Edward Snowden’s guide to Russia

August 5, 2013

It’s anyone’s guess where Edward Snowden was going when he gave reporters the slip and sped away from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in a taxi last week.

After 39 days marooned in the no-man’s land of the airport transit lounge, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor has won temporary asylum in Russia.

Anatoly Kucherena, the Russian senator acting as a lawyer for Snowden, says his client has been ground down by the airport ordeal and could use some rest and relaxation.

“He needs a period of rehabilitation, or adaptation, because he is very tired and morally exhausted,” he said.

But how should Snowden spend his time now that he’s been sprung from the airport? Below is a personalized guide to the land where he is now stuck — from a liberty seeker’s must-see tourist sites to where he might indulge his penchant for anime.

Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum sparked outrage in Washington. Correspondent Isabel Gorst explains why Russia did it. (The Washington Post)
Getting started

Reviled by many in the United States as a traitor, Snowden can count on at least arm’s-length support from ordinary people in Russia. More than half of the respondents to a survey by Levada, an independent Moscow-based pollster, favored the Kremlin’s decision to grant Snowden asylum and only 10 percent were against.

If Snowden really is, as his father suggests, a sensitive sort, he’ll want to probe the Russian soul. That means getting deep into Russian language and culture.

Learning basic Russian should not be an insurmountable problem for Snowden, who mastered Japanese during a stint working for the NSA in Japan. Making sense of the obscure and often irreverent doublespeak of Russian online chat rooms will be another matter. But Snowden, so wary of snoopers that he used to don a red hood before inserting his computer password, understands living in code.

Having fun

Snowden says he forsook a life in “paradise” in the United States, but Moscow is not without delights to tickle his fancy.

If he still hankers after Japanese food, Moscow is a good place to be. A sushi fad that began in the 1990s has turned into an inescapable addiction. More than 1,000 Japanese eateries are listed in the city, including the ubiquitous budget Yakitoria chains and the upmarket Nobu, where there is even a New York chef.

Russians excel at having a good time, and Snowden, at least while he is in the post-transit-lounge rehabilitation phase, might as well let his hair down.

Tweeters have joked that the first place Snowden should go is the Hungry Duck, Moscow’s legendary strip club, a favorite haunt of expats in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Duck is no longer open, but the city has an abundance of more upscale options. Almost all feature pole dancing — presumably an attraction for Snowden, whose girlfriend was an instructor in exotic dance and fitness when the couple met in Maryland.

Who’s paying?

Snowden reportedly burned through a lot of his savings ordering from the overpriced cafes at the Moscow airport, so he will have to find a way to make a living.

Kucherena, who told the New York Times he was acting for Snowden pro bono, said that won’t be a problem — there’s a possibility of his client, known for his exhibitionist tendencies, appearing on Russian TV talk shows.

As a computer whiz, Snowden should be able to find gainful employment in Russia, which is still a hotbed of gifted, and even entrepreneurial, geeks despite the departure of some of the best brains for Silicon Valley.

Within hours of Snowden’s leaving the airport, Pavel Durov, the millionaire co-founder of VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social networking site, announced that the U.S. fugitive could find a place in the “star team” at VK’s St. Petersburg headquarters.

There’s a risk that Durov’s offer could be a ploy designed to curry favor with the authorities. VK, often used by the Russian opposition to rally supporters, has been under official pressure of late as part of a broader crackdown on activism.

Snowden might be better off sending his résumé to Kaspersky, the Russian computer security firm that competes globally with the likes of McAfee and Symantec to develop weapons against cybercrime.

If he is looking for a fresh start professionally, Snowden might indulge his interest in anime with a job at one of Russia’s animation studios that are trying to revive the glory of the Soviet era. A 1960s cartoon featuring the jug-eared creature Cheburashka became the inspiration for Pokemon in Japan as well as a symbol for the liberal intelligentsia in Russia.

Tourist sights

Snowden is probably allergic to airports by now, so if he wants to explore a country as vast as Russia, he’ll want to start with somewhere nearby. Fortunately, St. Petersburg, one of the world’s most enchantingly beautiful and cultured cities, is less than four hours from Moscow on the new high-speed Sapsan train.

Russia has never gone in for freedom in a big way, and St. Petersburg, the former seat of the imperial czars and epicenter of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew them, is redolent with the history of libertarians who paid a high price for their convictions.

Snowden might like to visit the Peter and Paul Fortress and see for himself where the Decembrists, a group of liberal-leaning military officers who plotted to overthrow the czar, were incarcerated in 1825.

Snowden has described himself as a Buddhist, so a pilgrimage to Kalmykia — a barren steppe land bordering the Caspian Sea and the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion — would be an obvious choice if he wants to venture into the Russian wilds. Kalmykians have been begging the Kremlin to risk China’s ire and let the Dalai Lama visit, so Snowden for once would be seen as a second-tier fugitive.

Love life

According to his lawyer, Snowden has said that he misses his girlfriend, so he might steer clear of romantic adventures for now. Still, there may be temptation.

Anna Chapman, the celebrity Russian TV hostess who was expelled from the United States for espionage in 2010, appeared to express interest.

“Will you marry me?” Chapman tweeted on July 3, as a despondent Snowden mulled over his prospects on the eve of Independence Day.

Gorst is a freelance writer.

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