WASHINGTON — Unlike the more flamboyant Raisa Gorbachev, Russia's first lady displayed a disarming, grandmotherly demeanor in her initial outing here Tuesday to visit a soup-and-sandwich kitchen for the homeless in the heart of Washington's black ghetto.
Naina Iosifovna Yeltsin, who has shunned the limelight in her homeland in accordance with Russian tradition, appeared to adapt well to American expectations in a media sideshow to her husband Boris' talks at the White House.
Still, for Naina Yeltsin, it was far from the usual routine for a civil engineer who put in 30 years working on canal construction in the Urals while raising two daughters and performing the duties required of Russian grandmothers for her grandchildren, Katya, Masha and Boris.
At the food kitchen, she put on plastic gloves to join her hostess, Barbara Bush, and other volunteers making baloney-and-cheese sandwiches.
The idea of donations of food prepared by volunteers for the poorest people, she acknowledged, would be a novel idea in Russia, where state-run institutions have been the rule under Communist regimes since 1917.
But the Russian first lady said that she was not surprised by the existence of homelessness and poverty in a land of plenty like the United States.
"We also understand your problems but thank God you have fewer problems than we do," she told a reporter.
Later, in a play school also run by the Martha's Table food kitchen, she hugged a 9-year-old boy who had presented her with a bouquet of paper flowers and shook the hand of nearly everyone in sight.
Attired simply in a two-piece silk dress and white open-toed shoes, Naina Yeltsin appeared dignified and calm in her debut on the world stage.
She also appeared to have a warm rapport with Barbara Bush, in contrast to the icy atmosphere during a previous summit encounter between their predecessors, Raisa Gorbachev and Nancy Reagan.
President Yeltsin, who has been known to imbibe in the past, may have been startled Tuesday morning when he left his guest quarters at Blair House. Squarely in front of the mansion stood a large city police truck with this identification on its side: "Metropolitan Police/Alcohol Testing Unit."
Yeltsin did not linger but stepped into the back seat of his limousine for the half-block drive to the White House to start his summit talks with President Bush.
Hundreds of tourists unexpectedly found themselves at the center of the Bush-Yeltsin summit Tuesday when the U.S. and Russian presidents greeted them with handshakes and smiles at the White House fence.
After completing their first summit meeting in the Oval Office, Bush and Yeltsin, accompanied by a handful of photographers, ventured into the warm June sunshine.
Bush, an avid golfer, first showed his Russian guest the White House putting green, which was installed during his presidency.
The two then moved on to Bush's horseshoe pit, where Yeltsin tried his hand but with little luck.
But no previous visiting foreign leader has ever done what Yeltsin did next: He walked across the lawn to the fence with Bush and shook hands with the tourists, who came from as far away as Hong Kong and Germany.
"Good to see you! We love you!" the tourists shouted.
Tuesday evening, during a tour of the National Air and Space Museum, Yeltsin was greeted by cheering tourists who took advantage of the rare opportunity for a photo op with the Russian president.
After delighting the crowds, he spoke at a museum reception of the need for U.S.-Russian space cooperation. The reception was hosted by Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card and attended by many NASA officials, including NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin.
"We have long been worthy rivals in this field. It is time for us to become worthy partners in space exploration," Yeltsin said.
"We should use the unique experience and potential of the United States and the unique potential and experience of Russia, we should combine those and through combined effort continue the exploration of space."
Yeltsin said he and Bush will sign an agreement on space exploration today that will include joint robotic missions to Mars in 1994 and 1996 and cooperation on biological experiments.
He called for an international manned mission to Mars.
"I'm convinced a representative of planet Earth, acting on behalf of the entire human race, should set foot on Mars," he said.
In the future, he said, the two nations should cooperate on joint manned space flights, construction of international space stations, global environmental monitoring and a global antimissile defense system. He said Russia is working on a project to control railroad passenger travel from space and to dispose of highly radioactive wastes in space.