WILLIAMSTOWN >> When journalist Murray Sayle arrived in Moscow to find legendary KGB spy Kim Philby in 1967, he knew where to look. Philby had spent over 30 years as a Soviet mole at the top of the British intelligence establishment, and had vanished in a cloud of suspicion years earlier. Sayle guessed that a good Englishman like him would need to know the cricket scores, so he waited outside the Central Telegraph & Post Office on the busiest street in the city. A few days later, Philby showed up.
It's not that hard to find Edward Snowden, who presumably has other ways to get his baseball scores (or whatever) than week-old newspapers. But Moscow remains a haven for certain types of political exiles/fugitives who are useful to the Russians as far as they annoy the American government. It is also a place where idealists go to vanish and live out their days, a Cold War paradigm that seems to be alive today, and like many others deserves to be set aside.
Philby had a lot to say: acknowledge all the things he'd secretly wished he could brag about but had had to stifle, mock and taunting Western intelligence agencies for failing to catch him. Snowden has a lot to say too, and it would be great if he had the chance to say it.
When I was in Moscow this summer, I kept wondering what his life is like in the city — whichever pleasant part of the city the FSB has hidden him away. Early in the summer, New York magazine ran a long article about his life there-but-not-there. Thanks to the internet he can email and tweet and even keep up a pretty busy schedule of attending conferences. He has participated in the conversation about privacy, government overreach, and democracy he began when he handed to reporters the details of our runaway security apparatus in 2013.
But the magazine article had very little to say about his actual life there. He could do his own shopping, it said. I'd read somewhere else he like khachapuri, the Georgian cheese bread that is certainly very tasty. There have been snapshots in the media of him visiting different sites around town.
The effort to draw attention to Snowden's situation picked up steam this week. Oliver Stone's new biopic tells part of the story that began with Laura Poitras' 2014 documentary "Citizenfour." But maybe this overwrought mythologizing isn't necessary. There's an important moment early in the documentary when Snowden meets with journalist Glenn Greenwald to discuss the terms of his cooperation. "I'm not the story here," he says.
But his situation is now too much of the story, and one I've had a hard time getting around. For all the noble motivations that drove him to blow the whistle, for all the valuable insight he offers on how our government works, I can't overlook the fact that he is under the total protection of a government that suppresses free speech, conducts sham elections (see this Sunday), is ruled by a self-perpetuating class of oligarchs, instigates violent instability in its neighbors as a matter of self-serving policy, and is complicit in the murder of a long list of dissidents and journalists.
A false equivalency
Too many Snowden supporters have been quick to disregard or explain away this fact. There is a kind of first-world self-absorption in the way they insist our government's intrusions into our privacy and liberty are world-shattering revelations, but the more routine authoritarian bullying that ordinary Russians endure is none of our business. There are dramatic differences between what the National Security Council has done and what the Russian FSB is up to, and to say otherwise is like Jill Stein trying to convince us there's no real difference between Hillary and Trump.
I've found it helpful to tune out his supporters and listen to Snowden himself. Despite being a guest of the Russians, he has used his very public platform to speak out loudly against their authoritarian excesses, like a proposed laws in Putin's rubber-stamp legislature that would have required all Russian telecoms to store, and make available, all their users' data.
Snowden has also been sharply critical of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange over the ethics of uncurated data dumps — like those this summer that were clearly orchestrated by the Russian security services to discredit the Democratic party (in fact, his flight to Moscow — with a WikiLeaks activist literally at his side — looks more and more fishy as time goes by).
Beyond Philby, there was a host of earnest Communist operatives who were rewarded for their work abroad with a one-way ticket to Moscow. Some, like Cy Oggins, a devoted Communist from Connecticut, arrived at the wrong time and were executed as security risks. Others were more lucky. Lona Cohen was teenage runaway from Adams who became a valuable KGB spy, helping to steal the secrets of the atom bomb from Los Alamos with her husband Morris. They arrived in Moscow after a prisoner exchange with the UK, and enjoyed a long, peaceful retirement. They even outlived the Soviet Union, and were buried with full honors of the USSR's successor state in the mid-1990s.
None of Russia's honored guests ever made it home to tell an honest version of their story. Snowden deserves to come home because we have a lot to talk about. President Obama should pardon him or offer a fair plea agreement.
Christopher Marcisz is a frequent Eagle contributor.