WASHINGTON — AT the Soviet Embassy's first (and last) Christmas party here last month, the two most popular places for guests to take souvenir snapshots were by the embassy Christmas tree and in front of the massive portrait of state founder Vladimir Lenin, which for decades has graced the ornate second-floor foyer.
Ambassador Viktor Komplektov recounted this observation with his trade-mark belly laugh in a New Year's Eve interview. By the day after New Year's, the ambassador was on his way back to Moscow, likely to be replaced by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's young hand-picked envoy, Andrei Kolosovsky.
And Lenin had vanished from the wall.
Thus the transformation of the grand mansion at 1125 16th Street from Soviet to Russian Embassy took its latest turns.
The changes have been steady, and a bit unsettling to the embassy's 300-person staff. In November, Mr. Kolosovsky, the first deputy foreign minister of the Russian Federation, came to the embassy nominally as a counselor-minister of the Soviet Union, but actually to represent Russia.
About a week before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's Christmas Day resignation, the embassy began answering to the Russian foreign minister instead of the Soviet foreign minister. The Russian tricolor replaced the red hammer-and-sickle flag on Dec. 26. The staff now answer the phone with, "Russian Embassy."
"We are all wondering what our future will be," says Leonid Dobrokhotov, a political analyst at the embassy. "But we have no time to sit around and worry; we are too busy coordinating shipments of humanitarian aid back to our country."
When President Yeltsin decreed on Dec. 21 that Soviet embassies around the world would become embassies of the Russian Federation, he said the future of personnel from the Soviet Foreign Ministry would be decided within about a month.
Ambassador Komplektov cites statements of assurance from Kozyrev that the Russian Foreign Ministry wants to hold on to "professionals." But, he adds, "that doesn't mean all the staff from the former Soviet Foreign Ministry will automatically be transferred."
Other embassy officials admit privately they are concerned that more than just professional qualifications will be factored in to personnel decisions - namely, that each will have to pass a political litmus test to make the leap from Soviet to Russian diplomat. On top of that, the former Soviet Union's hard-currency shortage has forced the embassy to make certain economies, such as asking personnel who have been living in tony Washington suburbs to move into cheaper embassy housing. And the number of peo ple serving at the embassy may be scaled back.
For now, one important embassy function hasn't changed: the issuing of visas. Until the diplomatic representation of each former Soviet republic is ironed out, the former Soviet Consulate will continue to issue visas good for travel to any of the 11 republics of the new Commonwealth of Independent States.
One of the stickiest problems the Russian Foreign Ministry faces is claims from at least one former Soviet republic - the Ukraine - for what it sees as its rightful share of the Soviet Union's diplomatic property in Washington and around the world.
Ukrainian-American organizations are particularly perturbed by Yeltsin's unilateral takeover of Soviet property (justified by Russia's assumption of the Soviet debt) and are concerned that time is of the essence in preventing Russia from solidifying its hold on all the property.
"Certainly, we claim a part of the former Soviet Embassy," says Gennady Udovenko, the Ukraine's representative at the United Nations, and, until the Ukraine sends an ambassador to Washington, his nation's top diplomat here.