Spaso House: 75 Years of History
Few buildings associated with American diplomacy over the past century carry the same resonance as Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. Since it was first selected as the American ambassadorial residence late in 1933, Spaso House has hosted a long list of distinguished guests, from jazz musicians to presidents of the United States and Russian heads of state. Located on a small side street near the up-scale Arbat district, the House takes its name from the square directly in front of the building, which was immortalized in 1878 by the painter V.D. Polenov in a work entitled “Moskovskii dvorik.”
Spaso House has been in continual use by the U.S. Government for 75 years, since the United States first established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, as both an ambassadorial residence and, occasionally, as a chancery building. While much of its fame rests upon the legendary diplomatic parties and state dinners that have been held within its confines, over the past eight decades Spaso House has also served as a venue for both traditional diplomatic negotiations and public diplomacy. Social and cultural events hosted at the House have played an essential role in easing tensions and maintaining contact between the United States and Russia, even when official relations were strained. As such, the history of Spaso House provides a unique perspective on the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia in the 20th century.
The original owner of Spaso House, Nikolay Vtorov, was a renowned Russian industrial magnate whose father, Aleksandr Fedorovich Vtorov, had amassed a fortune through the sale of textiles in Siberia during the 19th century. Aleksandr Vtorov moved the family business, A.F. Vtorov Textile Company, to Moscow in 1897. When he died in 1911, his son Nikolay took over the business, which soon became the dominant textile firm in Imperial Russia. In light of his acknowledged business acumen and admiration for the financial practices of American “robber barons,” Vtorov soon earned the sobriquet of “the Russian American,” and “The Morgan of Moscow.” When Vtorov decided to build a home for his family, he chose the Arbat district. In 1913, Vtorov purchased a lot from Princess Lobanova-Rostovskaya and hired noted architects Vladimir Dmitriyevich Adamovich and Vladimir Moritsevich Mayat to design and build his new home. The home was constructed in the “New Empire” style that was popular within Russia’s wealthy business class. Feted by contemporaries as a masterpiece, Spaso House remains one of the best surviving examples of early 20th century Russian neoclassicism.
Following the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, and Nikolay Vtorov’s mysterious death in 1918, the family fled the country, and Spaso House was expropriated by the Bolshevik Government. Under the orders of President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. Government withheld diplomatic recognition of the new regime and closed the U.S. Embassy in Russia the following year. For the next 15 years, Wilson’s successors maintained a policy of “non-recognition” toward the Soviet Union. During this era, Spaso House served in a variety of capacities, including as a reception house for the All-Russia Central Executive Committee (the precursor to the Supreme Soviet), and as a residence for leading Soviet diplomats, including Georgi Vasilevich Chicherin – Trotsky’s successor as the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1930 and co-author of the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo with Germany – and Lev Mikhailovich Karakhan, an expert on Far Eastern affairs who served as Chicherin’s deputy and negotiated the normalization of diplomatic relations with China in 1924.
By 1933, the United States was the only major power that had not yet recognized the Soviet Government. In November of that year, however, after extensive negotiations with Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Maximovich Litvinov in Washington D.C., the United States agreed to recognize the Soviet Union. U.S. recognition was conditioned on Soviet agreement to uphold certain legal and religious freedoms of American nationals residing within the Soviet Union, and to respect the political and territorial integrity of the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Litvinov also concluded a “gentlemen’s agreement,” whereby the Soviet Government agreed to pay back a portion of the debt left outstanding from the Czarist-era to the United States. The final figure would be determined after further negotiations.3 Following the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Soviet Union, President Roosevelt dispatched William Bullitt to serve as the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.
Upon the arrival of “The Bullitt Expeditionary Force” (as it was nicknamed within the Department of State) in Moscow in December 1933, the search began for new office and living quarters for American diplomats. Prior to 1918, the U.S. Embassy had been located in the old Czarist capital, St. Petersburg (later Petrograd). As a result, the United States Government did not have any previous history of maintaining an embassy or an ambassadorial residence in Moscow.4 A severe housing shortage, however, meant that only three buildings were immediately available in the new capital: Vtorov mansion, a building next to the famous Hotel National on Mokhovaya Street, and another building that later became the Polish Embassy. Ambassador Bullitt and his staff selected Vtorov mansion to serve as the temporary official residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, because it was ideal for entertaining and had a prized American heating system, which had been installed by the Soviets in 1928. They chose the building on Mokhovaya street as the location of the chancery.
After presenting his credentials and selecting locations for both the ambassadorial residence and chancery building, Bullitt returned briefly to Washington in order to assemble his embassy’s staff. In his absence, the Third Secretary of the Embassy, George Kennan, was authorized to begin negotiations with the Soviet Government on lease agreements for Vtorov mansion which the Americans called Spaso House and for the Mokhovaya Street building. Following Bullitt’s instructions, Kennan arranged for a 3-year, $75,000 lease, which was signed in August 1934. Bullitt had originally hoped to construct a Monticello-style building in the Sparrow Hills area and thus did not authorize a longer lease. Had Bullitt been successful in arranging for the new construction, Spaso House would have passed from the pages of American diplomatic history. Due to Soviet intransigence, however, Bullitt’s plans to construct a new embassy compound never came to fruition, and Spaso House remained on the Department of State’s roster of overseas buildings.
When the diplomats assigned to the first U.S. mission to the Soviet Union arrived in Moscow in early 1934, Spaso House was temporarily pressed into service as a chancery and hostel until June due to problems with the Mokhovaya street building. Apart from its shoddy construction, George Kennan learned that Soviet engineers had been worried that the construction of the Moscow Metro below the Mokhovaya building might have undermined its structural integrity. Since the building was also meant to serve as a residence for American diplomats, the U.S. officials were forced to reside temporarily at nearby hotels or in Spaso House. As for the House itself, in order to prepare it as a site for official diplomatic functions, the U.S. Government added a ballroom annex in 1935 that would supplement the grand chandelier room as a venue for concerts and movie screenings.
Despite the Americans’ best efforts to make Spaso House their own, its former residents appeared reluctant to relinquish all ties to the grand House. While the building’s Soviet occupants had, with some reluctance, departed once the U.S. Government decided to rent Spaso House, echoes of the past would occasionally interrupt Ambassador Bullitt’s busy staff. For example, in his memoirs Kennan recounts one fascinating tale concerning the telephones in Spaso House.
During the early days of its use as the ambassador’s residence, there was no telephone switchboard in Spaso House. There were only two telephones, which rang incessantly, day and night. Occasionally, however, when someone answered the phone, all that was heard was “labored breathing and a baffling verbal silence.” Initially, no one could figure out who was making these calls, but Kennan eventually learned from a Soviet confidant that the former Foreign Minister Chicherin, “[now] in disfavor and retirement, ill and half mad,” was calling because the Spaso House furnaceman was the only person he would allow to clean his new home. Apparently, Chicherin’s “method of signaling [the furnaceman]... was to phone to the building and then, when the phone was answered, to maintain a defiant, charged silence.”
Many years after his last tour of duty in Moscow had ended in 1952, Kennan fondly recalled the “honeymoon” period that followed the recognition of the Soviet Union by the Roosevelt Administration in November 1933 as “a wonderful and exciting time.” It was a time when American diplomats and journalists were welcomed into Soviet society and enjoyed a remarkable degree of access to both Soviet officials and ordinary citizens. To Kennan, it was an “example of what Soviet- American relations might, in other circumstances, have been [like].”
