Ambassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia—and when it began to fade
The New Yorker | August 11, 2014
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.”
At first, McFaul took the attack personally, not yet realizing that he was, for Putin and official Moscow, a mere foil. “The shit that Leontiev put out on me—this haunted me for the rest of my time in Russia. I was made out to be the guy who came to Moscow to foment revolution,” McFaul told me. “Meanwhile, I was feeling really bad about this fiasco, and in D.C. the mid-level people”—in the Administration—“were saying, Why is McFaul doing this? It was affirmation of why you don’t send people like McFaul to Moscow. Like I was the one screwing up the U.S.-Russia relationship.”
A generation ago, in 1990, as the Soviet Union was lurching toward implosion—with the economy cratering, the Communist Party unravelling, the republics rebelling, the K.G.B. plotting its revenge—McFaul, a graduate student in his mid-twenties, kept showing up in Moscow’s “pro-democracy” circles, hanging out, asking questions, offering assistance and advice. McFaul was a sunny, eager guy, with a wide-open expression, shaggy blond hair, effortful Russian, and an irrepressible curiosity. He had grown up rough in a mining town in Montana. His mother was a secretary, his father a saxophone player in a country-and-Western band. In Moscow, operating in a culture steeped in fatalism and irony, McFaul was the most optimistic, least ironical young man you’d ever want to meet. He handed out instructional manuals translated into Russian with titles like “How to Run for Office.” He was determined to help establish liberal values and institutions—civil society, free speech, democratic norms—in a land that, for a thousand years, had known only absolutism, empire, and the knout. “That’s me,” he says even now. “Mr. Anti-Cynicism. Mr. It Will All Work Out.”
McFaul was ostensibly in Moscow to write a doctoral dissertation on Soviet-African relations. He was, in truth, bored with the quantitative trends in his field of political science—the stark modellings, ziggy graphs, and game theory that seemed so abstract when all around him was the nerve-racked excitement of revolt, the intrigue of political debate and awakening in meeting halls that stank of cheap cigarettes and wet wool. Moscow at that time was a pageant, irresistible to anyone with even a trace of democratic idealism and fellow feeling for the Russians. The sense of historical drama was unmistakable. “Like being in a movie,” McFaul recalled.
The Eastern and Central Europeans, with their simpler narrative of liberation from Soviet occupation, had already sprung the lock of history—or so it seemed—and now the capital of empire was up for grabs. McFaul was addicted to the excitements of revolution. You kept seeing him at demonstrations on Manezh Square or at Luzhniki Stadium, alongside young activists aligned with groups like Democratic Russia and Memorial; there he was at public forums and meetings where the fevered talk was all about how Mikhail Gorbachev was finished, Boris Yeltsin was the answer, and it was only a matter of time before some form of counterattack would come from the reactionary elements inside the secret services and the Communist Party, the gray, angry men, who saw their footing in the world—their power, their salaries and privileges—slipping away.
When McFaul took the time to read, it was rarely for his dissertation. He lived in a miserable hotel room and pored over Crane Brinton’s study of the cycles of rebellion and reaction in “The Anatomy of Revolution,” Trotsky’s account of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the work of the “transitologists” Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, who explored the process by which one political system transforms into another—anything that might feed his understanding of what he was seeing on the streets and what he was hearing in his interviews with the political actors of Moscow: the radicals, the reactionaries, the manifesto drafters.
McFaul had first visited the Soviet Union in 1983, when he was an undergraduate at Stanford. The Palo Alto campus, with its gleam of wealth, had pushed him to the political left. His summer at Leningrad State University was his first time abroad. He was at ease there. After classes, he met with dissidents and consorted with the fartsovshchiki, the young hustlers of bluejeans and hard currency. There are people who encounter Russia and see nothing but the merciless weather, the frowns, the complicated language that, in casual encounters, they hear as rudeness, even menace; and there are those who are entranced by the literature and the music and the talk—the endless talk about eternal matters. McFaul was attuned to this particular kind of Russian romance. But his unusual immersion in politics made him stand out from his fellow-students. He believed, without reservation, that he could take part in the transformation of the world.
That was his habit of mind, a peculiarly American one. He was an idealist, at once ambitious and determinedly naïve. When McFaul was applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, his interviewer took note that McFaul, along with an intelligent and rambunctious classmate named Susan Rice, had helped lead the anti-apartheid movement on the Stanford campus. They occupied a building, campaigned for divestment. Among McFaul’s academic interests was the range of liberation movements in post-colonial Africa: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. How did McFaul reconcile his desire to study at Oxford on a Rhodes, the interviewer inquired, with the fact that its benefactor, Cecil Rhodes, had been a pillar of white supremacy? What would he do with such “blood money”?
“I will use it to bring down the regime,” McFaul said. In the event, both he and Rice won the blood money and went to Oxford.
Over the years, as he developed as a scholar, McFaul made frequent trips to Moscow, and, because of his refusal to stay in the library, some Russian officials grew convinced that he was working for Western intelligence, doing what he could to hasten the fall of the Kremlin’s authority. They took his openhearted activism to be a cover for cunning.
In 1991, McFaul was in St. Petersburg, trying to organize a seminar on local government. He found himself doing business with a man from the mayor’s office named Igor Sechin. He and Sechin took an immediate liking to each other. It turned out that, like McFaul, Sechin was interested in Mozambique. They both spoke Portuguese. Sechin never actually said that his familiarity with matters Mozambican came from having been a young Soviet intelligence operative in Maputo, or that he still was a K.G.B. officer, but McFaul knew the score. What he discovered, as they talked, was that Sechin assumed that McFaul, too, was an intelligence agent.
