Dear Edward Snowden: Welcome to Limbo

Dear Edward Snowden: Welcome to Limbo

I don’t envy Edward Snowden. Unless the Russian authorities have somehow taken him under their wing — and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to disavow that with his comment that Snowden "has not crossed the Russian border" — chances are he is now officially residing in purgatory. When his flight from Hong Kong arrived at Terminal F of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport at 5:05 PM on June 23, Snowden didn’t have a valid Russian visa, meaning that he wouldn’t be able to leave the international transit area. And since he didn’t leave on that ballyhooed flight to Cuba as everyone expected, he’s probably still there — as apparently confirmed by Vladimir Putin earlier today.

Having spent a good portion of my life in Sheremetyevo, I can’t say that I recall the experience with particular nostalgia. The dingy brown décor and the low ceilings always managed to dampen one’s mood even after airport officials tried to brighten the place up by adding a bunch of pricey shops. The airport as a whole has received a major makeover in recent years, but it doesn’t sound like anyone has succeeded in exorcising the old Soviet spirit from Terminal F, as described by one recent reviewer:

Architects did not allow for the numerous (and terribly overpriced) duty-free shops that have been added since. That left a very narrow passage almost completely devoid of any facilities except for a couple of bathrooms and some broken currency exchange machines. You can go to the second floor – there aren’t any seats there, either, but at least there aren’t any duty free shops, so you can camp out on the floor. For that reason, the second-floor gallery looks like a refugee camp.

That last line is probably a bit more apt than the writer realized. For years the transit lounge at Terminal F was also home to succeeding generations of refugees fleeing conflicts in Somalia and Afghanistan. Because Russia hadn’t established a procedure for recognizing asylum applications, many of those refugees — who, like Snowden, didn’t have the proper documentation to enter the country — preferred staying in the airport to returning to their countries of origin. You’d see them sleeping on pieces of cardboard in secluded corners on that second floor, or washing up in the bathrooms. (Just a few years ago, the U.S. State Department was still including references to Russia’s treatment of Sheremetyevo refugees in its annual human rights report.) Unlike those unlucky folks, Snowden can presumably count on donations from sympathizers to fund his excursions to the Irish Pub. But I somehow doubt that that will make the hours any shorter.