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A fete for 200 years of a stormy affair

State, Russian officials honor a milestone

John Quincy Adams was all of 14 years old the first time he traveled to Russia. The precocious future president, who spoke French, the court language of Russia, served as a translator for an American lawyer whose mission was to persuade Catherine the Great to support the rebellion against Britain.

Catherine refused, and Adams was bitter. "The government of Russia is entirely despotical," Adams wrote in a letter to his "Honourable Mamma," Abigail.

Twenty-six years later, in 1807, Adams returned to St. Petersburg, as the diplomat charged with establishing formal relations between the United States and Russia. This time, he succeeded. Czar Alexander, Catherine's successor, was a "sincere friend to the cause of Liberty," Adams said.

Yesterday, Russian and American officials converged on the State House to celebrate 200 years of the tumultuous relationship, which has often swung between the poles of friendship and bitter enmity experienced by Adams. The setting was appropriate, both sides said, since Massachusetts has often been at the center of the stormy relationship.

It was Boston that celebrated the arrival of Russian sailors with turtle soup, mutton, and wine jelly when they arrived to fight in the Civil War. And when Nikita Khrushchev made his famous Cold War visit to the United States, a Massachusetts native, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., took him to Disneyland and Hollywood before the Communist strongman banged his shoe at the United Nations.

To celebrate the milestone, Governor Deval Patrick declared yesterday "United States and Russia Diplomatic Relations Day" in Massachusetts. As Patrick beamed, Oleg V. Stepanov, a senior counselor to the Russian Embassy in Washington, and William J. Burns, the US ambassador to Russia, received a standing ovation in the Senate.

"The relationship between the United States and Russia, between Russians and Americans, has had its share of ups and downs over the last two centuries," Burns told the Senate. "But one thing we have never had is the luxury of ignoring one another or taking one another for granted."

Stepanov called the current relationship between the United States and Russia - which are at odds over how to confront Iran, fight terrorism, and build missile defenses in Europe - "a work in progress."

After signing the Senate's official register, Burns and Stepanov toured the Massachusetts Historical Society, which is showing Adams's diaries as part of "Moments of Destiny," an exhibition of letters and artifacts from the history of Russian and American diplomatic relations.

The collection makes clear how often relations between the countries have shifted over two centuries.

"It's a national story and it's a Massachusetts story," said Peter Drummey, the society's librarian, as he examined Adams's diary, a photograph of President Kennedy signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and other documents in the collection.

As ambassador in the winter of 1812, Adams cheered when Russian soldiers drove Napoleon's army from Moscow. Bostonians, who regarded Napoleon as a petty tyrant, celebrated by unveiling an image of Czar Alexander near the Old State House and toasting him as "the Savior of Europe."

"All hail to thee, Russia, whose children have flown from their castles and huts, to the ranks of resistance!" was one of the odes written for the occasion.

Forty-four years later, in 1864, 4,500 Russian sailors arrived in Boston to fight in the Civil War and repay the United States for supporting Russia during the Crimean War a decade earlier. Bostonians fed the sailors at long tables set up on Boston Common and feted their officers at the swank Revere House hotel.

The sailors, however, never fought. Instead, their presence helped deter the Confederacy, Drummey said.

Lodge, who was US ambassador to the United Nations, hoped that his trip to Los Angeles with Khrushchev would put the pugnacious Russian leader in a better mood. But the visit backfired.

"Mr. Khrushchev was shown a filming on the Twentieth Century Fox lot of a scene from 'Can Can,' which he thought quite obscene - and I must say I agreed with him," Lodge wrote in a secret memo to President Eisenhower. Chorus girls, Lodge wrote, crowded around Khrushchev lifting their skirts. "Members of his party suspected that this had been deliberately planned as a humiliation."

Yesterday's forum went over far more smoothly. Stepanov, after a few hours in Boston, called it a "a great city and very picturesque." He and Burns pledged to increase business between Russia and the United States. But Burns joked that there was no way he could live up to Adams's sterling legacy.

"I stand before you today," Burns said, to laughter in the Senate, "as a living example of how our standards have slipped over the last two centuries."

Michael Levenson can be reached at

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