It was an encounter with a certain historical freight: a generation later, when McFaul became Obama’s Ambassador to Russia, Sechin became the president of Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned, hugely profitable energy conglomerate. He would also be the most important counsellor to the same man he was working for way back in 1991: a career intelligence officer and deputy mayor named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
On the day McFaul was preparing to go home, he went to see his academic supervisor in Moscow, Apollon Davidson. He thanked Davidson and said he’d had a fantastic time and was hoping to return in a few months.
“You are never coming back,” Davidson said.
McFaul was shocked. There was a taxi outside idling, waiting to take him to the airport.
“You came here to do one project,” Davidson said, “and you did a lot of other things—and it isn’t going to happen again.”
“There is a file on me,” McFaul said. A couple of decades ago, a Russian friend from perestroika days who is “still in politics” told him, “I just read something disturbing about you that says you are C.I.A.” McFaul denied it, but he could see that his friend was impressed. The file, after all, had been marked “Sovershenno Sekretno”—“Top Secret.”
“In government, I’ve seen the power of getting a file marked ‘Top Secret,’ ” McFaul said.
In 1996, President Yeltsin was running for reëlection against Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of what was left of the Communist Party. After a few years in office, Yeltsin had soiled his reputation as a reforming democrat. There was his strategy of brutal overkill in Chechnya and the way he empowered, under the banner of privatization, a small circle of billionaire oligarchs to soak up Russia’s resources and help run the country. “Democracy” was roundly known as dermokratiya—“shitocracy.” Yeltsin’s approval numbers plunged to the single digits. For months, it seemed entirely possible that Zyuganov, who attacked the injustices of the Yeltsin regime in favor of the old ideology, could win. McFaul, who had established an outpost of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, had attracted attention in Yeltsin’s circles by writing an article about how Yeltsin could win.
Yeltsin was ailing, alcoholic, and often out of sight. He left his campaign largely to shadowy figures like his bodyguard, Aleksandr Korzhakov. In January, McFaul got a call from “a guy—let’s call him Igor—one of Korzhakov’s guys.” They met at the President Hotel, Yeltsin’s campaign headquarters. “The people I knew were on the ninth floor,” McFaul said to me. “He was on the tenth: metal detectors, guys with guns. And he told me, ‘I am intelligence. I work for Korzhakov. I am in charge of the analytic center.’ ”
Later that year, Igor asked to meet with McFaul again. “We need to have a quiet conversation about the elections,” Igor said. “Let’s go out to Korzhakov’s dacha.”
McFaul was nervous, but an intermediary from Yeltsin’s team told him, “You are better off going than not going.” He called his wife, who was in Palo Alto, and told her, “If I am not back by the end of the day, tell the Embassy.”
McFaul met his contact at the Kremlin and got in his official car, the standard black Volga sedan. They reached the dacha, one of Stalin’s old country residences. “The Chechen war was going hot and heavy, so there was lots of security and guys with guns,” McFaul recalled.
Yeltsin’s people engaged McFaul in a long discussion about the elections. As the conversation developed, McFaul realized that they were implying two things: that he was a C.I.A. agent and that the Yeltsin forces might postpone the elections. What they wanted from Washington, they made clear, was “coöperation.” If the election was postponed, they said, they wanted Washington to “hold your nose and support us.”
Finally, McFaul broke in and said, “Hey, I’m just an untenured assistant professor at Stanford.”
Igor replied, “Stop! I know who you are! I wouldn’t have brought you here if I didn’t.”
The experience, McFaul said, “freaked me out.” He told the Embassy about it.
As the election approached, Yeltsin fired Korzhakov and relied on the largesse, the media outlets, and the strategic advice of the tight circle of oligarchs, who had met secretly in Davos and decided that they could not afford to lose their patron.
On Election Day, “the good guys won,” as McFaul puts it. Yeltsin prevailed. McFaul’s book on the subject, “Russia’s 1996 Presidential Election: The End of Polarized Politics,” is not only dull; it is a whitewash, far too cursory about the shabby nature of the election. When I conveyed that to McFaul, he did not dispute the point, instead saying that the book was “an illustration of the tension between being an advocate and an analyst at the same time.” McFaul said that his academic friends thought the best outcome would have been a fair election; his friends in Russian political circles thought a Zyuganov victory would be a catastrophe, morally worse than a rigged ballot. “I was tormented about that,” he said.
McFaul has written and edited many books on Russia and political transition—some of them useful, some pedestrian, none enduring. From the start, his idealism and ambition lured him away from the library and toward politics and the powerful. He began visiting Washington to talk periodically with members of the Bush Administration, including Bush and Cheney. The Administration’s neoconservatism and McFaul’s liberal interventionism overlapped in the desire to press the “democracy agenda” in the former states of the Soviet Union. In 2004, McFaul counselled the Edwards and the Kerry campaigns.
In late 2006, McFaul got a call from Anthony Lake, who had been the national-security adviser in the Clinton Administration. Lake said that he was putting together a foreign-policy advisory team for “the next President of the United States”—Barack Obama. McFaul told Lake that he was already committed. He was planning to work with Edwards again.
A half hour later, Susan Rice, his old friend from Stanford and Oxford, called him.
“I am part of this thing, too, so get your shit together and join!” she crooned.
“That’s Susan’s personality, and so I said, ‘Yes! Of course!’ The stakes for me were low. Susan had had to defect from the Clintons, and they were tough on her, with all kinds of nasty-grams about people who aren’t loyal.”
Rice had already put in place a kind of shadow National Security Council for Democrats, with various foreign-policy mavens charged with heading up regional directorates. The group was later dubbed the Phoenix Initiative, a name intended to send the message that, in the wake of the Iraq War and the Bush Administration’s Vulcans, American foreign policy, under a Democratic President, would, like the mythical bird, rise from the ashes. Rice declared that the group’s thinking had broken free of the traditional clash in American foreign-policy thinking between realist power politics and liberal idealism. The emphasis was less on big-power politics than on problems like climate change and terrorism, issues that emphasized international institutions and coöperation. Around the same time, Rice and Lake also set up an advisory board for their candidate. McFaul led the division dedicated to the former Soviet Union.
