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On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a 45-acre Russian compound kept its secrets close

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 any 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. 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 cars 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 passers-by 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, 66, said. "Yeah, I didn't believe him. I am never going to live this down," she said.

Bill said his father, who grew up in the area, was a history buff and World War II veteran and had been fascinated by the Kellinworth 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," Bill 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 vehicle's diplomatic tags in the parking lot.

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 sewer 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 divebomb 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.

Parties were held at the 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."

His 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.

"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. In between people's posts about a recently shot Queen Anne's sheriff's deputy and someone's offer to take people's old Christmas trees, locals wound 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.

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Merle reported from Glen Cove, N.Y.