On tracking the ghost of the NSA leaker to Havana: a story by Anna Nemtsova

It was a fiction that we all mistook for reality. All last week, every nonstop Moscow-Havana flight had at least some reporters on it, hoping that theirs was the golden ticket, that National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden would be on board the flight as well. I was on the Monday flight. It was the only one that Snowden also had a ticket for.

This is what it is like to be on a flight like this: first, there are the dreams. You see yourself on the verge of an old-school journalistic caper, like something from Hemingway or Graham Green. An infamous dissident, a dealer in secrets, is headed for hiding in the southern hemisphere, with the world’s most powerful country on his trail, and you might score a mid-air interview.

Yes, there are dozens of other journalists on board. But it is a 12-hour flight, and there would be enough to go around.

What an opportunity for Snowden, too, to appeal to the entire world on the way to Havana. Writers, producers, photographers and cameramen from NBC, ABC, CNN, AP, AFP and a dozen other TV crews, news agencies and publications from Europe to Asia were eager to ask him why he decided to quit his comfortable, wealthy life with a beautiful girlfriend in Hawaii and throw himself together with his four laptops into the arms of fate and Russian special services agents.

You really think it’s going to happen like that. Earlier that day, a woman at the Aeroflot desk told you that Mr. Snowden was actually going to board the plane. “Oh yes, Edward Snowden and Sarah Harrison have been registered for a window and middle seat in row 17.” The airline assistant even showed the two passengers’ registrations. Police surrounded the waiting area at the Gate #28. More security and airport personnel were sitting inside the waiting area, watching the crowd of mostly reporters with stony faces. All of these seem like good omens to you.

It’s like a concert that is just about to start, the crowd just waiting for the main act to take the stage.

Boarding continues. You take your seat and begin looking around. Snowden is not on board. Yet. Dozens of journalists are here now, craning their necks, looking toward the front of the plane. It’s like a concert that is just about to start, the crowd just waiting for the main act to take the stage.

But then, nothing happens. No star takes the stage, and the plane doesn’t move an inch at its regularly scheduled departure time. You and the other journalists are getting nervous. “Please let us know if Mr. Snowden is definitely traveling on this plane,” journalists repeatedly pleaded with the Aeroflot crew. Everyone is jittery about the thousands of dollars in editorial travel money about to go up in smoke. “We cannot afford to fly to Havana in vain without doing our actual job.”

But neither the crew nor the policeman have any clear idea except that four passengers were still expected to board the plane.

Minutes before the end of boarding, you notice two policemen with clubs standing on the tarmac outside. Another police officer comes inside the plane to inspect the cabin and report to somebody on the phone what he sees. Some strange minibus with dark windows pulls up outside the plane: “He must be coming,” you say on the phone to your editors.

But a few moments later, men in yellow vests talk quietly with the crew. You overhear this: “Four passengers held at the airport border control, they are not coming,” one of them says. Next thing we knew, the plane is rolling.

The main act is a no-show.

A few journalists walk the aisles in a state of denial, peering at passengers.

A few ordinary passengers feel relief. “I am glad that the spy is not on our plane, I was worried that CIA would ground our plane somewhere in America,” Irina, a woman in front of me, says.

But this is not good for you or the other journalists. On a flight like this, you don’t even have the satisfaction of a quick, complete letdown: for hours after the Airbus takes off, a few journalists are still hoping Snowden is somewhere among us, in a wig perhaps, in a woman’s dress, hidden in the luggage compartment, or in the cockpit. A few journalists walk the aisles in a state of denial, peering at passengers.

A good friend, the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Alexander Zemlianichenko, passes by your seat several times, studying passengers with his sharp photographer’s eyes. “This is the first time in my entire career that I fly so far for no story,” Zemlianichenko tells you. It was the first time for you too, and it feels very strange. You wonder why the Russian airline, Aeroflot, does not provide the journalists with more information, to allow them a chance to get off the plane before it took off; the crew just claims they had no clue.

There is another serious realization now: because of repeat episodes of problem drinking over the years, Aeroflot has banned alcohol on some routes both domestic and international. Moscow-Havana, a flight in which pleasure-seekers are sorely tempted to start the rum-party early, is one of those routes. There will be no alcohol on this flight. Twelve hours. Dozens of journalists. No alcohol. This may be unprecedented in the history of our business.

About midway through the flight, with nothing else to do, you sit in Snowden’s window seat at 17A, getting a good feel for the upholstery that could have touched the pants of the world’s most famous whistleblower. But other journalists start grumbling. They need to at least take pictures of the empty seat.

It was a lifelong dream of mine to see Cuba.

So that is what that kind of flight is like. But for me, there was a note of redemption to all of this.

It was a lifelong dream of mine to see Cuba. And though I could not possibly have imagined a stranger way to make it to Cuba, I was grateful to Snowden’s empty seat and my editors who trusted me with the trip, because I finally got to see Old Havana. Not all my colleagues were so lucky—those that didn’t have permits to enter Cuba had to wait at the airport, Snowden-esque, and then return immediately to Moscow.

But two good friends, who were also Snowden hunters, and I managed to spend a few days in the city. I marveled at the view of el Morro castle from a room at Ambos Mundos hotel, where Ernest Hemingway spent seven years working on his books from 1932 to 1939. At night, we talked and danced with veteran Cuban singers and musicians who were part of the Buena Vista Social Club tribute band. For decades they had been condemned to living in falling-apart houses without running water, reading the same stories in the same Granma newspaper. For decades of revolution, some of them never saw the “white card,” an authorization to leave Cuba and travel abroad. But their music and the optimism that flows through it are universal.

On our last day in Havana, we walked our guide and translator, Clem, an impressively knowledgeable historian and anthropologist, to the German embassy. He wanted to inquire about a visa in order to travel to Europe for the first time in his life. He was not one of thousands of young Cubans dreaming of escape from the island and never coming back; his genuine plan was to see the world and return home, as he could not miss the beginning of the new, better times, he said. But the diplomats did not believe that somebody with less than $50 in (official) monthly salary could afford a tourist trip, and did not grant him the visa.

And so, who could regret a trip, even one that started with a fiction, across the world? When I landed back in Sheremetyevo Airport, Snowden was still stuck there somewhere in its locked rooms, and I remained free.