The 2008 Presidential-election contest between Obama and John McCain was mainly about domestic issues. Russia was barely on the agenda—until the summer of 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war. “McCain wanted more conflict, and we were the ones pulling back,” McFaul said. “That was the whole analytic frame of the campaign. . . . We were on defense.” McFaul was among those who pressed Obama to toughen his language and prevailed.
The episode made an impression. Benjamin Rhodes, a close adviser to Obama on foreign policy, said that McFaul’s scholarly background provided “context” that the President appreciated during the campaign and throughout the first term. They talked about everything from just-war theory to questions of development, and yet, McFaul told me, on the “big debate” over realism versus internationalism, he could never quite figure out Obama. “For Barack Obama, it is essential to end those two wars”—Iraq and Afghanistan—“and this retrenchment is in the national interest,” he said. “What I never knew at the time is where he came down on the question of hard interest versus values.”
During one argument among aides in the White House, McFaul took the position that nations need not wait for the development of a middle class before building democratic institutions. As McFaul recalled, “Somebody said, ‘That’s interesting, but that’s not what the President thinks.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting, but if that is what he thinks he is wrong.’ It was a jarring moment, and I thought I might even get fired.” He recalled arguing with Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, about the issue. “Donilon would tell me, Obama is not really interested in that stuff. He’s just a realist.” And yet McFaul, who is not shy about suggesting his own influence, pointed out that Obama gave speeches in Cairo, Moscow, and Accra, in 2009, “making my arguments about why democracy is a good thing. . . . Those speeches made me more optimistic, after all those colleagues telling me he is just a realist.”
“Obama has multiple interests he is thinking about,” McFaul went on. “He has idealist impulses that are real, and then impulses about concerns about unintended consequences of idealism. We were in the Roosevelt Room during the Egypt crisis, and I asked, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘What I want is for this to happen quickly and the Google guy to become President. What I think is that this will be a long-drawn-out process.’ ”
Obama’s advisers and the Washington policy establishment have all spent countless hours trying to square the President’s admiration of George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft—classic realists—with his appointments of interventionists like McFaul, Rice, and Samantha Power. In the end, one leading Russia expert, who has worked for two Administrations, told me, “I think Obama is basically a realist—but he feels bad about it.”
In his first two terms in office, from 2000 to 2008, Vladimir Putin made his priority the reëstablishment of a strong state. He disempowered disloyal regional governors, crushed the oligarchs who did not heed his insistence that they stay out of politics, and obliterated the leadership of the separatist uprising in Chechnya. He took complete control of the main television channels and neutered any opposition political parties. He established postmodern state symbols and an anthem that combined features of the imperial and Communist past. But he was not, foremost, an ideologue. Kleptocracies rarely value theoretical tracts. They value numbered accounts. They value the stability of their own arrangements.
In the heart of the Soviet era, Kremlin leaders, including Lenin and Stalin, wrote scholastic treatises dictating the ideological course for many aspects of life. At the heart of the Communist Party Central Committee was the department of ideology, which laid down the law on everything from the permissible interpretation of history to the dissidents and artists who had to be suppressed, imprisoned, or exiled. By the late Soviet period, though, K.G.B. officers like Putin were nearly as dismissive of Communist ideology as the dissidents were. “The Chekists in his time laughed at official Soviet ideology,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to Putin, told me. “They thought it was a joke.” Putin, in 1999, admitted that Communism had been a “blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization.”
Buoyed by the sharp rise in energy prices, Putin was able to do what Yeltsin had not: he won enormous popular support by paying salaries and pensions, eliminating budget deficits, and creating a growing urban middle class. It was hardly a secret that Putin had also created his own oligarchy, with old Leningrad pals and colleagues from the security forces now running, and robbing, the state’s vast energy enterprises. This almost unimaginably corrupt set of arrangements, which came to be known as Kremlin, Inc., outraged nearly everyone, but the relative atmosphere of stability, in which tens of millions of Russians enjoyed a sense of economic well-being and private liberty, provided Putin with a kind of authoritarian legitimacy.
This relative prosperity and personal freedom was, in fact, unprecedented. For the first time, millions of Russians took vacations abroad, got mortgages, bought foreign cars, remodelled their kitchens, acquired iPhones. The state was indifferent to the way people lived—what they read, where they worshipped, whom they shared a bed with. A sitcom called “Nasha Rasha” featured a gay factory worker in the Urals. “For the States or Sweden, it would have been politically incorrect,” Alexander Baunov, a columnist for the Web site slon.ru, told me. “But for Russia it was a real improvement! No one killed him!” The state media were under close watch by the authorities, and there were occasional arrests to show where the limits were, but there was no return to Sovietism. Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, called the system “sovereign” democracy.
Nor was Putin aggressively anti-American in his first years in power. He craved membership in the world economy and its institutions. He was the first foreign leader to telephone George W. Bush on 9/11 and offer assistance in Afghanistan. He abhorred the influence of foreign N.G.O.s, thinking that they undermined Russian interests, but he wanted membership in the global club. He even talked about Russia joining NATO. “Russia is part of the European culture,” he told the BBC, in 2000. “And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world. So it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.” The spirit of relative amity did not last.
