Democracy Lab

Talk About Strange Bedfellows

In Moscow, sympathy for Edward Snowden crosses all party lines.

MOSCOW —  When Hollywood finally decides to make a film about the National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden's secret life in a Moscow airport, they'll need to be sure to include Russian politicians discussing his fate. From the very first day Snowden's plane landed in Sheremetyevo airport from Hong Kong, both pro- and anti-Putin political figures have agreed on one thing: he shouldn't be turned over to the Americans. Politicians and oppositionists alike have argued that Snowden should be allowed to stay and work in Russia rather than ending up behind bars in his home country. (The photo above shows a Russian Snowden supporter outside the airport holding a sign that reads "Resist the new world order.")

On Monday, after it emerged that Snowden had made an official application for asylum in Russia, President Putin issued a remarkable statement: "If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: he must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound on my lips." (At the same news conference Putin made a point of comparing Snowden with the Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov.)

Russia, of course, isn't the only country that Snowden has turned to for help; altogether he's applied to 19 countries for asylum, according to WikiLeaks. The Kremlin now says that Snowden withdrew his Russian asylum request after hearing about Putin's condition. Some Duma deputies, however, are proposing a compromise: instead of working publicly, they say, Snowden ought to share all of his secret data with the Russian intelligence services. His evidence that Americans spy not only on American citizens, but also on their European allies, would surely be of interest.

That, indeed, seems like a perfect option to Duma deputy Robert Shlegel, a young and energetic politician from the ruling United Russia Party. Shlegel, who works on information policy, told me in an interview on Monday that he looked forward to meeting with the former NSA contractor one day. Shlegel, who is 28, told me that he feels a certain camaraderie with Snowden, who recently turned 30. He imagines himself chatting with Snowden about the "bizarre reality" that the NSA has tried to create, an updated version of Orwell's 1984 in which the U.S. intelligence agencies aspire to know everything that's going on in the world.

Shlegel told me that, while he understands Snowden's urge to speak the truth, he doesn't necessarily approve. As someone who's close to the Kremlin, Shlegel says, he believes in loyalty to the state: "Even if he has such evidence on hand, an official should never betray his own government, under no circumstances, especially if he worked for a security agency." What if the true story was even more complicated, I ventured -- what if Snowden was originally recruited by Russian intelligence? Shlegel laughed: "I wish Snowden was our project. If he was one of ours, we'd have to build a monument to the men who recruited him."

Snowden's fate has been a big topic for Moscow's chattering classes of late. Normally squabbling politicians have found a rare unanimity as they've rushed to condemn America's efforts to eavesdrop on the world. Despite different visions of Snowden's role in Russia, there's a consensus that Snowden did the right thing by leaking information about the NSA's activities. Another Duma deputy, international affairs committee chairman Aleksei Pushkov, published post after post on his Twitter feed earlier this week about Snowden and his role in the world's political arena. "Snowden was the second one after Bush who struck a powerful blow to the image of the U.S.," Pushkov wrote. "Bush lied to the entire world about Iraq, and Snowden told the truth about international espionage," Pushkov tweeted. In yet another tweet he opined that "total surveillance ... is the essence of American democracy."

What's striking is that it's not only Kremlin sympathizers who are expressing solidarity with Snowden. Oppositionists and human rights activists seem to agree -- though for somewhat divergent reasons. "This is a remarkable example of how American critics hate repressive systems," said Yevgenia Chirikova, the popular leader of a leading anti-Kremlin ecological group. "Russia shouldn't let America lock the young dissident behind bars for life. To grant Snowden asylum is simply humane."

The majority of liberal Russians sympathize with Snowden's agenda. Ilya Yashin, a key leader of one of the pro-Western RPR-Parnas party, says that Russia should definitely be helping the leaker: "By making certain information public, he makes American, European, and even our society better, more transparent and open." As Yashin sees it, Snowden should have the right to live in Russia as a free man, able to decide for himself what he wants to do. Leading human rights activist Tatyana Lokshina agrees that Russia should save Snowden from execution, but she can't quite bring herself to agree with Putin: "Political asylum should not be given under conditions decided by the president."

The government has clearly picked up on the fact that so many of its erstwhile critics are finding common ground with Putin's position. On Sunday, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov took to the airwaves to cheer on Snowden's defenders. Peskov said that the Kremlin has noticed "a very broad range of points of view that various experts and representatives of human rights organizations are expressing" on the Snowden issue. "Public opinion on the subject is very rich. We are aware of that and take it into account."

