Snowden Leaves Sheremetyevo Airport

Moscow, Russia

August 1, 2013

Monika England and Illa Labroo

Edward Snowden is an American and former computer analyst for the National Security Association. In May 2013, Snowden disclosed several top-secret documents that uncovered information about U.S. surveillance of phone and Internet exchanges, causing arguably the most significant leak in U.S. history. Snowden fled the country, first going to Hong Kong and eventually finding refuge in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, Russia. After nearly 6 weeks of living in the airport, he was granted temporary asylum in Russia and now remains there with his location anonymous.

Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Association, is shown, June 9, 2013, in Hong Kong. The Guardian/AP.
Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Association, is shown, June 9, 2013, in Hong Kong. The Guardian/AP.

There are four perspectives from which to view the situation: Edward Snowden (the runner), the United States government (the chaser), the Russian government (the middleman), and the American public (the audience). Snowden is a refugee hiding from the U.S. government and was seeking asylum from the Russian government. He used the architecture of the Sheremetyevo Airport as a means of protection, inhabiting the space of the airport’s transit zone to avoid arrest and deportation back to America where he would be arrested. Since the U.S. government had been exploited by Snowden’s release of secret documents, they pressed charges of espionage against him. They are chasing him so that he is forced to face their justice system and so that they regain control of the situation. The legal boundaries of the airport’s transit zone, however, do not allow the United States to reach him. The Russian government is what stands between the U.S. and Snowden. They have the power to control the size and shape of the transit zone that contains the refugee, and can therefore manipulate the legal parameters that determine whether or not the U.S. can get to him. Meanwhile, the American public has been observing the situation. They were the ones violated in the first place by Snowden’s disclosure of NSA documents, and it is their job to decide for themselves whether or not the U.S.’s current surveillance tactics should be legal. They also need to decide if Snowden’s actions were appropriate for the situation and if/how he should be penalized.

Passengers in Sheremetyevo International Airport’s transit zone.

Airport transit zones were initially designated as areas in airports where travelers in transit could purchase items duty-free.  Originally, passengers had to obtain visas even if they were to remain in these zones. However, the processing of all those visas was extremely cumbersome and transit zones became places where immigration laws didn’t apply either. In this way, passengers can seek political refuge or, conversely, be detained while trying to get somewhere if there is an issue with their documents. While in the area of these zones, one is technically not in any country. The borders of the transit zones tend to be “illusory, invisible” lines (Christo, Invisible Borders June 26, 2013) and therefore are seen politically as legal limbos and a kind of “no man’s land.” When determining the size and shape of a transit zone, the matter is left up to the national authorities of whichever country the airport is in. They can be stretched to include nearby hotels, hospitals, and courts while maintaining the idea that an individual in the zone is not even on the country’s soil. Transit zones can refer to “physical spaces or amorphous legal concepts” (Palmer July 2, 2013). In what ways can architecture—the physical boundaries—affect the limits of the flexible legal technicalities?

Terminals D, E and F: the physical boundaries of the transit zone.

In this case Edward Snowden was able to find refuge in the transit zone of the airport in Moscow because it enabled him to be out of reach of the U.S. government’s control. The U.S. demanded that Russia extradite him, but he was not considered to be officially on their soil so Russia did not have to comply. Although the architecture and planning of the Sheremetyevo airport determines the physical walls that encloses the transit zone, the determination of the official boundaries is largely dependent on how the Russian authorities wish to treat the zone’s inhabitants. In the Sheremetyevo airport, the physical boundaries of the transit zone are confined to terminals D, E, and F and Snowden was able to travel freely throughout these spaces. In the end, the Russian authorities decided to grant Snowden a year of asylum in their country, at the risk of damaging relations with the United States. Architecture’s role in this situation relies on the fact that architectural elements are the framework by which transit zones are defined and in turn directly affect political jurisdiction and international relations.

sheremetyevo transit zone
The transit zone includes duty free stores, cafes, toilets, a hotel, and a first aid point—making it an ideal spot to hide out and live for several weeks.

As much as an airport’s physical transit zone helps to protect certain citizens such as Snowden from being extradited or deported, it can also become a sort of jail. There is a dichotomy between being protected by a space and simultaneously being enclosed within it and controlled by it. The Sheremetyevo transit zone helped to hide Snowden; he was being protected by both the legal aspects of the zone and the physical walls of the airport, but in some other cases the architecture has acted as a form of confinement. In the famous case of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, he somehow lost his documents en-route from Paris to London and had to remain in the transit zone at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris until he was able to obtain new documents from Belgium, which denied him entry. He ended up having to live in the transit zone for 18 years before a particular incident required him to be transported to a hospital in Paris.

How can architecture—the physical boundaries of a transit zone—be used to affect the other aspect of the space: the “amorphous legal concepts” (Palmer July 2, 2013)? How does architecture enable different modes of isolation? In what other ways can architecture be a form of protection—not just physically but legally, socially, or politically?



Greenwald, Glenn, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras. “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. The 29-year-old source behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history explains his motives, his uncertain future and why he never intended on hiding in the shadows.” The Guardian, June 09, 2013. (accessed September 8, 2013).

