Column: What Snowden Can Expect to Find in Russia Besides Asylum
For centuries, foreigners have had a habit of staying in Russia longer than they intended. The European architects engaged by Catherine the Great, the tutors who came to school the 19th-century aristocracy’s children, and the businessmen who swarmed into Moscow after the fall of communism — all arrived in Russia planning on a short stay and ended up staying for months, years, or the rest of their lives, wooed by love, money or the sheer gruesome fantastic-ness of the place.
Your case is pretty special, Edward. You only came to Moscow for a flight connection, but now find yourself granted asylum for a minimum of a year. You left Sheremetyevo Airport with a grin last week, with a stealth wholly in line with the opaque mystery of your five-week stay inside the transit zone. The big question now becomes: What on Earth are you going to do in Russia?
As a longstanding resident of Moscow myself, allow me to give you a few tips.
Get used to grumpiness. It’s a decent bet that a smiling Potemkin border guard reserved especially for arriving U.S. dissidents was detailed to stamp you into Russia for the first time, but for the rest of us, friendly officials are like unicorns. They don’t exist. Border guards here almost never say a word, even if you greet them with the chirpiest zdravstvuite (“hello”). Forget about that verging-on-annoying friendliness one gets from waiters, shop assistants or random people in elevators in America. From here on in it will be angry glances and accusatory stares, suspicious neighbors and glum shop workers. The U.S. Justice Department might like to have a few words with you, but there’ll be punishment enough in Moscow.
The exception to this will be if you end up living in a building with a “concierge,” which in the Moscow incarnation is not a smartly dressed polite man in a suit and hat, but a squinting babushka who will use a combination of your comings and goings, the identity of any visitors you might have, and ceaseless interrogation to put together a complex psychological portrait of you and the other inhabitants of the building. Think of it as an offline, Soviet version of the PRISM program.
Moscow, of course, has spent the past two decades going through wave after wave of change, and if the angry stares get you down, you can always hire a bike and ride with the hipsters at Gorky Park, or party with the nouveau riche at Gypsy, where your newly acquired fame is sure to get you past the strict face control. Indeed, your lawyer Anatoly Kucherena has said that numerous young Russian damsels have already expressed an interest in providing you with shelter, and perhaps much, much more.
Anna Chapman, expelled from the United States as part of a Russian spy ring in 2010, has already proposed to you via Twitter. With the kind of glamorous life she leads now, though, you will need to have deep pockets to keep her happy. Even a coffee can cost upwards of $10 in Moscow, and at the kind of restaurant that someone like Chapman would enjoy, dinner for two is at least $250.
There is also the political issue — and the rather obvious and glaring point that you have received political asylum in a country that does not treat its own whistleblowers in the nicest fashion. The most poignant comparisons have been made with Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader and blogger who leaked information about corruption in the Russian elite and was recently handed a five-year jail sentence (for corruption, ironically), which is currently suspended but will kick in if his appeal is unsuccessful. Human rights isn’t a big thing here either: Your exit from the airport came on the same day that Russia’s sports minister confirmed that gay athletes at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi would be arrested if they flaunt their homosexuality.
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter with whom you worked, referred to those who pointed out Russia’s own treatment of whistleblowers or its new anti-gay laws as “drooling jingoists.” I understand, of course, that you were hardly laden down with options of where to go, and a case can certainly be made that staying in a country with a dubious record of its own is preferable to returning to the United States to face charges you believe are unfair.
But what Greenwald seems to miss is that there is a big difference between grudgingly accepting Russia as the best of a set of bad options, and actively trumpeting the beacon of democracy and human rights that is President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. You have previously said that Russia and other countries that offered you asylum were “refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.” Whatever drove Putin to offer you asylum, it is clear that the former KGB man was not motivated by a principled stance of support for whistleblowers. Trust me.
I am sure you have noticed that when it comes to clandestine surveillance, Russia is not exactly a paragon of democratic transparency. But perhaps you feel that Russia’s woes are none of your business, and that your fight is with the U.S. authorities only. If so, then the perfect place for you is indeed Russia Today. The Kremlin-funded channel would almost certainly be delighted to have you. When it comes to America-bashing, nothing is too far out for this channel, which recently confidently asserted that all recent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been CIA “false-flag” operations, and once ran an op-ed entitled “911 reasons why 9/11 was (probably) an inside job.” The channel airs interview shows fronted by your buddy Julian Assange, and somewhat more unexpectedly, Larry King.
But the Russian authorities may prefer to keep you quiet. George Blake, the British spy and Soviet agent who fled to Moscow in 1966, is still only allowed to give interviews when he has permission from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, even though he is now 90.
Your lawyer claimed that you hopped into a taxi before heading off to an undisclosed location to meet American “friends.” Who these friends are, and how you made them, I have no idea, Edward. But there’s a fairly good chance that the Russian security services are keeping several dozen pairs of beady eyes on you.
If you feel comfortable enough to walk the streets, and are allowed to, there is much for you to see and do. There is Red Square and the Kremlin, not to mention Lubyanka, the imposing building that serves as home of the FSB security services (formerly, the KGB). But you probably know all about them already. Then there are the museums, the nightclubs, the delicious Georgian food, and the all-night bars and clubs. Even a kind of nerdy guy can have a lot of fun on his first weekend in Moscow.
Shaun Walker in Moscow correspondent of the Independent.