A Chill in the Air

SEEING RED SQUARE: Secretary of State John Kerry and McFaul in May 2013 prior to talks with Putin on Syria. In the background: Saint Basil's Cathedral, left, and the Kremlin. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

The atmosphere inside the Igor Butman Jazz Club in Moscow is as cool and crisp as the December air outside. As promised, Michael McFaul has come to hear trombonist Alevtina Polyakova make her debut as a singer. In jeans and a maroon V-neck sweater, McFaul looks more like the college professor he has been for 18 years than the U.S. ambassador to Russia, which he is. Polyakova swings in to an old Frank Sinatra standard. "I won't dance," she sings, "don't ask me." It could be Vladimir Putin's theme song. It's certainly the one he has been singing—sometimes shouting—at McFaul for the past two years.

McFaul's arrival as ambassador in January 2012 couldn't have been timed better if Putin had planned it himself. Russian presidential elections were just eight weeks away. With no doubt about the ultimate outcome, Putin's objective was clear: a margin of victory that would allow him to clamp down on liberalism and put an end to demonstrations calling for an expansion of democracy and individual freedom. McFaul would be the perfect foil.

Four years earlier, Foreign Affairs published McFaul's "The Myth of the Authoritarian Model," which he co-authored with Kathryn Stoner, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Having subtitled it "How Putin's Crackdown Holds Russia Back," they contended that Putin had nothing to do with Russia's then booming, oil-based economy. The former KGB lieutenant colonel hated the argument. "He read the piece and let me know," says McFaul, '86, MA '86, a political science professor and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and FSI. Just prior to being named ambassador, McFaul had been special assistant to President Obama and director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.

Putin could find an entire shelf of McFaul's publications sure to annoy him, including Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin and Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine's Democratic Breakthrough. According to political analyst and insider Sergey Markov, Putin's campaign managers knew McFaul had written extensively about revolutions, so they said, "Attack him, attack him, attack him." It worked.

Vladimir Vladimirovich received 63.6 percent of the vote. For the next 23 months, whenever he needed to rouse his supporters, he would treat McFaul like a political piñata. A diplomatic novice, McFaul occasionally lost his balance, but always managed to get up off the canvas.

McFaul says he loved the job. "I've been restless my whole life. There's nothing worse than being bored. From that perspective, this is an incredibly stimulating job. There's movement, there's adrenaline, there's intellectual challenge." Plus, "there's pretty much some crisis, big or small, every day."

Like the call informing him that anti-LGBT picketers are harassing embassy personnel on an official trip that has nothing to do with LGBT issues. Or news that a CIA agent has been arrested while allegedly trying to recruit agents in Moscow. Or an email telling him that Edward Snowden is headed his way. A particularly trying, emotional moment was when McFaul had to support devastated Americans unable to complete adoptions of Russian orphans when the practice was banned.

"When I first learned about his appointment, I thought it rarely happens that a man gets the job he's made for," says Masha Lipman, a Muscovite who blogs for the New Yorker and has known McFaul since the early 1990s. "A few days after he arrived, it became clear that his ambassadorship would not be an easy ride. It would not be a pleasant time. All his knowledge and all his advantages would not be appreciated. Just the opposite: They would be turned against him."

According to Markov, the McFaul bashing and anti-Americanism of the campaign added as many as 15 points to Putin's margin of victory. "Vladimir Putin should award Michael McFaul a special, secret medal for . . . the very important role of—How should I say it?—victim," by which Markov means political punching bag. "It's a pity," says McFaul's long-time friend, former collaborator and now, as a Putin confidant, political frenemy.

In public, McFaul mainly handled being cast by the Kremlin as Public Enemy No. 1 with charm and good humor, even suggesting that Putin was welcome to watch the 2014 Super Bowl with him at his residence. That was just days before McFaul announced that he would step down after the Sochi Olympics.

McFaul had been living alone in his official residence, Spaso House, since September, when his wife, Donna Norton, '86, and their two boys returned to Palo Alto. Like him, they had been subject to occasionally aggressive surveillance. Both sons loved living in Moscow, but the older one has a strong desire to complete high school back in California. When McFaul took a call from his younger son, it was clear that Skype couldn't bridge the nearly 6,000 miles between them. Typically when government officials resign prematurely, their doing so is conveniently spun as "wanting to spend more time with family." When McFaul said the same upon resigning, it was genuine.

