MOSCOW (Reuters) - After nearly six weeks in hiding at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Edward Snowden walked calmly out of the transit area, ducked into a car and was driven away unnoticed.
It was an anti-climactic end to one chapter of a saga watched by the world in which the American, wanted in Washington for leaking details of secret U.S. surveillance programs, stayed out of sight for almost 40 days and nights.
Hardly any pictures of him appeared in that time. One showed the 30-year-old meeting human rights activists at the airport, another showed him about to leave the airport.
But by the time that photograph was shown on Russian state television on Thursday evening, Snowden was long gone.
Many questions remain about the former U.S. spy agency contractor’s time in the transit area, a no-man‘s-land for those with connecting flights who normally stay, at most, a few hours.
But a picture is emerging of a man who had become physically and mentally exhausted, increasingly anxious for some certainty about his future and desperate for something resembling normality after two months on the run.
“During his time there it was very difficult, psychologically difficult, because when someone’s waiting he doesn’t understand what will happen,” his Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told Reuters in an interview.
“His first desire was to gulp the fresh Moscow air.”
Snowden was at first incredulous when Kucherena told him Russia had granted him a year’s temporary asylum, and then delighted. Kucherena said he left the airport with a backpack, a string bag and a sense of relief.
“Imagine yourself daily (having to listen to) ‘Dear passengers, the flight to New York, the flight to Washington, the flight from Rome’,” Kucherena said.
“He needs a period of rehabilitation, or adaptation, because he is very tired and morally exhausted.”
Kucherena, who serves on a board that advises Russia’s FSB security service, a successor of the KGB, is one of the few people who have had direct contact with Snowden since he arrived at Sheremetyevo from Hong Kong on June 23.
The others include Sarah Harrison, a legal researcher for the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group, and a few airport officials. Kucherena said American friends, with whom he said Snowden would now stay, had also visited him at the airport.
Kucherena is giving little away about how Snowden managed to avoid the hordes of reporters who tried for weeks to catch a glimpse of him, but he said he spent at least some of the time at a hotel for transit passengers at Terminal E.
Airport sources said he had slept at least some of the time in the Capsule Hotel, with its grey rooms and sparse, basic but clean interiors. But one added: “He made sure that none of the ordinary people working there saw him.”
Hotel sources said however Snowden and a female companion, thought to be Harrison, had checked out prices soon after his arrival but then left without checking in.
To relieve Snowden’s boredom, Kucherena brought him Russian literature including Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century novel Crime and Punishment, in which the main character is racked by guilt over a crime he has committed - an old woman’s murder.
He also brought Snowden changes of clothes, pizza and a Russian-English dictionary as he prepared for the next stage of his life, learning the Russian for “Hi”, “Bye-bye” and “I’ll give you a call.”
Snowden’s trail went cold as soon as he landed at Sheremetyevo on a flight from Hong Kong, where he had feared he would be arrested after lying low there for two weeks.
Snowden did not come through the usual exit into the transit zone. Other passengers saw cars waiting on the runway and said he must have been whisked away by security officers.
“There were a lot of police and black cars when we were getting off the plane,” said one passenger.
Snowden disappeared into the warren of corridors, rooms, and security zones that make up the transit area between the runway and passport control. He hid so well that the cat-and-mouse game with reporters turned to farce.
“Have you found him yet?” a Russian security officer asked journalists at the airport a few days into the saga. Then he burst into mocking laughter.
Snowden came prepared to spend only one night at the airport but his plans soon started to unravel as a diplomatic battle broke out over his request for political asylum in Ecuador.
There are no direct flights from Moscow to Ecuador so Snowden’s next step would have been to take a flight to Cuba.
Sources at the national carrier, Aeroflot, say he was booked on flight 105 to Havana on June 24, the day after his arrival. He and Harrison checked in over the Internet and then again over a mobile device in the hours leading up to take-off.
But 12 minutes after the already-delayed plane was scheduled to depart, they cancelled their tickets, the sources said. The Airbus A330 took off almost 40 minutes later with a plane full of journalists and Snowden nowhere to be seen.
After that, carts of food were wheeled in and out of special lounges at the airport, and guards blocked a door to a concealed area in the transit zone. Snowden remained out of view.
The conditions were a step down from Hong Kong, where he had stayed at the five-star Mira hotel as he gave details of the NSA’s surveillance work to journalists.
It was not until the second day after Snowden’s arrival at Sheremetyevo that President Vladimir Putin confirmed Snowden’s arrival, which was both a propaganda tool and a headache.
Giving Snowden asylum was certain to anger the United States. Sending him home would help warm up relations with President Barack Obama but open Putin to domestic criticism - polls showed Russians supported giving Snowden asylum.
Putin said the case was something he would have preferred not to have to deal with.
Speculation has been rife that Russian security services “debriefed” Snowden to find out more about the operations of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) he had worked for briefly. Moscow and Kucherena deny this, and say there was no special deal to secure Snowden’s asylum status.
Snowden found himself trapped as the United States revoked his passport and put fierce pressure on other countries not to allow any plane carrying him to use its airspace.
He may have fully understood the seriousness of his plight only after four European allies of the United States on July 2 refused to let a plane taking Bolivian President Evo Morales home from Moscow enter their airspace because they thought Snowden was on board.
Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia offered to shelter Snowden, but he feared his plane would be intercepted en route.
Snowden then summoned human rights activists and lawyers to meet him at Sheremetyevo on July 12, apparently to prepare the way for a temporary asylum request in Russia. People who took part said Snowden looked pale, thin and nervous.
He managed to retain a dry sense of humor. The same day, in response to an email from a Reuters journalist who had spent a lot of time at the airport, he replied: “I, too, have been spending a bit of time in the airport.”
Kucherena said during the meeting he asked Snowden why he had not applied for asylum in Russia. As soon as he took up Snowden’s cause, signs grew that his case would be successful.
Snowden’s father, Lonnie, appeared on Russian television on Wednesday in what may have been a move to prepare Russians for Edward Snowden leaving the airport.
“There is little doubt that this was a dramatic, television preamble to some kind of event,” Anna Kachkayeva, a prominent media expert, said of the interview. She said it was intended to “evoke a sense of sympathy from many people”.
Snowden’s future in Russia is uncertain. His document allows him to work and travel and can be renewed multiple times.
He has received a marriage proposal from former Russian spy Anna Chapman, albeit sent online without meeting him, and a job offer from a Russian social networking site.
Kucherena says he cannot rule out that Snowden might host a television chat show.
“He needs to work. He is not a rich man and the money that he had, he has of course spent on food,” he said. “Of course he understands that he has to work and he has to keep on living.”