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Mystery surrounds Snowden's secret Moscow life

As his intelligence leaks continue, enigmatic former NSA contractor remains under Russian security services' protection

From left, a woman poses with a cardboard cutout of Edward Snowden at a Moscow expatriate bar; a Twitter image of Snowden with Hans-Christian Strobele, a German member of parliament.
Hans-Christian Ströbele

MOSCOW — After a dramatic arrival and a prolonged confinement at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is wanted by the United States government on espionage charges, has quietly vanished into a life of seclusion.

Nobody seems to know exactly where one of the most wanted and famous men in the world lives, who protects him or how he spends his days — beyond learning Russian and reading Dostoyevsky. Such glimpses into his life have been offered to the public by his Russian lawyer and de facto spokesman, Anatoly Kucherena.

With the exception of rare, coordinated appearances and updates by Kucherena, Snowden has all but disappeared as the consequences of his revelations about the NSA's massive spying program continue to unravel. 

After a brief visit by his father last month, the asylee's public life plunged back into silence, except for the announcement that he had taken a job at a large, undisclosed Russian website, an alleged photo of him on a tourist boat published by a local tabloid website, and unconfirmed reports of a new girlfriend.

Attempting to portray a life as normal as a global phenomenon of Snowden's magnitude can expect, these sporadic snippets of his exile have instead prompted the widely held conviction that every detail of his stay in Russia is carefully orchestrated.

"We know at this point that he's not free," said Yuri Felshtinsky, a Russian scholar who has written extensively about the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Felshtinsky, who believes the FSB controls Snowden, called the American exile a "Christmas gift" for President Vladimir Putin's "public relations war" with the United States.

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But some believe that the man who became an icon in the fight against government surveillance might soon resent living under Russian control — although Snowden himself denied this is the case.

“He’s always going to be monitored and watched,” said Peter Savodnik, a journalist and author of a recently published book about another famous American defector who grew tired of his Soviet exile: Lee Harvey Oswald. “If he doesn’t already want to leave, he’s going to want to leave very soon.”

Earlier this month, Snowden made news again when he met with German politician Hans-Christian Strobele, to whom he expressed his wish to travel to Germany, where revelations that the NSA had tapped into Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone stirred a diplomatic crisis. Strobele said in a written interview that he had not discussed Snowden’s life in Russia with him and declined to comment on his security detail. But he told reporters that he and two German journalists were driven to the meeting’s secret venue in a van with tinted windows.

Strobele said he found Snowden to be in good spirits, but that his future is “unclear and full of danger.”

“I am of the opinion that we Germans, but also Europe as a whole, and the USA, should be very grateful to him," he added.

Snowden’s future plans are unknown, with his lawyer occasionally suggesting he might apply to stay in Russia beyond his current one-year asylum. He would not be the first American fallen out of favor with the U.S. government to build a life here.

If he doesn’t already want to leave, he’s going to want to leave very soon.

Peter Savodnik

Author of Oswald book

In the same way that the showdown between the U.S. and Russia over Snowden’s arrival in Moscow prompted commentators to dust off Cold War rhetoric, his life in exile also inspired comparisons with the often unhappy stories of a long list of American defectors to the former Soviet Union.

In the 1930s, many disappeared in gulags or were executed. With rare exceptions, those who defected in the following decades fared no better, often living out their expatriate lives battling alcoholism, killing themselves or dying in unusual circumstances. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, two NSA cryptologists, defected to the Soviet Union in the 1960s but later regretted their decision and tried to leave. Victor Norris Hamilton, a former code analyst with the NSA, resurfaced in the 1990s at a Moscow psychiatric hospital, where he spent 21 years.

“For the most part, Americans who came to Russia believing they found the promised land have been left bitter and personally destroyed,” Savodnik said.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, spent four years in Russia before returning to the United States and assassinating President Kennedy. He had worked at an electronics factory in Minsk, in today’s Belarus, and married a Russian woman before changing his mind and returning to Texas with the help of a repatriation loan from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Any similarity between Snowden and Oswald barely stretches beyond their shared country of birth. But Savodnik sees a pattern in the history of disillusioned Americans seeking refuge in Russia — most defector narratives start with idealism and end in a harsh confrontation with the reality of surveillance in Russia.

“There’s just a great irony and sad naivete about both Snowden and Oswald,” Savodnik said. “I think that both journeys are or were prompted by a great deal of ignorance.”

The fact that a champion of privacy such as Snowden would choose a country where NSA-like surveillance is the norm was not lost on critics.

“The irony is that Snowden, who was fighting for freedom of information, actually became a major tool in hiding this information,” said Felshtinsky, the FSB scholar. “He is going to keep quiet now about what he knows and about what he told to the FSB.”

“He has probably no appreciation of just how absurd the idea of going to the Russian Federation is in light of his whole background,” Savodnik said.

Snowden and his lawyer deny that he is under surveillance.

The irony is that Snowden, who was fighting for freedom of information, actually became a major tool in hiding this information.

Yuri Felshtinsky

Expert on Russian security services

Sarah Harrison, a journalist with WikiLeaks who has been by Snowden’s side since he was in Hong Kong, including during his five weeks at Sheremetyevo, recently left Russia and said in a prepared statement that she stayed with him “until our team was confident that he had established himself and was free from the interference of any government.”

When speaking with The New York Times last month, Snowden declined to discuss his living conditions, but said he was “not under Russian government control and was free to move around.” As rumored press conferences and appearances on Russian talk shows failed to materialize, many started to wonder whether the whistle-blower is truly free to speak.

“The only way to show that he’s independent is to show him to journalists, which has never happened,” said Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and Russian security services expert. “The interview of him by The New York Times was conducted via exchange of emails, and it was impossible to determine if he was under control or who was actually in the room with him.”

Snowden in Moscow
Alleged photo of Snowden on boat from tabloid.
Life News

Soldatov said he believes Snowden’s moves are monitored by a number of federal bodies besides the FSB, including the Foreign Ministry and the foreign intelligence services.

Kucherena, Snowden’s effective spokesperson since he arrived in Russia and a prominent lawyer, has been criticized for representing the American while also sitting on the public council of the FSB, an advisory committee aimed at boosting the image of the security services with the public, Soldatov said.

Through a representative, Kucherena declined to be interviewed by Al Jazeera, but he has publicly maintained that Snowden is a free man.

Mikhail Barshchevsky, a Russian lawyer and journalist who recently interviewed Kucherena for a state-run newspaper, denied any conflict of interest and said the lawyer is “absolutely” free of government interference. He also repeated Kucherena’s line — that Snowden “is free to walk around and speak with whom he wants.”

“The only problem is that he doesn’t want to speak with anybody at the moment,” Barshchevsky added.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the embassy had no knowledge of Snowden's whereabouts or the extent to which he is under the control of Russian authorities. McFaul emphasized that no U.S. consular official has had any contact with Snowden since his arrival in Moscow.

“As a government and an embassy, we have reached out to him and offered our consular services like we do to all American citizens,” the ambassador said. “We have no way of verifying his conditions here.”

A spokesperson for Putin declined to comment. 

Such silence over Snowden’s stay has left room for much speculation, and also lack of interest — even prompting some suggestions that he could fall into oblivion like many past defectors. If he stays in Russia, anonymity might eventually mark a new beginning for the whistle-blower, though that is not likely in the immediate future.

“Whether he will start to live a normal life in Moscow — this is a big question,” said Felshtinsky. “And it’s probably not going to happen very soon.”

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