Soon after American diplomats moved to Moscow, Spaso House became the location of many important and highly anticipated social events. On July 4, 1934, the embassy held the first of its annual Independence Day celebrations. During the day, the embassy staff (led by Ambassador Bullitt himself) defeated a team made up of American newspaper correspondents in a baseball game held at a park alongside the Moscow River. That evening, a reception for 100 American citizens was held at Spaso House.10 This event marked the beginning of a long tradition of annual Fourth of July parties at Spaso House, and established the House as a central social site for the American diplomatic community in Moscow.
Two social events held at Spaso House in the early years achieved legendary status. On the first occasion, during the Christmas season of 1934, Ambassador Bullitt instructed his interpreter, Charles Thayer, to organize – in Thayer’s words – “a real shindig” for all of the American citizens residing in Moscow. Irena Wiley, the wife of the embassy’s Counselor, suggested that the party feature an animal act. When Thayer visited the Moscow Zoo, however, the Director of the Zoo nervously refused to donate any animals for an event at a foreign embassy. In desperation, Thayer called upon the Moscow Circus, which had three seals – Misha, Shura, and Lyuba – that were able to perform a variety of tricks. The night of the party, all of the guests gathered in the darkened chandelier room. Spotlights shone upon the three seals, which entered the room with a Christmas tree, a tray of glasses, and a bottle of champagne balanced on their respective noses. After their grand entrance, the seals proceeded to perform a variety of tricks, at the conclusion of which their trainer, who had been drinking, suddenly fainted. Without the trainer to control them, pandemonium ensued, as the seals began running amok throughout the House, while Thayer and the embassy staff attempted to corral them. Fortunately for Thayer’s career, Ambassador Bullitt was not in attendance, as he had been temporarily recalled to Washington, D.C. for consultations with President Roosevelt.
Despite the chaos of the 1934 Christmas party, the American Embassy hosted another event in the spring of 1935. This time, Ambassador Bullitt held a formal reception for the foreign diplomatic corps in Moscow. Thayer’s instructions from Bullitt were to plan a party that would surpass every other embassy party in Moscow’s history. Mrs. Wiley now suggested a barnyard motif, which would be entitled the “Spring Festival.” Following the debacle with the seals, Thayer was wary about using animals, but – as he later noted in his memoirs – being a mere translator, he “knew better than to argue” with the wife of a senior embassy official. Accordingly, Thayer temporarily procured some animals from the Moscow Zoo, whose Director had become “a little less nervous about collaborating with foreigners.” Thayer obtained some mountain goats, a dozen white roosters, and a baby bear that would spend the party perched on a small platform. To enhance the barnyard motif, workmen created an artificial forest in the chandelier room by using 10 young birch trees, which had been uprooted and stored temporarily in one of Spaso House’s bathrooms. They also constructed an aviary made from a fish net to house pheasants, parakeets, and 100 zebra finches (also on loan from the Moscow Zoo). Finally, the dining room table was covered with Finnish tulips, and with chicory grown on wet felt in order to simulate grass.
The Spring Festival, held on April 24, 1935, remains possibly the most elaborate and dazzling diplomatic function ever staged by an American overseas mission. Immortalized by the Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov in his satire of the Soviet era, The Master and Margarita, as the “Spring Ball of the Full Moon,” this event brought over 400 guests to Spaso House. Among them were leading members of the Soviet Politburo and Red Army, including Litvinov, Defense Minister Kliment Voroshilov, Lazar Kaganovich (Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party), Nikolai Bukharin (the former President of the Comintern), Karl Radek (a leading Bolshevik writer and member of the editorial board of Izvestia), and three other Marshals of the Soviet Union (Aleksandr Yegorov, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, and Semyon Budyonny). As far as Thayer was concerned, “except for Stalin, practically everyone who matters in Moscow turned up.”
Apart from the fact that the bear vomited on a Soviet general after Radek mischievously substituted champagne for its bottle of milk, the party was a remarkable success, and lasted until the following morning. Once the last guests had left, Thayer began corralling the birds into their cages. Overcome by exhaustion, however, Thayer accidentally left the door to the aviary unfastened when he went to bed. Shortly after falling asleep, Bullitt’s valet woke Thayer to tell him that the Ambassador was demanding his presence in the chandelier room. Upon arriving, Thayer found the Ambassador looking up toward the domed ceiling of the room at a flock of zebra finches that had escaped from the aviary and were “merrily skimming through the air.” A bird-catcher dispatched by the Moscow Zoo was unable to collect the birds due to the height of the ceilings, and Thayer watched helplessly as the birds moved into other parts of the House, which was soon “filled with chirpings and droppings.” Not surprisingly, the Spring Festival was the last party that Ambassador Bullitt ever asked Charles Thayer to organize at Spaso House.
Events such as the Spring Festival were of incalculable value in cementing close personal relationships between American diplomats and their Soviet counterparts. Bullitt used the parties at Spaso House as a means of cultivating contacts with Soviet officials from outside of the Foreign Ministry (especially within the armed forces), since he believed that Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov was hostile to American interests.
The elaborate Spring Festival signaled the zenith of U.S.-Soviet relations during the 1930s. Although Bullitt had come to Moscow hoping to form a lasting rapprochement with Soviet officials, by 1935, he had become disillusioned and bitter after his failure to work out an agreement with the Soviets concerning the repayment of Czarist Russia’s debt to the United States. As a result, Bullitt came to believe that the Soviets were not interested in abiding by the terms of the agreement that made U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union possible.
Bullitt turned decisively against close relations with the Soviet Union in July 1935, when the Soviet Communist Party invited the American Communist Party to attend the Seventh Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow. By the terms of the 1933 agreement, the Soviet Union was required to abstain from any support for organizations that sought to foment the overthrow of “the political or social order of the whole or any part of the United States.” While the agreement did not forbid the hosting of Comintern functions on Soviet soil, the inclusion of the American Communist Party during the proceedings was a clear violation of the agreement and stirred fears that the Soviets were using American Communists to undermine the United States Government politically. Having been one of the foremost advocates of closer relations with the Soviet Union prior to 1935, Bullitt considered the invitation of American Communists to Moscow to be a personal affront and thereafter became harshly critical of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, he spent little time in Moscow during the last year of his tenure as Ambassador, and President Roosevelt transferred him to Paris in August 1936, where, as the new U.S. ambassador, he remained a vocal critic of closer ties with the Soviet Union.
President Roosevelt appointed Joseph E. Davies as Bullitt’s replacement. Davies was a prominent Democratic Party official and a former Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission during the Wilson Administration. He had also served as an economic adviser to the president at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
During his service in the Wilson Administration, Davies had become a close friend of then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following Bullitt’s departure from Moscow in 1936, President Roosevelt asked Davies to go to Moscow in order to repair relations with the Soviet Government. The president believed that improved relations with Moscow would help to stabilize the situation in Europe, which was becoming increasingly tense as Germany, Japan, and Italy began challenging the post-Versailles status quo ante by rearming and threatening their neighbors.