Protestors hold up signs with Putin's face. On the left, a poster shows Putin with the same hairstyle and mustache as Hitler. On the right, a poster reads 'HANDS OFF UKRAINE!'PROTEST: Demonstrators outside the Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, a week before the Crimean referendum. (Photos: Mindauagas Kulbis/AP Images)

Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of radio station Echo of Moscow, is one of Russia's most highly connected and respected journalists. Why, I ask him, is there still so much distrust between Russia and the United States? The Cold War has been over for nearly 25 years. The number of nuclear weapons worldwide is down 70 percent since 1986. Things appear to be getting materially better for Russians and many Eastern Europeans. When I was a student in Leningrad in 1977, I had one hour of hot water a week for bathing and washing clothes. In winter, fresh vegetables were unknown. The kind of criticism the Russian press regularly directs at Putin and his government would have summarily landed everyone involved in prison. Surely things are better now. Even McFaul has said that Russians are freer and richer today than during most of their 1,000-year history. Why can't we all just get along?

"Ask Winston Churchill," Venediktov says. "It's called post-imperial syndrome. We were a superpower equal to the United States. Yes, we had no hot water, we had no food, but we scared people. They took this scare as respect. Now we have hot water, we have food, but no one is afraid of us. That's why we're not respected. Very simple."

No doubt many in the Kremlin took it as another sign of disrespect when the United States announced that its official delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be headlined by Billie Jean King, underscoring the very large chasm between President Putin's and President Obama's positions on LGBT rights and many other issues.

A large, cream-colored building with a green copper roof and white trimming around various features. The front has a stairway and patio encircled by pillars. Many people are gathered there. An American flag hangs overhead.Spaso House has been the U.S. ambassador's residence since 1993. (Photo: AP Images)

According to McFaul, that chasm is partly due to how two presidents see the world. Obama, he says, believes in the possibility of win-win situations. This is why the United States has not engaged in linkage, the idea that "Oh, if we're quiet about this, we'll hopefully get some cooperation [over] there. That's not our policy," says McFaul. "I think it's the right policy. Not everybody in my government agrees with it. We need to have a mature enough relationship—I think we do, frankly—that we can have disagreements and not say it's the end of the world, it's back to the Cold War." Putin, he says, believes in zero-sum, or "If you win, I lose." McFaul thinks that, for example, a Ukraine with closer economic links to the EU would mean a richer, more dynamic Ukraine, something good for everybody, including Russia. Putin obviously sees it differently.

Venediktov says, "A lot of the problem is that a lot of the people have a Soviet background. They don't trust what you are telling them. They are really convinced that Washington decision making works in ways very similar to Moscow decision making. That your president can also pick up the phone and call the judge and give him orders. That he can call the speaker of parliament and give him orders. They just don't believe it when they are told the opposite." Meaning a great deal of effort falls on deaf ears. Venediktov says the Soviet generation will need to pass first—and maybe another generation after that—before this changes.

Before McFaul left Moscow and returned to private life, he described U.S. policy with Russia as "Cooperate when we can, manage the differences where we have differences and not let the differences bleed into affecting cooperation in other spheres. I think that's going to be the pattern until the end of the Obama years. We have a big clash about values. That's not going away . . . I don't see a big breakthrough." One area that McFaul says the United States cannot simply walk away from is human rights. "Those who ignore human rights find it coming back to haunt them."

McFaul is standing adjacent to Hillary Clinton with his right hand upheld. Secretary Clinton is looking down at and reading from a piece of paper. Behind the two are Norton, closer to McFaul, and a fourth person who is looking towards McFaul.MOSCOW BOUND: McFaul is sworn in by Clinton as Norton looks on.

Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, the U.S. military attaché in Moscow, has been studying Russia all his life, from an intensely personal perspective. His parents fled communist Hungary after World War II. More than 40 years later, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, his father returned to Hungary and renounced his U.S. citizenship—a painful but obligatory step before he could be named Hungary's ambassador to the United States.

