To hear the Brazilian Embassy volleyball team tell it, it was just about the sneakiest Russian maneuver since the invasion of Afghanistan. To hear the Soviet team captain tell it, it was nothing more than a joke.
Trouble is, no one else is laughing: Not the Brazilians, and certainly not Anna E. Honabach, a kindly and elderly Washington recreation department official who has suddenly found herself in the middle of a not-so-diplomatic squabble.
At stake is the championship of the Embassy Volleyball League, a title that is hotly contested by a half-dozen to dozen embassy teams each year and is routinely won by the Soviets. In fact, not only have they been embassy champions since the mid-1970s, but for four years they have not even lost a game.
That is, until this year when the Brazilians beat them in their first meeting. All the Brazilians have to do to be champs is hold off the Russians in their final confrontation this coming Tuesday.
A few days after the Brazilian victory, however, Honabach, who organizes the league each year and oversees the games that are played in Georgetown's Duke Ellington School, received a revised Soviet Embassy team roster. Two new names -- Alexander Savin and Pavel Selivanov -- were included.
They didn't mean anything to Honabach, but they sure did to the Brazilians.
Listen to what the September 1978 issue of Volleyball Magazine had to say about Savin:
"Alexander Savin is the most incredible volleyball body on a [Soviet national] team full of them. He is 6' 7", 21 years old, and has logged more air time [as a leaper] than most TWA pilots.
"In career kills he trails only Joseph Stalin in the Russian record books. In the World Championships, Savin unveiled his new hobby, blocking serves. When other teams try tough low serves, he takes a half-step approach, soars well above the net and stuffs the ball before it ever violates Soviet air space . . . so much for tough serves."
The same issue described Selivanov as 6-foot-4 and one of the Soviet team's "two principal outside hitters."
Outraged, the Brazilians voted to protest formally the Soviet action to Honabach. Silvio Torres, a team member and offical hairstylist to the Brazilian ambassador, was drafted to write the protest.
"The letter was written by me because the Brazilian Embassy did not want to get officially involved," Torres said. "But the embassy supported our idea."
Honabach promptly called Soviet team captain Gennadi Vasilenko, a Soviet Embassy press aide.
"I told Mr. Vasilenko that I didn't think it was right," said the motherly Honabach. "He said, well, he could say where there's some things about the Brazilian team that aren't right.
"But I told him I've ruled on it. It's not allowed."
Later, when she gave Vasilenko a copy of the Brazilian hairstylist's letter of protest, Vasilenko read it and laughed.
"He said it was just a joke," Honabach said. "It certainly seemed they were serious at the time."
Yesterday, Vasilenko, who nearly qualified for the 1964 Soviet Olympic team and is a recipient of the Soviet Master of Sport award, was still laughing.
"It was just a joke," he said. "I did it because [other teams had complained in the past] that anytime the Russians lose they get good players from home to help them."
Were by chance Savin and Selivanov going to be in the United States on other business around game time?
"Of course not -- unfortunately," said Vasilenko."If they were, we would have invited them to play. All of the Brazilian team, none of them are members of the embassy. Maybe, for the final, we ask them to bring diplomatic cards.
"I know where they are working and what they are doing."
The Russians do their homework, all right. In fact, only one Brazilian team member is a diplomat, the embassy confirms. The rest are Brazilian nationals who work locally.
The personable Vasilenko may simply be the victim of the longstanding image of Russians as dour and humorless figures on the diplomatic scene. As one Soviet specialist said yesterday, "The Russians don't have a very good sense of humor, so I doubt it was a joke."
"Well, if I'm going to do it next year," said Honabach, I'm going to have to tighten the rules."