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Inside the bizarre $1 million Russian novel behind Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’

Michael B. Kelley
Head of Audience Development
Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena at a presentation of his book “Time of the Octopus.” (Source: Sputnik)

Oliver Stone’s blockbuster biopic about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden owes its existence to Snowden’s Russian lawyer and his strange novel.

In January 2014, Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena proposed that Stone make a Hollywood film based on “Time of the Octopus,” which is based on discussions with Snowden at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Kucherena invited Stone to Russia and provided him with an English translation.

“I once heard [Stone’s] stance on Snowden and realized that if someone is able to adequately tell the story and film the book, he is the only one,” Kucherena said last year. “That’s how the idea was born to show him the manuscript.”

In June 2014, Stone bought the rights to “Time of the Octopus” for $1,000,000. (He also paid $700,000 for the rights to “The Snowden Files” by Guardian journalist Luke Harding.)

“Anatoly has written a ‘grand inquisitor’ style Russian novel weighing the soul of his fictional whistleblower, Joshua Cold, against the gravity of a ‘1984’ tyranny that has achieved global proportions,” Stone said of the book. “His meditations on the meaning of totalitarian power in the 21st century make for a chilling, prescient horror story.”

Despite the praise, Stone bought “Time of the Octopus” only to reach Snowden. The American director told the New York Times Magazine that he optioned the book so the Russian lawyer would provide regular access to his client. “We bought it because we did get good access to Ed,” Stone said. “He had to be brought along.”

Part of the cover of “Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena. (Photo: Eksmo)

Although Stone didn’t end up using Kucherena’s material — he asserts that “Snowden” is “as close to reality as possible” — the novel demonstrates the bizarre origins of Stone’s biopic.

Yahoo News has obtained translated excerpts to convey the absurdity and significance of the novel offered by Snowden’s Russian lawyer. The following passages track both Kucherena’s alternate reality and what is known about Snowden’s entrance into Russia.

‘The elevator sank downwards as if to the netherworld’

“Time of the Octopus” tells the story of a Snowden character named Joshua Cold arriving in Moscow and recalling his life story to a Kucherena character called the Attorney.

Upon arriving at Sheremetyevo airport, Cold is immediately taken to a bunker more than 30 meters underground that was built to protect Soviet leaders in the event of a nuclear war. The Attorney, “who through happenstance had wound up as the mediator between the Russian authorities and Joshua Cold,” meets him after passing through several corridors in the airport and underground.

“Opening an unremarkable brown door, the Attorney disappeared behind it and found himself in a little room in the middle of which stood a huge desk,” the book reads, according to translated excerpts by journalist and Russia researcher Catherine Fitzpatrick.

After showing ID to a security guard at the desk, the Attorney enters a secret part of the airport and shows his credentials to a member of the Federal Protection Service, a Russian federal agency that protects high-level Russian officials, including the president. He then enters an elevator in which “everything was also preserved from the Soviet era … the elevator sank downwards as if to the netherworld.”

The Capsule Hotel Air Express at the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. (Photo: Reuters/Tatyana Makeyeva)

The Attorney explains why he had to traverse a secret part of the airport to find his new client: “Of course, it would be strange to suppose that such an important person as Joshua Cold, valuable in the global geopolitical game which from time immemorial had been waged between the two largest states of the world, would be left to the whim of fate in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo Airport, to be torn to bits by journalists — and most importantly, by agents of interested intelligence services who could have done anything with him from a banal liquidation (no one has hurried to turn the poisoned-tip umbrella over to the museum) to an even more banal kidnapping (the very same Mossad had enormous experience in that area),” Fitzpatrick’s translation reads.

“Therefore, no sooner had Cold come out of the plane landing from Hong Kong than he was immediately taken, if not under guard, then at least under entirely close care, and gently but firmly escorted to that very oaken hall with the lamps from which the elevator carried him down into one of the secret facilities – ‘Bunker A.’”

‘The connection between Russian propaganda and Snowden is very clear’

The book is obviously a play on Snowden’s landing in Moscow on June 23, 2013, after spending about a month in Hong Kong. Russian officials knew he was coming: Snowden had visited the building housing the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong three times, and Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the early contact.

“The point at which he put his first foot on Russian soil — at that point, he was bought and paid for,” Russia security expert Mark Galeotti told NPR in June.

Without a passport or valid travel documents when he landed, Snowden and his travel companion, Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks, reportedly lived somewhere in the airport’s transit zone for 39 days. Their only public appearance occurred at a tightly controlled press conference on July 12, 2013, where Snowden announced to Russian activists that he would seek asylum in Russia and appeal for safe passage to Latin America.

Police guard a door where human rights groups were taken to meet Snowden at Sheremetyevo airport on July 12, 2013. (Photo: Reuters/Grigory Dukor)

“Did the Russian authorities stage a meeting so the human rights groups would endorse Snowden’s appeal for asylum, just as Putin wanted?” Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote in their book The Red Web, adding that the meeting “was a sign that Putin was not going to keep his distance from Snowden but rather would attempt to co-opt him for his own purposes.”

