How Edward Snowden Divides Russians

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, it placed Russia at the center of what had primarily been an American story. According to a statement issued by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks on June 23, 2013, Snowden was “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”

Moscow-based journalists scrambled to the airport to try to locate Snowden, while the presence of cars with Ecuadorian diplomatic plates at the airport touched off rumors that Snowden's ultimate destination was Ecuador. Though Snowden was booked on two Aeroflot flights, he failed to materialize on either of them (stranding a number of hopeful journalists who had purchased tickets on an 11 hour flight to Havana).

"Edward Snowden Found." Photo mashup by Rob Tom, 26 June 2013, CC 2.0.

“Edward Snowden Found.” Photo mashup by Rob Tom, 26 June 2013, CC 2.0.

Snowden has not been sighted in Sheremetyevo since he arrived, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims he is still in the transit zone there and has thus “not crossed the Russian border” [ru]. Snowden has made numerous applications for asylum, but has so far been rebuffed or ignored by most countries. President Vladimir Putin has offered to give asylum to Snowden on the condition that he stop revealing American secrets, but Snowden refused to comply with this condition. His situation is complicated by the fact that his passport has been revoked by the Americans who consider him a fugitive and have charged him with espionage.

Snowden has been a highly controversial figure in America since the leaks. Some believe he is a whistleblower to be lauded, while others consider him a traitor who has endangered civilians. For Russians, his prolonged stay in Sheremetyevo (he remains there as of July 4, 2013) has turned the question of what should be done with him from academic to practical, as his fate now rests largely in Russia's hands.

Some Pro-Kremlin commentators saw Snowden's treatment as indicative of American hypocrisy. The blogger Kristina Potupchik [ru], former press-secretary of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, was particularly damning [ru]:

США заочно предъявили Сноудену обвинение в хищении государственной собственности, раскрытии данных о национальной обороне и умышленной передаче секретной информации посторонним лицам. Он также был заочно лишен американского гражданства. Демократия? Свобода? “Права человека”? “Служить и защищать”? Не, не слышали. Несмотря на очевидное несоответствие официальной позиции США с данными, раскрытыми Сноуденом, штаты решили объявить его преступником национального масштаба, хотя тот, фактически, наоборот раскрыл гражданам реальные угрозы, которые ждут их по милости собственного правительства.

The US has accused Snowden in absentia of stealing of government property, revealing information about national defense, and the willfully transmitting secret information to third parties. He was also stripped of his American citizenship in absentia. Democracy? Freedom? “Human rights”? “Protect and serve”? No, they've never heard of them. Despite the obvious fact that the official position of the US doesn't agree with the facts uncovered by Snowden, the US has labeled him a criminal on a national scale, despite the fact that, really, he has revealed to citizens the real threats they face at the mercy of their own government.

Not every pro-Putin figure took this view. Aleksei Filatov, security expert and vice president of the International Association of Veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Alpha Group, thought returning Snowden to America could be a boon to Russian-US relations and would “force the US to take a look at itself in the mirror” [ru] and reconsider its relations with Russia. A former member of the security services, Filatov took a dim view of Snowden's professional ethics:

C профессиональной точки зрения Сноуден никакой не правозащитник. Это человек, который сознательно выбрал себе профессию, давал подписку о неразглашении служебной тайны, получал за ее соблюдение деньги, но в конечном итоге предал и свою страну, и свою профессию.

From a professional point of view, Snowden is no human rights defender. This man, who willingly chose his profession, signed a non-disclosure agreement and recieved payment, but ultimately betrayed both his country and his profession.

Edward Snowden - Human Rights Defender or Traitor? (Screenshot from

Edward Snowden – Human Rights Defender or Traitor?
(Screenshot from

Ironically, this view was shared by anti-Putin activist Akram Makhmutov, who took to Facebook [ru] to voice his frustration at Snowden's perceived collaboration with less-than-savory regimes:

Это Сноуден, ну уж и “борец за права человека”, блин. Одно непонятно, отчего за эти права он вздумал бороться с помощью режимов, в которых эти права и не ночевали (Китай, Россия, Эквадор, Куба). Такое поведение есть признак гуманитарной недоразвитости и отсутствия убеждений. Нет, не правозащитник он, а типичный предатель.

I'll be danmed if this Snowden is a “crusador for human rights.” One thing I don't get is why he decided to fight for these rights with the help of regimes (China, Russia, Ecuador, Cuba) where these rights are nowhere to be found. Such behavior is a sign of a poorly developed sense of humanitarianism and a lack of conviction. No, he's no human rights defender, but just a typical traitor.

Oleg Kozyrev disagreed. While the authorities’ support for Snowden was hypocritical, given their own human rights record, he argued [ru] that  Snowden still deserved to be protected:

Мне не ясно, почему за Эдварда Сноудена не вступились ведущие российские правозащитные организации. Я лично считаю, что сегодня в мире должны быть защищены права не только гражданских лиц, вскрывающих преступления правительств, но должны быть защищены и военные и работники спецслужб. Если военный или работник спецслужб сталкивается с очевидным нарушением базовых прав человека, я бы хотел, чтобы такие люди, не боясь, могли открыто выступать, и быть защищенными и законами своих стран и законами международными.

I don't understand why the leading Russian human rights organizations have not come out in favor of Edward Snowden. I personally think that in today's world, the military and intelligence workers who uncover government crimes should be defended as much as civilians. If a military or intelligence worker comes across an obvious violation of basic human rights, I would want that person to be able, unafraid, to come out openly, and be protected by the laws of their own country and by international laws.

Some people saw the black humor in Snowden's kafkaesque sojourn in “the neutral zone.” One Twitter post [ru] by user yasvidirov received over 140 retweets:

“Зато теперь я мэр Шереметьево,” – подбадривал себя Сноуден, чекинясь в сотый раз.

“Well, now I'm the [foursquare] mayor of Sheremetyevo [airport],” Snowden consoled himself, checking in for the hundredth time.

Other users have simply lost patience with the story, which has been developing for over a week and a half. Fashion model Tanya Stychinskaya, for instance, recently tweeted [ru]:

От фамилии Сноуден уже тошнит

I'm already sick of hearing Snowden's name

In Russia, as in his native country, Snowden is a divisive figure, bringing to the fore the intrinsic conflict between the need for government openness, the individual's right to privacy, and the need for security services to carry out certain work in secret. In the debate over Snowden's character and his ultimate fate, most RuNet users seem to have glossed over the details of what the programs he uncovered actually entail. And perhaps most surprisingly, few have noted the similarity of these details to Russia's own monitoring program, SORM, which (unlike PRISM) is no state secret.


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