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The Russians Love the Librarian of Congress

The Russian ambassador used Italian opera to honor the American librarian of Congress on Tuesday night, part of a resplendent evening the Russians put together for James Billington, the longtime head of the nation’s repository of knowledge.

“We come to recognize an outstanding American,” said Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, as he introduced opera singers Maria Pakhar and Alexander Kasyanov. Pakhar started off the serenade for Billington with a selection from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” then was joined by Kasyanov for a lengthy duet from the same composer’s “La Traviata.” The two then traded off with pieces by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninov — quite a way to lead people to dinner.

Among the somewhat intimate crowd of about 80 were Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., former Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, who’s now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and WJLA senior meteorologist Bob Ryan.

The official reason for the gathering was to celebrate Billington’s 25 years as head of the LOC. But there is much personal affection among the federation’s diplomatic and artistic set for Billington, a Russia scholar. The ambassador’s residence, where the soiree was held, is rarely used to fete individuals in such a manner, much less an American official. But, as Kislyak told the crowd at dinner, Billington is “the most decorated American official in Russian history,” a reflection of efforts to open lines of communication between the two countries’ cultural institutions.

Billington returned the affection. “I hesitate to use the term Russian soul, but there is something in there that resonates with Americans at their best.”

As for the Italian opera, even that had a connection to Russia. As Billington pointed out, Czar Alexander II’s imperial opera house commissioned Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” and the composer was awarded with the Order of St. Stanislaus.

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