Upon arriving in the Soviet Union, Ambassador Davies and his wife, Marjorie Post (heiress to the Post Foods fortune), made extensive renovations to Spaso House at their own expense. Repairs included a complete rewiring of the House and installation of brand-new American electrical equipment and bathtubs. During this time, many Americans living in Moscow imported their food due to the severe food shortages within the Soviet Union. The Ambassador did the same and, in doing so, sparked a minor scandal when reporters found out that he and his wife had used their private yacht to transport 12 food lockers and 2,000 pints of frozen cream to Moscow through Leningrad. Davies also installed new freezers in the basement of Spaso House to store the regular shipments of frozen food that would be arriving from the United States. However, even after the renovations, the electrical wiring in the House was not up to the task of supporting these additional appliances. After the electrical power in the House temporarily failed, two of the new freezers failed to restart, spoiling 400 quarts of cream. Charles Thayer was charged with disposing of the rancid cream without letting any American journalists know, and before “all Moscow could have smelled the story.”
A more serious problem for the U.S. Embassy staff was Soviet surveillance. In addition to the constant presence of Soviet police every time Davies left Spaso House (a practice that had begun following the assassination of the German Ambassador in Petrograd in 1914),17 the Ambassador and his wife soon realized that the Soviet domestic staff was spying on them and reporting directly to the Soviet secret police. Mrs. Davies later recalled that Spaso House was riddled with a multitude of microphones: “We found them in the fireplaces, we found them in the little vents, in the inner walls.” U.S. Embassy personnel also instructed her and the Ambassador to tap a spoon on metal or a glass whenever they spoke about sensitive matters in the House, in order to counteract the microphones.18 Finally, guests at the House during this period received welcome cards that warned that every room in the House, along with the garden, was monitored by the Soviet secret police, and that each person’s luggage could be searched multiple times on a daily basis.
The most notable example of electronic eavesdropping took place during the summer of 1937, while Ambassador Davies was away from Moscow. During an inventorycheck in the attic, an embassy electrician discovered that someone had created a space from which a microphone could be placed in a ventilator shaft between the attic floor and the ceiling of the Ambassador’s study. After several attempts to surprise the culprit, Kennan had the electrician install a trip wire to the attic’s entrance, which led to an alarm in the sleeping quarters of the Ambassador’s personal English butler. For several weeks, nothing happened. Then, one afternoon, the butler summoned Kennan to his room where, to Kennan’s astonishment, he found that the butler and Ambassador Davies’ nephew had apprehended a Spaso House telephone operator. While the man in question refused to confess to any wrongdoing, Kennan was fairly certain that they had identified the culprit because he had found cigarette butts stained with lipstick in the part of the attic where the microphone was to be placed. The telephone operator was known, for reasons Kennan “preferred not to inquire into,” to wear lipstick. Kennan asked the Ambassador to take up the matter with Soviet officials, but Davies refused. He feared that the incident would interfere with his mission to repair the damage that had been done to U.S.-Soviet relations during his predecessor’s tenure. As a result, Ambassador Davies, his family, and the embassy staff learned to live with the possibility that all activities within Spaso House might be monitored by the Soviets.
In June 1938, Ambassador Davies left Moscow to become the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and was later replaced by Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt. While relations with the Soviet Union had improved somewhat during Davies’s tenure, they quickly deteriorated following his departure. By August 24, 1939, only two weeks after Steinhardt arrived in Moscow, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a low point when the Soviet and Nazi Governments signed the Molotov- Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact and the German-Soviet Commercial Agreements. Steinhardt made frequent public protests against the mistreatment of American citizens at the hands of Soviet authorities in the Soviet Union and in occupied Poland. Given the tense relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the outbreak of war in Europe, Steinhardt did little entertaining at Spaso House during his ambassadorship.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union immediately brought about a significant change in U.S.-Soviet relations. In July 1941, Harry Hopkins, a close aide to President Roosevelt, met with Premier Josef Stalin and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to discuss Soviet aid requirements and assess the Soviet war effort for the President’s benefit. Shortly thereafter, during the Atlantic Conference, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill wrote to Stalin, pledging to unconditionally provide the Soviet Union “with the very maximum of supplies” it required. In late September 1941, a supply mission led by future Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman and British Cabinet Minister Lord Beaverbrook arrived in Moscow and arranged the details for extending American Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union. By the end of October, President Roosevelt authorized the dispatch of all equipment and material that had been assigned to the Soviet Union during the Beaverbrook-Harriman mission. Consequently, for the first time since 1935, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (and Spaso House) became a hub of important activity.
As the German armies drew closer to Moscow in the autumn of 1941, both Spaso House and the American chancery building suffered minor damage from German bombing raids. By mid-October, the Soviet Government evacuated all foreign diplomatic personnel to the town of Kuibyshev, which was 540 miles southeast of Moscow.23 While Steinhardt helped organize the transfer of American embassy staff from Moscow, his prior differences with the Soviet Government rendered him ineffective at a time when the United States was attempting to forge an anti-Nazi alliance with the Soviets, and he was transferred to Ankara in November.
During Steinhardt’s absence from Moscow, a six-man team remained in the city as a skeleton crew, led by Second Secretary of the Embassy Llewellyn Thompson. Thompson’s team managed to keep regular embassy office hours (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), providing the few remaining Americans in Moscow with the necessary transit visas, and keeping Washington informed about the military situation. During this period, the six Americans who remained to work at the chancery resided at Spaso House and made preparations for a German siege. Once, when the Moscow water supply was threatened, they collected water in the House’s bathtubs, which they then froze and stored in metal garbage cans. When they were not preparing for a siege, however, they found novel ways to entertain themselves, such as turning the front lawn of Spaso House into a makeshift skating rink and attending the ballet “Swan Lake” approximately 50 times.
Fortunately, the expected German siege of Moscow never came to pass. For his exemplary leadership during the winter of 1941-42, the Department of State awarded Thompson its Medal of Freedom, for maintaining the U.S. mission in Moscow “at the risk of capture.”
Admiral William Standley replaced Steinhardt in April 1942. Ambassador Standley had been a former Chief of Naval Operations and member of the Beaverbrook-Harriman Supply Mission to Moscow in October 1941, which negotiated the terms under which the Soviet Union would receive Lend-Lease aid from the United States. While Standley spent much of his time at the makeshift U.S. Embassy in Kuibyshev, he stayed at Spaso House during his trips to Moscow to meet with Soviet officials.
Although it served as a crucial diplomatic base during the war, Spaso House suffered from the exigencies of wartime. German bombing broke the House’s windows and the staff’s attempts to cover them with wooden boards failed to keep out the wind and cold. Consequently, according to Ambassador Standley, “in the winter you could occupy some of [the House’s] dark and gloomy rooms only if dressed in heavy fur clothing.” Moreover, since the furnace did not function properly, the staff had to install oil stoves in various rooms with pipes sticking out of the windows in order to get rid of the smoke.
Nevertheless, by August 1943, with the Germans in full retreat across the Soviet Union, the United States was able to move its full diplomatic complement back to Moscow, and Ambassador W. Averell Harriman replaced Standley as Ambassador. During Ambassador Harriman’s tenure, the number of American diplomatic and military personnel assigned to the embassy increased dramatically, in order to cope with the provisions of Lend-Lease assistance. To accommodate the influx of people, the U.S. mission converted Spaso House into a temporary office building, a hotel for visiting dignitaries, and a dormitory for several members of the embassy staff. In fact, the House became so crowded that Ambassador Harriman was forced to convert his bedroom into a makeshift office. Although it served many purposes during the war, the House did provide its residents with one luxury that was hard to come by in wartime Moscow: hot water.
