The Soviets have a question for America: "Where are your Bruce Springsteen albums?"
Indeed, as some Soviets have roamed the city inspecting American capitalism in the raw, record stores have been among their favorite haunts and Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." one of the most sought-after souvenirs.
But their browsing and buying have not been confined to the Boss. They have ogled Oil of Olay at a Rite Aid drugstore, bought at least one red "boom box" at Radio Shack and oohed and aahed over the vegetables at a Safeway, finally passing them by for a modest bag of white potatoes.
There have been sightings of Soviets shopping at Rodman's discount drugstore in Northwest Washington and at the electronic bazaars bulging with miniature TVs and X-rated video movies along downtown F Street.
They have been spotted at one branch of Banana Republic, where, according to a manager, they were quite taken with the "original distressed leather 1940s flak jackets" that go for $199 each.
At times there seemed to be more Soviets seen shopping than there are Soviets in town with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Apparently, Soviet-sighting has become such a sport that anyone in a long dark coat with a slightly Slavic accent is being taken as the real McCoy.
"You can tell who they are," Tom Burns, the manager of Foot Locker in The Shops at National Place at 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, said matter-of-factly.
"They are a little drabber . . . stern-looking. Everything is dark, even their shirts. They seem to come in pairs. One stands outside and looks through the window . . . while the other guy comes in to shop." Then, said Burns, they switch places.
The shoppers have taken a liking to the high-top Nikes that go for $49.98 on sale and the Adidas sweatshirts emblazoned with bold Olympic logos that are all the rage among teen-agers, Burns said.
At Foot Locker, the brightly colored shirts bear price tags of $71.98, and according to Burns, a few have been snatched up by the Soviet shoppers.
Though Soviets receive small salaries and are unable to obtain American dollars legally except for the allowances they get for official trips, several experts offered possible explanations for their reported shopping sprees.
The visiting Soviets "are tantalized by Western goods," said Marjorie Balzer, a cultural anthropologist of the Soviet Union, who said such items as the World War II flak jackets or Olympic sweatshirts would be perfect "symbols" back home in Moscow. "Once you get permission to go to the West, there is an implicit assumption you will be bringing back goodies."
Soviet emigre Dimitri Simes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, said perhaps members of the Soviet entourage are being given bigger allowances these days to erase their image as the "pathetic . . . bargain hunters" of the diplomatic world.
"When I came to Washington 15 years ago, I was told, 'If you want to find real bargains, ask where the Soviet diplomats shop,' " said Simes.
But no more. "They don't want to look like poor relations," he said. "They are willing to spend more money if necessary . . . . It is reflected in the allowances they get for trips."
Soviet emigre and author Konstantin Simas had another thought: "They bring some dollars which were bought on the black market." Or perhaps they are buying items -- video cassettes of American movies, Polaroid cameras or sneakers -- that can be sold for profit on the black market when they return home. Or, he added with a laugh, many bring gifts to their bosses. "It is very useful to get another trip abroad."
Whatever the reason, some Soviets have been on the prowl in the local stores.
Sometimes they buy. Sometimes they browse. "You name it and they looked at it," said David Lee, an assistant manager at the Radio Shack at 15th and L streets NW. "They spend quite a while, but they don't spend much money."
The handful of Soviets here, though, were followed by a rash of reporters who went into a feeding frenzy over morsels to chronicle or tape for television. "I expected the rush from the Russians," said manager Delray Gooch. "But not from the journalists."
Some of the Soviets, however, performed in the best tradition of the shopaholic. Comic postcards featuring the president and the first lady were big at Celebrate America near the Marriott Hotel's international press center. According to Record Town's Dan Sparks, the album hunters craved Springsteen, Presley and Christmas carols by Johnny Mathis. They also wanted "Girls, Girls, Girls" by Motley Crue, a heavy metal group that has been denounced by Tipper Gore and her Parents' Music Resource Center.
Far north on Wisconsin Avenue, the Soviets discovered Rodman's -- a discount store where toaster ovens, toothpaste and Grey Poupon mustard are arrayed in wild profusion. On Sunday afternoon, a blur of arms from a caravan of shopping Soviets could be seen reaching into the aisles. They plucked bottles of Jeris hair tonic and jars of Danish smoked mussels from the shelves, said owner Leonard Rodman.
"It was classic Soviet," said trade specialist Mitchell Stanley, who speaks Russian and observed the Soviets as he shopped. "They kept asking if there were 'leemits' on how much they could buy."
Some were armed only with their own desires as they shopped. Some were trying to capture the feel of home. Witness the crew that descended on Continental Liquors for some bottles of Stolichnaya. And some were here with special marching orders.
Michael Shein, a 37-year-old public relations consultant from Moscow, was scouring the city with a list imprinted with a blot of rose-tinted makeup. He was told that he must bring back a bottle of that very color and only by "Lauren."
"Marina tells me I must get this shade," he said. "So I am going from bottle to bottle, trying them all."
"It is quite a headache," he said, adding later, "She's my second wife . . . . I want to keep her happy."