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I can visualize exactly where Snowden is – the sights, sounds, the hard floors, the airport staff who play passive-aggressive cat-and-mouse “just because” and for bribes. It’s a kind of prison, you can’t leave easily.

I remember when I arrived after taking a flight from Tbilisi on a crowded plane – I had my suitcase in my lap like a giant airbag that came up to my nose – the flight attendant had literally thrown an inflight meal at me. The transit visa office was hidden away. It’s upstairs, an unmarked black door opposite an Aeroflot back office. After finding it and getting a transit visa by outlasting the official’s attempts to shake me down for cash, I was shaken down by the Aeroflot employee who hands out the vouchers for a hotel stay. She tore up my request and left her shift after 4 hours, and then I had to restart, but got it around 10 PM. For this privilege I was loaded onto a prison bus that went a short distance to a hotel where our guard made us go into a special prison section of the hotel. From inside, we could look out a window and see the lobby and free people walking around, having dinner. We could get expensive, dry sandwiches.

Это Россия. Это всегда так.

Some people stay in the transit area inside the airport. Hare Krishnas do that, so do Africans and Indians. They unroll bedrolls on the hard floor, make their meals and airport staff mostly ignore them. They know those people have no money.

There is a restaurant upstairs in the international transit  area. It has a balcony overlooking a couple of boarding gates. It’s a very Russian place. The aircraft entrance security area has draped booths where security guards take passengers for special searches. Diners can look down on them from the top. There is no roof on the booth, so you can watch people being groped by the Russian version of TSA.

I wish I took photos there, but it was never my purpose. There is a large man trap pair of glass doors inside that no-man’s land. I got stuck there once for about 20 minutes along with a growing bolus of other passengers. Security guards went in and out, frowning and snarling at us to not go through when they did. So I watched them tap a code onto a button – a peculiar rhythm. When none of them were around, I tapped the code and we all rushed through, scattering rapidly to far corners of the inner no-man’s land that is international transit.

I can hear the voices, and wonder if Snowden knows Russian. If he doesn’t, it will be so foreign, so hard to understand for a nice young idealist. On the plus side, when they swear at him, he won’t understand the words, although Russians are very good at conveying their feelings with their snarls, shouts and snark. He will see the pettiness, the extremity of passive-aggressiveness, the fear that motivates so many – fear handed down for generations.

He will be famous of course. And perhaps that will help sometimes. But in other ways it will hurt him. Russia has rarely been a place where fame of his sort is a desirable thing. His sort of fame is associated with life in the gulags, but since he is not Russian, and is helping Russia’s interests, that helps him – but few at the level he will speak to will be thinking in those terms.

Most Russians will want to avoid any possibility of getting mud on themselves, avoid calling attention of state security onto their quiet, and well set up lives. Working at the airport is a good job, a privilege in a nation where nightmares of American survivalists have come true in everyone’s recent memory. Families burned heirloom furniture not so long ago to survive the Russian winter.

Русская девушка Сноудена подружитесь. Она из ФСБ будет.

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