Snowden’s Russian Sojourn: A Moral Failure?

Edward Snowden’s flight to freedom is being watched the world over as a contest of wills between one very determined person and the mightiest empire in world history: so far, Snowden is winning. His personal victory, however, may be short-lived, as he runs up against what may be an insuperable wall: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Blocked by the US – which has revoked his passport – from traveling to countries in Latin America which have offered him sanctuary, Snowden is reduced to applying for temporary asylum in Russia, a country not exactly known for its civil libertarian atmosphere. Even before his temporary asylum application, Snowden was being attacked for even going to Russia: Aha! He must be a Russian agent! We were told the Russkies have almost certainly "drained" his laptops (the Chinese, too). In an email to one of his more prominent American supporters, Snowden debunked this canard, which is being pushed by both the Fox News/neocon types and the MSNBC crowd:

"No intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect.  While it has not been reported in the media, one of my specialization[s] was to teach our people at DIA how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments (i.e. China).  

"You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture."

Looks like Putin will have to keep a close watch on the Guardian’s web site in order to get the latest lowdown on America’s global surveillance project, just like the rest of us.

Okay, Snowden’s not a Russian spy, or a Chinese one, either – so, he’s in the clear, right? Well, not exactly: not if you’re a British journalist, that is. Because, you see, in spite of the Guardian’s key – and very admirable – role in reporting this story, the British media is militantly anti-Russian, and viscerally hostile to the Putin regime. This reflects the policies of the British government: although the Brits won’t give political asylum to Snowden, they have provided sanctuary for Russian "dissidents," including Chechen terrorists and thieving oligarchs who fled after stealing as much as they could and hiding it in British banks. I won’t go into the long list of incidents in recent years, but one, the Litvinenko affair, was such an egregious and obviously trumped up campaign of vilification aimed at Russia that I doubt it would’ve been taken seriously by anyone if its target had been any country.

In any case, I suppose it was inevitable that the Guardian newspaper – the paper that broke the Snowden story to begin with – would raise objections to Snowden’s flight to Russia, and Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor at the Observer, the Guardian’s sister paper, has risen to the challenge, writing:

"Perhaps it was no more than being naive, but to list Putin’s Russia, as Snowden did, among his little list of countries for ‘being the first to stand against human rights violations’ suggests a dangerous moral relativism.

"Far from being a champion, Russia’s record on human rights violations is a grim one. Snowden’s meeting with human rights groups in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport was preceded by another piece of human rights news – the posthumous conviction of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured in a Russian prison and denied medical attention that might have saved his life."

Only in the England of 2013 would elementary manners be considered evidence of "a dangerous moral relativism." After all, Snowden is being pursued relentlessly by the most powerful nation on earth: other nations, considerably less powerful, are offering him aid and assistance. Why shouldn’t he thank them?

If you were drowning, and someone jumped in the water to save you, and that someone turned out to be a person whose moral integrity was less than stellar, would you stop him (or her) before being lifted out of harm’s way in order to harangue them with a stern lecture?

Of course you wouldn’t – and shouldn’t. As for this question of "moral relativism": what can Beaumont possibly mean? It isn’t Snowden who’s practicing moral relativism, it’s the Obama administration – and it’s European allies – who hypocritically vaunt their support for "freedom," "transparency," and "civil society," while charging a man who revealed his own government’s secret violation of the Constitution with "espionage" and preventing him from claiming his internationally-recognized right to political asylum. It is Snowden – and the governments of Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua – upholding these rights, and the Americans who are denying them.

Beaumont subjects us to the usual litany of Russia’s alleged sins, from the much-discussed Magnitsky case to the "Pussy Riot" ladies, but all these talking points have one thing in common: extreme murkiness. For example, the Magnitsky case seems to have been a case of simple tax evasion by a British company, which was somehow turned into a narrative about Russian "gangsters" allegedly "stealing" the company Magnitsky worked for, Hermitage Capital Management, and somehow using it to get a tax refund from the Russian government. How this is possible, given that the Russians accuse Hermitage of tax evasion, I’ll leave to the US State Department to explain. It is they, after all, who are enforcing the provisions of the recently passed "Magnitsky Act," and have published a list of Russian officials said to be involved in Magnitsky’s "persecution" who are not allowed to set foot in the United States. And they’re whining that the Russians won’t extradite Snowden!

The Magnitsky narrative is a convoluted, and, ultimately, a not very credible sounding tale, which, even if every jot and tittle of it is true, could easily have happened in the United States, or any Western country. To single out Russia, and this case, as examples of a unique corruption is patently ridiculous, and typical of the sanctimonious hypocrisy that is the leitmotif of Western "liberal" thought.

As for the "Pussy Riot" provocateurs: their very name condemns them, and their tactics limn their title: they go into Russian churches, throw off their clothes, and insult churchgoers, all the while screaming obscenities and political slogans. They have clear connections to the US-supported Russian "opposition," which enjoys close to zero support inside Russia but has a large and loud constituency in the Western media – and among Western government officials. If these ladies aren’t an asset of some Western intelligence agency, then they are certainly auditioning for the part.

Russia today is hardly a libertarian utopia, but for a country that has only recently emerged from the worst dictatorship in modern times – a genocidal regime that murdered millions and imprisoned its entire population in the vast penitentiary that was Soviet Russia – its progress toward an open society has been breathtakingly rapid. In 1980, the Russian gulag was still holding millions: by 1991, the country was in the midst of holding its first presidential election. Russian media are subservient to the political class, and their ownership is intermingled with the interests of the financial and governmental elite – much like our own media, here in the "Free World."

In short, from a historical perspective, Russia is moving in the direction of more freedom. Contrast this with the US and Britain, both of which are moving away from their own liberal political tradition and toward a more authoritarian model.

That, after all, is the main lesson of the Snowden revelations: that the US and its allies have constructed an "architecture of oppression," and they have done it in the dark. Under the guise of "fighting terrorism," they have constructed the foundations of a police state, one capable of tracking our movements, personal affairs, political opinions, financial status, and virtually everything else worth knowing. The architect’s work is finished: all that’s needed to "legalize" this sinister Panopticon is for a few building inspectors from Congress to come around and give the structure a cursory once-over. Having deemed it "democratically" correct and "safe," and after having made a few cosmetic changes, they’ll give the system their stamp of approval – and the two-hundred year old experiment started by the Founders will have ended in failure.

So please spare us any more nonsense about how any and all countries Snowden sets foot in must be held up to some libertarian ideal. If I were a British journalist concerned with government repression, I would focus a lot more on the fact that my own government is arresting and jailing people for "speech crimes" – for tweeting – than I would on the depredations of the Russian state.

But then again, that’s just me….

A final note: I wouldn’t assume the Russians will grant Snowden’s asylum bid: indeed, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Putin got tired of the whole airport show, and decided to hand him over to the Americans in exchange for some favor. In that case, I wonder if those who are now caviling over Snowden’s Russian sojourn will hold the American government to the same high civil libertarian standards they insisted on applying to Snowden. Here, after all, is the leader of the so-called "Free World" employing the assistance of an alleged autocracy in apprehending Snowden and delivering him into the waiting arms of the FBI. Indeed, the reputed "leader" of the "Free World" personally called Putin, and asked for his assistance in returning the famed whistleblower to the US. Oh, but that kind of collaboration with tyrants is just fine and dandy, because …

Ooops! I’ve run out of space! And I’m fifteen minutes past my deadline. Looks like I’ll have to leave that last sentence for my readers to finish in the comments section below.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].