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For American Defectors To Russia, An Unhappy History

If NSA leaker Edward Snowden is allowed to leave the Moscow airport and enter Russia, as some news reports suggest, he'll join a fairly small group of Americans who have sought refuge there.

So how did it work out for the others?

In short, not so well. Some became disillusioned and left, like Lee Harvey Oswald. Others were sent to Josef Stalin's gulags, where they served long sentences or were executed. Some lived out their days in an alcoholic haze.

"There's little evidence from historical records that [Snowden] has anything good to look forward to," says Peter Savodnik, a journalist and author of the upcoming book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. "Essentially, nobody from the U.S. who has defected to Russia has gone on to think that's a smart decision."

A Long History

In the 1920s and '30s, hundreds of American leftists moved to what was then the Soviet Union, motivated by a desire to build socialism.

Alexander Gelver of Oshkosh, Wis., was taken there by his parents. But when the 24-year-old wanted to return to the U.S., he was stopped by Soviet police outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He was arrested and disappeared. Only in the 1990s did his fate become clear: He was executed in 1938, one of Stalin's many victims.

The Associated Press documented the case of Gelver and 14 other Americans who disappeared in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and '40s. All were either imprisoned or executed. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other Americans, met a similar fate during the rule of Stalin, who suspected that foreigners were spies.

A famous case in the Cold War era has parallels to Snowden. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, cryptologists at the NSA, defected in 1960. But they came to regret their decision and became alcoholics. Martin died in Mexico in 1987. Mitchell died in Russia in 2001.

One defector who did return was Oswald. He left for the Soviet Union in 1959, returned to the U.S. three years later, and became infamous as the assassin of President Kennedy in 1963.

Valuable To Russia's Intelligence Service

Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and a 35-year veteran of the CIA, says Snowden is exactly the kind of person Russia's intelligence service would be interested in.

"This is an individual with knowledge about a major national security organization [the NSA], one Russia would love to penetrate," Earnest says. "He's a pretty smart guy. With only a GED, he was able to secure employment with the CIA, the NSA and Booz Allen, and with it a high-level security clearance. So he'd be a very useful resource to them."

But Savodnik, the author and journalist, says it's likely Snowden has served his purpose in Russia.

"Whatever value he has to the Kremlin has already been drained," he says. "They'll probably try to marginalize him and send him where he's less likely to make noise or attract the attention of the media or others."

The Snowden story began in May when the NSA contractor boarded a plane in Honolulu and headed to Hong Kong. From there, he went to Moscow, apparently with the intention of heading to a third country. But with the U.S. canceling his passport, Snowden's been stuck at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport since June 23.

The question of where he'll go next has been the subject of intense speculation.

"It's a slow-motion opera," Earnest says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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