After 39 days living in a Russian airport transit lounge, a circle of hell that Dante unaccountably omitted, Edward Snowden, the great leaker of the National Security Agency’s secrets, has been granted a year’s asylum while he waits for some Latin American country to take him in.
One Russian winter should convince Snowden, who defected from Hawaii, that his first choice of Venezuela or Ecuador for sanctuary was probably the right one. He will find that there’s a lot to be said for sunshine and warmth.
In an effort to be helpful — and surely a great American newspaper wouldn’t be sarcastic — The Washington Post published a tourism guide of sorts so that Snowden can see what he’s been missing after days spent staring at travel posters for Ulan Bator.
“If Snowden really is, as his father suggests, a sensitive sort” — note that he said “sensitive” and not “sensible,” a virtue Snowden clearly lacks — “he’ll want to probe the Russian soul,” writes freelancer Isabel Gorst.
That means at some stage he’ll find himself standing on the ledge of the 17th floor of his apartment building. Probing the Russian soul means reading up on Russian literature, a trove of almost unrelieved grimness.
For example, there’s the famous Nikolai Gogol novel “Dead Souls.” It’s a comedy.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” perhaps the country’s most famous novel, is about the ax murders of two elderly women by a penurious ex-student named Raskolnikov. There is so much hand-wringing and soul-searching that midway through the book the reader is ready to take an ax to the protagonist. As it is, after his chief tormenter commits suicide, Raskolnikov gets eight years of penal servitude.
Perhaps one of the most popular Russian novels in the United States was “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak. To make a long story short — and it is a long story — Yuri Zhivago dies suddenly of a heart attack while the on-again, off-again love of his life, Lara, dies in the Gulag. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for the book, but the Kremlin wouldn’t let him accept it, perhaps because it was too cheerful.
After Snowden bones up on Russian literature, he’ll be ready for some nightlife. Gorst writes that tweeters jokingly say “the first place Snowden should go is the Hungry Duck, Moscow’s legendary strip club, a favorite haunt of expats in the 1990s.”
“Unfortunately,” she writes, “the Duck is no longer open,” but she notes that the city does not lack for pole dancers, much like the girlfriend he left behind in the States and now apparently very much misses.
Moscow is, by repute, an expensive city. The Kremlin’s stipends for defectors tend not to be terribly generous and this is likely to be especially so with a transitory defector like Snowden. The Russians have probably already copied everything in his three laptops and, given their success at spying here — Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, considerably more senior to Snowden, to name two — Snowden probably doesn’t know much that they don’t know already.
Having embarrassed his host, the thin-skinned Vladimir Putin, by forcing the cancellation of the Russian leader’s one-on-one meeting with President Barack Obama, Snowden will probably have to make his own fun.
In the winter, he can enjoy the tradition of jumping into the frozen Moscow River with burly Russians and their even burlier wives. Exile is all about what you make of it.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.