During World War II, Spaso House served not only as a home for U.S. diplomats in Moscow, but also as an important base for high-level U.S. Government officials who traveled to Moscow to participate in important meetings between Allied policymakers. For example, Harry Hopkins stayed at the House during his brief mission to meet with Stalin and Foreign Minister Molotov in July 1941. In September 1942, Wendell Willkie, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1940, stayed at the House during an official tour of the Soviet Union. In October 1943, Donald M. Nelson, the head of the U.S. War Production Board, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who came to Moscow for the 1943 Conference of Foreign Ministers, stayed at the House. While in Moscow, Secretary Hull met with representatives from Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China and signed a joint declaration to establish what later became the United Nations.31 During the Yalta Conference in early 1945, Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., and Edward Flynn (the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee) were also guests of Ambassador Harriman at Spaso House during a short visit to Moscow. Finally, in August 1945, Spaso House welcomed General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while he was in Moscow to celebrate the Allied victory in Europe.
In January 1946, when General Walter Bedell Smith (who had served as General Eisenhower’s chief of staff during the war) arrived in Moscow to replace Ambassador Harriman, he found Spaso House in a dilapidated state. The comings and goings of the many visitors – as well as the additional military and diplomatic staff – during the war had taken a toll on the general infrastructure and décor of the Ambassador’s official residence. What concerned the new Ambassador the most, however, was the safety risk posed by the gigantic chandelier in the reception hall. The metal wires that held the 25-pound crystal ornaments to the chandelier were badly rusted and at risk of breaking. Should these ornaments come crashing to the floor, anyone standing beneath them would surely be injured. Ambassador Smith worried that this might cause an unfortunate diplomatic incident at the next embassy function. Consequently, Smith authorized the embassy to spend $800 to have the wires replaced.
From March to April 1947, Moscow served as the setting for a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, which dealt with the final peace treaties with Germany and Austria. Accordingly, the Department of State finally committed to undertaking substantial repairs and refurbishment of Spaso House for the first time since before the Second World War. The embassy requested new rugs, curtains, refrigerators, bathtubs, chairs, plates, and utensils, and the domestic staff received new uniforms. During the Council of Foreign Ministers meetings, much of Spaso House was utilized as office space, and Secretary of State George C. Marshall stayed there as a guest. Secretary Marshall also hosted a formal dinner party at the House on April 10, 1947.
Two years later, upon her arrival in Moscow, Lydia Kirk, the wife of Admiral Alan Kirk (Smith’s successor as Ambassador from 1949 to 1951) commented favorably upon the renovations that had been made since the end of the war. Not only were conditions in the House “far better than I had feared,” but “the effect is dignified and should not be difficult to live with.”
Like many members of the American diplomatic enclave in Moscow before and since, however, Mrs. Kirk soon learned that every necessity of life – “down to the last nail and pillow” – had to be shipped in from the United States, or purchased from the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s office for foreign missions, Burobin. This agency, which Kirk described as “a mass of red tape and bureaucracy,” earned the enmity of American diplomats for constantly making their “complicated lives that much more complicated.”
Mrs. Kirk also noted the valuable service performed by two Chinese nationals, Chin and Tang, who supervised the domestic staff at Spaso House. Both of them had come to the Soviet Union years before and had married Russians, but could not leave the country because they could not secure exit visas for their new families. Both of them remained employees at Spaso House for many years, in spite of the constant harassment of the Soviet security services.
In the late 1940s, the Grand Alliance of World War II quickly unraveled over disputes in Europe. By June 1950, the United States and its allies within the United Nations were at war with Soviet-backed proxies in Korea. Consequently, foreign diplomats in Moscow found themselves under increased surveillance and prevented from having any contact with Soviet civilians outside of official functions.
When George Kennan returned to Moscow in May 1952 to become ambassador, he found that Spaso House was now surrounded by brick walls on three sides and a large iron fence on the fourth, all of which were floodlit (“like those of a prison”) and patrolled constantly by guards. Kennan also observed from the windows of Spaso House that Soviet citizens would cross the street to avoid walking directly in front of the residence.
Due to the fact that Kennan’s family took several weeks to join him in Moscow, he was often completely alone in Spaso House. During those nights, he later recalled, he “wandered securely about in my gilded prison” like a “ghost,” played the grand piano in the ballroom, or simply sat in one of the many chairs and practiced his Russian conversational skills by reading aloud, which was a necessity since he only had the chance to practice his conversational Russian on rare official occasions.
In this hostile environment, Ambassador Kennan remembered fondly the Chinese butlers Chin and Tang who, he recalled, were the only domestic servants at Spaso House “who exhibited a limited measure of individual concern.” Kennan noted that he owed one of them his “lasting gratitude” for courageously staying late at the House, while Kennan was alone, in order to serve him dinner. Once Kennan had finished eating, however, the man (Kennan did not specify whether it was Chin or Tang) would “vanish precipitously,” since Soviet domestic servants were instructed not to socialize with American diplomats in any way, and feared being left “alone, if only for a moment, with someone as dangerous as [the American Ambassador].”40 More than 30 years later, during the height of détente, Tang was still serving as the butler of Spaso House, greeting each of the 3,000 guests who attended the embassy’s 1976 celebration of the U.S. bicentennial of its independence, the largest party ever held at the House.
Whenever Kennan left the House, he was immediately followed by five plain-clothes policemen, who never once left his presence when he was outside embassy property. Kennan also learned that he was not really free of his Soviet overseers even within the confines of Spaso House. Upon arriving in Moscow, he had been appalled to learn that Spaso House had been renovated by Burobin during the interval between Ambassador Kirk’s departure and his arrival, without any American supervision. While cursory inspections afterwards had turned up nothing untoward, Kennan fumed that the “bureaucratized” Foreign Service had allowed a renovation of Spaso House without a Russian- speaking U.S. official to supervise it.
Prior to Kennan’s departure for a meeting of American Chiefs of Mission in London in September 1952, two American technicians arrived to give Spaso House a more thorough inspection for Soviet eavesdropping devices. At first, their equipment could find nothing, so they advised Kennan to go through the motions of a regular work-day. Following their orders, Kennan pretended to dictate a diplomatic telegram to his secretary by reading aloud from a volume of the State Department’s official documentary history, Foreign Relations of the United States, in his study, while the technicians scurried around the building looking for Soviet microphones. When their efforts still proved fruitless, the technicians started to examine the room that Kennan was in while he and his secretary pretended to work. Eventually, the technicians focused their attention on the wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that hung on the study’s wall. This carving of the Seal had been a gift from the Soviet Government to Ambassador Harriman in 1946.
While Kennan and his secretary continued their charade, they watched in amazement as the technicians began hammering away at the wall behind the Seal and then, finally, at the Seal itself. The technicians soon discovered a sophisticated microphone that could only be detected when activated, which is why previous inspections had failed to find it. Kennan immediately became “acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor,” feeling as though he “could almost hear his breathing.” Kennan was not blind to the irony of the situation, for during his many nights alone in the House, he had often read aloud in the same room as the Seal. Since there was no work to be done in the evenings, as well as the fact that he needed the practice since so few Russians ever spoke to him, Kennan sometimes read aloud from scripts of Russian broadcasts by the Voice of America. As such, his unseen audience was treated to “vigorous and eloquent polemics against Soviet politics,” which led Kennan to wonder whether or not the Soviets thought he “was trying to make fun of them.”
