Cultivating Relationships Through Culture
by Gail Scott
A journalist interviewing a journalist is always a challenge, but especially if the interviewee is Natalia Kislyak, the gracious and well-coiffed wife of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Accuracy is important when it comes to the crucial but difficult U.S.-Russian relationship, and WikiLeaks has demonstrated the power of undiplomatic words.
Natalia — a former arts and cultural correspondent for TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union), the official news agency of Russia — is anything but undiplomatic. She and her husband are both ardent, knowledgeable arts supporters who energetically promote cross-cultural exchange as they reach out to Washington’s performing arts community.
Since their arrival in September 2008, the Kislyaks have also forged deep ties with the two Russian Orthodox churches here and have established personal friendships within the Russian community, including members of the old aristocracy whose families left the country after the Russian Revolution.
“I was born in Soviet Russia, grew up in Soviet Russia but things changed and Russia is a different country today,” said Natalia, through her young embassy translator Vladimir Nersesyan as we all sat in the cozy Red Salon of the Russian Residence on 16th Street — just a few blocks from the White House.
“Russia has opened up to tremendous new opportunities since the fall of Soviet Russia. In comparison to the Cold War, today we have warm relations with the United States and we’re grateful for that,” Natalia said.
“Now, living in Washington is much better than how it was 30 years ago when we first arrived and Anatoly Dobrynin was ambassador,” she added candidly. (Her husband was first secretary and counselor in Washington from 1985 to 1991.) “Then, there was mutual mistrust, suspicions and always stereotypes, on both sides. Now, everyone is so kind, much more open and relaxed with us, and we can really get to know each other.
“My husband and I are especially interested in breaking down those stereotypes, encouraging everyone to see the good in both cultures and travel to each others’ countries,” she continued. “Of course, my husband travels all over the United States on official business, but while we’re here, we love to travel together privately, often flying to a special city and then renting a car and driving ourselves around. We’ve been to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Puerto Rico and, of course, New York. I dream to be in Chicago, even Las Vegas, and see Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon.
“Our countries share a lot of similarities,” she reflected. “The United States and Russia are both big countries with lots of natural resources. Both are diverse, multicultural nations with many religions and different ethnic groups.
And we have many similar problems: drugs, terrorism, religious extremists and the current economic crisis.
“However, when our granddaughter is the age of my daughter, all these problems will be part of the past,” she predicted optimistically.
Like Natalia’s homeland, her current home has undergone sweeping changes, a microcosm of Russia’s history. She was eager to give me and our mutual friend Xenia Woyevodsky, President of International Firebird Arts Foundation, a guided tour of the residence laced with her personal and historic anecdotes about the Pullman Mansion. Built by multimillion-dollar-heiress Hattie Sanger Pullman, widow of the sleeping-car magnate George Pullman, this urban palace was designed for Pullman’s daughter and son-in-law congressman by architect Nathan Wyeth — who, at the time, was overseeing the expansion of the West Wing of the White House, conveniently a few blocks away.
This impressive four-floor showplace was sold in 1913 to imperial Russia under Czar Nicholas II for the then enormous sum of $350,000. The first ambassador who lived in the mansion, George Bakhmeteff, and his American aristocratic wife Marie Beale impressed Washington society with their elaborate entertaining, although it only lasted three years until the Russian Revolution began in 1917. After the provisional government came to power, the czar’s top diplomatic couple left for France, taking many of the mansion’s most precious furnishings with them, supposedly for safekeeping.
Except for a caretaker, the embassy became dormant until 1933, when diplomatic relations were established between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1994, the chancery moved across town to the new Russian Embassy complex along Wisconsin Avenue, and for the first time, the Pullman Mansion exclusively became the Russian Residence.
Natalia proudly walked us through the impressive second floor, which includes an elaborately gilded, oak-paneled dining room with striking Venetian glass chandeliers; a beautiful jewel of a mirrored elevator that still runs; and the expansive Gold Salon that serves as a concert hall with grand mirrors, double-marble fireplaces and distinctive glass web chandeliers, reminiscent of Versailles. Throughout the residence, there are also museum-quality paintings by many of Russia’s greatest artists — including the rare “Snow Storm” by Ivan Aivazovsky — along with 18th-century French clocks, elaborate antique bronze candelabras and silver samovars of imperial Russia.
“This time, we are pleased to have the opportunity to meet and get to know many Russians whose last names are an important part of the imperial Russian history, including Tolstoys, Gagarins, Galitzins, Obolenskys and, yes, Woyevodskys,” explained Natalia, winking with Xenia — herself the recipient of the Kislyaks’ friendships with the Russian aristocrats living here. Xenia also promotes Russian culture as founder of the International Firebird Arts Foundation, often accompanying Natalia to a new museum exhibit or live performance when the ambassador is out of town.
“I am very impressed with these people,” continued Natalia. “They have a real passion for their Russian heritage — the roots, traditions and language — which they are lovingly handing down to their children and grandchildren.”
A major player in this heritage has been the Russian Orthodox Church. Divided since the 1917 revolution into two separate churches, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church in exile had no canonical ties to each other until finally being reunified 90 years later in 2007.
“We are very grateful that the Kislyaks have been so active in the life of the church in Washington,” said Xenia. “And, in fact, he is the first ambassador to openly attend church.”
“Although my husband has not been baptized,” Natalia adds, “he has respect for the church and its traditions. Last year our granddaughter Polina was baptized in Washington by Father Victor Potapov at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and that was a great moment for our family.”
