Sold: A piece of diplomatic history at 17th and Webster

On Jan. 7, in a quiet neighbourhood on the northwest side of Washington, D.C., the Latvian government sold a small piece of land that once had a big impact on our country’s history. The brown brick two-story building on the corner of 17th and Webster may have served as Latvia’s first embassy in the United States for 14 years, but for many it will always be remembered in its first diplomatic incarnation, as the Legation of Latvia.

What exactly is a “legation” and why were Latvia and Lithuania the last countries in the world to have them? In the beginning of the last century, most foreign diplomatic missions were called “legations,” but after World War II it became fashionable to upgrade them to embassies. Unlike Latvia and Lithuania, which established legations in pre-war Washington, D.C., Estonia chose instead to open a general consulate in New York. Since all three countries came under Soviet occupation in 1940, none of them could upgrade their missions to embassies, and their designations remained frozen in place during the Cold War.

Thanks to the U.S. non-recognition policy, and despite endless protests from the Soviets, these three Baltic missions and their envoys-in-exile retained their official status, and had the same immunity and privileges of other diplomatic representations in the United States. They drove cars with diplomatic plates, conducted business with State Department officials, and were invited to meet the president in the White House once a year.

Prior to World War II, the Lithuanians managed to purchase a splendid building on 16th Street, coincidently, just down the block from the Polish legation. The Estonians rented an office in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. Both continued to use these same facilities after the Soviet occupation in 1940. The Latvians were renters in Washington until 1953, when they bought the modest brick two-story family house in a residential neighbourhood on the corner of 17th and Webster.

The Latvian diplomats who served in the Washington legation from the 1940s until the 1990s were all career diplomats who had served in other countries prior to the war and had refused to return to Soviet-ruled Latvia. Since the United Kingdom also allowed Latvia to retain a legation, those who didn’t go to London came to Washington. Many were accomplished scholars, and supplemented their limited diplomatic duties in exile by writing extensively about Latvian history and culture. Two of the best English-language histories of Latvia were written by Latvian diplomats in Washington: Alfrēds Bīlmanis (1887-1948) and Arnolds Spekke (1887–1972). Spekke headed the Washington legation from 1953 until 1971 and wrote many of his books in his corner office. From Washington, the diplomats also maintained close ties with the Latvian exile community. As head of the legation, Jūlijs Feldmanis (1889-1953) played a key role in the establishment of the American Latvian Association (1953), which grew to become the largest and most influential Latvian organization in the diaspora.

Anatols Dinbergs (1911-1993) took over the D.C. legation in 1971, during which time he also wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Georgetown University. Heads of mission were formally called “charges d’affaires” in diplomatic circles, and Dinbergs held this title for 20 years. During the 1980s, Dinbergs, Stasys Lozoraitis of Lithuania and Ernst Jaakson of Estonia were well known in Washington, D.C., as the grand old men of Baltic diplomacy. They were the keepers of the keys, the guardians of Baltic sovereignty and true diplomats in every sense of the word.

When I joined the legation in January 1991 as its public affairs liaison, Dinbergs had two fully accredited diplomats on his staff: Valdemārs Kreicbergs (1912-1995) and Jānis Lūsis (1945). While Kreicbergs, like Dinbergs, Spekke and others, had been part of Latvia’s original diplomatic corps prior to the occupation, Lūsis was something of a diplomatic precedent. He was born in a refugee camp in Germany and had grown up in Canada. In the mid 1980s as the number of Latvia’s living pre-war diplomats dwindled, Dinbergs feared that the legation could be forced to close its doors after his tenure ended. So he convinced the U.S. State Department to allow him to appoint new diplomats to keep the legation functioning after his eventual departure. There was just one condition: they couldn’t be U.S. citizens. Lūsis, a Latvian with Canadian citizenship, joined the Washington legation in 1986. He served as first secretary of the Legation until 1991 and is the only person to become a fully accredited Latvian diplomat during the years of occupation. Lūsis later became counsellor at the Washington embassy, and served as Latvia’s ambassador in the U.K., Canada and Italy.

Lūsis is also one of only three people still alive who have worked at the building at 17th and Webster when it was still a Legation. In addition to myself, the third person is a remarkable woman named Luti Moran. If Dinbergs was the “head” of the Legation for two decades, Moran was its heart. She also happened to be a Filipina, although by the early 1980s many Latvians who called the legation and spoke to this charming secretary were convinced she was from the Latgale region in Latvia. Moran not only managed the day-to-day business of the legation and served as Dinberg’s personal secretary, she also became fluent enough in Latvian to carry on lengthy conversations with callers.