One or two days before he left for London, another incident occurred at Spaso House that directly contributed to ending Kennan’s unhappy tenure as Ambassador in Moscow. While reading on the front of the lawn of the House, Kennan’s young son, who had been playing nearby, walked over to the front gate. Some Soviet children took notice of this and crossed the street. Soon, all the children were playing with one another through the gate while Kennan watched. The Soviet guards, however, soon interceded, and sent the Soviet children away. Kennan had managed to deal with the fact that he was effectively prevented from fraternizing with Soviet citizens, but this last episode was simply too much for him.
On September 19, 1952, during a stopover in Berlin on his way to London, a group of reporters interviewed Kennan. One of them asked if Kennan enjoyed much social contact with Soviet citizens, and Kennan snapped back that the only difference between his current posting in the Soviet Union and his experiences in Nazi Germany as an internee in late 1941 and early 1942, was that in Moscow, he was “at liberty to go out and walk the streets under guard.”
One week later, a Pravda editorial denounced Kennan for the comments he had made in Berlin, and on October 3, John M. McSweeney, the Chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. The Soviets presented McSweeney with a note declaring Kennan persona non grata and demanding his immediate recall.
By the time Kennan’s successor, Charles Bohlen (who had served with Kennan during the Ambassadorship of William Bullitt), arrived in Moscow in April 1953, the situation had changed dramatically. The Soviet Premier, Josef Stalin, had died in early March, and the Korean War was winding down. These factors allowed Spaso House to once again serve as a setting for official and unofficial interaction between U.S. and Soviet diplomats.
On April 6, 1953, several Soviet officials and their wives attended a small cocktail party at Spaso House hosted by the Chargé, Jacob Beam, for some visiting American journalists. What was most remarkable about the party was not simply the fact that for the past several years Soviet officials had generally declined to attend any embassy events. (Except for the Fourth of July celebrations – and even those parties drew only small numbers of usually minor Soviet officials – a mere eight came in 1951 and only seven the year before). Rather, what was unusual was that Soviet journalists attended, which had not happened since the Second World War. Ordinarily, The New York Times reported, such a cocktail party in any other world capital would hardly be considered news. In Moscow, however, “the sight of Russians and Americans mingling in an easy informal fashion is major news.” Spaso House, being the prime location for these kinds of gatherings, was again a key venue for the development of U.S.-Soviet relations.
In stark contrast to the melancholy building evoked by Kennan, one of Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen’s children, Celestine Bohlen, recalled Spaso House as being a bustling home and office with a “communal” atmosphere. During Bohlen’s 4-year tenure, Spaso House returned to being a social hub for the entire American community in Moscow. The Bohlen family opened its doors to members of the American community and offered it as a venue for events such as the Christmas pageant, Marine Ball, and movie screenings, all of which “kept the House filled,” even if it was, as Celestine Bohlen recalled, “rambling, awkward, [and] ill-equipped to function as a hub in a modern U.S. embassy.”
Most notably, Soviet leaders no longer shunned invitations to Spaso House functions. Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev became a frequent visitor at Spaso House throughout his tenure as Soviet leader. During the Fourth of July celebrations in 1954, Khrushchev and the entire Politburo made an unannounced appearance at Spaso House. Ambassador Bohlen had no inkling that they would attend and was away from Moscow that day. His daughter Celestine almost caused a diplomatic incident when a jovial Khrushchev attempted to pick her up. As Bohlen himself recounted in his memoirs, her icy glare forced the “poor man” to retreat.
The following year, Khrushchev and leading members of the Politburo, including Premier Nikolai Bulganin, made another unexpected visit to Spaso House during the 1955 Fourth of July celebrations. On this occasion, Khrushchev took the opportunity to make some bold statements concerning the upcoming Four Power Talks in Geneva in front of Walter Walmsley, who was serving as acting Chief of Mission during another one of Ambassador Bohlen’s unfortunately- timed absences from Moscow. That year, the embassy was forced to host the party in the garden because the ballroom annex that had been constructed during Ambassador Bullitt’s mission had been condemned as unsafe due to substandard work during its initial construction. Had there been any rain, the entire party would have been a disaster, since there was no place to host several hundred guests within the House.
However, July 4, 1955, was a sunny day, and in the shade of Spaso House’s backyard trees and before a small gathering of diplomats and reporters, Khrushchev made an important statement. The Soviet Union, he declared, would attend the Geneva Conference, where international powers planned to discuss the future status of Germany, among other important issues. Khrushchev openly stated that his hopes for the Conference were that both sides could “talk on an equal basis … and if you [the United States] talk to us honestly and sincerely as equal to equal something will come of it.” Irrespective of Khrushchev’s implications that the Soviet Union could “wait and hold on” if the United States and its allies were not serious about the negotiations, The New York Times noted that that the appearance of the Soviet leadership at Spaso House “[dramatized] in a personal way [the Soviet] policy of relaxing tension and promoting ‘peaceful coexistence.’”
Spaso House also served as an important venue for social events during Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to the Soviet Union in July 1959. Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson hosted a number of official events at Spaso House during Nixon’s visit, including a private dinner attended by, among others, Nixon, Khrushchev, and Dr. Milton Eisenhower, President of The Johns Hopkins University and brother of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Despite his reputation as a staunch anti-Communist, Vice President Nixon managed to make polite dinner conversation with Khrushchev, leaving aside their well-publicized verbal sparring concerning the merits of capitalism vs. communism during the previous day’s tour of the American National Exhibition. Despite the wide press coverage of this now famous “Kitchen Debate,” the dinner at Spaso House went so well that Khrushchev extended an invitation to the Vice President to spend the night at his private dacha outside of Moscow following the dinner.
However, Vice President Nixon’s visit was marred by the discovery of yet another Soviet listening device within the walls of Spaso House just prior to his arrival. This time American technicians discovered the Spaso listening device embedded within a chandelier near the office of Ambassador Thompson, and speculated that it had been installed by one of the many Soviet nationals who performed maintenance work in the House. Despite this discovery, Nixon used Spaso House as an office during his visit. The Vice President stayed up an entire night at Spaso House with Ambassador Thompson working on the speech that he delivered on Soviet television and radio on August 1, 1959.
News of this latest proof of Soviet attempts to eavesdrop within Spaso House was not revealed to the public, however, until the following year, shortly after U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge made his famous presentation at the Security Council. During this presentation, Lodge confronted Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko with the wooden carving of the Great Seal that had been found to contain a Soviet listening device during Ambassador Kennan’s tenure in 1952. At the same time, Lodge also revealed that the U.S. Government had discovered a total of over 100 listening devices within American embassy buildings inside the Communist bloc during the past few years, including the most recent discovery at Spaso House. The extent of Soviet espionage within American embassies during this period appears to have been so great that it led Ambassador Thompson to comment that, while in Moscow, he preferred to discuss classified information outdoors. Almost 30 years later, residents of Spaso House still operated under the assumption that every one of their conversations might be overheard, and Ambassador Jack Matlock, the U.S. Ambassador from 1987 to 1991, frequently declared: “If they [the Soviets] want my opinion, they’re welcome to it.”
