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Moscow Is No Place for a Defector

In fleeing to Russia, Edward Snowden joins a long, unhappy litany of American dissidents

Wikimedia Commons

Edward Snowden may not have realized it as he fled Hong Kong last month, but he was about to become part of a tradition that predates Internet metadata collection, or Wikileaks, or the National Security Agency itself: He was an American dissident heading for Russia.

Now, as he nears his third week in consular limbo, the man who leaked word of the NSA’s Prism program must be feeling a tad dismayed by his reception, which has not exactly been warm or cold but somewhere, weirdly, in between. If he’d read up on the history of other Americans who wound up under the dubious protection of the Kremlin, he might not be so surprised. Whether seeking exile in a Soviet socialist paradise or merely hoping that Vladimir Putin’s hostility to Washington means you’ll be able to fly on toward Ecuador in peace, the history of Americans fleeing to Moscow is a long and unhappy one.

Take Robert Webster, the plastics technician from Cleveland who came to the USSR in 1959. Webster was supposed to be in Moscow helping prepare for the American national exhibition but wound up falling in love with a hostess at the Hotel Ukraine (he eventually abandoned his family to return home). Or Harold Koch, the Catholic priest who jettisoned God for Marx and, in 1966, moved from Chicago to Moscow to protest the Vietnam War (he changed his mind three months later). Then there were Joseph Dutkanich, the American Serviceman stationed in West Germany, and Glenn Souther, the Navy photographer-cum-KGB stooge. Dutkanich defected in 1960 and gradually became convinced the Soviets were trying to make him crazy; in late 1963, he was found in a drunken stupor and died in a Lvov hospital. Souther, one of the last Cold War-era defectors, fled to the Soviet Union in 1986; three years later, he committed suicide. There was even a fellow National Security Agency analyst, William Martin, who, in 1960, defected to the Soviet Union. He thought that would change the world forever. He was wrong.1

The most famous American exile in Moscow was Lee Harvey Oswald. Like Webster and Koch, he defected to Russia believing that he would be welcomed and even celebrated. He, too, was nearly destroyed. By 1962, he was back home again.

What is it that lures them to Moscow? In the days of the Cold War, defectors could convince themselves that they had found not only an escape from their previous lives but an antidote to the hypocrisy of the supposedly free West. They imagined that Russia was a metaphor for something noble and progressive, and they were convinced that it had eclipsed America in a grand Historical sense. America, as the defectors saw it, had turned rotten, and only Russia, the official nemesis of the American myth, could disentangle the lie. To varying degrees, the defectors imagined themselves enmeshed in a metaphysical tug-of-war. All of them insisted on viewing Russia through an ideological prism.

Granted, Snowden, at 29, was barely in elementary school when that ideological prism shattered. It would be hard for even the most deluded anti-secrecy activist to feel much kinship with the Russian government. But Snowden also came to town with a more immediate concern—in his case, escaping arrest. As such, he wasn’t so different from predecessors like Webster, who wanted to sleep with the pretty Russian girl, or Oswald, who really wanted to get away from his mother.

So they prostrated themselves at the feet of the KGB. They made themselves pathetic. They told the Russians they would give them whatever intelligence they could muster, and all they asked for in return was permission to spend the rest of their lives in the Third Rome. The KGB usually rewarded this faith in the great Soviet experiment by sending its American supplicants to some provincial town where they couldn’t infect too many people with their crazy ideas. They gave them a job and an apartment, which were not bad or even very good by Russian standards, and they spied on them always and waited for them to splinter into a thousand pieces, which they almost always did. Then, after the defectors had crawled back to the American Embassy, begging for a way home, the Soviets would decide whether to let them leave. Usually, they did, although by that time, the defector was a pale adumbration of his former self. The rest of his life was almost always very unhappy.

There is a simple explanation for this dissonance pitting the idealistic American against the decidedly non-idealistic Russian state. The American, by viewing Russia through a quasi-spiritual lens, never gave much thought to the cold facts of history and geopolitics, and the Russians thought about nothing else. The American insisted on seeing in Russia something that did not exist, and the Russians were concerned only with what the American could give them. Once the American had been emptied of his data or political utility, he was useless, and they wanted him to leave.