In 2009, after Putin had ceded the Presidency to Medvedev, he hosted Obama at his country residence and lectured the U.S. President on the history of American deceptions. It was an hour before Obama managed more than “hello.” McFaul, who was at that meeting, said, “It was grossly inaccurate, but that is his theory of the world.” Putin demanded that the U.S. cede to him the former Soviet republics—Ukraine above all—as a Russian sphere of influence. He felt that the United States had, in the glow of post-Cold War triumphalism, pushed Russia around, exploiting its weakness to ignore Yeltsin’s protests and bomb Belgrade and Kosovo. Gorbachev had always said that the U.S. had promised that, in exchange for his acquiescence to the reunification of Germany, NATO would not expand to the east. In 2004, NATO absorbed seven new countries—Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states, which Putin took as a particular offense and a geopolitical threat. And then, later that year, came the Orange Revolution, in Ukraine, which Putin saw as a Western project and a foreshadowing of an assault on him.
When, after the Medvedev interregnum, Putin returned to power, in 2012, he perceived the anti-Kremlin protests as an echo of Kiev. The demonstrators had no clear ideology, no leaders. They did not extend much beyond the urban creative and office classes. They had neither the coherence nor the staying power of the protesters on other squares—Taksim, Tahrir, Maidan, Wenceslas. All the same, Putin could not countenance them. What he loathes, his former aide Gleb Pavlovsky told me, is spontaneity in politics. “Putin is anti-revolutionary to his core,” he said. “What happened in Kiev”—on Maidan, in 2014—“was for him absolutely disgusting.”
An avid reader about tsarist Russia, Putin was forming a more coherent view of history and his place within it. More and more, he identified personally with the destiny of Russia. Even if he was not a genuine ideologue, he became an opportunistic one, quoting Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Nikolai Berdyayev, and other conservative philosophers to give his own pronouncements a sense of continuity. One of his favorite politicians in imperial Russia was Pyotr Stolypin, the Prime Minister under Nicholas II. “We do not need great upheavals,” Putin said, paraphrasing Stolypin. “We need a great Russia.” Stolypin had also said, “Give the state twenty years and you will not recognize Russia.” That was in 1909. Stolypin was assassinated by a revolutionary in Kiev, in 1911. But Putin was determined that his opportunity not be truncated: “Give me twenty years,” he said, “and you will not recognize Russia.”
And so now, instead of nurturing the business and creative classes in the big cities, he turned on them. He vilified them on TV; he weakened them with restrictions, searches, arrests, and selective jail terms. He sided now with the deeply conservative impulses, prejudices, and habits of mind of the Russian majority. “There was an idea to gain the support of the majority, to distinguish it from the minority,” Boris Mezhuev, a conservative columnist at Izvestia and the editor of the Web site politconservatism.ru, told me. “This was done harshly.”
Putin’s speeches were full of hostility, lashing out at the West for betraying its promises, for treating Russia like a defeated “vassal” rather than a great country, for an inability to distinguish between right and wrong. He denounced the United States for its behavior in Hiroshima and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Balkans and Libya. He cut off adoptions to America, claiming that “our” babies were being abused by cruel and heedless foreigners. The West was hypocritical, arrogant, self-righteous, and dissolute, according to Putin, so he strengthened his alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church to reëstablish “traditional Russian values.” He approved new laws on “non-traditional” sexual practices—the so-called “anti-gay propaganda” laws. When the feminist performance artists and political activists Pussy Riot burst into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and performed their “Punk Prayer” (“Throw Putin Out!”), the system knew what to do: Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Church, denounced them for “blasphemy,” and the courts, an utterly dependent instrument of the Kremlin, handed down a Draconian sentence. More and more, Putin spoke about “traditional Russian values” and of the uniqueness of Russian “civilization,” a civilization that crossed borders.
An ideology, a world view, was taking shape: Putin was now putting Russia at the center of an anti-Western, socially conservative axis—Russia as a bulwark against a menacing America. “Of course, this is a conservative position,” he said in a speech last year, “but, speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyayev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”
One reason that McFaul was surprised by the assault on him is that he thought he was being careful in his ambassadorial role. He never went to demonstrations. He steered clear of Alexei Navalny.
Still, he was hardly a quiet American. Hillary Clinton had called for U.S. diplomats to use social media, and he was especially ardent, maintaining an active presence, in both Russian and English, on Facebook and Twitter. The young liberal intelligentsia loved McFaul for his openness, his availability. Putin’s people thought his behavior bewildering, adolescent, and hostile.
When Navalny was on trial for a trumped-up charge of embezzlement, McFaul addressed him directly: “I am watching.” And when street reporters stalked McFaul and tried to throw him off his stride, he had a tendency to confront, rather than finesse, his tormentors. Considering McFaul’s sometimes shaky grasp of the Russian idiom, this could make him look both volatile and unconfident.
One winter afternoon, he went to call on the human-rights campaigner Lev Ponomaryov, an old friend from the nineties, and he made the mistake of getting into an unruly debate with a “reporter” from NTV, one of the slavishly loyal television channels. He accused the reporter of somehow knowing his whereabouts through illegal surveillance: “Aren’t you ashamed?” At one point, he blurted out that his diplomatic rights had been violated, that Russia “turned out to be a dikaya strana”—a wild, an uncivilized, country. Later, on Twitter, he said, “I misspoke in bad Russian.” He had meant to say that NTV was behaving wildly. “I greatly respect Russia.” He told a reporter, “I’m not a professional diplomat.” It might not have helped that Navalny, Putin’s nemesis, stepped in and tweeted, “I don’t understand McFaul. He’s got diplomatic immunity. He can just lawfully beat up the NTV journalists. Come on, Mike!”
Another time, McFaul went on Twitter to announce in Russian that he was headed to “Yoburg” for an event. He intended a slangy way of saying Yekaterinburg. Unfortunately, yob is the root of the verb for copulation and his tweet came off as “I am headed to Fucksville.”
These awkward moments were gifts for Putin and his circle, who wanted nothing more than to keep McFaul, and, by extension, the Obama Administration, off balance. At one Kremlin reception, where Putin gave a toast in honor of national independence, a Russian friend told McFaul that he should “lay low,” and said, “You are really on thin ice.”
