In Moscow, sympathy for Edward Snowden crosses all party lines.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek magazine, covering Russia and the former Soviet States. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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."