AT one of those receptions in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin was chatting with us when his eye fell upon a pendant my wife was wearing. Its central feature was a rich blue stone with golden flecks in it.
``What's that?'' queried the Soviet ambassador, ``something from outer space?''
``No,'' said my wife, ``it's lapis lazuli. We bought the stones in Afghanistan.''
There was a delicate little pause as Ambassador Dobrynin digested this piece of information.
Bearing in mind the current Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, I could not resist adding: ``But not recently.''
For a moment, Moscow's man in Washington looked at me without expression. Then he broke into laughter, muttering ``very good, very good.''
One should never forget that Mr. Dobrynin is a dedicated communist. He is a member of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee.
He has lived amid the bounty, freedom, and puzzlements of America for almost a quarter of a century, serving Moscow's goals without deviation. He was ambassador during the Cuban missile crisis, and US officials are divided about whether he did or didn't know there were Soviet missiles in Cuba when the Soviets were denying it. And now, for his fealty to Soviet foreign policy, he is going home to join the top leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev.
He is taking back with him a couple of things that may be helpful. One, as the little story above indicates, is a sense of humor.
Over the years I've made a point of watching Mr. Dobrynin at that Washington institution, the Gridiron Dinner. That is the occasion at which irreverent Washington journalists poke fun at their own leaders. The Soviets, of course, catch it as well from time to time, and Mr. Dobrynin has always seemed as tickled at that as he was when the president of the United States was getting roasted.
I'm not suggesting that a few chuckles in the Kremlin are going to change policy. But they sure can't hurt.
More important than a sense of humor, Ambassador Dobrynin is taking home with him an extraordinary familiarity with the way the United States thinks and works.
He has had remarkable access over the years to secretaries of state, other cabinet members, and national security advisers. There have been meetings with American presidents. He has played chess at the home of Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Once, after Ambassador Dobrynin commented favorably on a wooden chair in Secretary of State George Shultz's office, Mr. Shultz had one made for him with a State Department seal on it. Soviet Embassy officials came to carry it away -- and presumably check it for bugs before installing it in the ambassador's office.
Under Mr. Dobrynin's ambassadorship, the diplomats and those posing as diplomats in his embassy have fanned out through a free society collecting a treasure trove of information. They have padded through the halls of Congress and through government agencies, collecting reports and statistics and surveys and white papers. Once, a Soviet Embassy information officer called the State Department for a special report on Soviet disinformation a few minutes before its existence was being announced. From Mr. Dobrynin's embassy there has also been conducted a more clandestine hunt for American information not in the public domain, information classified secret.
If Mr. Dobrynin can help educate a Soviet leadership still woefully replete with misconceptions about the United States, that may be to the good.
Secretary of State Shultz reportedly came away from his pre-Geneva meeting in Moscow with Mr. Gorbachev startled by the Soviet leader's misconceptions.
Newsweek correspondent Andrew Nagorski, in his book about his Moscow experiences, told of a Novosti press agency editor who informed him: ``We know that you take your orders from the State Department.'' That must have come as much of a surprise to Newsweek as to the State Department.
Mr. Dobrynin, it is said by some, is no admirer of Georgi Arbatov, the Soviet specialist on the United States, who seems to have been steering Mr. Gorbachev to some decisions in recent months keyed to their public relations impact. It will be intriguing to see what impact Mr. Dobrynin's new role near the top may have on Soviet policy toward the United States.