Oswald was typical, in this respect. He tried to persuade the KGB to let him stay in the Soviet Union by offering them supposedly top-secret information about the U-2 spy plane—he had served at a Marine base in Japan where there were U-2’s—but the Russians didn’t need that. They needed a missile that could reach the U-2, which flew at an altitude that was too high for Soviet anti-aircraft defenses. Oswald couldn’t give them that, so they told him to go. He reacted to this by returning to his hotel room and slitting his wrist, at which point the KGB, not wanting an incident, decided to let him stay. Still, the Soviets wanted to make sure he wasn’t actually a very dedicated CIA agent first, so they instructed him not to leave his room at the Metropole Hotel, where he took his meals and studied Russian, and, eight weeks later, in January 1960, put him on a train to Minsk, which, to anyone in Moscow, was like a bad joke: First you try to kill yourself; then we send you to Belorussia.

Edward Snowden is now on the cusp of going the way of Oswald. Just like Oswald was, he has become something of a stateless person, the Americans having invalidated his passport, the Russians having apparently decided he can stay—but maybe not. Vladimir Putin’s comment Monday that Snowden can remain in Russia only if he stops giving the Russians classified information was a little absurd. Even Putin said so. “If he wants to stay here,” Putin said, “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.” But it also reflected, perfectly, the liminal state that Snowden finds himself in. He will remain in this unhappy purgatory, presumably at Sheremetyevo Airport’s new Terminal D or E or renovated Terminal F, until he surrenders himself entirely to the United States or the Russian Federation. Either he allows himself to be arrested by the Americans, or he leaves the airport, enters Russia and agrees to disappear somewhere in Siberia forever. Probably, the Russians will not force him to do one thing or another. They will make him make up his own mind, and they will wait, and this will compound his many, swirling fears, his belief that the whole world is pressing in on him. 

Snowden is not a communist, and Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, but these are minor details. Like Oswald and most of the Americans who defected to Russia during the Cold War, Snowden made the cataclysmic blunder of believing there was something good or moral about the Russian state, that there were people in power in Moscow who would see fit to let him be. How else are we to interpret his protracted layover in Russia? Certainly, one can fly from Hong Kong to Havana or Quito (or Pyongyang or Tehran or Reykjavik) without refueling in Moscow. Moscow was an unnecessary pit stop suggestive of a hope or conviction that in Russia there were people who would sympathize with his crusade against the American surveillance state.

Alas, this amounts to an almost criminal ignorance. The Russian government is not so much a government as a loosely knit cadre of thugs and thieves who have been in a state of permanent opposition vis-à-vis the Russian people since at least Peter the Great, and the Russian surveillance state—which descends directly from the Soviet surveillance state—is the No. 1 instrument with which the Kremlin has stymied revolution. In other words, Snowden sought to protest the excesses of his own country’s government by going to another country that is infinitely better at committing those same crimes.

The real tragedy, of course, is not that of Snowden. It is that the very legitimate conversation kicked off by Snowden’s leaks—the debate about a creeping, unchecked American leviathan—has been eclipsed by the spectacle in Moscow. Three weeks ago, he was viewed as a high-minded whistleblower. Right now, he is cast as someone naïve and compromised and caught up in things that are profoundly tawdry. If he’d studied the history of Americans fleeing to Moscow, he’d have known all along that this was going to happen.

  1. The spectacle of the American wanderer in Russia was not confined to the Cold War. John Reed joined the revolution, in 1917, and probably fared better than any of his compatriots: he died of typhus in 1920 and, being a very useful idiot to the Bolsheviks, was buried on Red Square. In the 1930s, many Americans fled the great depression for communist utopia hoping to find work and a new life; most of them were eventually arrested or killed. (The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis, traces the story of a band of amateur baseball players hoping to start anew in russia. Within a few years, most were dead or in prison.)