Putinology

The Phantom of the Airport

The Phantom of the Airport

MOSCOW — The petite blond woman next to me looked shocked: "What’s going on, do you know?" She pointed at the crowd of several dozen reporters with furry microphones, cameras, and aluminum stairs, yelling at policemen. The journalists were crowded around a tiny spot by the wall in Terminal F of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. I explained that, after three weeks of hiding in the transit zone, Edward Snowden had invited a group of human rights activists and lawyers to talk about his potential asylum in Russia and that, at that very moment, the invited experts were walking through a door on the other side of the crowd. The woman didn’t know who Snowden was or why he had to live in the transit zone for three weeks. "Total madness," she whispered. She was right, of course.

Just a few minutes before our encounter, reporters had pounced on the group of visitors that was about to walk in for their parley with Snowden. "What do you think he’ll say?" one reporter asked Tatyana Lokshina, from the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "I’m not sure," she said. "I’m not a fortuneteller."  

Lokshina sounded tired. She’d been answering the same question all day long, nonstop, on both of her cell phones, in front of cameras, and into microphones stuck in her face. For days now, journalists have been hunting Snowden’s ghost around the airport. Some camped out in Burger King, where they watched men in suits buying burgers. Others went so far as to purchase tickets to Cuba in hopes of interviewing Snowden on the plane.

And finally, today, the moment came. Snowden sent emails to Russian human rights defenders, lawyers, and even a Duma deputy. (It wasn’t clear who drew up the list for him — several of the invitees are rarely quoted in the Western press.) The email address he used, as well as the text of his letter, were immediately published and republished on Facebook. Dozens of reporters tried to get a response, but he wasn’t ready to meet with them, not yet.

Minutes before the meeting scheduled at 5 pm, a young man in a dark blue suit appeared. He quietly raised a piece of paper with "G-9" mysteriously written on it. The "G-9" apparently didn’t stand for anything; it was a code, meant to attract the attention of those who were invited. The activists and lawyers chosen to see Snowden followed the man, like a group of tourists or kindergarteners, valiantly pushing their way through crowds of reporters. It was totally surreal.

The airport continued to hum along, going about its regular business. Passengers strolled past the crowd of sweaty, aggressive reporters who were waiting for Snowden’s visitors to come back and relate what he had to say. When they finally emerged, though, no one was much the wiser. "Snowden looked pale and nervous about his safety," said Sergei Nikitin, the director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office. "He didn’t want us to take any pictures of him. But I don’t think he was under pressure from the [Russian] intelligence services."(Along the way, of course, a few interesting tidbits did make their way out. We learned, for example, that Snowden has decided to apply for "temporary political asylum" in Russia.)

Several reporters decided to stay in the airport until the last 1 AM train to the city, hoping that Snowden would answer their emails and meet with them somewhere in a quiet corner of the airport. We don’t know how long he’s planning to stay there. As Nikitin observed, "he didn’t mind loud airport announcements. He must be used to them by now."