One of the first sources to release Snowden’s identity; The Guardian conducted interviews with the whistleblower accounting his story leading up to the leaks and his motives for doing so.


Palmer, Brian. “What’s Life Like in an Airport Transit Zone? Where does Edward Snowden sleep? Can he get a Cinnabon?” Slate, July 02, 2013. (accessed September 8, 2013).

Article written at the time when Snowden was still believed to be in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo International Airport. Describes the different areas of typical transit zones, background on how these spaces have defined in the past and present, and what that means in terms of authority and legal technicalities.


Haglage, Abby. “Edward Snowden Is Livin’ the Dream at Sheremetyevo International Airport. If he’s really there, Edward Snowden might be having a blast. From fear-of-flying therapy to free Wi-Fi and fresh OJ, the airport’s not a bad place to hide out.” The Daily Beast (blog), June 25, 2013.< (accessed September 9, 2013).>

An article that talks about the many amenities in the Sheremetyevo International Airport—such as a wide variety of food, a hotel, free Wi-Fi, duty free shopping, a “fear of flying treatment express center,” and much more. This shows that not only would someone be able to live in the transit zone of this airport, they would be able to do it very comfortably.


Christo. Invisible Borders, “Sheremetyevo Transit Zone.” Last modified June 26, 2013. Accessed September 13, 2013.’

The United States wants Russia to hand over Snowden based on the rules of an extradition treaty between the two countries, but Russia claims Snowden technically never crossed the Russian border (because he has been in the airport transit zone) and therefore they don’t have to obey the treaty. The boundaries of the transit zone are basically

Encyclopedia Entries

Ray, Michael, ed. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2013. s.v. “Edward Snowden.” (accessed September 8, 2013).

Provides background on Snowden’s family, education, and career. Also describes actions taken by the U.S. government including their charges against Snowden. Gives a timeline of the controversy up to the point where Snowden left the Sheremetyevo airport with a WikiLeaks staffer.

Scholarly Articles

Perkmann, Markus. “Building Governance Institutions Across European Boarders.” Spiral. (1999): 657-667. (accessed September 15, 2013).

This paper discusses cross-border co-operation and regions in the EU that are building networks of governance across Europe.

Orthographic Documentation

Borisov, Valery. “Hunting Down Edward J. Snowden.” Image. 2013. RiaNovosti,

This map of Sheremetyevo Airport shows 4 different terminals that are defined as clean zones: areas where transit passengers are allowed to be without a Russian visa for 24 hours. The clean zone includes duty free stores, cafes, toilets, a hotel, and a first aid point—making it an ideal spot to hide out and live for several weeks.


Google Map Data. Google, “Destination 360.” Last modified 2009. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Shows a map of Sheremetyevo International Airport in a larger context—the city of Moscow. This map shows that the airport is almost in the center of a series of radiating streets, connected by other streets in the form of concentric circles, giving Snowden many possible exit strategies for fleeing into the city of Moscow, unnoticed.

Video and Audio

Poitras, Laura & Greenwald, Glenn. “NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things’ – video.” The Guardian June 09 2013. Web,<>

Video of the newspaper The Guardian’s interview with Snowden about his reasons for disclosing top-secret NSA documents. He said he is just like any other guy who sits in the office and observes what goes on around him; he believes the American public should be able make the decision on whether or not what their government is doing is right or wrong. He doesn’t want the situation to be about himself; he said he is stepping forward and disclosing his anonymity in order to “defend the authenticity” of the revelations.


“Edward Snowden Speaks From Sheremetyevo,” YouTube video, 2:22, posted by “LeakSourceNews,” July 12, 2013,

At the end of his stay Edward Snowden speaks from the Sheremetyevo International Airport about how he was able to search for, seize, and read anyone’s communications at any time, without a warrant—something that he believes is unconstitutional.


Charlie D’Agata. “Edward Snowden leaves airport after Russia grants asylum, says “the law is winning,”’ CBS News video, 1:44, August 1, 2013,

Announces that Snowden has left the Sheremetyevo International Airport via taxi and without being caught on camera. He has been granted 1-year asylum in Russia and his location will be kept secret. He was allowed to enter Russian soil because since he was in the transit zone, technically he was never in Russia.


Vladimir Putin. “Putin: Snowden still in Moscow airport, won’t be extradited, free to go anywhere,” RT News video, 2:04, June 25, 2013,

Russian President Vladimir Putin explains that Snowden is in the transit zone at the Moscow airport, but that Russia has no obligation to extradite him to the U.S. and that any accusations against Russia are “nonsense and rubbish.” He says that Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. and hopes that this situation will not damage Russian-American relations.


Cornish, Audie. “’Transit zones’ Can Extend Beyond Airports.” All Things Considered. Recorded July 3, 2013. NPR. Web,

NPR host Audie Cornish speaks with the head of research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, who explains that airport transit zones were first established as places without national tax laws. They were later redefined as spaces in which typical immigration laws did not apply either. So asylum seekers and refugees could be detained there depending on how the national authorities would like to treat them. Also, the legal technicalities of transit zones can be manipulated by the national authorities to alter the boundaries in order to include nearby hotels, hospitals, and court systems while still maintaining a “bubble” of protection or detention (however you choose look at it).

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