The moment Natalia mentions Polina, a wistful look came into her eyes. “In Russia,” she began to explain, “grandparents — and especially grandmothers, ‘babushkas’ — are very important and very involved in bringing up their grandchildren.”
Respecting that tradition, their 37-year-old daughter Julia came to Washington with then 4-year-old Polina, or “Polya” as her babushka calls her, for Christmas in 2008, with the plan that when her mother left a month later, the little girl would stay on with her grandparents for a year to learn English and experience the United States. She stayed here until last August.
That first winter, Polya and her grandmother had a wonderful time walking through the high snow piled up around the city and going to museums, talking at night with “dedushka” (grandfather) and, when the weather warmed up, enjoying the Russian dacha on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the fall of 2009, Polina enrolled with other international and American students at Stoddard Elementary’s pre-school. “There’s a plaque there with her name on it,” said her proud babushka. “With her quote, ‘Polya loves her school.’
“Last summer, when we asked her if she’d like to stay another year … she said, ‘I’m a Russian girl and I have to live in Russia and study in a Russian school. Kids should live with their parents.’” Case closed.
Now Polya talks with her babushka by Skype almost every day to catch up on everything. “We also talk about what she wants babushka to send her from America,” Natalia said, noting that Polya already has a collection of 13 cabbage dolls, including her mother’s original that is 30 years old, as well as a pet menagerie from the Russian version of Sesame Street and an American “Dora, the Explorer” backpack.
“She always gets triple gifts for the holidays,” said this dotting grandmother, laughing. “First for Dec. 25 and then for New Year’s, which is a big celebration for Russians, and then again on Jan. 7 for our Orthodox Christmas.
“We miss her,” Natalia adds. “I won’t see Polya until this May.” Then, with her hand on her chest, she said softly, “Half of my heart is in Moscow.”
It’s no wonder then that these grandparents relish having children visit the embassy. The Kislyaks host an annual Orthodox Christmas celebration in January for Russian and American children, including those of the embassy staff, the local church and neighborhood community.
“Another very important children’s event that we have is the Easter event when we host Russian children and the families who adopted them. Since 1993, Americans have adopted 60,000 Russian children,” Natalia pointed out.
“It is heartwarming to us that these American families encourage their Russian-American children to remember and cherish their Russian background.”
In fact, the Kislyaks want to organize more events for American youth and the younger generations of Russians to see the country anew “without those old stereotypes from the Cold War.” The embassy is also busy planning a “Russian intellectual” film festival with local universities.
“Their love of culture is real,” Xenia observed. “We are thrilled that the Kislyaks want to be so involved in this city’s artistic life. Mrs. Kislyak often serves as a bridge between the embassy and local, national and international cultural groups, making things happen for our mutual benefit. And they attend every live performance in town that they possibly can, especially last year during the Kennedy Center’s two-season initiative, ‘Focus on Russia.’
During their short tenure, they have already made a major contribution within Washington’s cultural circles.”
That includes the Washington National Opera, whose annual Opera Ball took place at the Russian Embassy in 2010, a lavish social coup that had the city talking for months (also see “Opera Ball is Russian Fantasy” in the June 15, 2010, lifestyle column of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
“They had just arrived a week before our Rostropovich Tribute in September 2008 and almost none of us had met them,” Xenia added. “When Ambassador Kislyak began to speak that night — straight from his heart and without notes — we were immediately enchanted by his elegant English and his deep appreciation and understanding of Maestro [Mstislav] Rostropovich, a Russian who meant so much to Washingtonians.”
“We are trying to show America our culture, who we really are,” Natalia explained of their interest in the arts. “Culture and diplomacy go together to make stronger ties between our two people and countries. The more we know about each other, the more we appreciate each other,” she said.
“We always try to encourage cultural exchange and friendship between our two countries. I took Polya to see the statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin that was erected here in 2000, and we are delighted that Moscow now has a statue of American poet Walt Whitman.”
In addition, Natalia says the Russian Cultural Center in Washington is a wonderful, inexpensive way to learn more about her country. In another gesture of friendship, for the last two years the embassy has opened its reception hall to its Georgetown neighbors for the Citizens Association of Georgetown fall gala, which also celebrates Georgetown’s “sister community” in Russia, an area in Moscow called Arbat.
A former journalist, Natalia won’t be able to write about her diplomatic experiences when they leave their posting, but that doesn’t mean she won’t remember all the memories she’s made in Washington.
“I am keeping a journal to share our experiences in detail with my family, so our granddaughter can read about where her grandparents lived and what they did there and felt,” she said. “At night when Sergey is asleep, I collect my thoughts and write in my journal. It is not a job or a chore. I like to remember and report what we did.”
The door then opens and the ambassador surprises us. He had just finished hosting a meeting at the residence. When asked how his wife has helped him in his diplomatic career, there was no hesitation.
“I love her! I love her being with me, each and every moment. She is a beautiful, intelligent, caring and wonderful wife and mother,” he said enthusiastically. “And, an astonishingly wonderful babushka.”
Xenia is quick to remind me that being a “wonderful babushka” is the best thing you can say about a real Russian woman.
As we left the residence, Xenia also noted, “The Kislyaks’ love for the arts reminds me of a great Rostropovich quote: ‘Music and art make up a whole spiritual world in Russia. When Russian people go to a concert, they don't go to it as an attraction, as an entertainment, but to feel life.’”
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.