It is unlikely that anyone has ever defected or sought asylum on foreign soil for any reason other than “Where I’m going can’t be worse than where I’ve been.” But try telling that to Edward Snowden, the on-the-lam National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information revealing U.S. surveillance programs and by now is probably wondering if he’s ever getting out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where he’s stuck until the Russians and Americans figure out what to do with him. Snowden would cheerfully accept asylum in Russia, or Ecuador, or 15 other countries he’s selected, because none of those countries, unlike the United States, wants to throw him in jail. The problem with that idea, as a lot of former defectors—and individuals simply seeking asylum—could tell him, is that plain old jail can start looking pretty good after a while.
Kim Philby might have told him so, if Philby ever told anyone the truth about anything. One of the Cambridge Five, a communist spy ring of upper-crust Englishmen that included Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and a possible fifth person never identified, Philby spied for the Russians throughout World War II and for years thereafter. It was Philby, it turned out, who alerted Maclean and Burgess that they should escape to the Soviet Union in 1951. More dreadful, it was Philby who ran covert operations against the Russians out of MI6. In other words, England’s point man in the Cold War was a mole. (For the whole superbly told story of how Philby’s treachery was at last revealed, consult My Paper Chase, by Sir Harold Evans, who as editor of the Sunday Times of London presided over the investigation that in 1967 brought Philby’s role at MI6 to light.)
By the time the public learned of the details that prompted Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union, he’d been ensconced in Moscow for almost five years, where he lived until his death in 1988. He claimed to be unrepentant, saying he missed only some friends, Colman’s mustard, and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. In fact, he was kept under virtual house arrest, as the Russians were afraid he might try to return to England. He also drank heavily and attempted suicide at least once. He had gone to Moscow with the assumption that he would be named a colonel in the KGB, a promise that, if indeed made, was never kept.
At least Philby wanted to defect. Evidence suggests that Guy Burgess believed he was only helping Donald Maclean escape when they disappeared in 1951, but the KGB had no intention of ever letting Burgess fall back into English hands. Upon surfacing in the Soviet Union in 1956, he spent the rest of his short life—he died in 1963 at 52—descending ever deeper into alcoholism.
Another NSA analyst who defected turned up outside Moscow in a psychiatric prison hospital, where he’d been institutionalized for more than 20 years.
But Burgess’s story looks almost serene compared to the saga of Victor Norris Hamilton, another National Security Agency analyst who defected to Moscow in 1962. Thirty years later, he turned up outside the capital in a psychiatric prison hospital, where he’d been institutionalized for more than 20 years after being diagnosed with paranoia and other mental illnesses.
George Koval, an American scientist posthumously honored by Vladimir Putin for his work in penetrating the Manhattan Project and ferrying secrets to the Russians that sped their development of the atomic bomb by years, was perhaps the most realistic defector of all. But then, Koval had been to Russia already. He was born in the U.S. to Russian-Jewish parents, and in 1924, when he was 10, the family returned to the Soviet Union as part of the development known as the “Jewish Autonomous Region,” a Soviet settlement project that supposedly mirrored the Zionist movement in Palestine. By the time Koval returned to the U.S. in 1940, he was a communist spy. And a good one. He was never caught. After World War II he returned to Russia, where he got a low-level teaching job. He never lived well or saw honors in his lifetime, but he was thankful, he said, “that I did not find myself in a Gulag, as might have happened.” A realist defector—who knew?
A handful of American soldiers defected to North Korea during the Korean War, and nearly all lived to regret it. Forced to live together, the men were made to spend hours memorizing and reciting speeches by Kim Il Sung. In propaganda films, they were made to play dumb, evil Americans.
One of the few happy endings in the annals of defection occurs in the story of Ollie Harrington, an African-American artist who sought asylum in East Germany in 1961 and lived there contentedly for three decades. The man whom Langston Hughes called “America’s greatest African-American cartoonist” started drawing in grade school and never stopped. But his cartoons, which sought to show what black Americans were up against in the 1940s and ’50s, made him a target of the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1951 he moved to Paris and 10 years later, convinced the U.S. government was targeting expatriate African-Americans for surveillance and harassment, he moved to East Germany. There he continued cartooning, made a living at it, and even developed a cult following.