CRF Blog

Watching the Eclipse

by Bill Hayes

In Watching the Eclipse for the New Yorker, David Remnick reports on Michael McFaul’s experience as ambassador to Russia and the state of Russia today.

In January, 2012, Michael McFaul, a tenured political scientist from Stanford and President Obama’s chief adviser on Russia through the first term, arrived in Moscow with his wife and two sons to begin work as the United States Ambassador. In Palo Alto and Washington, D.C., the McFauls had lived in modest houses. In Moscow they took up residence at Spaso House, a vast neoclassical mansion that was built by one of the wealthiest industrialists in imperial Russia. Spaso features a vaulted formal dining room and a chandeliered ballroom, where William C. Bullitt, the U.S. Ambassador in the thirties, used to throw parties complete with trained seals serving trays of champagne and, on one memorable occasion, a menagerie of white roosters, free-flying finches, grumpy mountain goats, and a rambunctious bear. One guest, Mikhail Bulgakov, wrote about the bash in his novel “The Master and Margarita.” Another, Karl Radek, a co-author of the 1936 Soviet constitution, got the bear drunk. The bear might have survived the decade. Radek, who fell out with Stalin, did not.

On his first night in Spaso, McFaul wearily climbed the stairs, from the stately rooms on the ground floor to the living quarters on the second, and he noticed along the way a wall filled with black-and-white photographs of his predecessors, including the “wise men” of mid-century: W. Averell Harriman, Charles (Chip) Bohlen, George F. Kennan. Every diplomat and scholar who thinks about Russia thinks about Kennan — his mastery of the language, his chilly, and chilling, brand of élitism, and, particularly, his influence on the strategic posture of the West from the end of the Second World War until the collapse of the Soviet imperium. Kennan, who lived to be a hundred and one, had been Ambassador for only four months when, in September of 1952, Stalin declared him persona non grata and ordered him out of the country.

McFaul had no reason to expect that sort of hostility from the Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev. As a policy expert who served on Obama’s National Security Council, McFaul was a principal architect of the “reset,” a kind of neo-détente with Moscow. When, in September, 2011, Obama nominated McFaul to be his envoy to Moscow, relations with the Kremlin were hardly amorous, but a businesslike atmosphere usually prevailed. Obama and Medvedev did solid work on arms control, antiterrorism efforts, Iran’s nuclear program, and the war in Afghanistan. To the bitter outrage of Vladimir Putin, Medvedev’s predecessor and patron, Medvedev even agreed to abstain from, rather than veto, a U.N. Security Council resolution approving NATO air strikes in Libya. But a week after McFaul’s official appointment was announced Putin declared that he would return from the shadows and run for President again in March, 2012. This high-handed “castling” maneuver soured spirits in Moscow, sparking a series of demonstrations in Bolotnaya Square and elsewhere in downtown Moscow. The protesters’ slogan was “Russia Without Putin.”

In the three months between McFaul’s appointment and his arrival in Moscow, a great deal changed. Putin, feeling betrayed by both the urban middle classes and the West, made it plain that he would go on the offensive against any sign of foreign interference, real or imagined. A raw and resentful anti-Americanism, unknown since the seventies, suffused Kremlin policy and the state-run airwaves.

As a new Ambassador, McFaul was hardly ignorant of the chill, but he launched into his work with a characteristic earnestness. “Started with a bang,” he wrote in his official blog. During the next two years, McFaul would be America’s primary witness to the rise of an even harsher form of Putinism — and, often enough, he would be its unwitting target.

William Burns, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and then a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had, coincidentally, come to Moscow that January, and together McFaul and Burns visited a range of Kremlin officials. McFaul also presented his diplomatic credentials to the Russian Foreign Ministry. The next day, they were scheduled to meet at the U.S. Embassy with some of the best-known figures in human-rights circles and leaders of the opposition. When McFaul saw the schedule, he knew it was part of a traditional “dual-track” diplomacy — officials first, then the opposition — but he was also aware of Putin’s darkening mood. Putin had publicly accused Hillary Clinton of giving “the signal” that sparked the Bolotnaya demonstrations. He was also familiar with McFaul’s biography — his long-standing relationships with liberal activists, the shelf of books and articles he’d published on democratization.

McFaul was nervous about these meetings, but, he said, “I was the democracy guy, so we went forward.” The visitors to the Embassy included some of Putin’s fiercest critics, and, after their session with McFaul and Burns, representatives of state television lobbed accusatory questions at them as if they had just received marching orders for an act of high treason.

That night, Channel One, the biggest television station in Russia, turned its rhetorical howitzer on the new Ambassador. Mikhail Leontiev, an acid-tongued conservative who hosts a show called “Odnako” (“However”), declared that McFaul was an expert not on Russia but on “pure democracy promotion.” In the most withering tone he could summon, Leontiev said that McFaul had worked for American N.G.O.s backed by American intelligence; he had palled around with anti-Kremlin activists like the “Internet Führer,” Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who had, damningly, spent some time at Yale. (The listener was meant to interpret “some time at Yale” as roughly “some time inside the incubator of Russophobic conspiracy.”) Leontiev also noted that McFaul had written a book about the Orange Revolution, in Ukraine, and another called “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin.”

“Has Mr. McFaul arrived in Russia to work in his specialty?” Leontiev said. “That is, to finish the revolution?”

Like any effective propagandist, Leontiev had artfully woven the true, the half true, and the preposterous into a fabric of lurid colors. When I asked him about the broadcast recently, he smiled and shrugged: “What can I say? It was very convenient. McFaul made himself vulnerable and we exploited that.”

Andranik Migranyan, a Putin loyalist who directs a Russian-financed institute in New York, told me, “You can’t come and start your ambassadorship by seeing the radical opposition.” He compared it to a Soviet diplomat coming to Washington heading straight for “the Black Panthers or the Weathermen.” [more]