To try to understand the Russian mentality, Zwack suggests imagining if "Canada were China and Mexico were Central Asia and the Caucasus. How would that change the way we view the world?" The threats that some Russians perceive as real and that Americans see as paranoid might look quite different.

"Let's look back 25 or 30 years," says Masha Lipman, who at that time was writing for the Washington Post."[Russia was] a superpower. We were the other superpower. We were actually engaged in an existential struggle with the United States, sometimes not even existential. We were effectively seeking to divide the world in two, capitalist and communist.

"Come '91, the Soviet Union collapses. The country loses its sphere of influence. It loses its satellites. It loses part of its territory . . . it loses in every way. The United States remains a source of power. You know, this is not easy."

Eerily conjuring the Russian takeover of Crimea, Venediktov likens the loss of empire to the loss of a limb. Or limbs. He says Western governments do not understand that it may be "a phantom pain, but it's real for us. It has an impact and you shouldn't disregard it, because in this case somebody's thinking about his lost greatness, lost territories, lost respect. Even if it's phantom pain, it still has a real impact. So I think that the Bush and Obama administrations—pragmatic as they have been—still failed to consider this factor."

"Empires, when they collapse, it's not a pretty time," says Lipman. "Not for France, not for Britain, not for the Soviet Union."

During that collapse, McFaul was a young researcher, regularly in and out of the Soviet Union. "You should have seen him when I met him early in the 1990s," Lipman says. "He was part and parcel of all the developments here. He knew everyone. He knew politicians. He knew Russian democrats. He was a member of every meeting. He was everybody's friend. He was right at the center of it."

Bill Browder, MBA '89, ran the largest private investment fund in Russia before his outspokenness about corruption put him afoul of Putin. He recalls that McFaul "was always the person the networks called on because he was both articulate and telegenic. He knew a lot about Russia's political situation, so he had the perfect combination of skills to make him the guy that CNN would put on."

Those were heady and turbulent times. The promise of democracy and growing economic chaos appeared to be the two, indivisible sides of a rapidly eroding ruble and a way of life that—while difficult—was familiar after 70 years of Soviet rule. Sergey Markov, unable to find enough milk for his infant daughter Dasha, reached out to his friend in Palo Alto. "I called Michael," he remembers. "When he came from California, he brought a huge box of dried milk for her." Twenty years later, McFaul gave Dasha a private tour of the White House.

In the early to mid-1990s, Markov says, he and McFaul had "very big ideas. How to implement big ideas of democracy." They wrote together, taught together, researched together and lectured together, often traveling deep into Russia to preach the word. Markov recalls how once, while searching for the place where they were to appear in the Nizhny Novgorod region, he and McFaul went down a "big road, then small road, then land road, then small track and then just only field." It was all great preparation for The Troubled Birth of Russian Democracy, the book they co-authored in 1993.

Markov says he knew that the road to democracy might not be smooth but believed the overall trend would be better. "But then life became worse and worse and worse. If it's eight years of economic decline, it's not something wrong with the economy but with economic policy.

"When Russia's main goal was freedom, the United States was our main ally," Markov explains. "But then I figured out we had enough freedom. Our problem, it's not freedom. Our problem is order, stability and government institutions, with a strong state that can give this order and stability. To my regret, [democracy] was not very successful." It was "stolen . . . by oligarchs. Society had been destroyed because of wild capitalism."

According to McFaul, the impact of the economic chaos was three times worse than that experienced in the United States during the Great Depression. That did not deter his belief in the long-term need for and eventual ascendancy of democracy in Russia and in the former republics of the Soviet Union.

That is a touchy subject for Markov, who sees a "soft apartheid" operating in countries supported by the United States, like NATO members Estonia and Latvia, where he says Russian-speaking citizens are discriminated against while the United States says nothing. To him, this is a sign that surely the United States wishes to dominate Russia, something the Russians will not tolerate. Citing Karl XII of Sweden, Frederick the Great, Napoleon and Hitler, Markov says, "Russia's fate is to destroy any superpower" that tries to rule over it.

