Over the long and complicated history of spycraft between the United States and Russia (and its predecessor, the Soviet Union) nabbing and expelling secret agents was commonplace. Seizing real estate wasn’t.
In fact, no Cold War expert consulted by McClatchy could recall it ever happening in the United States.
The rules of the game changed last Dec. 29 when the Obama administration effectively seized Russian compounds in New York and Maryland and declared 35 Russians, including a cook, “personas non grata” in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election and physical harassment of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia.
The apparently unprecedented action isn’t likely to be undone anytime soon, thanks to a largely unnoticed provision in the bill imposing new sanctions on Russia that President Donald J. Trump — dogged by congressional and grand jury probes into possible collusion between Moscow and his campaign — grudgingly signed into law last week. The bill requires congressional review of any plan to return the properties; it came to his desk days after the Kremlin ordered the U.S. diplomatic staff presence in Russia cut by 755 from the prior level of 1,200.
Technically, Obama’s action wasn’t a full seizure. What he did was bar diplomats from accessing the properties, and the State Department has assumed responsibility for their care and maintenance. They could be returned at a later point — after congressional review — or even sold off by the Russians, with U.S. approval.
“The properties were not seized, access to them has been restricted,” said a State Department spokesman, demanding anonymity in order to speak freely, “They continue to be owned by the Russian government.”
But even that step, while short of full expropriation, hasn’t been taken in the past.
In all, Russia currently owns nine tax-exempt properties nationwide to serve its diplomatic needs. A McClatchy review of property records in Manhattan and Nassau County shows the Russian government owns at least five properties there. One is in the Bronx, a tower purchased in 1971 and around the corner from the former residence of Evgeny Buryakov. He was arrested in 2015 and charged with spying, working under the guise of being a banker in the New York office of Vnesheconombank, or VEB. That’s a state bank in Russia that recent reports said provided loans to the builders of Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto.
When the recently deported Buryakov was arrested, his wife stayed at the Bronx compound until her return to Russia.
It’s unclear whether some or all of the Russian consulates in Houston, Seattle, San Francisco and New York, as well as the embassy compound in Washington, D.C., are leased rather than owned.
Spies have frequently been expelled. In 2010, a sleeper cell of Russian agents, including Russian femme fatale Anna Chapman, was busted and exchanged for captured British and American spies. In 2001, President George W. Bush expelled 51 Russian diplomats.
But Bush did not seize or block access to compounds, which under centuries-old diplomatic protocol are treated as extensions of foreign territory.
“It never happened in my time, even under (Soviet dictator Josef) Stalin,” said Sergei Krushchev, the 82-year-old son of a subsequent Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and a retired Brown University professor. “Even in the Cold War they had respected private ownership.”
The United States has seized some property tied to the Iranian government — one as recently as June — but that corresponded to court orders and lawsuits, not orders from the president in a spy dispute.
The State Department declined to comment on the future of the properties or the terms under which the Russians could dispose of them.
The Mansion Joe Stalin Bought
The two properties targeted for sanctions were good fits for Russian and Soviet intelligence gathering.
The 45-acre retreat in Maryland is just across the Chesapeake Bay from the National Security Agency; it once belonged to the man who built the Empire State building. The property in New York, in a part of Long Island known as Oyster Bay, is geographically close to numerous defense contractors.
Several people involved in the punitive action confirmed there were clear practical reasons to target the pair of facilities.
“The Obama administration closed these two compounds because they were used for spying,” said Mike Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official who specialized in Russia matters.
“It was really more punishing the (Russian) intelligence agencies, because these are more than a fun place for diplomats to go swim,” added Vince Houghton, historian and curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., which has a big focus on Cold War intrigue.
But while the cast iron gate at Oyster Bay compound is now chained and padlocked and the power to its intercom appears cut off, just 7.5 miles west in Glen Cove lies another mansion owned by the Russian government that its diplomats are still free to use.
The Killenworth estate was erroneously cited in some news reports last December as one of the two that were effectively seized. It wasn’t.
The sprawling property’s original owner, George Dupont Pratt — son of the founder of Standard Oil and himself part of the core of men who started the Boy Scouts — began its construction in 1912; eventually, it boasted 49 rooms, 12 fireplaces and a swimming pool surrounded by lush grounds.
The Soviet Union -- then under Stalin -- reportedly picked up the estate for $1 million shortly after the end of World War II, an act seemingly out of step with the austerity advocated by Moscow’s leaders. (Today its appraised value is about $17.1 million.) Nassau County property records show the Soviet Union was first registered as Killenworth’s deed holder as of Jan. 1, 1950.
But the acquisition doesn’t appear to have been made entirely for R&R purposes.
Back in 1982, President Ronald Reagan singled out Killenworth as a site where the Soviets had been conducting spy operations against U.S. defense contractors.
The information came from a Soviet defector. Local politicians revoked parking privileges and other perks for the Soviet diplomats, but Reagan stopped short of seizing the storied mansion.
Modern Russia took possession of Killenworth in 1994, cementing the end of the Soviet Union.
For now at least, Russia’s diplomats stationed in the New York consulate and its UN delegation can enjoy Killenworth and soak up its rich Cold War history.
One of the first to stay at Killenworth under the Soviet ownership was Vyachelav Molotov, namesake of the Molotov cocktail and at the time Stalin’s foreign minister.
Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959 and 1960, the latter visit fixed in history when the Soviet leader began banging his shoe to interrupt a UN debate. His son Sergei, who never set foot in Killenworth, said his father did so after getting a special holiday waiver from the Eisenhower administration in at least one of those two years.
The Soviets also hosted their Cold War proxy, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, at the mansion.
But the Russians aren’t eager to talk of the place at the moment. When a reporter rang at the gate, a middle-aged Russian-speaking man in shorts and a t-shirt, who identified himself as Alex, drove up in a Toyota van with diplomatic plates. When asked about diplomatic usage of the property, he answered in broken English, “I don’t understand. No comment.”
He drove off.
- Paluch is a special correspondent in New York.