As payback for Russian interference in the election, then-President Barack Obama ordered a pair of estates owned by the Russian government to be vacated in December. Owned for decades as out-of-town escapes for Russia’s elite diplomats, these properties—the Elmcroft Estate in Upper Brookville in Long Island and one in eastern Maryland, outside of D.C.—speak to the elevated nature of diplomatic life.
Yesterday it was reported that President Trump may return these properties to the Russian government, according to the Washington Post. Recent negotiations over the properties, which took place in early May between the two countries, have included suggestions that these compounds may not receive diplomatic immunity. The Russians have said the “seizure” of their property was at the top of their agenda.
Labeled “beachside spy nests” by the U.S., these buildings also represent part of the intriguing history of Russian-American relations, and how both have used this types of upscale real estate in their rival’s homeland for international relations, consular missions, and covert surveillance and spying. The Obama administration’s move, the largest expulsion of Russian officials since 2001, centers on a former governor’s mansion near Oyster Bay, Long Island, and a Georgian-style mansion on the Corsica River outside of Centreville, Maryland.
The mansion on the 14-acre Upper Brookville estate was built in 1918 and owned by New York governor Nathan Miller, before it was purchased by the Russians in 1952 for $80,000 as a home for the Soviet’s chief delegate to the United States. It’s a spacious, three-story mansion, but pales in comparison to Russia’s other retreat in the area.
Another Soviet Long Island retreat, Killenworth, was built by George Dupont Pratt—son of the founder of Standard Oil, Long Island railroad employee, and co-founder of the Boy Scouts. It has played a key role in Russian diplomacy for decades after being purchased for $1 million in 1946, serving as temporary lodging for both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro before they spoke at the UN.
Originally built in 1913, the sprawling English Renaissance estate featured 49 rooms and 12 fireplaces, and was County Life magazine’s Home of the Year in 1914. Designed by the Philadelphia firm of Trowbridge and Ackerman, the home is considered the apex achievement of landscape architect James Leal Greenleaf, whose work graces a number of high-end mansions in the northeast, as well as the Lincoln Memorial (a flower bed on the ground was once tended by 50 gardeners). It even earned screen time in the movie Sabrina, a 1954 love story starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
The USSR purchased the estate in 1947 to house the country’s United Nations delegation. Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov, a key Stalin ally who helped sign the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939, was one of the first to move in and use the estate. First occupied during the outset of the Cold War, the Russian retreat always had a somewhat tense relationship with its neighbors, though for decades, one of the main complaints of the city of Glen Cove wasn’t just Russian surveillance, but rather a refusal to pay taxes.
The city pushed for payment from the outset, which led to decades of court fights, with the United States ambassador to the United Nations warning that the quest would damage international relations. It got so bad that in 1970, Glen Cove mayor Andrew J. DiPaola was issued a restraining order from the Justice Department, and the city was forced to halt its quest for back taxes, which by that point had added up (estimates suggest the city was out $25,000 a year, while the school district was owed $50,000 annually, and Nassau County $25,000 a year).
''They threatened to put me in jail because I was impeding the free flow of the Russians,'' DiPaola quipped to the New York Times.
However, neighbors were also raising question about surveillance of the nearby defense and telecommunications industries in Long Island; President Reagan singled out the compound for spying in 1982. The accusations led the Glen Cove city council to vote 6 to 1 in support of a proposal to bar the Russians from obtaining free beach parking stickers, $15 seasonal tennis court passes and $50 golf course permits. The State Department shot back, saying it was a diplomatic breach to ban the Russians from using recreational facilities, and furthermore, U.S. officials didn’t pay taxes on their estate outside Moscow. The ban was lifted in 1984.
The Maryland estate at the center of this sanctions battle, located a 90 minute drive from downtown D.C., was purchased in 1972. Located in Pioneer Point, on the shores of Corsica River in Centreville, the compound was once owned by John J. Raskob, a former executive at DuPont and General Motors who helped finance the construction of the Empire State building. The estate features a three-story brick mansion, a retreat for the Russian ambassador, as well as a series of apartments and cottages that can hold up to 40 families.
Often referred to as a “hunting lodge” by Russian diplomats, the building was profiled in a Washington Life magazine feature in 1992—the article was titled “Dacha Sweet Dacha”—which included then-Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov showing off decorations such as a phone from a Russian submarine, as well as a laid-back life of grilling, steam baths, and celebrations with friends (the estate hosts an annual Victory Day party commemorating WWII).
Initially, locals were worried about Soviets in their midst, and were afraid the “Russian would bring their battleships” up the Chesapeake. But over time, the diplomats made nice with their neighbors, hosting elaborate parties featuring vodka and caviar. When the Russian Federation took over from the Soviets in the early ‘90s, residents didn’t complain or raise questions, and were described in an AP article as “curious, but not concerned.”