US shuts down luxurious 18ha compound in Maryland allegedly used by Russian spies

The compound in Maryland sits on around 18ha of land at Pioneer Point, a peninsula where the Corsica and Chester rivers merge.
The compound in Maryland sits on around 18ha of land at Pioneer Point, a peninsula where the Corsica and Chester rivers merge.PHOTO: GOOGLE EARTH

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - On Thursday (Dec 29) afternoon, President Barack Obama's administration announced its long-awaited retaliation for what has been characterised as Russian interference in November's presidential election.

Among the wide-ranging measures, the White House announced that the State Department would be closing two Russian-owned compounds - one in Maryland and one in New York - that it says were used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes. It is also declaring 35 Russians "persona non grata" for their alleged role in intelligence operations.

White House officials alleged the Russian compounds were "recreational but also used for intelligence activities", the Daily Mail reported on Friday (Dec 30).

How hidden were these alleged spy compounds? At least in the case of Maryland, the answer is simple: not very.

The compound in Maryland sits on around 18ha of land at Pioneer Point, a peninsula where the Corsica and Chester rivers merge.

It is about a 90min drive from downtown Washington, by the Eastern Shore town of Centreville in Queen Anne's County, and can reportedly accommodate 40 families at a time.

American photographer Gary Landsman entered the compound and took pictures of its lavish interior - including large dining rooms, carefully decorated lounge rooms and elaborate outdoor areas.

The site was purchased by the Soviet government in 1972, and became something of a resort for Soviets living in the United States. It was also used for official Russian functions. It is the former estate of John J. Raskob, a former executive for DuPont and General Motors perhaps best known as the builder of the Empire State Building. The Soviets later added to the estate by making a deal with the State Department, which received two properties in Moscow in return.

At the time of its purchase, there was some resistance to the sale of the building to the Soviets, with the local newspaper reporting there were "fears of nuclear submarines surfacing in the Chester River to pick up American secrets and defectors".

But by 1974, the New York Times reported that many locals had been won over, with the help of dinner parties and gifts of vodka and caviar.

"As far as neighbours are concerned you couldn't ask for better," Joe Handley, a former estate manager for Raskob, told The Washington Post in 1979. "They don't bother anybody."

A reporter from the local Star Democrat newspaper in Easton visited the site in 1987 - in large part because of the long-standing rumours that it was being used for espionage. The resulting article, also published in The Post, noted the tall chain-link fence outside the compound and the video cameras monitoring the gate, but also the lime-green bungalows, swimming pools and numerous tennis courts.

"Tomorrow we have a game," one tennis player identified as Yevgeny told the reporter. "We have a tournament with the International Monetary Fund. They have a beautiful team. But this year, God knows who will win."

After the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pioneer Point was bought by the Russian Federation - at the time, the Associated Press reported its value was US$3 million (S$4.3 million). Local residents told the AP that they did not have any problems with the Russians who visited the compound.

"I live down the road from them. We fish and crab with them. There's usually one that speaks English for the group," a woman named as Bonnie Delph told the AP. The compound has been in the news very little since then.

Nine years ago, the Russian ambassador to the US, Yuri Ushakov, invited a reporter from Washington Life magazine to tour the grounds, explaining that for him it was like the traditional Russian summer house, or dacha, he was used to back home.

"Because we have such a hectic life in Washington, we need a place to hide for a while," his wife, Svetlana, was quoted as saying.

A man who answered the phone for a number listed online for the Pioneer Point compound said it was a wrong number, before adding that he did not speak English.

On Thursday, US officials would not confirm the location of the New York compound being shut down - saying only that it was a 5.6ha property on Long Island that had been purchased by the Soviet government in 1954.

However, a number of Russia-watching bloggers pointed towards the Killenworth estate on Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove, which acts as the country home for Moscow's delegation to the United Nations. The grand country house was once owned by American philanthropist George Dupont Pratt and has been rumoured to house Soviet spies.