If you missed Part I of my groundbreaking series, “Edward Snowden: Like, Where the Hell is He?” (see Oct. 16 issue), you have some serious catching up to do. In summary, I spent the better part of a week in St. Petersburg, Russia, bumbling around in a vain search for the greatest threat to U.S. security since Dennis Rodman, only to be tipped off that Snowden was in Moscow.
A popular Russian catchphrase best summed up my frustration: “The watery beet soup stands forgotten in the bowl as the peasant stolidly tills the soil against the harsh lash of Arctic wind, his labors unnoticed by all but the cabbage-seller with his cart of brown cabbages and Ludmilla the Sturgeon Monger who only last month. . . ” Damn. I forgot the punch line. But getting back to the manhunt. I had come to Russia ostensibly for pleasure at the invitation of two West Coast friends, C.P. Smith, an ex-boss of mine in Orange County, Calif., and his wife, Sherry Stern, a Los Angeles Times editor. It was shaping up as a dream vacation until everybody’s favorite CIA leaker found refuge in Russia. Just like that, I was kneedeep in international expectations. “Are you going to find Snowden?” people in Central New York pestered me.
After striking out in St. Petersburg, my Russian bullet train arrived in Moscow on the evening of Oct. 2. My fellow travelers and I were greeted at the platform by Sergei Loiko, the Los Angeles Times’ Moscow correspondent. En route to his apartment, Sergei revealed that he is friends with Snowden’s attorney and spokesman, Anatoly Kucherena. Kucherena had been quoted recently saying Snowden is walking the streets of Moscow in disguise and learning Russian. (Me, not so much.)
“He will have a miserable life,” Sergei pronounced.
Sergei, we soon learned, is just like an American citizen in that he, too, has had a screenplay rejected by Hollywood. The fatal flaw in his script was that the reallife hero was a Muslim, a deal-breaker after 9/11. But I hadn’t come this far to talk movies. Would Sergei take me to Snowden? No. For all the incredible generosity he would show us in Moscow, Sergei proved unwilling to assist a journalist from one of the LA Times’ oldest and most feared rivals, the Syracuse New Times. If I was going to land Snowden, I’d have to do it on my own.
* * * * * Moscow, it turns out, is a very large and impersonal city with an impressive amount of sidewalk spittle. I asked almost everyone I met if they knew where Snowden was, and the answer was always, “No.”
At a subway station we encountered another American journalist, Craig Mellow, a business writer based in Moscow.
He suggested I look for Snowden at the notorious Lubyanka prison, but when I arrived there it was undergoing a massive remodeling. Looking up at the scaffolding and contemplating the horrors within brought to mind a joke Sergei shared with us:
Why is the Lubyanka the tallest building in Russia?
Because you can see Siberia from the basement.
Funny, funny stuff. America, of course, has its own dark corners, including the recent beat-down the Clemson football team gave the Syracuse Orange in the Carrier Dome earlier this month. But the fear and loathing that pervades Russia was getting to me. Was Melo really who he claimed to be, or was he a Putin plant trying to throw me off the trail? What about Sergei, for that matter?
I was further unsettled by the possibility that Snowden would be unrecognizable due to a disguise. At the Bolshoi Theatre, I posed for a photo with Natalia Makarova, now in her 70s, one of the greatest ballerinas ever produced by the Soviet Union. But was this tiny wisp of a woman really Natalia or a surgically altered Snowden? Small indignities began to accumulate. Each by itself was of no consequence, but taken together they pointed to a clear pattern of harassment of a journalist getting too close to the truth. My credit card was inexplicably rejected at a market. A subway turnstile delivered a punitive jab to my thigh. I was bumped by a “blind” man. At a restaurant in the Arbat district, my weary friends and I sat down only to have a waitress place a “Reserved” sign on the table and make us wait for another table.
Also, there was an attempt on my life. While trying to board a subway, the door closed much quicker than expected, entrapping my arm. Only through the most violent of exertions did I avoid being dragged to a certain death. On a brighter note, Snickers bars were widely available in Moscow.
But it was during another visit to the Bolshoi Ballet, at a sold-out performance of Don Quixote, that I knew I was no match for Putin and his thugs. As the performance was about to get under way, an usher made me move from my assigned seat near the stage to an auxiliary semi-seat hanging off the end of a row. There was no explanation or apology. At the intermission, I was forced to move again, this time to a free-standing chair that embarrassingly marked me as separate from the general audience.
Here at the historic epicenter of Russian high culture, I was being forced to wear the equivalent of a dunce cap. For good measure the Putin Machine made me relocate once more.
The ballet was amazing as those things go, but I would have traded it all for the human dignity that comes with a bleacher seat at the Jamesville-DeWitt Middle School holiday choral concert. Putin had broken me. A week after I left the country, perhaps the most powerful authoritarian regime of all—the New York Times—interviewed Snowden. What can I say? Next time, I’ll just vacation in the Adirondacks like everyone else.
Yet the trip was not a total waste. I now understand that Snowden has not escaped justice, after all. He’s just stuck in a different kind of prison: Russia. Every time he feels queasy after eating shredded beet salad with mayonnaise, every time an elderly cloakroom attendant scolds him in Russian for not properly tucking his scarf into the armhole of his coat, every time he has to sit through the four-hour opera Boris Godunov, he will know his treason—or heroism if you choose that interpretation—came at a heavy price.
Snowden made a big miscalculation.
He told us—the American people—that our government is spying on us, and he believed we would care. Sorry, Edward, but apparently it’s the right of every government to intimidate its citizens through random surveillance.
Just ask your new landlord.