US fugitive Edward Snowden seems assured of a warm welcome in Russia and may even achieve celebrity status in his new home, but history suggests he will no longer be master of his fate and a Moscow exile will bring challenges.
The former US spy agency contractor finally left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Thursday after spending nearly six weeks confined to its transit zone while a diplomatic battle over his future raged between Russia and the US.
Snowden, sought by Washington on espionage charges for leaking details of Internet and telephone surveillance programs, now embarks on his new life armed with an asylum document that is valid for a year and can be renewed annually.
Former Russian intelligence officers said things will not be easy for Snowden if the legacy of earlier defections is any guide.
“Precedents show us that life is hard for defectors from their countries,” said Lev Korolkov, a former KGB officer.
“They experience a huge internal stress that can last for a very long time, sometimes for the rest of their lives — even for those who stayed, such as Kim Philby,” he said, referring to the Briton who spied for the Soviet Union during and after World War II.
“He [Snowden] was free only as long as he was in the transit zone,” Korolkov said.
Snowden is not the first employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA) to defect to Moscow.
NSA cryptologists William Martin and Bernon Mitchell defected to the Soviet Union during the Cold War in 1960 because of disenchantment with US intelligence gathering methods.
The pair denounced Washington for spying on its own allies — charges echoed by Snowden half a century later.
However, Martin later called his choice foolhardy as he became disillusioned with life in the Soviet Union and the relevance of their revelations quickly faded.
Other precedents are hardly more encouraging.
Philby lived under virtual house arrest after his defection, drank heavily and suffered from loneliness and depression.
Fellow double agent and comrade Guy Burgess also became heavily dependent on alcohol and, despite defecting, continued ordering clothes from London.
Of the high-profile British defectors, only George Blake seems to have done well in exile. He married a Russian, is still alive at 90 and was awarded a medal by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year.
The Cold War is long over, but some things do not change. Snowden is a useful propaganda tool for the Kremlin, which often accuses Washington of preaching on human rights abroad what it fails to practice at home.
“He no longer belongs to himself. He is a political personality and a pawn,” said Anna Kachkayeva, a prominent media expert. “He is like a ticking time-bomb. Maybe they will save him up for something and put him on television — or maybe not.”