The disclosure of Soviet espionage at Spaso House in 1960 came as a result of a sharpening of diplomatic tensions following the collapse of the 1960 Paris summit after the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane and attempted to establish closer relations with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Nevertheless, the spirit of “peaceful coexistence” that had been articulated by Khrushchev throughout the 1950s had taken hold, and although Khrushchev himself did not attend the 1960 July Fourth celebration at Spaso House, 500 Soviets citizens did, including prominent Politburo members such as Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan. In fact, the number of Soviet attendees eclipsed that of the previous year’s party, even though the diplomatic situation had gravely deteriorated during the intervening months, primarily due to the U-2 incident and Cuba.
Unlike in years past, Soviet leaders were determined to maintain cordial relations with their American counterparts even during difficult times, and they publicly affirmed their commitment to resolve major differences peacefully. The annual Fourth of July party at Spaso House served as a perfect diplomatic setting for making such intentions clear. Accordingly, at the 1960 party Mikoyan defiantly stated that the Soviet Union could defy the U.S. oil embargo against Cuba, but the informal, friendly atmosphere of the party also allowed him to declare that relations between the United States and Soviet Union “must improve.”
While issues such as Cuba would frustrate the attempts of both Soviet and U.S. leaders to reduce diplomatic tensions, Spaso House provided U.S. and Soviet citizens with a place where they could fraternize freely with each other. During Ambassador Thompson’s first stint as Chief of Mission, over 5,000 Soviet nationals attended events at Spaso House. This was more than had done so during the 23 years that preceded Thompson’s arrival.
This spirit of conviviality also contributed to the creation of a true friendship between Ambassador Thompson and General Secretary Khrushchev. At the time, one American reporter remarked that there was a “personal quality to their relationship which is a little hard to define in words….” Two years after returning to Moscow (where he had served as a junior diplomat during the Second World War), Thompson convinced Khrushchev to visit the United States, and he later helped to arrange the 1960 summit meeting in Paris between Khrushchev and President Eisenhower. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy relied on the advice of Thompson, who had returned to Washington to serve as an Ambassador-at-Large earlier that year, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thompson advised the President that, according to his personal estimate of Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier would not risk a nuclear war over the placement of missiles in Cuba, if he could claim a public relations victory by having the United States pledge not to invade the island. As such, Thompson’s personal relationship with Khrushchev helped in no small measure to defuse the most serious crisis of the Cold War.
Although the United States and the Soviet Union had come to the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, following the assassination of President Kennedy, the Soviet Government and people expressed great compassion. While state-owned television, radio stations, and newspapers provided warm tributes to President Kennedy, Khrushchev and Foreign Minister Gromyko personally called upon Thompson’s replacement, Ambassador Foy D. Kohler, at Spaso House on the afternoon of November 23, 1963. The two signed condolence books, and Khrushchev privately spoke with Kohler for another 20 minutes, during which time he again shared his condolences and recollections of his only meeting with President Kennedy, during the Vienna Conference of 1961.58 Five years later, following the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the scene would be replicated when, to the astonishment of American diplomats, numerous senior Soviet officials quickly flocked to Spaso House in order to pay their respects.
Despite Khrushchev’s custom of attending events at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s replacement as General Secretary after 1964, was not a frequent visitor to Spaso House. One former Foreign Service Officer at the Moscow embassy, Vladimir Toumanoff, remarked after observing Brezhnev during one of his few visits to Spaso House during the 1959 Independence Day celebration that as a “tough communist, bred in the Stalin era,” Brezhnev was incapable of feeling at ease in “a magnificent pre-revolution, Czarist era, Russian private mansion, full of all these well-dressed, smooth-faced, confident Americans, comfortable, totally at home, speaking Russian on top of everything else.”
Brezhnev’s hostility dissipated during the period that preceded his next visit to Spaso House, when the U.S. and Soviet Governments both embraced a policy of détente in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Sino-Soviet rift. On May 26, 1972, before a large number of American and Soviet dignitaries at Spaso House that included General Secretary Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin, President Nixon announced that the U.S. and Soviet Governments had concluded an agreement following the first round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), and on the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The President went on to describe this diplomatic accomplishment as “an indication of what can happen in the future as we work toward peace in the world.” While the actual signing of both the agreement and the treaty took place shortly thereafter in the Kremlin, President Nixon had established an unofficial precedent that Spaso House could serve as a venue where visiting American statesmen would make important announcements.
President Nixon made the announcement in the midst of a 10-day tour of the Soviet Union, which made him the first sitting U.S. President to visit that nation since President Roosevelt attended the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and the first sitting President to ever visit Moscow. While the President did not spend the night at Spaso House during either of his two presidential visits to Moscow (choosing, instead, to stay at the Kremlin), he did host dinners at the House for the Soviet leadership on both occasions. During the first dinner in 1972, after being presented with the evening’s dessert (baked Alaska), President Nixon recounted that Brezhnev exclaimed: “Look, the Americans really are miracle workers! They have found a way to set ice cream on fire!”
Two years later, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, accompanied by a future ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur Hartman, hosted a luncheon at Spaso House for his Soviet counterpart, Foreign Minister Gromyko, during a visit to Moscow meant to lay the groundwork for President Nixon’s second visit to the Soviet Union as President. While Secretary Kissinger was frustrated in his attempts to achieve a “conceptual breakthrough” on matters such as arms control, Middle East peace, U.S.-Soviet trade, and the fate of Soviet Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel, in his toast before the people gathered at Spaso House, he emphasized the fact that the “United States and Soviet Union are committed to a constant improvement of their relations,” and observed that the “goal of American policy” would be to “strive to maintain in all parts of the world a policy of cooperation even if temporary obstacles might arise.”
The incoming Carter Administration built upon the policy of détente that had been pursued by the Nixon and Ford Administrations. During his 1977 trip to Moscow, however, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was forced to concede to reporters at a press conference held at Spaso House that the Soviet Government had rejected both a “comprehensive” and a “deferred” arms proposal. While the two governments would eventually reach an agreement concerning SALT II in June 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following December effectively preempted both Senate ratification of the treaty, as well as any lingering “spirit of détente.”
The deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations that took place during the final year of the Carter Administration and the first half of the Reagan Administration did not prevent Spaso House from continuing to serve as an important hub of diplomatic activity. Following the death of General Secretary Brezhnev in November 1982, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State George P. Shultz were guests at the House while they attended the General Secretary’s funeral and met with his short-lived successor, Yuri Andropov. During a press conference at the House on November 14, Secretary Shultz expressed the U.S. Government’s willingness to “work for more constructive relations than we’ve had in our recent past.” Two days later, the Vice President and the Secretary of State also had a brief meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Huang Hua, at Spaso House. Vice President Bush would return to Spaso House twice more during the Reagan Administration, in order to attend the funerals of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
By the 1980s, Spaso House was well established as a site for social encounters between important diplomats, a location for press conferences that presented the public face of U.S. diplomacy in the Soviet Union, and an important venue for promoting cultural diplomacy. Ambassador Arthur Hartman personally petitioned the Soviet Government to allow Soviet artists to attend events at Spaso House and the consulate in Leningrad, since many of them were harassed by the Soviet Government if they received invitations to embassy functions. Consequently, even though U.S.-Soviet relations in the early 1980s were at their lowest ebb since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fact that hundreds of Soviet citizens still attended cultural functions at Spaso House, such as a performance by the American jazz musician Gary Burton in June 1983, was, in the words of one American who was present, proof that: “Bad as things are, the fact that we can do things like this shows how far the relationship [between the United States and the Soviet Union] has matured.”