While legation diplomats maintained close ties with the Latvian-American community and its organizations, it had no contact whatsoever with Soviet-occupied Latvia. This changed with the rise of the pro-independence Popular Front movement in 1989, as glasnost allowed Latvian activists to visit Washington, D.C. For many, the legation was the end point of a sacred pilgrimage, for when they stepped through the doors of the house on 17th and Webster, they were setting foot for the first time on the fully independent and sovereign territory of the Republic of Latvia.

Every diplomatic mission answers to its foreign minister and home government, but during the Soviet occupation, the Latvian Legation had neither. Just before the occupation, the Latvian Cabinet of Ministers empowered Latvia’s chief diplomat in London, Kārlis Zariņš, to head all missions abroad and represent the Republic of Latvia if the government falls. After Zariņš’ death in 1963, this authority fell to the head of the legation in Washington, D.C. In June 1990, another precedent was set when Latvia’s newly elected Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and Foreign Minister Jānis Jurkāns walked past the oval metal shield designating 17th and Webster as the Legation of Latvia, and passed through the white double doors that led to the office of the charges d’affaires, Anatols Dinbergs. For the first time since Latvia’s occupation, the head of its diplomatic corps was meeting face to face with his foreign minister.

The meeting was “unofficial” because Godmanis and Jurkāns represented what was still the (diplomatically unrecognized) Soviet Republic of Latvia, while Dinbergs represented the independent (but illegally occupied) Republic of Latvia. For this reason, Dinbergs was not able to accompany Godmanis and Jurkāns to the White House later that week when they met with President George Bush. But contacts had been established between 17th and Webster and Rīga, and while de facto would not become de jure for another 15 months, the diplomatic die had been cast.

By 1991, a steady stream of Popular Front and Latvian National Independence Movement leaders began to make regular visits. One of my key contacts was Sarmīte Ēlerte, who worked in the press office of the Popular Front, but was already creating the new daily newspaper Diena. Communication with Latvia largely took place through my computer, which had a telex connection to the Latvian Foreign Ministry (Internet was still many years away). In my second floor, back porch office, I got a blow-by-blow account of the Soviet “special police” attacks in Rīga during the Days of the Barricades from Ints Upmacis, who manned the Ministry’s telex until the Black Berets chased him and other staffers from their offices.

The Washington media had largely ignored the obscure diplomatic mission at 17th and Webster during the Cold War, but in 1991 it became a centre of attention and a major source of news about what was happening in Latvia. On September 2, 1991, Dinbergs’ corner office was packed with cameras, reporters and well-wishers, all with their eyes glued to a TV set that was broadcasting live coverage of a press conference in Kennebunkport, Maine. When President Bush announced that the United States had restored full diplomatic relations with the Latvian government in Rīga, we popped the champagne corks and Dinbergs became the lead story on the evening news. With that, the days of the Latvian “Legation” were numbered. Not long after, Dinbergs was appointed ambassador to the United States. And the brick house at 4325 17th Street N.W., which for 38 years had stood on the sovereign soil of the Republic of Latvia, became a full-fledged, honest-to-goodness embassy.

I spent the next eight years at the embassy at 17th and Webster, seven of those as ambassador. My first deputy chief of mission was my old telex-colleague from the Foreign Ministry, Upmacis, who later became Latvia’s ambassador to Portugal. Since 2000, Aivis Ronis, Māris Riekstiņš and Andrejs Pildegovicš have followed in Dinbergs’ footsteps as Latvian ambassadors to the United States. Riekstiņš (now Foreign Minister) was the last Latvian ambassador to work at 17th and Webster, for it was under his tenure that a new embassy building was purchased on Washington’s prestigious Embassy Row at 2306 Massachusetts Ave. on Sheridan Circle.

So despite its 14 years of service as Latvia’s Embassy in the United States, when I heard the news that the building at 17th and Webster had finally been sold, I thought of it one last time in the way I knew it most fondly: the Legation. For almost four decades it stood as a symbol of our sovereignty, and a testimony to the patriotism, stubbornness and dignity of our diplomatic corps. It may have been a small piece of Latvia, but it played a huge role in the history of our country.

2 thoughts on “Sold: A piece of diplomatic history at 17th and Webster

  1. As a journalist in Washington, I visited the Latvian Legation a number of times before independence. Then, deciding to move back to Latvia for a few years on business in late 1992, I was issued a one-year visa by Mr. I Upmacis at the now Washington Embassy. The trip turned out to be 15 years.

  2. Just for the record – as we merried 1987 counselor Valdis Kreicbergs came to Montgomery county court in Rockville, Maryland to make changes in our Latvian passports. His car had licence plates of the diplomatic corps of Washington.D.C. For us it was not a symbol – it was reality.

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