The Ghost Embassies

Exiled diplomats from three small countries kept their hopes of freedom alive for 50 years.

By Donna Evers

For 50 years until it achieved independence, the largest piece of free Lithuania was its legation in Washington, D.C. located at 2622 16th Street NW.

For 50 years until it achieved independence, the largest piece of free Lithuania was its legation in Washington, D.C. located at 2622 16th Street NW.

Behind the elegant facades of the embassies of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is a fascinating story that took 50 years to unfold. The pride and prosperity of these three Baltic countries is reflected in each of the embassy buildings. Latvia’s embassy on Sheridan Circle is a Spanish Mission style mansion where heiress Alice Pike Barney gave musicales and theatrical presentations at the turn of the last century. The Lithuanians are renovating their 37-room, early 1900’s George Totten Jr. Italianate mansion on 16th Street N.W. (which they have occupied since 1924), and the Estonian embassy is a restored 1902 Beaux Arts building on Embassy Row a few blocks north of Dupont Circle. The pride of these countries is centuries old, but their recent prosperity only came about after decades of suffering, endurance, and exile.

In 1940, three countries were overrun by the Soviet Union following a brief period of independence between the two world wars. The United States, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet occupation, allowed them to maintain official legations here; Estonia located its delegation in New York City, while Latvia and Lithuania established theirs in Washington. These lonely entities would act as the official representatives of their governments-in-exile for the next five decades.

The U.S.S.R.’s brutal subjugation of the three Baltic countries meant, among other things, the frequent arrest and execution of “anti-Soviet elements.” Many people fled over the borders, driving overland and even trying to cross the Baltic Sea in small boats. Many others were deported to Siberia to serve out “prison sentences.” Altogether, between the Nazi and Soviet occupations of the 1940’s, the three countries lost 20 to 25 percent of their populations. In addition, during the entire period of Soviet occupation, the countries’ resources were depleted, their infrastructures destroyed, and their economies ruined.

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