Subsequent decades demonstrated the value of Spaso House as a venue for people-to-people contacts whatever the political tensions of the day. In April, 1986, Vladimir Horowitz put up at Spaso House (together with the maestro’s own Steinway, which was shipped from New York to Moscow via the diplomatic pouch) for the duration of the renowned pianist’s return to his homeland after an absence of 60 years. Horowitz’s historic recital at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on April 20, broadcast to Western Europe and the United States, helped dispel some of the hostility directed against the United States as a result of a bombing raid by U.S. warplanes on Libya that month as a result of Libya’s support for terrorist activities. As CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt noted, “The world’s television screens had been full of warlike images for a week. Now, suddenly, on those same screens, appeared the tender image of a great American pianist...” The reception at Spaso House that followed Horowitz’s recital was well attended by Soviet officials despite their government’s displeasure over America’s actions.71 Other luminaries who appeared at Spaso House over the years and who have played important roles in bridging the U.S.- Soviet political divide through culture include pianist Van Cliburn, conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Spaso House has been an important venue for musical performances, ranging from recitals by promising Russian and American artists to evenings featuring some of the world’s most renowned musical soloists and ensembles. A by no means exhaustive list of the latter would include the Kronos, Emerson, and Juilliard string quartets; composer John Corigliano; violinists Vladimir Spivakov and Eduard Grach; pianists Vladimir Feltsman, Nikolai Petrov and Jeffrey Siegel; conductor Yuri Bashmet and the “Moscow Soloists” chamber orchestra; oboist Alexey Utkin; and baritone Thomas Hampson. There have been several performances at Spaso House by soloists from the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky Musical Theater, New Opera and Helikon Opera, including a memorable evening in 1997 of excerpts from the Stanislavsky Theater production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, featuring Cherubino exiting out through one of the ballroom windows. Spaso House also hosted a performance by the Broadway cast of the hit musical 42nd Street.
Special note should be made of the role American popular music, in particular jazz, has played in bringing Americans and Russians together at Spaso House. Vibraphonist Gary Burton is one of several distinguished American performers who have performed at the residence. Others include pianist Dave Brubeck, the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, singer and pianist Ray Charles, saxophonist Michael Brecker, pianist Chick Corea, singer Diane Schuur, the Harlem Gospel Choir, as well as numerous American “Jazz Ambassadors” brought to Russia over the years under the auspices of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to perform at Spaso House. Audiences at these events included many of Russia’s leading musicians and cultural figures. In addition, Spaso House has played host to some of Russia’s leading musicians performing the music of Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and other American greats. Andrey Makarevich of Russia’s legendary “Time Machine” rock band, pianist Daniel Kramer, bandleader Igor Butman, pianist Igor Brill, saxophonist Alexey Kozlov, and accordionist Vladimir Danilin are among those who have given memorable interpretations of American popular classics at Spaso House.
Despite the role Spaso House played as a cultural meeting place immune from difficult times in diplomatic relations, occasionally setbacks did occur. For example, Ambassador Hartman angered the Soviet Government by constantly inviting Soviet “refuseniks” (Soviet citizens who had been refused permission to emigrate to the United States or Israel) to embassy events, such as a monthly movie screening that embassy staff nicknamed the “Refuseniks Festival.” One prominent “refusenik” who came to Spaso House on several occasions was the prominent Soviet pianist Vladimir O. Feltsman, who had been blacklisted by the Soviet Government after trying to emigrate in 1979. In February 1986, Ambassador Hartman invited Feltsman to give a recital at Spaso House on the occasion of Ambassador and Mrs. Hartman’s 37th wedding anniversary. Shortly before the recital was to commence, however, Feltsman discovered that vandals had cut several wires of the Steinway piano in the Spaso House ballroom. While embassy staff managed to repair the damage in time for the recital to take place, Ambassador Hartman condemned the vandalism as a “terrible thing to do to a piano and to an artist.”
Logistical headaches at Spaso House and the U.S. Embassy chancery were not restricted to isolated events such as the Feltsman incident. On October 22, 1986, in retaliation for the expulsion of over 50 Soviet diplomats from the United States, the Soviet Government expelled 5 American diplomats and withdrew 260 Soviet citizens who served as Foreign Service National employees at the U.S. Embassy and Leningrad consulate. This total included 11 members of the Spaso House domestic staff; only the 3 Italian cooks at the House were spared.
Ambassador Hartman and senior embassy officials quickly instituted a policy of “all-purpose duty,” whereby all embassy employees were expected to pick up all of the tasks previously handled by the Foreign Service Nationals, in addition to their official responsibilities. The embassy was able to rely on the assistance of a number of young American tourists who temporarily filled some of the positions previously held by Soviet citizens. Even the ambassadors and their wives were not entirely exempted from all-purpose duty: Ambassador Hartman and his successor Ambassador Jack Matlock often drove themselves around Moscow whenever a driver was unavailable, while Donna Hartman and Rebecca Matlock frequently had to double as hostesses and cooks at Spaso House functions.
While the Hartmans were able to rely on the assistance of the embassy’s contingent of U.S. Marines to help them with a dinner organized in honor of Elie Wiesel, who was visiting Moscow in order to meet with prominent Soviet Jews, other tasks proved more difficult. For example, the Embassy imported 1,000 liters of milk and 1,400 pounds of fresh produce every week from Finland, not to mention other necessities such as cleaning, medical, and office supplies. Normally, such tasks were handled by the Foreign Service Nationals, who knew how to deal with the Soviet bureaucracy. From October 1986 onwards, even the most onerous of tasks, such as washing embassy cars, shoveling snow, and protecting imported goods from being stolen while they were clearing customs, were the responsibility of the American diplomatic community, until the Soviets relented 2 years later, shortly before President Ronald Reagan’s state visit. Thereafter, Soviet workers were allowed to do some repair and cleaning work for the House, but were forbidden from working there on a permanent basis. This was because, as Ambassador Hartman wryly observed, the U.S. Government had, since 1985, “been getting away from being dependent on the Soviet staff.” Consequently, the actions of the Soviet Government simply “speeded the process up a little bit.”
Even at the height of the confusion that reigned following the withdrawal of Soviet Foreign Service National employees from the U.S. mission to the Soviet Union, Spaso House continued to be the center of remarkable gatherings between prominent American and Soviet officials. For example, in June 1987, Ambassador Matlock hosted a Spaso House dinner for members of the Laird Commission, who had traveled to Moscow to investigate the status of security at the U.S. Embassy there. As he rose to deliver his toast, Ambassador Matlock was startled by the remarkable nature of the event he was hosting: two former Secretaries of Defense, two former Directors of Central Intelligence, and one former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs were in attendance and mingling with Soviet officials, including the deputy director for U.S. affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Victor Sukhodrev.