“What do you mean?” McFaul said.
“I saw Putin and he said, ‘What’s up with this guy? He seems like a real rabble-rouser.’ Putin’s message was to be very careful.”
At the Embassy, McFaul was writing deeply pessimistic memos to the White House about the direction of Russian-American relations. At night, he would go up the stairs and see Kennan’s photograph and wonder if he, too, would get expelled from Moscow.
When Obama was reëlected, in 2012, McFaul was among those who pressed him to visit Moscow, to see what business there was to do with Putin. “So the trains started rolling, we got dates, and our job was to develop a substantive agenda to make this worthwhile,” McFaul said. “This was the last push to try to engage on some of these issues, and it all struck out—arms control, missile defense. It got to be where I was having doubts whether the President should come. It looked like chickenshit to me. And I thought that would be a way worse optic than not coming at all.”
Then Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong. The Russians greeted him with barely concealed delight. The summit was off. “And suddenly,” McFaul said, “we were in a different world.”
The imagery of Putinism, with its ominous warnings against political chaos and outside interference, has long been in evidence. All you have to do is watch television. In 2008, state television broadcast a cheesy docudrama called “The Destruction of an Empire: The Lesson of Byzantium,” which was hosted and produced by Tikhon Shevkunov, a Russian Orthodox priest whose church, the Sretensky Monastery, is just down the street from Lubyanka, K.G.B. headquarters. Shevkunov, who has known Putin for many years, is widely rumored to be the Russian President’s dukhovnik, his spiritual adviser. The film purports to be a history of the Byzantine Empire’s fall at the hands of the perfidious West, and not, as scholars have it, to the Ottoman Turks, who conquered Constantinople in 1453. The film is a crude allegory, in which, as the Byzantine historian Sergey Ivanov points out, Emperor Basil is an “obvious prototype of Putin, the wealthy man Eustathios is a hint at the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, while Bessarion of Nicea is easily associated with another tycoon, Boris Berezovsky,” and so on. Shevkunov’s film was, in effect, about the need to resist Western influence and to shore up central authority in Russia.
Such phenomena are now common fare. The airwaves are filled with assaults on the treachery of Russian liberals and American manipulations. Dmitri Kiselyov, the head of Russia Today, Putin’s newly created information agency, and the host, on Sunday nights, of the TV magazine show “News of the Week,” is a masterly, and unapologetic, purveyor of the Kremlin line. With his theatrical hand gestures and brilliantly insinuating intonation, he tells his viewers that Russia is the only country in the world that can turn the U.S. into “radioactive dust,” that the anti-gay-propaganda laws are insufficiently strict, and that Ukraine is not a real country but merely “virtual.” When I remarked on his delivery, during a recent visit to his offices, Kiselyov was pleased: “Gestures go right to the subconscious without any resistance.”
In 1991, Kiselyov made a name for himself by refusing to go on the air and broadcast the Kremlin line about an attack on the Baltic independence movements, but now he is an enthusiastic, and often vicious, voice in defense of the state.
“I preserved the capacity to evolve,” he told me. “Back then, we believed we could build a democracy without a state. . . . People said, ‘So what, we will just be a collection of little Latvias.’ But society began to change, and I am a reflection of that change.”
Kiselyov worked as a broadcaster in Kiev during the Orange Revolution and recalls being sickened by the upheaval, which he says was sparked by insidious American interference. “Western journalism, in large part, reproduces values,” Kiselyov said. “When I saw the horror in Ukraine and I returned to Russia, I realized we need to produce values. . . . Putin didn’t make me this way. The Orange Revolution did.” As a master of theatrical sarcasm and apocalyptic rhetoric, Kiselyov eclipses Bill O’Reilly, and as a theoretician of conspiracy he shames Glenn Beck. He tells his viewers that, in Ukraine, fascists abound, the U.S. State Department underwrites revolution, and “life is not worth a single kopeck.” But he insists, “The presentation of me as a minister of propaganda is itself a form of propaganda.”
Although Kiselyov denies that he gets direct instructions from the Kremlin, he was appointed by Putin and is under no illusions about what is expected of him. When he goes on an anti-Semitic tirade against an opposition journalist or mocks American officials, he is doing what he was hired to do. He is a wily, cynical man, and well briefed. When we met, he quickly wanted me to know that he had somehow seen a film of a speech I’d given a couple of years ago in Moscow. “You mesmerized the public, you made them zombies!” he said, delighted with himself. “They looked at you the way they would a boa constrictor!”
When I noted that Putin’s tone had changed, he said, “I agree. Putin now talks more about ideology and about the system of values and the spiritual origins of Russia. In this sense, he, too, is a person of tardy development. He became President unexpectedly. He had no preparation for this role. He had to respond to challenges in the course of things. At first, he had to reconsolidate the state. Now he has inspired a new energy that can be drawn from the national character and the system of values that are rooted in our culture.”
Putin, Kiselyov has said on the air, “is comparable among his predecessors in the twentieth century only with Stalin.” He meant it as a compliment.
Nearly a quarter century after the fall of empire, Putin has unleashed an ideology of ressentiment. It has been chorussed by those who, in 1991, despaired of the loss not of Communist ideology but of imperial greatness, and who, ever since, have lived with what Russians so often refer to as “phantom-limb syndrome”: the pain of missing Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic states; the pain of diminishment. They want revenge for their humiliation.
“People in the West twenty-five years ago were surprised by how calmly Russians seemed to absorb the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Boris Mezhuev, the conservative columnist, said. “It seemed to them as if we had voted on it! But in no time at all people were told that everything they had worked for was nonsense. They were told that the state they lived in was based on an unfair idea, that ideology was a myth, the West was only a friend—a complete reversal of ideas. The West underestimated the shock. Only now are we facing the consequences.”
