Putinology

The Whistleblower May Have to Hold His Tongue

The Whistleblower May Have to Hold His Tongue

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.