Even as their political outlooks diverged, McFaul and Markov have remained close friends. McFaul says Markov has changed. Markov insists that it's McFaul who has.

A political appointee who didn't parse his words like a traditional, cautious career diplomat, McFaul at times made it easy for Putin and his associates to cast him as an operative sent by Washington to undermine Russian authority and sovereignty. Immediately after arriving as ambassador, McFaul started meeting dissidents—many of whom he'd known for years. A few weeks later, he criticized the treatment of the anti-Putin group Pussy Riot. The Russian media wondered aloud if McFaul hadn't come back to their country to finish the unfinished revolution he had written about 10 years earlier.

And all that was before he said two words that infuriated the state-controlled press and many Russians, and landed him in the news around the world. Entering a private meeting with a human rights leader, McFaul found himself surrounded by an outraged NTV media scrum, Cossacks in full regalia and pro-Putin ultranationalists. For four minutes and 30 seconds, McFaul says, he held his ground—and his temper—while answering their questions in the winter cold. It was the fourth minute and 36th second that did him in. After wondering aloud how the hectoring crowd had known where he was going to be in the first place, he referred to Russia as a dikaya strana.

In Russian, strana means country; dikaya means wild, with overtones of savage, or uncivilized. State-controlled media had a field day, publicizing McFaul's faux pas across all nine time zones of the world's largest country as an insult to the dignity of the Russian people. McFaul has been apologizing ever since. "Dikaya strana is not a phrase ambassadors or anyone should use under any circumstances, even the extraordinary circumstances I was in," he says. "That was a mistake I deeply regret."

As one of the most conspicuous U.S. ambassadors since Thomas Jefferson went to France, McFaul says of his celebrity, "I'm somewhat confused by it. I did not expect it." Says Markov, "That's why McFaul is the best ambassador in the Russian diplomatic community. . . . If he wants more Russian people to know about the United States position, it's good to be a celebrity. We should learn from him, because we need his kind of diplomat on our side."

Venediktov likens the loss of empire to the loss of a limb. 'Even if it's a phantom pain, it still has real impact.'

His reputation was magnified by the unprecedented numbers of interviews he gave in Russian and by something then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had suggested he do: tweet. The more than 10,000 messages he sent in Russian and English during his 25 months as ambassador ultimately attracted more than 61,000 followers. His Facebook page and Live Journal blog, both bilingual, were similar firsts in what some have called the dawn of digital diplomacy. McFaul used social media to talk about everything: American policy on freedom and human rights, how his family celebrates American holidays, LGBT issues, his Montana background, Syria, Iran, nuclear weapons, Edward Snowden, you name it.

One result of McFaul's activism was a rebuke from Putin. At a meeting between the Russian leader and a senior U.S. official, Putin virulently chewed McFaul out for being "too engaged with certain aspects of [Russian] society."

While some people in the business community supported McFaul's efforts, others were more concerned with stability than democracy and human rights, a position McFaul says is simply "wrong," because he believes democracy leads to long-term stability.

Rich Sobel, '84, who has served on the board of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, says some people asked, "Why would you be so public with him? He's so toxic," attributing to McFaul and the Obama administration any recent problems between Russia and the United States. Says Sobel, who first met McFaul 33 years ago in a Russian class at Stanford, "I don't subscribe to that at all. In Moscow, I've found the best way to deal with [bullies] is to politely and firmly stand up to them and not be intimidated. Then people respect you for your values. I think that's a signature of Ambassador McFaul."

McFaul says he is guided by "my principles and core convictions. Through my academic training and my writing I have developed some pretty strong core beliefs about the nature of international politics, the nature of war and peace, the nature of democracy and autocracy. Some would call me ideological as a result. I don't see it that way."

'Russia has to change itself. And frankly, I don't think that good American policies or bad American policies make much difference.' - Lipman

McFaul thinks Putin is very ideological. "People call Putin pragmatic and a kind of realist in foreign policy. I think that's exactly wrong." Two and a half months before the Crimean conflict, McFaul said of Putin, "I think he's incredibly ideological, to the point where his ideology gets in the way of rationality.