There is an air of defiance, even a heedlessness, to Putin’s behavior. As the conservative commentator Stanislav Belkovsky put it to me, “It was clear that the actions in Crimea would lead to sanctions, capital flight, and a deterioration of Russia’s reputation, but nobody supporting the aggression thought twice. The imperial horn has been sounded. But we are a Third World kleptocracy hiding behind imperial symbols. There are no resources for a true imperial revival.”
Nevertheless, the voices of neo-imperialism are loud and prominently aired. One evening, I went to see Aleksandr Prokhanov, a far-right newspaper editor and novelist, whom I’ve known since the late eighties. In the Soviet period, he was known as the Nightingale of the General Staff, a writer commissioned to ride and chronicle the glories of nuclear subs and strategic bombers and to visit the Cold War battlefields of Kampuchea and Angola. He was a panegyrist of Stalin’s military-industrial state and the achievements of Sovietism. “No one,” he told me, “could describe a nuclear reactor like I could.”
Prokhanov loathed Gorbachev and Yeltsin—Gorbachev for his weakness and lack of regard for the Soviet system, Yeltsin for “hollowing out the state.” He not only favored the K.G.B.-led putsch against Gorbachev, in 1991; he was the principal author of an ominous manifesto, “A Word to the People,” shortly before Gorbachev was put under house arrest at his vacation home in Crimea and tanks rolled into the center of Moscow. He began publishing a newspaper called Dyen (the Day), which collected the fevered rants of all the forces in opposition to the democrats: imperial Stalinists, Russia-for-Russians nationalists, National Bolsheviks, ugly sorts who traced Russia’s troubles to “international Jewry,” Masonic conspiracy, George Soros, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Foundation. Somewhere along the line, the paper was relaunched as Zavtra (Tomorrow).
Prokhanov is now in his seventies. In the Yeltsin era, the “democratic” media rarely invited Prokhanov on the air. These days, the Nightingale sings brightly and nationally; he appears regularly on talk shows and prime-time debates, a deliberate attempt by the regime to give voice to ascendant, approved ideas. When a liberal is trotted out to debate him, viewers invariably vote in overwhelming numbers for Prokhanov’s arguments.
“I miss the nineties! They were the best!” he said with mock despair. “I was in the opposition and was alone battling against the system! Now I am part of the system.”
When I asked him if he wasn’t being exploited by the regime, he smiled indulgently.
“Everyone is being used, including yourself,” Prokhanov said. “We give the system a body, a shape. We’ve explained to the system why it’s great, why it’s in a condition of blooming, and that it exists because of God’s will. And the system has been enlivened by this.” Prokhanov admires, above all, Putin’s strength, as a matter of both image and policy.
Putin came to power thanks to Yeltsin, but Putin did not hesitate to put some distance between himself and his ailing patron. Bill Clinton, at the very end of his time in office, visited Putin at the Kremlin, and at one point in their time together Putin led Clinton on a tour of the vast and magnificent premises. (Compared with the Kremlin, the West Wing of the White House is as grand as an Ethan Allen furniture outlet.) First, they visited a gym, full of state-of-the-art equipment. “I spend a lot of time here,” Putin said, body-proud even then. They proceeded down a long hall to another room; this one was gloomy, abandoned, with a hospital bed, a respirator, a cart filled with medical paraphernalia. Putin turned to the President. “The previous resident spent a lot of time here,” he said.
Putin’s displays of shirtless virility may play as a joke abroad, but to supporters like Prokhanov strength and its projection are at the center of Putinism. “Putin prevented the disintegration of Russia,” Prokhanov said, echoing a widely held sentiment. “In him I saw the traits of a traditional Russian ruler. He struck out at the oligarchs who had controlled Yeltsin. They would pour some vodka for Yeltsin, get him drunk, and they ran the country. Putin destroyed the Yeltsin élite and created a new élite from the siloviki”—the leaders of the security services and the military.
During the anti-Putin protests two years ago, Prokhanov attended counter-demonstrations elsewhere in Moscow. “These young liberals wanted to get rid of Putin and practically send him to the fate of Qaddafi. There was an imbalance in political and ideological forces. The liberals dominated everywhere in mass media, culture, the economy, and Putin decided to correct this imbalance and so he began to grow the patriotic forces.”
Prokhanov could read the signals of encouragement, but he does not pretend to see Putin often. (“My connection to Putin is mystical. We meet each other in our dreams. Which is the best place. No one eavesdrops there.”) Together with members of other institutions associated with the Kremlin—the armed forces, the intelligence services, and the Russian Orthodox Church—he started an intellectual group called the Izborsky Club. In the nineties, Yeltsin had called on a group of intellectuals to help formulate a new “Russian idea,” one that relied largely on a liberal, Westernized conception of the nation. It went nowhere. Now, with such notions as “democracy” and “liberalism” in eclipse, groups like the Izborsky Club, Prokhanov says, are a “defense factory where we create ideological weapons to resist the West.” He said the group recently organized a branch in eastern Ukraine, led by the pro-Russian separatists. “The liberals used to be in charge in all spheres,” Prokhanov said. “Now we are crowding them out.”
According to ideologues like Prokhanov, the thousand-year shape of Russian history is defined by the rise, fall, and reassertion of empire. “These empires flower and become powerful and then they fall off a precipice and leave behind a black hole,” he said. “And in the black hole statehood disappears. But then the state reëmerges as the result of some sort of mysterious forces.” So far, Prokhanov explained, there have been four great empires. The first, a confederacy of princedoms with its center in Kiev, was invaded by the Tatars, in the thirteenth century. Then came the Moscovy tsardom, which featured the reign of Ivan the Terrible and was transformed into an empire by Peter the Great at the turn of the eighteenth century. Then came the three-hundred-year reign of the Romanovs, who gave way to the Bolsheviks in 1917. Finally, Prokhanov said, Stalin “took Russian statehood out of that black hole, put the state on its feet, built factories, produced scholars, and won the Great Patriotic War against Germany and conquered outer space.” That empire, the Soviet Union, crashed in 1991. Again, there was a ten-year-long black hole. “Yeltsin is the black hole of modern Russian history,” Prokhanov said. Under Putin, Russian statehood reëmerged. In his latest book, which Prokhanov gave me as a gift, he has a set piece addressed to Putin called “The Symphony of the Fifth Empire.”
