CENTREVILLE, Md.: When Soviet officials bought a sprawling waterfront estate in Centreville to be used as a country retreat for diplomats posted to Washington, it rattled residents of this bayside Maryland town. It was 1972, in the deep chill of the Cold War.People were suspicious of the Soviets and “thought they were spies. ... It was the folklore of Centreville,” said Joe Dawkins, who works locally in agriculture.
When U.S. tensions were at their highest with the Soviet Union, the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept an office in Centreville, residents said.
The FBI office closed years ago, they said, and over time neighbors in this community of about 4,500 people got used to Russian-accented officials shopping at the liquor store, hunting nearby and dining at a popular Irish pub, O’Shucks.
But in an echo of old local suspicions, President Barack Obama abruptly ordered the compound closed Thursday, saying it had been “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes.”
The Russians had until noon Friday to vacate the premises.
A Russian compound in Upper Brookville on Long Island in New York was also ordered closed. The actions were part of a White House response, including the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies, to what U.S. officials have called cyber interference by Moscow in this year’s U.S. presidential election campaign. The Kremlin has denied the hacking allegations.
Thursday evening, floodlights beamed over the 20-hectare estate in Maryland and the isolated country road leading to it was blocked by two unmarked vehicles.
In the darkness, a man approached a reporter’s car and said the area was private property. He declined to identify himself, saying only that he was American and referring further questions to the U.S. State Department press office.
Friday morning, men identifying themselves as State Department officials blocked access to the compound and escorted reporters to about 1.6 km outside the property.
The Maryland estate includes a Georgian-style brick mansion, tennis courts and smaller cottages. It sits on the banks of the Corsica and Chester Rivers, where the locals like to fish, harvest oysters and hunt geese.
The Russian government maintained the Centreville compound after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Property records show the Russian government owns an estate on Town Point Lane in Centreville valued at $8 million for tax purposes.
Neighbors said the Russians were a lively bunch, seen water-skiing in summer and known for throwing a large, annual Labor Day party. Each May, to celebrate Russia’s Victory Day, marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, the compound hosts a soccer tournament for diplomats from former Soviet republics.
George Sigler, a Centreville councilman, said he had visited the compound several times for a semiregular regatta held jointly by the Russians and a sailing club in nearby Annapolis. There, Sigler said, he socialized with diplomats, including a former Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov.
“We were all talking the same language, they were all my age,” said Sigler, a former Marine who at one point in his service defended U.S. Embassy compounds. “All of us drank way too much vodka.”
Once, just hours after Sigler admired the quality of the vodka served at the compound, Ushakov had a bottle of it dropped off at the town hall, Sigler said.
But mostly, residents said, the Russians appeared to keep to themselves, outsiders in this otherwise tight-knit town, where many families have roots going back generations.
Reverend Joseph Lingan, 59, spent time at a weekend retreat for Jesuit priests next to the Russian compound. He said his foreign neighbors always felt distant when he passed them in town or on the road.
“People here tend to wave to me,” he said. He paused and gestured towards the compound. “They don’t tend to wave.”
A senior U.S. law enforcement official said the U.S. government had long known the compound was used by Russia for intelligence operations, but had not previously seen it as an immediate threat.
In Centreville, from the dock of a vacation house he and his wife stay in, Austin Haase, 31, said he had a clear view of the Russian estate and saw Russians enjoying summer water sports. Haase said the place seemed to be used for “raucous” good times and he doubted it was used for intelligence gathering.
“It’s more a slap in the face [to the Russians], like they’re taking away their toys,” he said.