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Russians Wary of Snowden Asylum

After spending six weeks ensconced in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, Edward Snowden was finally permitted to leave the airport “transit zone” after he received temporary asylum in Russia for the period of one year. Slipping past the media circus and apparently departing in a taxi, Snowden managed to keep his ultimate destination a secret. His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, stated that Snowden is “the most wanted man on planet earth” [en] and therefore his safety is not guaranteed. This lack of information hasn't prevented netizens from contemplating Snowden's new life as a Russian resident.

Snowden's Asylum Documents. Youtube screenshot. August 2, 2013

Snowden's Asylum Documents. Youtube screenshot. August 2, 2013

Snowden has become a divisive figure in Russia — his decision to hitch his wagon to Putin's makes opposition and human rights activists uneasy, while his status as a defected “spy” alienates many of Putin's supporters. Some of Snowden's detractors took obvious pleasure in imagining him failing to find happiness in his new home.

LiveJournal user AlexThunder [ru] had a particularly dark vision [ru] for Snowden's future as a liability to the Russian government:

Сейчас пошумят в новостях, найдут другую “сенасацию” и забудут все про него как про все прошлые “Oh my gosh is that really true!” Потом он небрежно оступится на лестнице где-то и упадёт неудачно, сломает себе шею. Ничего подозрительного – просто небрежность. И решительно никто по этому поводу не содрогнётся от ужаса.

There'll be a song and dance in the news, [then] they'll find another “sensation” and forget all about [Snowden] like in every other case of “Oh my gosh is that really true!” Then he'll absentmindedly lose his footing in a stairwell, fall down and break his neck. Nothing suspicious – simply carelessness. And absolutely no one is going to shudder in horror when this happens.

Another blogger, commenting [ru] on news of Snowden's successful asylum application on the Echo Moskvy website, seemed to pity, rather than gloat:

Ну Эдик-то России не видел, он видел лишь обложку впутенкратии. Надеюсь что ему интернет поможет разобраться … если конечно не обрезали провода вместе с языком – мы же не знаем соглашения, по которому ему разрешили поменять тюрьму ТАМ, на “свободу” (под колпаком) ТУТ

Well, Eddie hasn't really seen Russia, he's seen only the facade of the Putinocracy. I hope the internet can help him figure it out … that is of course if they haven't cut off his internet access along with his tongue – we don't know the agreement which allowed him to swap imprisonment THERE for “freedom” (in a fishtank) HERE

At least one prominent Russian appears to believe that Snowden has a brighter future. Pavel Durov, founder of the Russia's most popular social networking site VKontakte, posted [ru] on his own VKontakte page that he would be happy for Snowden to come and work at his company:

В такие минуты чувствуешь гордость за нашу страну и сожаление по поводу курса США — страны, предающей принципы, на которых она некогда была построена. Приглашаем Эдварда в Петербург и будем рады, если он решит пополнить звездную команду программистов ВКонтакте. В конце концов, нет более популярной европейской интернет-компании, чем VK. Думаю, Эдварду может быть интересно заниматься защитой личных данных миллионов наших пользователей.

At this time one feels pride for our country and regret for USA, a country betraying the principles it was founded upon. We're inviting Edward to St. Petersburg and would be glad for him to decide to join our stellar team of programmers at VKontakte. At the end of the day, there is no more popular internet company in Europe than VKontakte. I think Edward would be interested in protecting the personal data of millions of our users.

Durov has had a tempestuous relationship [GV] with Russian authorities and has maintained a low profile since he was accused of a hit-and-run against a St. Petersburg traffic cop (the charges were later dropped [GV]). His offer could be an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Russian elite, a genuine ideological sympathy with a fellow libertarian (Durov supports internet freedom initiatives), or a simple publicity stunt.

Perhaps the most biting reaction to Snowden's successful asylum application came from Roman Dobrokhotov, a young journalist and long time member of the opposition who had previously noted [ru] the similarity of PRISM to Russia's SORM internet-monitoring system [GV]. Dobrokhotov penned an “Open letter to Edward Snowden” on his Facebook, which was re-published on the Ekho Moskvy [ru] and Novaya Gazeta [ru] websites, and later translated into English [en] on Index on Censorship. Dobrokhotov's letter is veritably dripping with sarcasm:

Вчера я узнал о том, что тебе удалось все-таки получить в России временное убежище. Поздравляю тебя от лица всей прогрессивной мировой общественности. Теперь ты, наконец, в безопасности. Здесь, в России, никто и не подумает преследовать тебя за какие-то там разоблачения спецслужб, прослушивающих телефоны и читающих чужие письма без решения суда. Ибо у нас, слава богу, правовое государство – российские спецслужбы еще с 2008 года имеют полное законное право прослушивать телефонные разговоры и читать электронную почту, всем это известно и разоблачать нечего…

Yesterday I learned that you have managed to gain temporary asylum in Russia. Congratulations on behalf of progressive people everywhere. At last, you are safe. Here in Russia no one would dream of harassing you for exposing the security services when they listen to telephone conversations and read others letters without a warrant. Russia, thank God, is a law-abiding state and ever since 2008 our security services have had a legal right to listen to whatever people are talking about on the phone and to read their e-mails. Everyone is aware of this, and there is nothing to expose…

Dobrokhotov ended the letter with a few sardonic pieces of advice:

[...] не нарушай правила дорожного движения пока не станешь депутатом, не трать деньги на покупку квартиры (просто познакомься с Рамзаном Кадыровым), учись играть в бадминтон, а если предложат выдвигаться в мэры Москвы – не соглашайся, это разводка!

[...] don't break any traffic laws until you become an MP, don't waste money buying a flat (just become friendly with Ramzan Kadyrov [en]), learn to play badminton [en] and if someone offers to run for Mayor of Moscow — do not agree, it’s a trap!

Snowden's future in is uncertain. He is a guest of the Russian state and will almost certainly be expected not to abuse that hospitality by making statements critical of the Russian government. His status is temporary and will presumably be up for review when it expires, and it is unclear if he will be able to leave Russia in the meantime to travel to one of the other countries that have offered him asylum. If he wishes to avoid a long prison sentence back home, Snowden will have to maintain a low profile and hope that a diplomatic thaw between US and Russia doesn't lead to an extradition.

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