7 Things Edward Snowden Should Do in Russia

  • Share
  • Read Later
WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

Central Buddhist temple in Kalmykia, Russia.

A year is barely enough time to study a country as strange and enormous as Russia. So Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower who was granted a year of asylum in Russia on July 31, will have to make good use of it if, as his lawyer claims, he wants to “study Russian culture” and travel its nine time zones. So far, there is no clear information on where he would be living or how far he’d actually be allowed to travel. But in case he’s able to take in some sights, TIME compiled a list of seven things he should definitely put on his calendar.

Visit the Duma: Considering the fan club Snowden has developed inside Russia’s parliament – one lawmaker has pledged to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize – it would be rude not to swing by for a visit. In the gift shop on the first floor, he could pick up a token of gratitude, such as a selection of hollowed out books where a parliamentarian might hide his, um, candy, or a nice big rubber stamp. The Duma’s cafeteria, which one whimsical patron once dubbed “the colon of liberty,” also happens to offer the cheapest meal you can find in Moscow outside of a soup kitchen. The prices haven’t changed much since perestroika, so for about 100 rubles ($3.25) Snowden could enjoy a bowl of borsht, a beet-prune-and-mayonnaise salad and a patty of don’t-ask meat fried in sunflower oil. The cheap meal wouldn’t hurt if Snowden is really having money troubles: His pro bono Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said on Thursday that the whistle-blower “really doesn’t have that much money, but so far he’s got enough money to eat.” At the Duma’s borsht bar, definitely.

Work at Russia’s version of Facebook: If Snowden gets sick of the Duma grub, he may need to start making ends meet in Russia’s insanely overpriced capital, where a cup of coffee can easily set you back $12. Luckily, the popular social networking site Vkontakte, or VK, offered him a job at its headquarters in St. Petersburg the same day he got his asylum papers. “I think Edward might find it interesting to try and protect the personal data of our millions of users,” the company’s co-founder, Pavel Durov, wrote on his VK page. No doubt the CIA-trained geek would be a useful addition to the team. The only drawback is that he won’t get to make friends with Durov any time soon. Russia’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg fled the country in April after cops raided his headquarters on the grounds that he allegedly hit a traffic policeman with his car. Durov, who denies the accusations, is now rumored to be hiding out in the U.S. and – you guessed it – considering a request for political asylum. The notion of him and Snowden potentially switching places sounds like the start of a bad Russian joke.

Hang out with Russia’s second most famous refugee: When it emerged on June 16 that Russian asylum would allow Snowden to travel freely about the country, Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was the first to tweet: “A roadshow with Depardieu?” Imagine the possibilities. The grizzled French movie star Gerard Depardieu received a Russian passport in February from the hands of President Vladimir Putin himself, leaving his own motherland because of high taxes. Depardieu’s official address is now One Democratic Street in the Russian city of Saransk, a mere 400 miles east of Moscow. That’s in the region of Mordovia, home to an impressive constellation of prison colonies. So when he’s done watching old movies with Depardieu, Snowden could also hop over to Mordovia’s Corrective Labor Camp No. 14 for a visit with one of the founders of the performance art collective Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. She’s about half way through a two-year sentence for hooliganism that she got for singing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral last year. But visiting her might ruffle Putin’s feathers, so Depardieu might just as well hang back in Saransk.

Marry Anna Chapman: The day before Independence Day, which Snowden marked last month in the transit zone of a Moscow airport, the redheaded poster girl of Russian espionage offered him her hand in marriage. “Snowden, will you marry me?!” Anna Chapman tweeted on July 3. Since 2010, when she was kicked out of the U.S. for working as a Russian spy (albeit a pretty clumsy one), Chapman, 31, has become something of a Moscow socialite. I saw her recently on the rooftop terrace of a bar, nursing an elaborate cocktail, and just this week my friend spotted her at a cafe in the company of two men with buzz cuts. So even if Snowden wants to stay loyal to his girlfriend in Hawaii, going out in Moscow presents a significant risk of a random encounter with Chapman. Resistance would then be futile.

Escape to the banya when the mercury falls: Having grown up in North Carolina and lived in Hawaii before he fled the U.S. in May, Snowden likely has no idea what awaits him with the onset of the Russian winter. He will need, for instance, to learn the concept of “ice rain” – an ugly work of nature that covers everything in sheets of ice and, at the slightest thaw, begins to slide off the rooftops like giant, flying razor blades. Somehow, after a millennium spent dealing with horrendous weather, the nation that launched the first man into space has yet to resolve some pretty basic winter issues, such as how to clear sidewalks of ice. One helpful refuge would be Sanduny, a traditional Moscow banya, or bathhouse, where Snowden should ask to be beaten with birch branches in a room roughly as hot as the air above a blacksmith’s forge. However temporary, this will be the only way to suck the winter from his bones. (Vodka would also help.)

Visit Kalmykia: According to the New York Times, Snowden listed his religion as Buddhism after working at a U.S. military base in Japan. He may therefore want to consider a pilgrimage to Kalmykia, a bastion of Buddhism in southern Russia and its unofficial capital of chess. The man who ruled it for 17 years until 2010, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, claimed for nearly all his time in power that he had been kidnapped by aliens in 1995 and taken on an edifying tour of the galaxy. He still lives like a retired sovereign in Kalmykia, and considering the friendships he had with the enemies of the U.S. government – Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi among them – I’m sure he would gladly give Snowden a tour of his Chess Palace, inside Chess City, which he built on the outskirts of his capital, Elista.

Have a carafe of fire water at the Sword and the Shield: If Snowden gets nostalgic for the company of spooks, he can always swing by their old haunt in Moscow, the Sword and Shield, just up the block from the KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. Complete with a bronze statue of Iron Felix, the sociopathic founder of Stalin’s secret police, in the main dining hall, this place has a menu full of what one might call totalitarian kitsch, such as “Red Terror Chicken.” But the Chekist décor is so over-the-top that it mainly attracts tourists and retired spies looking for a taste of the past. A more authentic experience can be found at GlavPivTorg, the beer hall that lies caddy-corner from the KGB building. Back in 1939, the foreign ministers of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the secret treaty that divided Eastern Europe between them, on what is now the second floor of GlavPivTorg. Today it is peopled most evenings by the men who trickle in after work from Lyubyanka Square. For the honor of having lunch with a former CIA employee like Snowden, they would probably even pick up the tab.