Enter Kucherena. The attorney, now 56, attended the press conference and became Snowden’s pro bono lawyer a few days afterward. He subsequently explained why Snowden couldn’t leave Russia.

“He can’t go anywhere, even if he gets a valid passport,” Kucherena, who does not speak English fluently, told reporters a week after the press conference. As for Snowden’s supposed application to other countries for asylum, Kucherena shot down the idea, saying, “He can only file an asylum application in the place where he is currently located.”

Kucherena is a Kremlin loyalist and campaigned for Putin’s reelection in 2012. He sits on the Civic Chamber, a government oversight body created by Putin in 2005, as well as the Public Council, a board created by Putin in 2006 that oversees the country’s post-Soviet security service, the FSB.

“He’s so close to the FSB,” Soldatov, a Russian security services expert, told me in January 2014. “I think his goal is always to explain to Snowden that he should be in Moscow for security reasons.” Soldatov added that Kucherena serves as the chairman of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (IDC), a pro-Kremlin think tank created after a speech by Putin in 2007.

“It’s quite obvious,” Soldatov explained. “The Russian authorities formed a special institute to criticize American authorities, especially about surveillance. Kucherena is the chairman of the institute. And he also happens to be the main Russian lawyer of Snowden. So the connection between Russian propaganda and Snowden is very clear.”

Kucherena, left, accompanies Edward Snowden’s father, Lon, while he speaks outside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Oct. 10, 2013. (Source: Rossiya 24 TV)

The Lounge

“Time of the Octopus” mixes fact with fiction to the point that the reader has no way to determine what, if anything, is based in real-world experiences.

Arriving in the bunker, the Attorney enters the Lounge, a “fairly expansive room with a sofa, several chairs, a small billiard table,” where the sound of a wooden-framed wall clock “emphasized the silence reigning in the bunker.” When he finds Cold, the Attorney notes that the room “smelled not like the rest of the bunker, where there was a faint, barely sensed but persistent aroma of the ‘Cold War’ — the smell of damp, rusty metal and overheated electrical wires. Here it smelled quite civilized — coffee, fine perfume and toast.”

The Attorney asks Cold how he’s doing. The American replies, “Alright,” before requesting that “Miss Morrison meet with me no more than once a day, and let that happen in the briefing room, and not here.”

Miss Morrison is the character for Harrison, the WikiLeaks legal researcher who accompanied Snowden as he left Hong Kong and settled in Russia. The Attorney notes that Cold clearly doesn’t like “Morrison.” Cold then begins telling the Attorney about himself.

Sarah Harrison, a legal researcher for WikiLeaks, Snowden, Kucherena, and his assistant Valentina at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Aug. 1, 2013. (Source: Rossiya 24 TV)

“It’s all written in this kind of potboiler, almost kitschy, Soviet-Russian style with a lot of propagandist bombast along the way, and a lot of the middle is in the first person with Josh telling his life story and key vignettes from his life,” Fitzpatrick observed over email about the 350-page book.

The odd vignettes include how Cold used a telescope given to him as a birthday present from his father to spy on people (which included videotaping them); cried after reenacting the brutal World War II battle of Peleliu between U.S. Marines and Japanese forces; dealt with bullying by “whiggers” (white kids who emulate black rappers); and denounced a teacher after feeling betrayed by his portrayal of early American settlers and Native Americans. At one point Cold tells the Attorney about the night he “became a man” after impressing a girl at community college with his hacking skills, joining a secret computer society, and licking powdered drugs off her as she strip-teased for him.

“The whole device of having Snowden ‘tell all’ to the Lawyer, who is recording him, while spending weeks in a bunker under the Sheremetyevo airport is of course bizarre itself,” Fitzpatrick said. “None of it really tells you anything about the main story of his stealing the NSA documents, although some of the stories seem to be like metaphors for things really in his hacking career.”

Some of Cold’s details match Snowden’s life. Cold dropped out of high school in 10th grade and subsequently went to Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, as Snowden did. Other parts are slightly altered. Cold says his parents divorced while he was still in high school, while Snowden’s parents divorced three years after he dropped out. Cold also says his mother was a workaholic and remote, adding that he had no real relationship with her. After the divorce, Cold retreated into video games while he and his father lived together in “the ruins of his family.” In real life, Snowden shared several addresses with his mother for years after the divorce, while his father moved to Pennsylvania.

“It strikes me that all this might send journalists on wild-goose chases that would come to nothing, as they aren’t based in reality,” Fitzpatrick observed. “But because there is so much that is thinly disguised in the book, like the figure ‘Cassangi’ ([WikiLeaks founder Julian] Assange) or ‘Michael Whyden’ ([ex-CIA Director] Michael Hayden), not to mention ‘Josh Cold’ as Edward Snowden himself, then you have to wonder.”

