In a mostly quiet residential neighborhood in Northwest Washington, a white marble relic of the Cold War cuts an imposing figure against the apartment buildings and family houses just removed from the hustle of D.C. life.
As Russia and its role in the 2016 election hang unmovingly over the Trump White House, for residents of Glover Park, "Russia" isn't just a catchall for the biggest story in Washington — with the Russian Embassy down the street, it's their neighbor.
"Usually we laugh about the fact that we live so close to Russian soil considering recent events," said McCoy Penninger, a Glover Park resident for eight years. "We also assume that our faces are part of some sort of facial recognition database buried in the depths of the embassy tracking people that walk in front of the cameras on Wisconsin Avenue."
Located on the site that once held the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital, the embassy today is the result of a 1969 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two Cold War adversaries agreed to an 85-year lease on hilltop land near the start of Washington's Embassy Row and less than a mile from the vice president's residence. The previous location of the Russian Embassy was a downtown mansion that now serves as the ambassador's residence.
The Soviets tapped architect Mikhail Posokhin, who designed the Kremlin state palace, to design its new embassy in Washington, the embassy's website states. Construction began in the 1970s and stretched over two decades. Former President Bill Clinton joined Russian President Boris Yeltsin in inaugurating the ceremonial building in 1994. The embassy compound contains a residential area, schools, and athletic grounds; a Russian state news agency said it is the workplace for nearly 700 people.
A massive Soviet construction project in their own backyard was too tempting for U.S. intelligence to pass up: The arrest of notorious FBI double agent Robert Hanssen revealed that the U.S. built a secret tunnel for eavesdropping, which Hanssen disclosed to the Soviets, according to a 2001 New York Times article at the time of his arrest.
The embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Washington Examiner about its history in the neighborhood. For most Glover Park residents, the proximity of Russia's official U.S. outpost even in the current climate has little impact on their daily lives, save for the occasional protest outside the embassy. Ron Whitfield said he's seen a handful of them in the year he's lived nearby.
"There's been some right across the street in front of it around four different occasions since I've been here," he said.
To many who live in the area, the embassy is "just another building," one resident said, not very different from others on Embassy Row. Some children of embassy personnel attend the local elementary school.
"They are, I guess, a part of what makes our community so interesting," said Brian Turmail, who has lived in Glover Park for 20 years. "Yes, there are broader tensions, but from a diplomatic aspect with the families, they make an effort to be part of the community."
The Spirit of #Christmas has arrived in #Washington, DC & scored free parking at the Russian Embassy #DiploChristmas @Twiplomacy @mfa_russia pic.twitter.com/mb2PqVoRtv— Russia in USA (@RusEmbUSA) December 17, 2016
Residents note the embassy's festive decorations at Christmastime every year and said its location has another benefit: a larger security presence in the neighborhood.
One of those security measures caused concern among some residents in September. Residents noticed the installation of cameras at six different locations around the embassy and wondered who they belonged to.
As a result, Cliff Seagroves, then-deputy director of the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions, went to the Glover Park Advisory Neighborhood Commission and said the cameras were placed by U.S. security at the Russians' request.
According to the meeting minutes, Seagroves said embassy staff had spoken with the State Department about safety concerns and asked the State Department for more extensive security measures.
"The State Department determined that those steps would not be practical or warranted but instead called for a series of surveillance cameras in the neighborhood around the compound," the minutes said. "The Russian embassy personnel do not get the images from those cameras; they are only seen by U.S. personnel."
Jackie Blumenthal, who chairs the ANC, said that aside from the brief surveillance camera issue, the council "has heard no concern from residents, has no concerns itself, and has no interaction at all with the embassy."
"It's part of the experience of living in Glover Park," Turmail said, "or near any embassy in D.C."