The place where the history of Russian-American diplomatic ties is made

The Moscow home of American diplomacy, Spaso House, has been the US ambassadors’ residence since diplomatic ties between the United States and the former Soviet Union were established.

The building, named after the nearby Church of the Savior on the Sands (Spasa na Peskakh), was completed in 1914. It was the home of businessman Nikolay Vtorov, ironically nicknamed the Russian American for his ruthless money-making.

In pre-revolutionary Moscow, the building was considered a masterpiece. It was especially famous for its enormous chandelier. But after the 1917 Revolution and Nikolay Vtorov’s mysterious death – he was shot dead but his killer was never found – the Soviet authorities expropriated the house for official use.

By 1933, the United States was the only major power that had not yet recognized the Soviet government. But as diplomatic relations were established later that year, the first American ambassador, William Bullitt, arrived in Moscow.

In Moscow, a severe housing shortage meant that only a handful of buildings were available. The Ambassador picked Spaso House, not least because it had a prized American heating system that the Soviets had installed in the 1920s.

Since then, Spaso House has hosted a long list of high-profile guests, from jazz musicians to American presidents. The year of 1934 has often been described as a honeymoon in American-Soviet ties. And two dazzling parties held around that time have become legendary. The first was that year’s extravagant Christmas party at which three trained circus seals went wild in the ballroom.

The other was the Spring Festival of 1935. Again, the animals, this time borrowed from the Moscow Zoo, caused a number of calamities. The event was so stunning that it became the inspiration for writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s grand ball of Satan in his mystical novel “The Master and Margarita.”

But despite the Americans’ efforts to make Spaso House their own, its former residents appeared quite attached to it too. There were a number of baffling telephone calls – where the caller refused to speak.

At first, no one could figure out who it was but it turned out to be the former Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin, calling for the house’s furnace man – the only person he would allow to clean his new home. And in the 1950s Spaso House witnessed several eavesdropping scandals that reached their culmination in 1960, when it was revealed that the US Government had discovered over 100 listening devices within American embassy buildings inside the Communist bloc. Llewellyn Thompson, the US Ambassador at the time, even said that, while in Moscow, he preferred discussing classified information outdoors.

In post-Soviet times steps have been taken to restore Spaso House to its original splendor. And one of Moscow’s perhaps most prominent historic buildings continues to be the place where the history of Russian-American diplomatic ties is made.