"I don't want to oversimplify it," he says of the challenge of consistently applying U.S. policy and messaging. One advantage he could claim was having been part of the creation of Obama's foreign policy. He knows it inside out. Still, he did "take a tremendous amount of flak for it. Read my Twitter feed. Every night, this bombardment with hatred. Every night. Every day."

Alexey Venediktov isn't convinced that McFaul's use of social media tipped the balance to the positive for the United States. "Putin has said on many occasions that he does not trust social media. He believes it's a source of misinformation and a tool of manipulation. So it's not effective with the government, because our government is backward in this respect, outdated and old-fashioned. For someone who considers himself to be an ambassador to the Kremlin, it's a bad thing because that negatively impacts his access to government officials."

With the people, Venediktov thinks McFaul's outreach was effective, "but only if you are talking about the urban, well-educated public," an important but small fraction of Russia's population of 143 million.

Early in his academic career McFaul "had aspirations to be a great theorist . . . I was going to change all of political science." Then, like many young academics, he settled into a different niche, that of what he calls a translator, someone who could take esoteric political theory and make it digestible for those not steeped in the literature. He hoped that one day his translations might influence policy rather than just his academic peers.

In 2006, McFaul had just become a full professor and considered himself at "a threshold level"—despite having a résumé that already stretched to 27 pages. "To be very honest," he says, "I never aspired to be the ambassador to Russia. I didn't dream about it. I was a professor."

It was not on his mind, either, when he received a call from his Stanford classmate and fellow Rhodes scholar Susan Rice, '86. A foreign policy veteran of the Clinton administration, she was an adviser for the Obama campaign and asked McFaul to come aboard. At the time, Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For the next 18 months, McFaul sent in daily memos and heard not a peep. Then, in August 2008—in what some now call a precursor to recent events in Ukraine—war broke out between Russia and Georgia, which had recently turned strongly toward the West. It was arguably the most serious confrontation between East and West since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Although Putin was prime minister at the time and not president, many believe his was the deciding hand in Russia's overwhelming military response to what it called Georgian aggression. Unwittingly, Putin may have lifted his critic McFaul from the shadows of the deep bench to the starting lineup. The conflict resulted in McFaul's going from, in his words, "a peripheral adviser" to Obama's National Security Council after the election.

If McFaul is never to be forgiven for calling Russia a dikaya strana, he helped coin another term that is unlikely to be forgotten: "the reset." Rich Sobel recalls the first time he heard it. Toward the end of George W. Bush's and Vladimir Putin's second terms as presidents, relations between the two countries had grown increasingly chilly. At a dinner in Moscow, McFaul told Sobel and other Obama supporters that Russian officials had told him they were ready to "reset relations." McFaul brought the word back to the Obama campaign and it became part of the political and diplomatic lexicons.

With Obama and Dmitry Medvedev as heads of state, the reset led to a number of achievements that McFaul takes particular pride in: the New START treaty; an agreement McFaul calls "historic" that allows American troops and supplies destined for Afghanistan to travel—both in the air and on the ground—through Russia; Russia's ascension as the 156th member of the World Trade Organization; the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which created 21 working groups that hopefully will bring U.S. and Russian counterparts into closer contact and increased collaboration; and Russian support on Libya. ("We were shocked on that," McFaul says.)

However, by the time McFaul left the NSC for the embassy in Moscow, some were wondering if the reset needed a reset. Putin, who is said to believe that Obama deceived Medvedev about Western intentions in Libya, was returning to the Russian presidency. Although collaboration continued—on Iran and the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, which McFaul says never could have happened without U.S.-Russian cooperation—momentum had slowed. And the Snowden affair turned the thermostat way, way down.

McFaul says he was one of the main interlocutors dealing with the Kremlin about Snowden. "I was the guy going to see the equivalent of our National Security Advisor—usually with really bad news and ultimatums that we ultimately couldn't fulfill. It was unpleasant." He says that the Russians were shocked when Obama canceled the presidential summit, something McFaul says he advised the president to do. "In terms of U.S.-Russian relations, it made for a difficult time for us all.

"Most of the drama, in terms of the difficulties, has been because of Russian initiatives and Russian changes," McFaul says. "But they would probably say the exact same thing about us."

