MOSCOW — If Edward Snowden has time on his hands, stuck as he is in Sheremetyevo Aiport’s transit zone, he might want to seize the opportunity to read up on the history of American asylum-seekers in Russia.
Those who have — such as Washington journalist and author Peter Savodnik — come up with a litany of disenchantment, which could prove meaningful for Snowden. The former National Security Agency contractor applied for temporary asylum here earlier this week.
“If history is any indication,” Savodnik said in a telephone interview, “he can expect purgatory on Earth if he stays in Russia. They’ll send him to a remote place, with no real society or life, somewhere far away from Moscow.”
The past reveals a rogue’s gallery of failed romantics who thought they would find a better world here. Most met unhappy ends. Take Big Bill Haywood, who, like Snowden, was charged under the federal Espionage Act of 1917. Haywood, a radical labor leader, was found guilty of violating the act after calling a strike in 1918 during wartime. He served about a year in prison and, while out on appeal, decamped to Moscow.
Haywood married a Russian but never learned the language — the couple talked by hand gestures. Eventually, he said he wanted to return home, but in 1928, at the age of 59, he died of alcoholism and diabetes. Half of his ashes were buried along the Kremlin wall and the other half were sent to Chicago, where he had helped found the Industrial Workers of the World.
Savodnik has a book coming out in November, “The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union,” about the most notorious U.S. defector, who went off to Moscow in 1959 with misplaced hopes of a glorious life in the worker’s paradise of the then-Soviet Union. He was given work in an electronics factory in dreary Minsk, where the bright future eluded him. He returned home in 1962, assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and two days later was killed by Jack Ruby.
In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, David Barrett, a Villanova University political science professor, described how two National Security Agency employees foreshadowed Snowden — in 1960.
William Martin, 29, and Bernon Mitchell, 31, said they were going on vacation (Snowden told his boss he had to get medical treatment) and turned up as defectors in Moscow, where they announced that the United States was spying on countries all over the world. It was the biggest violation of national security ever. Sound familiar?
“They went on to lead long, unhappy lives in the Soviet Union,” Barrett wrote.
Even though Russia has never been a beacon of democracy or free speech, that hasn’t stopped defectors, Savodnik said.
Joseph Dutkanicz, an American soldier stationed in West Germany, was recruited by the KGB in 1958 and defected in 1960. He worked in a TV factory in Lvov in western Ukraine, living under constant surveillance by the KGB and complaining that the officers were trying to drive him mad. He asked to return home but died, reportedly drunk, in 1963.
Glenn Souther, a Navy photo analyst, defected in 1986 and killed himself in 1989 at the age of 32 in Moscow, hailed as a master spy.
Robert Webster, who went to Moscow in 1959 to set up an exhibit for a plastics company at a trade fair, fell for a hostess at the Ukraine Hotel restaurant. The woman was thought to be a KGB agent.
Webster was given a job in Leningrad but eventually yearned for home and returned in 1962 — as an alien allowed in as part of a Russian quota, according to “The Defector Study,” a report prepared for Congress in 1979.
History has yet to decide how it will treat Snowden.
Savodnik predicts that if he stays, he’ll be hustled out of Moscow, sent to an out-of-the-way city and given an apartment in a khrushchevka — one of the now-crumbling five-story buildings hurriedly put up during the era of Premier Nikita Khrushchev more than half a century ago.
“From the Kremlin’s point of view, Snowden has already served his purpose,” Savodnik said. “He embarrassed the White House. If he had any data to share, they would have obtained it by now. At this point, if you’re [President] Vladimir Putin, you want Snowden to disappear.”
No doubt he would be given work, but the Russians wouldn’t trust him near anything sensitive, Savodnik said. The young man who might have thought he was changing the world can now expect to be a welder, or a janitor.
“It’s a life somewhere in provincial Russia, far away from everything you may consider stimulating,” Savodnik said. “It’s not a very happy existence.”
So, yes, they’ll probably give him asylum, but they’ll make it as unpleasant as possible, he said. “And eventually he’ll turn up at the U.S. Embassy begging to go back home.”
One of the most recent American asylum-seekers is John Robles, who declined a request to discuss life in Russia but has told his story through postings on his website and on Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook.
Robles, now 47, had been teaching English in Moscow and applied for a new U.S. passport in 2007. Instead, he has written, it was revoked because he was accused of owing child support in California. The revocation of his passport, he said, made him stateless and prompted his asylum request. He said the accusations against him were untrue and that his children were with him, supported by him.
More recently, Robles has been a presenter and interviewer on Voice of Russia radio.
Though he criticizes the United States, Robles makes no public complaints about Russia. He lives in an apparently typical Moscow apartment. Recently he wrote that the hot water had returned — the city shuts it off every summer for two to four weeks to clean the pipes — and celebrated its presence with a photo of rusty water emerging from his kitchen faucet.
Not long before that, he was asking the eternal question here: Will the winter ever end?