How will they take it into account? Russian TV, which is now largely under the control of the state, offers some clues. Recent broadcasts have hailed Snowden as a hero, comparing him in one case to the American communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, in another to Max Otto von Stirlitz, a legendary figure who spied on the Nazis for Stalin during World War II. On one show he was described as "the man who declared war on Big Brother and got stuck in the transit zone," and as "a soldier in the information war, who fights, of course, on the side of Russia, or maybe the side of China."

The only thing that Russian newsmakers don't agree on is the issue of who should be allowed to exploit Snowden's computers, the actual proof of U.S. sins, in case he decides to stay in Russia. Deputy Shlegel had no doubts on this score: "He should share the data with Russian intelligence and help us improve the technical side of our security system."

PAUL GYPTEAU/AFP/Getty Image

Democracy Lab

The No-Show

Edward Snowden missed the flight to Havana. I didn't.

HAVANA — We're waiting for you in Havana, Snowden. Are you on your way?

It's still unclear what happened on Monday, June 24, the day after leaker Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong. That day, Snowden was supposed to board a plane to Havana to then transfer to Ecuador, one of the very few places willing to shield him from the American officials who regard him as a traitor. He even had a boarding pass for the window seat in row F, in economy class. But he never showed up, and his seat stayed empty.

Was Snowden trapped in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport against his will by the Russian security service, curious to see the data he had in his computers? Or was he afraid of flying in a plane that could be grounded while passing over the United States, where American courts were waiting to lock him up in jail for over 30 years? Until the very moment the Aeroflot crew closed the plane's door, it looked like he was coming: Russian police surrounded Gate 28, patrolling outside and inside the airplane. The crew members on the plane looked tense and upset, as if they were facing a horrible trial. We still don't know what happened at the last moment, but in the end Snowden stayed in Moscow.

I was on that plane, waiting for him along with several dozen other journalists from international news agencies and TV channels, all of us eager to quiz him about his claims. I wanted to ask Snowden about the evidence he had to prove his claims that the U.S. and British intelligence agencies, despite their governments' public advocacy for freedom of the Internet, had been spying and stealing tons of personal data from people in their home countries.

For a long time, after we took off, we still could not believe that Snowden was not among us: After all, who knew what disguise he might be using? (This might seem a bit less crazy when you consider that we just saw an American spy wearing a wig last month.) Trapped on the flight for 12 hours, journalists walked around the plane looking into every passenger's face. Other reporters were already waiting to greet Snowden in Cuba. They looked for him inside and outside Havana's airport, asking every young blond male if he was Snowden. I'm still hoping to meet up with Snowden here in Havana, though Ecuadorean diplomats now say it may take months to issue him political asylum.

There's one very specific reason Snowden may be having trouble finding a way out of the Moscow airport's transit lounge, where he apparently is right now: his papers. Right now the only travel document he has is one of dubious status issued by the Ecuadoreans. After the American authorities canceled his U.S. passport on Monday, no airline wants to sell him another plane ticket. (He apparently managed to buy his ticket for Havana while his passport was still valid.)

There are other theories. "He got frightened that Americans would bring him down on that plane," says Igor Bunin, a Moscow political analyst. "He's a huge pain for the Kremlin, a Catch-22. Now that he's turned into an anti-American government star, Russia can't kick him out, but keeping him means even a bigger international scandal." I'd love to ask Snowden about his days and nights in Russia if I ever get the chance to meet him.

My friend Olga Bychkova, a host from radio Echo of Moscow, described a scene she witnessed in the airport's transit zone on the day of Snowden's arrival on Sunday. "I saw about 20 Russian officials, supposedly FSB [security service] agents in suits, crowding around somebody in a restricted area of the airport," Bychkova told me. "The Kremlin pretends they have nothing to do with him being stuck in Moscow, but in reality they're all over him."

What's up Mr. Snowden? Do you really hate reporters? If you're "a free man," as President Vladimir Putin says, why hide from crowds of journalists waiting to talk to you in Sheremetyevo airport for three days? WikiLeaks claims that you -- the biggest leaker in the history of the National Security Agency -- are "in a safe place." If you're safe and free, why didn't you use your ticket last Monday? You would have had a great chance to explain the reasons for renouncing your wealthy life with a beautiful girlfriend. Just imagine: 12 hours in front of the world's major networks on the flight to Cuba! Russian commentators think that you're not as free as the Russian leader claims, that somebody did not allow you to fly Monday. "Snowden will fly out of Russia when the Kremlin decides he can go," says Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "He might not even be in the airport. The safest place would be a GRU [Russian military intelligence] apartment." That would also explain why no one has seen your face in Moscow yet.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images