Kerry, McFaul, Putin, and others sit around a decorative table in a large, teal-colored room. Kerry and McFaul sit across from Putin, and Kerry is the one talking. In the background, there are two large bronze statues and a Russian Flag.AT THE KREMLIN: U.S.-Russia talks on Syria in May 2013 were one example of successful cooperation. (Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Regardless of the frosty relations between the United States and Russia, in December McFaul frequently declared that he is a bolshoi optimist—a big optimist—regarding Russia's long-term prospects. His optimism comes in part from research. Over the last 100 years, he says, "the overwhelming trajectory is toward the extinction of autocracies and the growth and expansions of democracies." The other part comes from his nature. "I'm an optimist. . . . Optimism by definition is not related to results," he says.

Each time McFaul discusses democracy, he underscores that democracies are more peaceful than autocracies. That no democracy has ever gone to war with another democracy. He believes—and it's the stated position of the Obama administration—that a strong, prosperous Russia will inherently be more stable and more democratically inclined, which would be good for everyone. "I think the forces for modernization in the economy are already apparent and driving this place, especially when compared to when I first came here 30 years ago," McFaul says. "There's a momentum that will eventually bleed into the political side." He refers to what Nixon reportedly said about Gorbachev and the collapse of communism—"The train has left the station"—but hesitates to make any prediction about when it will arrive, or in what form.

'We're in a major isolationist period. It's shocking to me and it's scary to me. The world suffers when the United States is not involved.' - McFaul

His friend and co-author Lipman is not such a bolshoi optimist. "I want people in Russia to believe more in themselves. I want the sense of 'we the people.' We have 80 percent who routinely say 'Nothing depends on me.' I want this pattern of omnipotent state and powerless people to come to an end." That seems unlikely to happen any time soon. "How do you get over it?" Lipman asks rhetorically. "Apparently not easily, as we learned the hard way. We are actually getting farther and farther away from overcoming it. Putin did not come to take Russia further on the way to democracy. Putin came to consolidate state control, and he did."

In a New Yorker blog last September, Lipman characterized relations between Russia and the United States as being at a "very low level" and didn't see them getting any better. "The trend is negative," she says in December. "There's every reason to believe it will only get worse, not better."

Moreover, despite Secretary of State John Kerry's shuttle diplomacy to hot spots around the world, an increasingly isolationist, fix-the-problems-at-home-first period dominates in the United States. "We're in a major isolationist period," McFaul says. "It's shocking to me and it's scary to me. The world suffers when the United States is not involved." At the moment, McFaul says oppression in Russia is at a level he has not seen since the early 1980s.

Lipman recalls the "Who lost Russia?" debate from the 1990s, when the early glimmers of a democratic Russia started to fade. "I thought that was a wrong way to ask the question," she says. "Russia was nobody's to lose. Russia has to change itself. And frankly I don't think that good American policies or bad American policies make much difference."

"Change Russia?" Bill Browder says. "How can anyone change Russia? It's absurd to think that America can change Russia." At best, he says, maybe "you can have an effect around the edges."

McFaul is now back at Stanford. When he announced his resignation, many in Russia tweeted or blogged that they would be sad to see him go. No doubt there were others who had been looking forward to it even before he arrived. Headlines blared Dos vidaniya, Mikhael. "So long, Michael." Browder says that McFaul, only 50, is young and filled with energy and ideas. He can imagine the day when McFaul "might be secretary of state." Rich Sobel is waiting for a tell-all book.

Back in December, back at the Igor Butman Jazz Club, a full-figured Russian woman in a little black dress comes over to McFaul's table and asks him to dance. With every eye in the place on the two of them, they begin turning circles as awkwardly as seventh-graders pushed together at their first dance. Clearly relieved when the music stops, McFaul thanks her and sits back down. "That was very embarrassing," he says. "But what could I do? She said I would be offending her honor and her country if I refused to dance. I had to defend my country's honor."


Robert L. Strauss, MA '84, MBA '84, studied in the Soviet Union in 1976 and 1977. He last wrote for Stanford about archaeologist Ian Hodder.

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