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Russia

In Moscow Airport, Hunting For Edward Snowden

How long will Sheremetyevo Airport be Snowden's home?
How long will Sheremetyevo Airport be Snowden's home?
Tonia Mastrobuoni

MOSCOW - Honestly? Stanislav opens his eyes wide. “I swear!” he exclaims, “I gave him water, a glass of water to be precise. He often passes by to go to the smoking area by gate 31.”

That is where the flights for Italy depart. We station ourselves by the smoking area for almost an hour, but the spotty, blonde beard of Edward Snowden is nowhere to be seen. Either he is a just an occasional smoker, or Stanislav was lying. The former computer technician, who has caused President Obama and the entire American intelligence network serious headaches with his revelations of a far-flung surveillance program, has been here in the Sheremetyevo airport for a month.

Maybe he will leave tomorrow, say his lawyers. He should receive permission to leave the transit zone. But the fact remains that no one has managed to speak to him, except for the NGOs who organized a press conference he gave earlier this month.

The only certainty is that the American can only be in three places in the world. Either here, in the terminal where Stanislav is working - terminal D – or in the only other two where he is allowed without a visa or a passport – terminals E and F.

And clearly his presence, or rather, his absence, is generating its fair share of myths and legends. Snowden, in a way, is the opposite of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who spent eight years waiting for a visa in Charles De Gaulle airport and inspired the film “The Terminal.”

The Iranian became a real institution at the Parisian aiport. Here in Moscow airport, Snowden is a ghost.

Groundhog day

But there is no point getting annoyed with Stanislav, who also claims to have heard Snowden say that “he loves Russia.” The waiter is already unfortunate enough to have to don a red and white striped t-shirt complete with a green Tyrolean hat with feathers in it. This outfit is inflicted upon him by his workplace: a punked-up fast food restaurant called “It’s Always Friday.”

There is irony in that restaurant name for a man forced to spend every day here, waiting for a country that may or may not take pity on him. And yet, Stanislav assures us, every so often Snowden eats in another, slightly bigger, branch of “It’s Always Friday” a few gates down. Prodded, a waitress there finally admits that she has in fact seen the American fugitive at a table a few times. But as soon as she catches the eye of a colleague, she clams up -- and we have no option but to move on to a new terminal.

Terminal E, newly built, has clearly adopted a policy against the brutal layout whereby all station and airport seats are separated by cumbersome dividers to prevent people from sleeping comfortably. Instead, wall-to-wall carpeting allows passengers to stretch out and rest while waiting for their flight. Above all, along with a Burger King restaurant and an Irish-style pub, this terminal is the only one that includes a hotel.

First, we set out on a reconnaissance mission among the burgers and pints where everyone nods when we show them the photo of Snowden, but no one seems to have seen him recently. Next, it's time to enter the hotel.

It takes a little while to find the entrance to the V-Express Capsule Hotel, miniscule and camouflaged by a photo of the earth seen from space. To welcome us, there is a young woman with a sensational Doris Day hair-do. Maris explains to us in just three minutes why the whole world is wrong in thinking that Snowden is hiding in the only hotel on the face of the earth where he could be hiding.

Pay by-the-hour

Of the journalists camped outside, she says: “They didn’t speak to me, otherwise I would have told them what I’m telling you now. Snowden has never slept here.”

The reason why is very simple. A room at the Capsule costs between 350 and 420 rubles per hour approximately $10 but the maximum stay is just 23 hours, “and not a minute more,” Maria explains.

Snowden, therefore, cannot be here. And what if the Russian government had intervened to allow him to stay, despite the rules? Maria’s response doesn’t allow for any further objections. “I would have seen him. I work here.” I ask her if the Russian authorities could have hidden him somewhere, maybe in terminal A, which can only be accessed with a special pass and is where, for example, the diplomats go.

“Maybe. He’s definitely not at the Novotel.” The Novotel, also known as ‘The Prison’ by the Russians, is famous for the long stays of passengers waiting for visas. But it is outside the airport.

So there is no option but to look for him in terminal F, which looks a bit like a Blade Runner set with no rain: narrow, full of kiosks and the odd pigeon fluttering about between gates. It is the Soviet wing of the airport, built in 1980 for the arrival of the Olympic Games. Flights to the Far East leave from here and the shops stock absolutely everything: amber, glasses, nostalgic t-shirts with CCCP and Yuri Gagarín, fancy jewelery and even flippers and masks. Even here Edward Snowden hovers like a ghost. “I saw him once,” says a lady selling glasses, “and I only noticed one thing: he is very pale.” That, at least, makes perfect sense.

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