Prokhanov is pleased to conclude that Russia is entering a prolonged war with the West—a cold war, possibly worse. “There is always danger of worse,” he said, “even worse than nuclear war—and that is soulless surrender.” Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, he insisted, the West was, through its spies and diplomats, through its perfidious deals with weak Russian leaders, able to achieve its objective: the destruction of the state. The West, he said, “destroyed the Soviet Union without setting off a single bomb.”
Nothing has lifted the spirits of intellectuals like Prokhanov—and tens of millions of their countrymen—quite like Putin’s decision to flout international opinion and annex Crimea. Prokhanov pronounced himself “ecstatic” about it. One of his favorite writers for Zavtra, Igor Strelkov, is a former Russian intelligence agent who is leading the separatists in Donetsk, and is widely believed to be among those who bear responsibility for the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. On the day of the catastrophe, Prokhanov posted a veritable ode to Strelkov on the Zavtra Web site, saying that the Russian fight in eastern Ukraine was a battle for “divine justice” and comparing Strelkov—“Russian warrior, knight, perfect hero”—to the most fabled generals in national history. To Prokhanov, this glorification of an armed agent is only natural, the war for Ukraine a matter of highest principle.
“This is a great country with only arbitrary borders,” Prokhanov said. “People grabbed up our territory, chopped it up into bits. Some people got used to this state of affairs and didn’t notice that their extremities had been chopped off—including the very pleasant extremity between your legs—and so it was with Ukraine. . . . Russians had to choose: ruin their relationship with the West, which was the very axe that chopped Russia into bits in the first place, or act without fear, because now Russia has an axe of its own.”
“When you see what is going on in Iraq, you can see that America is powerless to respond,” Prokhanov went on. “America brought chaos to the Middle East. Al Qaeda has its own state. And now Obama doesn’t want to send bombers to destroy it. We poor Russians have to go destroy it. Aren’t you ashamed?”
Prokhanov is hardly an outlier on today’s ideological scene in Russia. Nor is the geopolitical theorist, mystic, and high-minded crackpot Aleksandr Dugin, who has published in Prokhanov’s newspapers. He was once as marginal as a Lyndon LaRouche follower with a card table and a stack of leaflets. He used to appear mainly on SPAS (Salvation), an organ of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now the state affords him frequent guest spots on official television.
Dugin is in his mid-fifties and wears a beard worthy of Dostoyevsky. His father, he says, “probably” worked for military intelligence. His parents divorced when he was three. He hated Soviet society. He hated his family. “I hated the world I was born into,” he said. As a teen-ager, he fell into a circle of eccentric kitchen intellectuals, young people who despised Communism and the West with equal fervor. “They were kind of loonies,” Dugin told me. He attended the Moscow Aviation Institute, but was thrown out for his anti-Soviet, far-right politics.
Dugin’s intellectual journey includes dalliances at various times with pagans, priests, monarchists, fascists, neo-Bolsheviks, and imperialists. He admires far-right European theorists like the Weimar conservative Carl Schmitt; he admires various strains of the European New Right. He is a follower of René Guénon, a French mid-century philosopher who espoused the doctrine that became known as Traditionalism, which bemoans the decline of man since Creation and rejects modernity and rationalism. His most powerful influence is the Eurasianists, who envisioned Russia as a unique civilization, neither European nor Asian, with its own “special destiny” and grandeur.
The world, for Dugin, is divided between conservative land powers (Russia) and libertine maritime powers (the U.S. and the U.K.)—Eternal Rome and Eternal Carthage. The maritime powers seek to impose their will, and their decadent materialism, on the rest of the world. This struggle is at the heart of history. For Dugin, Russia must rise from its prolonged post-Soviet depression and reassert itself, this time as the center of a Eurasian empire, against the dark forces of America. And this means war. Dugin rejects the racism of the Nazis, but embraces their sense of hierarchy, their romance of death. “We need a new party,” he has written. “A party of death. A party of the total vertical. God’s party, the Russian analogue to the Hezbollah, which would act according to wholly different rules and contemplate completely different pictures.”
For all of Dugin’s extremism, he has, in the past decade, found supporters in the Russian élite. According to the Israeli scholar Yigal Liverant and other sources, Dugin’s work is read in the Russian military academy. He has served as an adviser to Gennady Seleznyov, the former chairman of the Russian parliament. His Eurasia Movement, which was founded in 2001, included members of the government and the official media. He declared his “absolute” support for Putin, and when he pressed his political positions in public it was usually to take the most hard-line positions possible, particularly on Georgia and Ukraine. In 2008, he was appointed head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University. Dugin used to brag that “Putin is becoming more and more like Dugin.” And indeed Putin speaks more and more in terms of Russian vastness, Russian exceptionalism, of Russia as a moral paradigm.
When I asked Dugin about his connection to, or influence over, Putin, though, Dugin carefully disavowed any “personal connection” to the President. “I doubt that he knows who I am,” he said. “My influence on politics is zero, on government zero. I am working only on my Platonic vision of things.” Yet the mystic chords of that vision have come to reverberate widely in Russian society.
