American defectors: life for Edward Snowden in Russia

Now that Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia (I suspect they mostly just wanted him gone from the airport.), it is not so certain he will have an easy life.  No matter how terrible you think surveillance is in the United States, I can guarantee that it is worse there.  And he likely has nothing more to trade to get better treatment.  NPR ran this story a few days ago.

If NSA leaker Edward Snowden is allowed to leave the Moscow airport and enter Russia, as some news reports suggest, he’ll join a fairly small group of Americans who have sought refuge there.

So how did it work out for the others?

In short, not so well. Some became disillusioned and left, like Lee Harvey Oswald. Others were sent to Josef Stalin’s gulags, where they served long sentences or were executed. Some lived out their days in an alcoholic haze.

“There’s little evidence from historical records that [Snowden] has anything good to look forward to,” says Peter Savodnik, a journalist and author of the upcoming book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. “Essentially, nobody from the U.S. who has defected to Russia has gone on to think that’s a smart decision.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, hundreds of American leftists moved to what was then the Soviet Union, motivated by a desire to build socialism.

Alexander Gelver of Oshkosh, Wis., was taken there by his parents. But when the 24-year-old wanted to return to the U.S., he was stopped by Soviet police outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He was arrested and disappeared. Only in the 1990s did his fate become clear: He was executed in 1938, one of Stalin’s many victims.

The Associated Press documented the case of Gelver and 14 other Americans who disappeared in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ’40s. All were either imprisoned or executed. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other Americans, met a similar fate during the rule of Stalin, who suspected that foreigners were spies.

A famous case in the Cold War era has parallels to Snowden. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, cryptologists at the NSA, defected in 1960. But they came to regret their decision and became alcoholics. Martin died in Mexico in 1987. Mitchell died in Russia in 2001.

One defector who did return was Oswald. He left for the Soviet Union in 1959, returned to the U.S. three years later, and became infamous as the assassin of President Kennedy in 1963.

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker seen here in a photo taken in July, has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. Thursday, he left Moscow's airport for the first time in more than a month.

Let’s hope that Snowden has better luck.  It will be tough not knowing many people and not speaking Russian.  Personally, I don’t think he made a good choice or got good advice.  I have never understood why he couldn’t go directly from Hong Kong to South American someplace.

Photograph:  Tatyana Lokshina/AP

5 thoughts on “American defectors: life for Edward Snowden in Russia

  1. There’s not a chance that Snowden will be executed nowadays. As a Russian citizen, he’ll even be able to travel to other countries – which was a luxury not available to Soviet Union citizens. It’s more likely that the Russians will use him to get as much info on NSA, while Snowden will be looking for a nicer place to live.

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