CENTREVILLE, Md. — The Russian dacha on the Eastern Shore now sits empty. The Americans are here. They've taken over. Two U.S. officials dressed in jeans — who, when approached by Washington Post reporters, said they worked at the State Department — stood sentry outside the 45-acre property that for decades has been owned by the Russian government. On Friday morning, all that could be seen from the property's exterior was black smoke curling upward past the trees and into the clear sky.
A fireplace roaring on a blustery December day? Or a sign of last-minute document destruction?
The U.S. officials guarding the site would not answer questions.
On Thursday afternoon, the Obama administration declared that in retaliation for harassment of American diplomats and for Russian-sponsored interference in November's presidential election, the State Department was shuttering the Russian-owned compound in Maryland and one in New York that it says were used for intelligence gathering. The properties' Russian affiliation was hardly a state secret — journalists have been invited onto the Maryland property, which was purportedly used as a vacation spot for diplomats. But Thursday's announcement confirmed long-held suspicions by neighbors, who always wondered what was going on behind the gates.
In New York, no one answered when a Post reporter rang the doorbell at the Russian facility, housed in the historic mansion known as Killenworth and located in Glen Cove on Long Island. Media trucks sat across the street, and motorists slowed to gawk at the building, whose ornate iron gates were draped with Christmas lights. Though Killenworth acts as Russia's home for Moscow's delegation to the United Nations, some passersby told The Post they had no clue the Russians were affiliated with the mansion.
Bill and Gwen Tyson walked by the Russian compound minutes before it was scheduled to close at noon Friday. "I have been telling her for years that it" was owned by Russia, Bill Tyson, 66, said. "Yeah, I didn't believe him. I am never going to live this down," she said.
Tyson said his father, who grew up in the area, was a history buff and World War II veteran and had been fascinated by the Killenworth mansion. "He always told us stories about Russia. He wasn't concerned or anything. We didn't think anything was going on bad in there. It was just interesting to think about."
"I told you," Tyson could be heard saying as the couple laughed and walked away.
Down along the Eastern Shore, just a few miles away from the Maryland compound, news of the facility’s closure has amused residents in the small town of Centreville, the county seat of Queen Anne’s County, about 90 minutes from Washington. They remember running into the property’s Russian employees decades ago at the old Corsica Club or Acme grocery store, their affiliation with the foreign embassy obvious from their vehicles’ diplomatic tags.
At the Commerce Street Creamery in downtown Centreville, talk of Russian spies mingled with more pressing news about the new county courthouse and the water and sewerage upgrades along Kidwell Avenue and Happy Lady Lane.
“When I moved here, we always thought it was weird that the roads to the compound had video cameras on it, and the building next to the facility — who owned that, the State Department? — was bristling with antennas,” said Mike Whitehill, 67, an engineering consultant. “We knew something had to be going on because the A-10 Warthogs from Dover Air Base would dive-bomb the property and would fly really low. Did you all hear that rumor about the underwater buoys monitoring the property’s boats?”
“Yeah, a friend had said the same thing,” said Kip Matthews, 54, Centreville’s public works director. “We’d spend weekends at each other’s house when we were in middle school, and if we went out on a boat and got too close to the shore of the compound, there were people who’d come out and just look at us.”
Over the years, some journalists have toured the sprawling estate, which sits along the Pioneer Point peninsula at the intersection of the Corsica and Chester rivers. The property's crown jewel is a three-story Georgian-style mansion. In 2007, Washington Life magazine published a glowing piece about the compound, replete with photos of the ambassador, Yuri Ushakov, his wife, Svetlana Ushakova, and their grandson Misha.
“The couple can also be found browsing the antique shops in nearby Centreville, Chestertown and Easton, looking for the porcelains that Ushakova collects or the old books treasured by Ushakov, who also collects red wine,” the magazine noted.
According to Washington Life, the land was originally part of a 700-acre land grant from Britain in the 1600s. In 1702, Richard Tilghman bought the land, which remained in his family until 1925, when John J. Raskob, a DuPont and General Motors executive, bought it. The property changed hands a number of other times. Then, in 1972, the Soviet Union purchased the property and obtained more acreage in exchange for real estate acquisitions by the United States in Moscow.
The United States has for years had comparable compounds in and around Moscow, former U.S. intelligence officials said. The sites were set up at a time in the Cold War when Soviet and American officials were essentially confined to their embassy complexes, and both sides recognized a need for safe locations for their diplomats — and intelligence operatives — to escape those claustrophobic circumstances.
One of the American retreats is at a bend in the Moscow River at a site known as Serebryany Bor. Another site was farther away, roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from Moscow, in a forest, a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. It was a popular site for cross-country skiing and other activities and large enough to hold 20 or more guests.
"It had a nice sauna. You could go out there and spend the day. Get in the sun," the former senior U.S. intelligence official said.
U.S. officials referred to the two sites as the “near dacha” and the “far dacha.”
The former officials said it would be extremely unusual for Russians to have used the compounds in Maryland or New York as safe houses for recruits or other intelligence-collection purposes. Instead, the locations served as retreats for Russian diplomats and intelligence operatives. Russians particularly need what are called "safe" spaces to unwind because they are under constant scrutiny and suspicion by their own government. Whitehill's favorite memory was the time he happened to meet some of the compound's employees in the late 1970s or early 1980s at a local bar.
The constant monitoring makes a Russian retreat location a safer option for government officials eager to avoid arousing additional suspicion by traveling to U.S. vacation spots, the former senior U.S. intelligence official said. "There's a lot more psychological pressure on them, largely put on them by their own people," the former official said. For that reason, the official said, ordering the compounds emptied was an effective move that will "piss the Russians off."
Parties were held by the Russians at the Maryland estate, and, sometimes, they included local residents.
"Remember, they had their ambassadorial party a few years ago?" Whitehill asked Steven Walls, the Centreville town manager, at the Commerce Street Creamery.
"Yeah, they invited people from the town. It was some kind of celebration," Walls said, struggling to remember the details.
Whitehill, the engineering contractor, reminisced about the time the State Department paid him to fix the compound's sea wall several years ago.
"There was fairly strict security," he said. "You'd come in, and people would come out of their cottages and keep an eye on you."
"We got kinda drunked up one night, and I liked this guy's shirt. It was a Russian navy shirt. Blue and white striped thing," Whitehill said. "I said, 'Man, I'd really like to have one of those.' Well, the guy goes back into the bathroom and comes back and hands me his shirt. I felt so embarrassed."
Whitehill still has that shirt at his house in Centreville. He also has the business card of the man who had given it to him: Yevginy N. Chaplin. Title: first secretary, Embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Online, the private Facebook group "Residents of Centreville, MD" was lighting up. Between posts about a recently shot Queen Anne's sheriff's deputy and someone's offer to take people's old Christmas trees, locals ended up deep in spy talk.
"Question," one man wrote. "We all know that diplomats don't pay state sales tax on [their] purchases, but are they also exempt from property taxes? Our county and town businesses will lose money from the closing of Pioneer Point."
"They don't pay anything," one woman said. "Friend of mine years ago got hit by them. They paid nothing to fix her car she had to do it . . . Diplomatic Immunity."
One man had an idea about what would happen to the property once the new administration takes over.
“I bet Trump Jr. could turn it into a nice resort,” he wrote.
Merle reported from Glen Cove, N.Y. Miller reported from Washington.