A Guide to Russia’s Diplomatic Properties in Washington
Putin’s government owns properties scattered around D.C. What do they all do?
It’s no secret that the Russian Embassy wants its diplomatic compounds back.
In December 2016, in addition to expelling 35 Russian diplomats, the Barack Obama administration seized two Russian compounds — one on the Atlantic seaboard in Maryland and another in New York — that it said were being used to gather intelligence on the United States.
A Russian Embassy official, who asked not to be named, told Foreign Policy that he found the decision to seize the properties strange. The embassy staff and their families spent summer vacations at the Maryland compound (it has a small pool on Chesapeake Bay and was used to hold events, including ones attended by U.S. State Department officials). The Russian Embassy official wondered aloud whether one would invite State Department representatives to a den of spies.
When FP asked whether the location of the compound was important, the Russian diplomat responded that the embassy is aware of rumors that it can allegedly communicate with submarines. This is untrue, he said.
The Russian Embassy says the compounds were seized in breach of international and bilateral agreement, the Vienna Convention, and U.S. law — and that U.S. officials entered the premises, violating diplomatic inviolability.
Despite recent reports that the compounds might be given back, they have yet to be returned.
What happens if the Russians don’t get them back? The Russian Embassy official stressed that everything the Russian government does is based on the principle of reciprocity.
“We have nothing new to say on this issue,” a State Department official said, in response to a query from FP about the compounds.
The Russian Embassy still has buildings spread throughout the nation’s capital, but that wasn’t by grand design. The official emphasized that there was no plan to buy buildings in different parts of the city. Rather, one building predates the 1917 Russian Revolution, and during the Cold War, the Soviet government bought what it could when it could — at market price and with the U.S. government’s approval. Here’s a list of known Russian diplomatic properties in the Washington, D.C., area:
1125 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005
The ambassador’s residence used to be the embassy. The Russian government purchased the property in 1913. However, it was only passed to the Soviet government in 1933, after Washington and Moscow established diplomatic ties. It was used as the embassy until 1994 and was renovated in the late 1990s, during which time the street outside the embassy was renamed Sakharov Plaza (a way for the United States to protest the harassment of Andrei Sakharov, the famed Soviet dissident). It serves as the residence of Ambassador Sergey Kislyak until the end of this month, when he is scheduled to depart to Russia. His farewell party was earlier this July.
2650 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington, DC 20007
The current main compound is used for events, receptions, ceremonies, press conferences, seminars, and working meetings. Situated on “Mount Alto,” the third-highest hill in Washington, the complex was designed by the renowned Soviet architect Michael Posokhin. The residential building, school, and sporting area were finished in 1979, but the administrative and ceremonial parts weren’t completed for another six years. The Russian Embassy’s main compound — all 6,000-plus square meters of it — was inaugurated in September 1994. For its 23rd anniversary this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would rename the street in front of the building after Boris Nemtsov, the opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was slain in plain view of the Kremlin in February 2015. It is also where children of the Russian Embassy staff are spending their summer since the Maryland compound has not been returned.
2641 Tunlaw Road NW, Washington, DC 20007
In the 1970s and 1980s, the consulate was hosted in what is now the Russian Cultural Center. But today it’s on Tunlaw Road (essentially, it is part of the main compound). There are five Russian consulates, which are charged with issuing visas, passports, and the like, in the United States: the one in Washington and four others in New York, Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco.
Defense, Military, Naval, and Air Building
2552 Belmont Road NW, Washington, DC 20008
This building, acquired in Soviet times, is now used as a residence for the military staff. The Russian Embassy official who spoke to FP said the separate building is strictly a matter of a need for physical space at a given time. The military staff (like those of the trade office) must ensure that their children are brought in the morning to the main compound — there is no legal agreement on education equivalence between Russia and the United States, which means that children of the embassy staff must attend school at the Russian Embassy or they are considered absentees.
Fisheries Attaché Office
1609 Decatur St. NW, Washington, DC 20011
According to a State Department diplomatic list from the summer of 2016, the Russian diplomatic mission appears to be the only one that has a separate office or property for its fisheries attaché. According to the Russian Embassy, this building was acquired in Soviet times, when cooperation between the United States and the then-USSR was more robust. Still, there is potential for cooperation, what with the two countries being oceanic neighbors. And “fisheries” covers issues such as science and technology, not just fish. There are, the Russian Embassy says, no fish present at the fisheries attaché office. There is, however, one staff member. (That staffer declined to speak with FP for this piece.)
1706 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009
Acquired in 1957, this building was purchased by the then-Soviet government and originally allocated for the embassy’s press service. For a time, the state information agency worked out of the small building (the Russian Embassy official says it is even smaller inside). It is now once again allotted to the embassy’s press team.
Russian Cultural Center
1825 Phelps Place NW, Washington, DC 20008
Also in 1957, the Soviet government bought the building that is now the Russian Cultural Center from Benjamin Franklin Pilson, who bought it from Aldis Browne, who bought it from the family of Evalyn Walsh McLean, the owner of the Hope Diamond, after they decided the mansion was too small and moved into what is currently the Indonesian Embassy. The building was used first as a school for the children of embassy staff and then, in the 1970s and 1980s, as a consulate. In 1998, a bilateral agreement was reached to designate this building the Russian Cultural Center. On Dec. 10, 1999, the “first lady of space,” Valentina Tereshkova, announced its opening. Today, according to Oleg Zhiganov, the director of the center, this building is meant to “promote people-to-people diplomacy” through a few events a week that showcase Russian culture, education, athletics, and science. That’s especially important for the “next generation,” Zhiganov said. They “shouldn’t be scared.”
The Russian Cultural Center features a room where Russian language is taught among murals depicting Russian-U.S. space competition and cooperation, a painting with the Russian and American flags under the “lamp of knowledge,” and the words, emblazoned on the walls of what’s called the Russian-American room, “That our two nations never again polarize.” One advantage to having it in a separate building, Zhiganov said, is that there is decidedly less security than in the main compound. The Russian Cultural Center, he added, is “totally open for the public.”
Trade Representative of the Russian Federation
2001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008
The trade representative building, also acquired in Soviet times, serves as both a residence and an office. Today, Russia is only the 23rd-largest trading partner of the United States — even before sanctions were imposed in 2014 after the seizure of Crimea in Ukraine. Back in 2013, Russia was America’s 28th-largest goods export market (some suspected that this was, in fact, part of the reason Washington could sanction Moscow — the United States had very little to lose economically).
Photo credits: Ambassador’s Residence: AgnosticPreachersKid/Creative Commons; Main Compound: CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images; Consular Division: Google Street View; Defense, Military, Naval, and Air Building: Google Street View; Fisheries Attaché Office: Google Street View; Information Office: Google Street View; Russian Cultural Center: AgnosticPreachersKid/Creative Commons; Trade Representative of the Russian Federation:, AgnosticPreachersKid/Creative Commons ; Top image: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration
Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin