Democracy Lab

The Whistleblower May Have to Hold His Tongue

Can Edward Snowden really find freedom in an unfree country?

MOSCOW — Every time I ask Russian public figures what they think of the life Edward Snowden now faces in Moscow, I hear a deep sigh. It will be comfortable enough -- on that there was a consensus. Unlike refugees from Russia's poorest regions, Snowden is not going to spend frigid nights in a blanket under a Moscow river bridge or in the foul-smelling labyrinthine netherworld under Kursk railway station. But can the American fugitive find happiness in Russia while Russian whistleblowers are striving to escape? Has he heard about the fate of homegrown critics like Sergei Magnitsky or the members of Pussy Riot?

Snowden's choice of Russia as the place to hide out from the U.S. justice system is "more than weird," says Vladimir Varfolomeyev, an editor at Echo of Moscow radio station. "He might as well be whistleblowing about America from North Korea, Iran, or Uzbekistan." Besides, if Snowden had heard of Pussy Riot or Magnitsky, he wouldn't have praised the rule of law in Russia, the journalist added. By contrast, opposition leader Ilya Yashin pragmatically endorses Snowden's decision to live in Russia, noting that "he didn't have a lot of room for maneuver."

Putin biographer Masha Gessen says that Snowden should prepare himself to enjoy the traditional "decorative comfort" that the Kremlin provided to the Russian spies who were deported from the United States back in 2010. For weeks, the 10 spies lived in closed Russian Foreign Intelligence service facilities without any access to the Internet or the use of mobile phones. When asked whether the Russian authorities plan to support Snowden, the whistleblower's lawyer Anatoly Kucherena only responded that "his American friends will take care of him."

But why would the Kremlin go out of its way to make life easy for Snowden? Gessen suggests that this is where Putin will bring his own KGB experience to bear. Back when Putin was stationed in East Germany as a Soviet intelligence officer, he and his East German counterparts lived all together in Dresden under fairly privileged conditions. A certain degree of material comfort was one of the rewards given to those who shared the same anti-Western intellectual stance. But that certainly didn't mean, of course, that these communist heroes could say whatever they wanted.

It reminded me of an unexpected meeting I had the other day during a visit to a manicure salon in downtown Moscow. Arriving for my appointment, I bumped into none other than Anna Chapman, the red-haired spy. This world-famous character, the salon's employees told me, had come to get her nails done for the second time that month. Anna Chapman was sitting on a red leather couch, turning the pages of fashion magazines, and taking pictures of the outfits she liked with her cell phone.

I had been trying for weeks to reach Chapman by phone and email for an interview about her virtual marriage proposal to Snowden. She smiled at me when I mentioned it; the popularity of her own joke was obviously satisfying. But the idea of an interview was immediately brushed away. "My popularity rating has been steadily high, so I don't see any use in speaking with reporters," Chapman told me. But she still took my business card -- "just in case my life situation changes," she said.

Though Anna Chapman is still in a position to enjoy the small pleasures of ordinary life in Moscow, she clearly feels uncomfortable in any unscripted public role. Spontaneously speaking her mind evidently isn't a part of her peculiar celebrity status as a former spy.

Time will tell if Edward Snowden can figure out how to live the life of a free man in Russia. The pro-Western young people hanging out in Moscow cafes certainly aren't expecting him to show up and join them for a glass of wine any time soon. "He'll always have to be thinking about his safety," says Yashin.

Last week, Kucherena gave his defendant a copy of Crime and Punishment. Dmitry Bykov, a prominent writer on the dangers of strong governments, sees symbolism in the gift. "Dostoyevsky's book says that the crime is not about murder and the punishment is not about prison," says Bykov. "The real crime is in the heart and against dignity. Snowden still has to walk along Raskolnikov's path."

Thanks to censorship and harsh laws, much of what Russians say nowadays tends to be expressed in Aesopian language. Reading between the lines and recognizing the symbols are skills that Snowden will need to pick up before he even gets around to learning the Russian language.

Democracy Lab

Below the Radar

Worried about how Edward Snowden will affect President Obama's visit to Russia next month? Moscow isn't.

MOSCOW — Shortly before Edward Snowden landed in Moscow, two officials from the United States and Russia took a tour around the Northern Caucasus city of Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics games. Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's "czar" for the war on drugs, and Viktor Ivanov, his Russian counterpart, spared no effort in demonstrating their mutual affinity. The program for their trip included a traditional greeting ceremony with Russian beauties serving bread and salt, a visit to a successful rehab center for drug addicts, cruising around the Black Sea in a yacht, and ample portions of red caviar, freshly caught fish, and good wine.

Following the symbolic March 2009 U.S.-Russia reset, Kerlikowske and  Ivanov met dozens of times in all parts of the globe in collaboration on a counternarcotics working group. With their shared passion for fighting the global war on drugs, Kerlikowske and Ivanov operate in a style that stands in sharp contrast to most of the other bilateral projects initiated by their two governments -- and that's not just because they're known to make each other coffee.

Of the 16 working groups created by the Obama and Medvedev administrations, they are one of the few that actually work. The rest are stuck in the pre-reset era. And now, with only a month left before President Obama's visit to Russia for the G-20 summit, people are wondering about Moscow's agenda for its relationship with Washington.

A pro-Kremlin analyst of geopolitical processes, Yuri Krupnov, says that, at a moment when most of Russia's industry is in decline (with the exception of oil and gas), it would be "pathetic" for Russia to be aggressive in making a show of will and power. Soft power, he stressed, is very valuable, but should only be applied if there is hard power to back it up. "Putin is thinking hard of what [mutual] points of interest Russia should have on its agenda with United States, but at the moment the relations are all about mockery -- they mock us with [the] Magnitsky Act and we use Snowden to demonstrate that we also respect human rights."

Even if Obama's visit takes place as scheduled, it's questionable why the countries are even bothering when diplomacy has clearly taken a backseat. The Kremlin gave a firm "net" to extraditing American whistleblower Snowden following Obama's recent proposal to make major reductions in nuclear stockpiles and Washington's sharply articulated concerns about human rights issues in Russia.

In fact, nobody in the Kremlin seems to be seriously worried about inciting America's wrath over Snowden. The daily tweets from Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the Duma foreign affairs committee, offer a good example of what Krupnov refers to as "mockery": "If the U.S. places trade sanctions on Russia because of Snowden, they will be shooting themselves in the foot!"

But he's not alone. Government officials and the Russian media routinely accuse Washington of "hypocrisy," "double standards," and treating Russia poorly -- especially when it comes to extradition requests. Channel One Russia conscientiously reminded the country that the U.S. State Department granted political asylum to the most wanted Russian terrorist, Ilyas Akhmadov. And Komsomolskaya Pravda, a daily tabloid, pointed out that American authorities have ignored all of Russia's requests for the extradition of kidnaper Tamaz Nalbandov. "We can currently see a campaign in the Russian media that interprets the Kremlin's intentions [to keep] Snowden in Moscow," says pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov.

In the weeks following the crackdown on Russian NGOs last autumn, U.S. diplomats grumbled that the country was losing hope for a better future with Moscow. With a clear sense of resignation, their message comes across as little more than the following: "Do you like locking up your critics in jail, condemning them as spies or foreign agents? Okay, go ahead and live  your third world life. We're giving up on you."

At this point, Russian officials admit that even proposed U.S. assistance for modernizing Russian industry, a project launched by former president Dmitry Medvedev, has disappeared from President Putin's immediate agenda -- together with all of Medvedev's other pro-partnership plans.

It's true that Afghanistan is still important both for the United States and Russia today, but that will change in less than a year. Igor Bunin, the president of the Mocow think-tank Center for Political Technologies described the basic picture to me: "America is not on the list of Putin's priorities today; his priority [and] agenda is all about how to stay in power in 2018, and here America is acting as his enemy." 

While politicians wonder what the two countries should do about their diplomatic relations, conservative Russian intellectuals, like award-winning novelist Zakhar Prilepin, believe that the Snowden factor gives Russia an opportunity to win the argument over values. Just on Friday, the Kremlin forced senior Obama administration officials to offer assurances on human rights, a rare occurrence -- including a promise not to torture or execute a prisoner. Prilepin believes there may be more to this than just another show of mockery. "The Kremlin is all about materialistic values. But Snowden actually gives us a chance to perform as a proud and strong country and genuinely help one man."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images