Three miles from the Soviet Embassy, the focus this week of international attention, an inconspicuous row house sits overlooked in a quiet residential neighborhood, an embassy of sorts whose representatives are hopeful for the future but haunted by the past.

This is the home of the four-member Latvian legation, officially recognized by the United States and many other western countries, even though the formerly independent Baltic nation was swallowed up by the Soviets in 1940.

The undistinguished brick building has few visitors. Its occupants, who live elsewhere, hold no fancy receptions and issue few pronouncements.

Yet they are, they insist, credentialed diplomats in a host country who must behave with dignity befitting their official position. Thus, despite their strong feelings against the political and cultural "Russification" of their country of 2.4 million, they have this week left the protesting to others of Baltic background without diplomatic rank.

"We are diplomatic representatives. As diplomats, we are guests in the country, so it does not befit our position to partake in demonstrations," said John Lusis, who holds the title of first secretary, third in rank after Charge d'Affaires Anatol Dinbergs and First Secretary Valdemar Kreicsberg. "The summit is an internal political matter between the United States and the Soviet Union."

While Dinbergs and Kreicsberg are both septuagenarians, they take pains to assert they are not relics of a lost cause. However, neither has been inside his homeland since before World War II. Lusis, 42, who was born in West Germany, raised in Canada and who never has visited Latvia, was recruited partly for his youth. They and a secretary work at the legation building.

The Latvian cause, however, is not new. Despite only 22 years of independence between the world wars, Latvians have a centuries-old history of fighting to maintain their distinct language and culture under foreign rule.

Their free-Baltic bastion here is at 4325 17th St. NW, in the quiet residential community of Crestwood.

Only boarded-up windows on one side, a small brass plaque and coat of arms above the door distinguish the Latvian legation building from its neighbors.

The Latvians spend their time answering queries from students, publishing a newsletter and issuing passports, about 50 a year, to fellow "countrymen" in the United States who have never claimed another nationality.

The legation is funded from interest on an account deposited by the Latvian government before World War II, frozen at the time of annexation.

Despite the seemingly remote chance of regaining their national independence, the Latvians harbor the hope that, especially now in an era of glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev will alter the Stalin-era maps.

When the Soviets annexed the Baltic states, diplomats abroad -- Kreicsberg was in Sweden, Dinbergs in New York -- were ordered to return home.

Dinbergs came instead to Washington, and now, at 76, is the head of what he considers the Latvian foreign service. Kreicsberg, 75, went to work for the U.S. legation in Stockholm, then broadcast from Munich after the war for the Voice of America and Radio Liberty. He came here in 1979. "If Latvia were free, I certainly would go home," Kreicsberg said.

The Latvians' presence is hardly noticed in the neighborhood.

"It's sort of like not having any neighbors on that side," said neighbor Carol Joffe, noting that her family used to live next to the Soviet Chancery on California Street NW. "That place was a disco compared to this," her husband Alan Joffe said.