You can picture the KGB men casing the place, which they always did with care, parking in a corner of the lot and noting everything.
The bustle of shoppers, heads down, hauling children by the hand. The rush of traffic on Georgia and Connecticut avenues. The anonymous, mind-your-own-business hurry of the bourgeois capitalist suburbs.
It was perfect. Unlikely, unremarkable. In the upside-down world of Cold War espionage, the Aspen Hill Shopping Center, it turns out, was the ideal place for one spy to meet another.
It probably still is.
A new book about the KGB lists the Montgomery County locale as one of dozens of carefully chosen yavkas, or meeting places, across the country. Last week, the one-story strip mall still bore snapshots of the mundane, the commonplace, the sort of all-American generica in which a spy might yet vanish easily.
The shopping center--in particular, "the entrance to the grocery store"--between Connecticut and Georgia avenues at Aspen Hill Road is listed as a yavka in "The Sword and the Shield," by the British spy scholar Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin.
The book is based on a huge cache of notes made by Mitrokhin and brought to Britain in 1992. It details previously secret aspects of KGB activity during the Cold War. An appendix at the end of one chapter provides a list of 45 places in 19 cities across the United States that the KGB used as meeting places in the 1960s.
All sound like utterly conventional spots: Compton's Cafe in San Francisco; the A&P in Union City, N.J.; a tie store on Randolph Street in Chicago; Clayton's men's clothing store in Baltimore.
"These look like randomly chosen places," Andrew, who chairs the history department at Britain's Cambridge University and has written extensively about the KGB, said in a telephone interview last week. "But tremendous effort went into checking out these places and reconnoitering them.
"After all, in the whole business of being a spy and a controller, the one thing you must never do is stand out," he said. "What you are looking for is to behave in a way that nobody will notice and to be in a place that nobody will notice."
A phone booth near a long-vanished Hot Shoppes Restaurant in Hyattsville provided just such a meeting spot.
"Russian spies would have been about the most exciting thing to happen to us around here back then," said Sgt. Wayne McCully, of the Hyattsville Police Department. The sergeant is homegrown. Years ago, he would cruise with his high school buddies (Class of '67) through the Hot Shoppes on weekend nights. The diner had girls on roller skates who brought your food on a tray to the car.
"If we'd known KGB spies were meeting there, we would have all come down to see them," McCully said. "Of course, everyone would probably bring baseball bats with them, too."
Over the years, the Washington suburbs have, in a crazy way, served as a backdrop for the global theater of espionage.
Indeed, the Aspen Hill Shopping Center is about a five-minute drive from the Twinbrook Shopping Center, near where in 1982 Soviet agent Vyacheslav Pavlov left information for the American "dangle," or double agent, John L. Stine.
According to Pamela Kessler's 1992 book "Undercover Washington," Pavlov gave Stine a crude map showing him where to find the smashed Coke can with his instructions beside a chain-link fence in a park across from the Rockville shopping center.
In 1990, the notorious KGB spy Aldrich Ames left a plastic garbage bag of stolen CIA documents for his handlers under a pedestrian bridge in Little Falls Branch Park, near Glen Echo, and later went back for his $37,000 payment.
The KGB actually preferred Maryland to Virginia, said retired KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who for 12 years during the Cold War was a top agency official in Washington.
"We practically never went to Virginia," he said in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Silver Spring. "For one reason: We were afraid that the bridges over the Potomac River might have been controlled by the FBI," making the Soviets' movements easier to track.
Kalugin, 65, said the KGB, which also worked regularly in downtown Washington, used Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton and Rockville as meeting places in the suburbs.
"One place which I recall warmly was Route 108 in Olney," he chuckled. "That's a wonderful place for hiding. It's a very country road with little traffic, and it has sort of hills and dales, so to speak, and it's easy to park your car by a side road, or whatever."
"What particularly they would be after would be places that wouldn't attract attention, which you would be able to check really thoroughly before you arrived to see that you weren't under surveillance, and where you would be able to make fairly straightforward exits," said Andrew, the author.
Andrew said such meetings probably would not take place until after several hours of "cleaning"--driving around to shed anyone who might be following. "Then, given that the agent will probably not know the controller beforehand, they would probably have to identify themselves in rather odd ways."
The handler might say, for example, that he would be "holding Time magazine in his left hand," and, to make sure he got the right person with the magazine, would add a Band-Aid on his left hand, Andrew said. Then there would be a code phrase spoken, like, "Didn't I meet you in Philadelphia?" he said.
Despite the passage of decades, the Aspen Hill Shopping Center one day last week still looked as anonymous--and ideal--as ever.
Three elderly women perched on a bench outside the Giant Food supermarket, perhaps the "grocery store" the archive mentions. Shopping carts were stacked up out front. Store clerks helped patrons with their packages.
"Here? The KGB? That would explain some things," said Kevin Angus, 42, a ponytailed employee at the nearby Bicycle Place, which has been in Aspen Hill since 1984.
"I've lived here all my life," Angus said. "You know, there used to be some guys who would park their cars all the way down at the end of the parking lot. They were fairly well dressed. . . . Hmmmm. The cops would never pay attention to any adults around here, because they were too busy trying to catch kids with beer. The thing we used to do for fun was park at the Roy Rogers and watch the cops go after the kids. And all that time, there were KGB agents right under their noses."
Next door to the Giant, inside the Dazzle cleaners, in a small, leased cubicle that houses Torro's Shoe Repair, cobbler Alex Ginsburg smiled.
"Yeah," said Ginsburg, 47, who emigrated from Moscow 20 years ago, "yavka--meeting place."
Was he surprised that the KGB had a yavka right here?
"No," he said.
"I've heard a lot about KGB. They're doing some stuff you'd never believe. They come, pick up people. That's it. Nobody knows what happened."
This would have been a fine spot for a spy meeting, he said. "It's public place. Lots of people."
CAPTION: Spy Spots (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: Kevin Angus, foreground, and Todd Weidman, of the Bicycle Place at the now suspicious Aspen Hill Shopping Center.