Dear Edward Snowden,
Welcome to Moscow!
Well, almost. I know you’re itching to get on a plane for somewhere southern – who wouldn’t be after more than a month in Sheremetyevo airport? But you’re also hoping for a sizeable stopover in Russia’s spectacular capital once the creaky bureaucratic wheels start turning at the immigration office.
It’s hard enough for them to crank out the daily quota of visas, let alone papers for a man without a passport – and with the CIA, NSA and the whole alphabet soup crowd breathing down his metaphorical neck.
Not to worry. Your lawyer told the Guardian that a decision is due “within three months.” So you’ll have lots of time to brush up on Russian and finish that dreary novel. But one day you’ll be out of the tedious transit area and on your way to the big city.
Here’s a tour you could take, just to get to know the place.
1. Lubyanka Square: conveniently situated in the steely heart of Moscow, the former KGB (now FSB) headquarters has housed heaps of dissidents who were “persuaded” to confess the error of their ways. The square has three buildings. Avoid the yellow one, which is the prison.
2. KGB Museum: right next door. Gateway to an irresistibly ugly past, where no trick is too dirty to play on an enemy of the state: a razor-edged sword stick masquerading as a harmless cane. Or a rope garotte that “kills in four seconds in the hands of a competent professional.” If you’re offered a tour, no worry. As my guide told me, “the same number of you will leave as came in here.”
3. Novaya Gazeta: Moscow’s bastion of muckraking journalism, and it’s paid the price in empty chairs. You won’t meet staffers Igor Domnikov, battered to death in 2000; Yuri Shchekochikhin, dead from a sudden “allergy” in 2003; Anastasia Baburova, shot with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in 2009 or Anna Politkovskaya, trailblazing critic of the Kremlin’s Chechnya policy, gunned down in 2006.
4. Matrosskaya Tishina: a bit out of the way in north Moscow, but worth a look. It’s the jail where whistle blowing auditor Sergei Magnitsky was found dead from “natural causes” – i.e. beaten to death, according to a Kremlin-launched report – after exposing an alleged tax fraud that was the biggest in Russian history, and linked with some of the country’s senior officials.
5. Cathedral of Christ the Savior: the Russian Orthodox church’s flagship in central Moscow, and scene of a brief, flamboyant satire by the Pussy Riot performance art group. Official reviews were bad. Members of the group are still serving time in labour camps. No absolution there.
6. State Duma: ready to relax with a cup of tea? The Russian parliament is handily located. But best to look out for deputy Andrei Lugovoi in the caf. He’s the chief suspect in the agonizing London polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a bitterly outspoken critic of the Kremlin. Lugovoi and the Kremlin scoff at the charges, insisting there’s “not a shred” of evidence to support them. But just saying.
Olivia Ward was Moscow bureau chief and correspondent in the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002. She’s still a recovering Muscovite.