The Americans Who Escaped to Russia Long Before Edward Snowden

In camping out at a Moscow airport, Edward Snowden is joining a long line of Americans who have fled to Russia. Suffice it to say, it's not the most flattering group of individuals with which to be associated.

The most notable, of course, are the spies. There were the agents, like George Koval, who provided the Soviet Union with information about the Manhattan Project in the 1940s before absconding to Moscow. In 1960, two NSA cryptologists -- William Martin and Bernon Mitchell -- defected to the Soviet Union with intelligence on U.S. monitoring of Soviet communications. Like many defectors, Martin and Mitchell built lives in the Soviet Union, marrying and receiving well-compensated jobs. But like many defectors, they also had difficulty adjusting. According to the NSA's in-house report on the incident, both men asked to leave Russia within a year of their defection, "but no country would accept them." Mitchell died in Moscow, but in time Martin made it as far as Tijuana, where he died in 1987. They were not alone in their discontent. "He put on a good act," Igor Prelin, a former public relations official for the KGB told the New York Times after the death of defected CIA agent Edward Lee Howard, who eventually came to own a small insurance firm in Moscow, "but life was not sweet for him here."

There have also been political dissidents -- many of them communists or socialists hounded in the United States during the Red Scare and, later, the Cold War. There was Bill Haywood, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies"), who, during World War I, was convicted of efforts to interfere with the U.S. war effort under provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act -- the same law used to charge Snowden. While free and appealing his conviction, Haywood fled to Russia in 1921 for the last seven years of his life. There were also several instances of disillusioned U.S. soldiers, who, burnt out and alienated by their time in service, defected to the Soviet Union. Among them was Lee Harvey Oswald, whose alienation only worsened during his three years in the USSR. He eventually decided the move was a mistake, and the United States allowed him to return in June 1962.

After Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. government commissioned a study of U.S. defectors to the Soviet Union. The report cited other disillusioned soldiers, and even a couple incidents involving people who defected for love. There was Robert Webster, a contractor working for the Rand Development Company who tried to defect to follow his mistress but struggled with the process. The Soviet officials ushering Webster through the repatriation procedures got him liquored up before presenting him with the paperwork to apply for Soviet repatriation, according to the defector study:

Subsequently when Webster submitted the data sheet, he stated that his dissatisfaction with the United States was due to the tendency of American employers to hire a man and then fire him when he had learned the job. This reason was not acceptable because Webster had not personally experienced this.  He rewrote the form to state that in the United States, Government controlled big business.... Although he stated he wished to cooperate in every way with the Soviet Union, the Soviet authorities tried to dissuade Webster from defecting.

Of course, Snowden hasn't yet defected to Russia. And despite Vladimir Putin's pledge to not hand him over to the United States, the NSA leaker probably won't remain in Moscow (the smart money now is on Ecuador). "The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it will be for us and him," Putin told reporters this morning.



Dear Edward Snowden: Welcome to Limbo

I don't envy Edward Snowden. Unless the Russian authorities have somehow taken him under their wing -- and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to disavow that with his comment that Snowden "has not crossed the Russian border" -- chances are he is now officially residing in purgatory. When his flight from Hong Kong arrived at Terminal F of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport at 5:05 PM on June 23, Snowden didn't have a valid Russian visa, meaning that he wouldn't be able to leave the international transit area. And since he didn't leave on that ballyhooed flight to Cuba as everyone expected, he's probably still there -- as apparently confirmed by Vladimir Putin earlier today.

Having spent a good portion of my life in Sheremetyevo, I can't say that I recall the experience with particular nostalgia. The dingy brown décor and the low ceilings always managed to dampen one's mood even after airport officials tried to brighten the place up by adding a bunch of pricey shops. The airport as a whole has received a major makeover in recent years, but it doesn't sound like anyone has succeeded in exorcising the old Soviet spirit from Terminal F, as described by one recent reviewer:

Architects did not allow for the numerous (and terribly overpriced) duty-free shops that have been added since. That left a very narrow passage almost completely devoid of any facilities except for a couple of bathrooms and some broken currency exchange machines. You can go to the second floor - there aren't any seats there, either, but at least there aren't any duty free shops, so you can camp out on the floor. For that reason, the second-floor gallery looks like a refugee camp.

That last line is probably a bit more apt than the writer realized. For years the transit lounge at Terminal F was also home to succeeding generations of refugees fleeing conflicts in Somalia and Afghanistan. Because Russia hadn't established a procedure for recognizing asylum applications, many of those refugees -- who, like Snowden, didn't have the proper documentation to enter the country -- preferred staying in the airport to returning to their countries of origin. You'd see them sleeping on pieces of cardboard in secluded corners on that second floor, or washing up in the bathrooms. (Just a few years ago, the U.S. State Department was still including references to Russia's treatment of Sheremetyevo refugees in its annual human rights report.) Unlike those unlucky folks, Snowden can presumably count on donations from sympathizers to fund his excursions to the Irish Pub. But I somehow doubt that that will make the hours any shorter.