Edward Snowden, until recently the most famous transit passenger at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, has finally become an official refugee from the U.S. justice system. Now for a new challenge: adjusting to the reality of living in Russia.
Snowden, wanted in the U.S. for publicly disclosing information about the country's electronic surveillance operations, received a one-year asylum document on Aug. 1. His departure from the airport where he had spent 40 days was notably subdued: He got in a taxi and headed to an undisclosed location.
Anatoly Kucherena, who has acted as Snowden's lawyer in Russia and who delivered the asylum papers, told the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti that his client left unaccompanied. "He is the most persecuted person in the world now, so today he will have to deal with security matters," Kucherena said. "The housing and security issues are up to him."
Normally, a high-lever defector gets a counterintelligence "babysitter." When Kim Philby lived in Moscow, KGB operative Oleg Kalugin, who would later emigrate to the U.S. and be convicted of treason in Russia, served as his handler. In Snowden's case, Putin is at pains to show that the American is treated not as an intelligence asset but rather as a persecuted human rights activist.
Hence Kucherena: As a member of Putin's Public Chamber, a consultative body set up to create the appearance of a dialogue with civil society, he is close to the Kremlin but not technically a government official. The lawyer had visited Snowden at the airport, seeking to establish a relationship and bringing with him a copy of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment so Snowden could "study the Russian mentality."
The document Kucherena delivered on Aug. 1 marks the end of any hope the U.S. might have harbored that Russia would hand Snowden over. Despite reports that the U.S. and Russian special services had been in talks concerning Snowden's fate, anyone who knows how today's Russia works could have predicted that the negotiations would not lead anywhere.
As early as June 25, Putin said Snowden would not be sent back to the U.S. because the two countries do not have an extradition agreement. "Russia never hands anyone over and it is not going to start," he said on July 1. "And no one has handed anyone over to us." Once the boss has spoken, no amount of diplomacy or pressure can change anything.
Why, then, did Russia drag out the process for so long? Some thought the Kremlin was looking for a way to ship Snowden out quietly to one of the three Latin American countries that have publicly agreed to receive him: Venezuela, Bolivia or Nicaragua. Others speculated that Russian counterintelligence needed the time to debrief him. The issuance of the asylum document suggests that the Kremlin has decided it can absorb the unpleasantness of keeping the fugitive -- and if its special services did not get enough access to him at Sheremetyevo, they have plenty of time to milk him dry now.
Snowden now has the right to stay in Russia for a year as a free man. Money is apparently tight, so he'll probably need to find a job. His first offer came from Pavel Durov, the flamboyant founder of the social network Vkontakte, a Facebook clone that is more popular in Russia than Facebook itself.
"Today Edward Snowden, the man who revealed American special services' crimes against the citizens of the entire world, received temporary asylum in Russia," Durov wrote on Vkontakte. "At moments like this one feels pride in our country and regret about the policies of the United States, a country that is betraying the principles upon which it was once built. We invite Edward to St. Petersburg and we will be happy if he decides to join Vkontakte's star-studded programming team. I think Edward might be interested in working on protecting the personal data of millions of our users."
Snowden's knowledge of U.S. electronic intelligence methods might indeed make him a valuable employee to any Internet company with a large user base. His employer could credibly say it offered better immunity from American surveillance than its competitors. Snowden himself has yet to acknowledge Durov's offer.
It's spookily appropriate that Snowden spent 40 days in the purgatory of Sheremetyevo: According to the Russian Orthodox tradition, that's how long it takes for a dead person's soul to be judged, after which it either ascends to heaven or plummets to hell. Snowden will find out soon enough where his solitary taxi ride leads.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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