A television screen shows Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, June 26, 2013.
(Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

‘I did not expect … Oliver Stone would pay attention to my book’

It’s unclear if Snowden, who met with Stone several times to help with the film, has read the thinly veiled novel with his face on the cover. Kucherena said Snowden had read an English translation of “Time of the Octopus” and “liked it.” However, Snowden’s U.S. lawyer Ben Wizner said his client had never read it.

In any case, Kucherena was apparently involved in the filmmaking process. He told RT that Stone visited him eight times in Russia to discuss the script and “encouraged him to get fully engaged in the filmmaking process and speak up every time he disagreed with what was happening on the film set.” The filming of Snowden’s cameo at the end of the movie took place at Kucherena’s dacha.

Kucherena also makes an appearance in “Snowden” as a random diplomat or banker whom Snowden’s character tries to schmooze with at a party while under CIA diplomatic cover in Geneva. “This man is either a fool or a spy,” Kucherena tells his assistant in Russian as he walks away.

And despite what Stone says about not using the material, the book is being touted as the basis of the film.

“‘Time of the Octopus’ is a fiction, but it is based on Kucherena’s own interviews with Snowden at Sheremetyevo, and provides the basis for Oliver Stone’s major Hollywood movie ‘Snowden’ starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the movie events of 2016,” the publisher of the novel’s upcoming English translation states.

Director Oliver Stone at the premiere of the film “Snowden” in New York on Sept. 13, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

After seeing the film, Kucherena himself said that he was “really impressed because I did not expect that such a great artist like Oliver Stone would pay attention to my book, and would make a quality movie based on the book. Not just a movie, not just some blockbuster, but a movie that makes you think.”

Incidentally, the film and the novel have almost nothing in common besides Snowden and Kucherena. The works even cover different time frames: “Snowden” is about the American’s life up to his exile in Russia, while “Time of the Octopus” is based on what happened once he got there.

‘No person, no problem’

Ultimately, Kucherena’s book tells the reader more about the author than about Stone’s movie.

At one point, while Cold and the Attorney watch a late show on TV in the bunker, Spetsnaz special forces commandos burst into the Lounge. A commando tells Cold and the Attorney that there was an “emergency” involving “an unsanctioned penetration of the facility.” The Attorney posits that someone was trying to assassinate Cold.

“If nothing threatened this young man’s life, he would not have been hidden away from journalists, diplomats and the rest of the public from the outset. Of course, he had taken some insurance and had hidden away his compromising materials safely, taking care that it would be publicized in the event something happened to him. But even so, no one had ever abolished the sentiment, ancient as the world, ascribed to Stalin in Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat: ‘No person, no problem.’”

The Attorney, like Kucherena, had been in the Soviet rocket forces. The Attorney notes that “when he served in the Soviet Army’s Strategic Rocket Forces, he had been put through exercises to simulate an attempt by saboteurs of a likely enemy to seize command bunkers.” After minutes of tense silence, during which Cold nervously handles baoding balls, something happens: “Heavy steps thundered along the corridor, and it seemed to the Attorney that he heard somebody’s muffled cry, and at that moment” one of the commandos, listening to his earpiece, announces: “That’s it, all clear!”

Again musing about geopolitical espionage, the Attorney subsequently decides that “it is no accident that I am sitting here, and it is quite possible that my influence in this bunker was also predetermined long before Cold disembarked from the Hong Kong plane and stepped on to Russian soil.”

Kucherena holds up Snowden’s passport to show journalists the asylum stamp granted by Russia on Aug. 1, 2013. (Photo: APTV via AP)

Cold, meanwhile, gets up and grabs a bottle of Irish whisky. The Attorney is surprised, noting that “in the background file on Cold, which he had read before his first meeting, it was noted in particular that Cold almost never drank liquor.” The Attorney and Cold share a drink while Cold laments over the U.S.’s apparent attempt to kill him.

“Don’t hurry events,” the Attorney tell him. “If you don’t chase yourself into a corner, a way out can always be found. Sometimes I am asked why I take up hopeless cases. But I always reply that there are no hopeless cases. In any event, my experience confirms this truth.”

‘Our contract gives priority rights to Stone on the following books’

Nowadays, more than three years after becoming Snowden’s lawyer, Kucherena continues to churn out fan fiction.

“Time of the Octopus” is part of a Jason Bourne-style trilogy. The sequel, Children of Cain, features the NSA sending another assassin to kill Joshua Cold. The third book, Judas Kiss, involves Cold operating as an NSA systems administrator in North Africa while the U.S. tries to overthrow the country’s president.

The second and third books in Kucherena’s Snowden trilogy. (Source: eksmo.ru/book/vremya-spruta-ITD593502)

Kucherena told Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik that Stone can turn the second and third books into movies if he wants.

“Our contract gives priority rights to Stone on the following books,” Kucherena said. “If he doesn’t want to film the sequels, then I can offer the [books] to someone else, but he has the priority.”

Read more:

Fact check: 5 key parts of Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ biopic that don’t match reality

In exile, Edward Snowden rakes in speaking fees while hoping for a pardon