof topped with greening copper, sitting stolidly behind an iron fence overlooking 16th street.
Overlooking isn't the right word, though, for the singular fact about the Russian embassy is that it appears, to all who gaze on it, to be deserted.
It happens that I pass by the Russian embassy regularly; it stands just behind The Washington Post building, and an alley running alongside both The Post and the embassy offers a shortcut from 15th to 16th street. In all my years of walking past, or by, or around the Russian embassy I have never seen a single face at a window. Never, in fact, have I seen anything in those windows.
The three large windows across the main area in front are covered with draperies. Every other window is shuttered - not small shutters, mind you, but large metal ones from which the paint peels. Along the alleyway, at the street level, there are a couple of windows, but you can't see in them. They have been blacked out.
Look as hard as you will, but you'll find nothing there, no sign of life, no indication of activity, nothing. Yet you know - or at least feel - that all passersby are being watched.
All this perfectly captures, it seems to me, familiar elements of Russian character - closed, shuttered, darkened, brooding, menacing, secretive heavy-handed and impervious to the public impression being conveyed.
From time to time brief stories surface in the press that penetrate, slightly, the grim facade of the embassy and its life here. Last year two incidents in particular created a momentary stir, and then died down. One came when the Carter administration confirmed reports that the Russian embassy was eavedropping electronically on the phone calls of Americans. For several years they had been intercepting microwave transmissions of telephone calls from sophisticated equipment inside their embassy.
These stories recalled some of the problems our embassy was encountering in Moscow at the hands of the Russians. Once again, it was reported and confirmed, the Russians were bombarding our embassy with microwave, causing radiation sickness. Our ambassador himself was said to have suffered nausea and bleeding from the eyes.
Another report attracted much less attention, only a few inches in the papers at most. That involved the death of an employe of the Russian embassy. He died, a Soviet spokesman said, after following down the stairs. And quite a fall, Washington police said he had suffered numerous fractures and bruises on his left side, back, knee and chest. His jaw and skull also had been fractured, and abrasions were found around his left eye.
Police listed the cause of death as "undetermined." An autopsy report said the man had died of multiple internal injuries but police were unable to determine whether the death was accidental, natural, a homicide or suicide. Case closed.
I don't consider myself to be a hardliner, a gold warrior, a super-patriot, a militant anticommunist or whatever. But in recent months, as report after report of Soviet oppression, injustice, brutality and trammeling of human rights has flowed out of Russia, it's been difficult to remain either indifferent or dispassionate to what is happening.
The latest outrage concerns my own business. Two American correspondents, Craig R. Whitney of The New York Times and Harold D. Piper of The Baltimore Sun were scheduled to go on trial in Moscow. They are charged with publishing "slanderous information denigrating the honor and dignity of the members of the staff of the State Committee for Television and radio of the USSR."
Charges came after the journalists separately reported that unnamed persons in Soviet Georgia believed the televised confession of a convicted dissident leader there had been fabricated by Russian authorities. The reporters were given only 48 hours to respond in writing to the charges. Already, the official Soviet press has judged the Americans in advance and pronounced them guilty.
Much already has been said about this latest instance of Russian harasement and repression, and more commentary is unnecessary. But there was an aspect to the case that struck me, personally, as both ironic and symbolic.
When the reporters were hauled into court, the judge immediately set their trial date. He ordered them to appear before him on Fourth of July. Then he was told that that day was a special holiday in the United States. He relented, and set a later trial date.
The Americans had made a mistake. They should have left the original date as it was. What could be more fitting than to be tried on trumped up charges as, in effect, enemies of the state, on the Fourth of July? That kind of symbolism even the Russians should understand.