In May 1988, Spaso House welcomed another presidential guest when President Ronald W. Reagan traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. While U.S.-Soviet relations had been extremely tense throughout President Reagan’s first term, Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Soviet system through perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”) signaled a profound shift in both Soviet foreign and domestic policy. Following successful summit meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva and Reykjavik in 1985 and 1986, each agreed to attend a summit meeting in the other’s capital (Gorbachev ultimately came to Washington in December 1987).
Although President Nixon had stayed in the Kremlin during his two visits to Moscow, President and Mrs. Reagan chose to spend their nights in Moscow as guests of Ambassador and Mrs. Matlock at Spaso House. In addition to arranging extensive and time-consuming renovations of the House, the Department of State also airlifted to Moscow all of the food and china that would be used during an official dinner. White House stewards and Secret Service personnel also traveled to Moscow to ready the building. Finally, as one observant reporter noted, Spaso House’s bust of President Kennedy was “moved to a more discreet corner.”
In anticipation of the President’s visit, the Soviet Government dispatched a number of workers to repair and beautify the previously dilapidated area of Moscow that the President would be visiting. The neighborhood around Spaso House was in particularly poor condition, and local residents were grateful that the President’s visit had finally forced Soviet authorities to paint surrounding buildings and repave the road leading to the House. They were also hopeful that nearby shops might temporarily sell previously-unavailable luxuries, such as sugar. Some residents, however, were not fooled by the “Potemkin village” actions of their government, such as a taxi driver who astutely noted that once the President left, “all the paint will chip and the roads will crack, and all will be as it was.”
The day after a state dinner at the Kremlin, on May 31, 1988, the Spaso House ballroom served as the setting for a grand dinner for 120 guests. In addition to General Secretary Gorbachev and his wife, a number of leading Soviet officials, artists, scholars, and athletes attended, most notably the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, whose presence at the same event as leading members of the Politburo would have been unthinkable only a few years previously. Among the American guests were the President and First Lady, Secretary of State Shultz, Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, National Security Advisor Colin Powell, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and prominent artists such as the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the jazz musician Dave Brubeck, who performed for the assembled guests after dinner. During his toast, President Reagan remarked that while Spaso House had, in years past, often been silent due to tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, in the future, it was his hope that “this lovely home [would] never lack for visitors, and shared meals, and the sounds of spirited conversation – and even the peal of hearty laughter.”
Before President Reagan’s visit to Moscow, only two other Presidents, Roosevelt and Nixon, had visited Russia or the Soviet Union. However, all three of President Reagan’s successors would make multiple trips to Russia, during which time Spaso House remained an important location for significant policy announcements and speeches to Russian and American audiences.
President George H.W. Bush returned to Moscow in July 1991 and January 1993 to sign the first and second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II), and stayed at Spaso House on both occasions. On July 31, 1991, the President hosted a dinner at Spaso House to commemorate the signing of START I. Among the assembled Soviet guests were President Gorbachev, President of the Russian Republic Boris Yeltsin, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of the Republic of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and the Mayor of Moscow, Gavriil Popov.81 President Bush stayed at Spaso House again, on January 2, 1993, before leaving for the Kremlin the next day to sign the START II Treaty with President Boris Yeltsin.
In August 1991, President Bush appointed Robert S. Strauss to serve as Ambassador Jack Matlock’s replacement. Ambassador Strauss assumed his new position only 2 weeks before the August coup attempt led by hard-line members of the Soviet military and intelligence services, who opposed President Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Communist system. There was little time for Strauss to familiarize himself with the fast-paced political developments taking place in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union fell in December 1991, only months after Strauss arrived in Moscow.
Despite the dissolution of the Soviet regime and the establishment of the new Commonwealth of Independent States, Ambassador Strauss managed to establish a close rapport with the first-generation of post-Soviet leaders. President Yeltsin, Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, and the head of the Russian State Property Commission, Anatoly Chubais, were some of the Russian leaders Ambassador Strauss made efforts to befriend. These men were frequent guests of Ambassador Strauss at Spaso House. The first time that President Yeltsin visited, on March 2, 1992, the food shortages in Moscow were so severe that Ambassador Strauss was forced to serve nachos that he had prepared himself. Strauss defended his decision by arguing that there was “no point in serving caviar to the President of Russia.” Luckily, the situation had improved significantly by the time former President Jimmy Carter and his wife attended a dinner at Spaso House in December 1992, along with Gaidar and Chubais.
President William J. Clinton was also a guest at Spaso House during each of his four presidential visits to Russia. During his first visit, he hosted a reception at Spaso House with Ambassador Thomas Pickering and members of his administration, including Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake. These U.S. officials welcomed leading parliamentarians to Spaso House. Among the invited guests were close aides to President Yeltsin and leading critics of his administration, including the leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennadi Zyuganov. President Clinton made light of the diverse nature of the gathering by recalling the antics of Charles Thayer’s seals during the 1934 Christmas Party and remarking that even “in the United States, when people from different political parties get together, they sometimes behave the same way [as the seals did].” Consequently, Clinton announced he was pleased to see all of the assembled guests “getting along so well.”
Four years later, during his last presidential visit to Moscow, President Clinton hosted another reception for prominent Russian politicians at Spaso House. On this occasion, the President was joined by his second Ambassador to Russia, James F. Collins, Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright, Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley, and Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, and several members of Congress. At this event, the President expressed his belief that “America and Russia must be partners” and pledged to support the Russian Government as it attempted to stabilize its economy following the financial collapse of the previous month.
On May 24, 2002, President George W. Bush hosted a reception for Russian community and religious leaders at Spaso House, along with his first Ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Earlier that day, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions. President Bush praised the treaty as an indicator of the fact that there was a “new era” before the United States and Russia, one that was defined by a willingness “to take two great countries forward in a new relationship built on common interests and cooperation.” Three years later, the President met with Russian and American war veterans in Spaso House, while he was in Moscow to attend the 60th anniversary celebration of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Spaso House was a fitting setting for the commemoration of this World War II victory, as American and Soviet diplomats and soldiers had worked side by side within the walls of the House during the war.
During the tenure of Ambassador Bill Burns, Spaso House again hosted Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who represented the United States at Boris Yeltsin’s state funeral on April 25, 2007. In the latest chapter in its celebrated history, Spaso House has served as the venue for a number of events marking the 200th anniversary of U.S.- Russian diplomatic relations in 2007, including receptions honoring sports diplomacy, space cooperation and bilateral cultural and educational exchanges.
It is impossible to describe fully the historical significance of a building that has served as home to some of the greatest practitioners of American diplomacy during the 20th century: George Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, Llewellyn Thompson, and Thomas Pickering, to highlight but a few. Beyond its illustrious diplomatic roster and guest list of foreign dignitaries, however, what truly defines Spaso House is its status as a symbol of the hope for Russian- American amity. While it may be true that this hope has often been frustrated, either by the Stalinist excesses of the 1930s or the decades-long superpower struggle of the Cold War, such failures tell only half of the story. The record of Spaso House as a backdrop to the triumphs of the “Grand Alliance” in World War II, détente in the 1970s, and glasnost in the 1980s, proves that the dream of Russian- American friendship that was carried by the first contingent of American diplomats who arrived in Moscow in December 1933 remains as strong as ever. As Spaso House celebrates its 75th anniversary as the American ambassadorial residence, and as American and Russian diplomats attempt to find common ground with one another in order to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, it appears certain that Spaso House will remain at the forefront of diplomacy.