Dugin began to visit the West in 1989. Even though he spent most of his time calling on like-minded leaders of the European New Right, such as Alain de Benoist, he loathed his time there. Paris and Berlin were, in 1989, “worse than the Soviet Union.” Commercialism had obliterated the European culture he loved and reduced its citizens to a state of profound “loneliness.” As for the Americans, he found them “honest and clear and pragmatic and very free, and they are not so corrupt or hypocritical or decadent as Europe—but they are absolutely wrong at the same time in the metaphysical sense. They have a cult of real evil there. What they have taken for the most important value—individuality—is absolutely wrong. . . . I think American society is simply insane.”
The day before I called on Dugin at his office, he had been mysteriously dismissed from his teaching post at the university. He had apparently gone too far. On the air, he had called on Russian forces to attack Ukraine with the full force of the Army—“Kill! Kill! Kill!”—and made it plain, on social media, that he was deeply disappointed in Putin’s decision to limit himself to the annexation of Crimea.
Dugin said that he conceived of Putin as a man divided within himself—“the solar Putin,” who is a Russian patriot and a fierce conservative, and “the lunar Putin,” who is “conformist” and pro-Western. Dugin is a sun worshipper. Only the invasion and annexation of Ukraine will satisfy him.
In the Moscow of Putin Redux, Michael McFaul could not hope to make many inroads. And with every week his and his family’s life in Moscow became more unnerving.
“They ran all kinds of operations against me,” McFaul told me when we met this winter at the Olympics, in Sochi. There were demonstrators outside Spaso and the American Embassy. Russians, presumably paid stooges, posted on social media that McFaul was everything from a spy to a pedophile. There were death threats. Russian intelligence agents occasionally followed McFaul in his car, and even showed up at his kids’ soccer games. The family felt under siege. “They wanted us to know they were there,” he said. “They went out of their way to make us feel their presence, to scare us.”
McFaul was pleased to see that some of his old friends—human-rights activists like Lev Ponomaryov—had remained steadfast friends and true to their principles, but many had sold themselves out for money or Kremlin favor. People he had first met in the pro-democracy movement more than twenty years ago were now feeding at the trough of authoritarian power and the various business conglomerates aligned with it: they were Kremlin officials and advisers, oil and gas magnates, highly obedient intellectuals. Sergei Markov, one of his closest friends from the old days, and a co-author with him of a book called “The Troubled Birth of Russian Democracy,” was now a Putin loyalist.
Markov, who speaks decent English, frequently goes on foreign television to make the Kremlin’s case. He has accused Blackwater of assassinating innocent Ukrainians at Maidan. He has said that Russian doctors were devising a “special medicine” to “cure” gays and lesbians and move them toward “normal sexuality.” He is always on call to attack Obama.
I knew Markov, too, when McFaul did, and I had a hard time believing that he had become so reactionary, so shameless. I asked him about his outlandish remarks about gays on television. Was it true what he had said—that Russian doctors were working on a “special” gay-reversal medicine?
“I will speak frankly,” he said. “Russian medicine is not working on this. But I don’t want to talk about gays—but every time they ask about gays! I personally believe homosexuality is part of a human mind’s nature. And I believe homosexuality is behind every human being’s nature, one per cent, two per cent, and it can develop under some circumstances. And I am very sorry, but I will make a strong comparison—it’s like sadism. Sadism is in every human’s psychology. But it can develop only under some circumstances. If someone becomes gay, it is also, I believe, bad for him. . . . Someone can say, ‘I am proud that I am gay.’ O.K., I can believe. But if they say, ‘I am happy I am gay,’ I don’t trust that. It just isn’t true.”
Markov holds a variety of academic and governmental advisory posts, and when I paid him a visit at his office he allowed that he was “a little bit” conspiratorial in his thinking these days. He said that “the international oligarchy—Soros, the Rockefellers, the Morgans—all these big, rich families and networks” were backing an attempt to topple Putin. “They want to take control of Russian gas and oil resources.” That there is such a conspiracy afoot is also “clear to Putin.”
Putin himself has not been reluctant to express his sense of such hidden intrigues. When Secretary of State John Kerry came to town for the first time, he and McFaul went together to see Putin. At one point, Putin stared at McFaul across the table and said, “We know that your Embassy is working with the opposition to undermine me.”
“What do you mean?” Kerry said.
“We know this,” Putin said.
“Putin didn’t want to go into details,” McFaul continued. “He stared right at me. . . . That kind of threatening, we-will-prevail look.”
On February 4th, McFaul announced that he would step down as Ambassador following the Sochi Olympics. Angered by the anti-gay-propaganda laws, the Obama Administration had scaled back its delegation to the event. They sent no top officials and made sure that the most prominent figures were gay athletes. When I had breakfast with McFaul in Sochi, he made it clear that he was keeping a low profile and leaving after just a few days. His family was waiting for him in Palo Alto. For such an easygoing guy, McFaul can show surprising flashes of temper and irritation. In Sochi, he just seemed sombre. He had lasted two years in Moscow, hardly a truncated term, and he had poured his heart into the job, but his ambassadorship had not been a success. It couldn’t have been, not when, in McFaul’s words, the U.S.-Russia relationship was “at its lowest point since the post-Soviet period began, in 1991.”
In March, after Putin annexed Crimea, McFaul wrote what he saw as his “Kennan” manifesto for the Times’ Op-Ed page. He endorsed the Administration’s policy—sanctions, isolation, expulsion from international organizations like the G-8—but he also admitted that the U.S. “does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century.” He recalled that when he was Ambassador and challenged his Russian interlocutors on issues of international law and a commitment to sovereignty, he was met with “What about Iraq?” And, in a subtle jab at Obama, he wrote, “We are enduring a drift of disengagement in world affairs. After two wars, this was inevitable, but we cannot swing too far. As we pull back, Russia is pushing forward.”
A few months after our meeting in Sochi, I went to see McFaul in Palo Alto. We rode around town in his car. It smelled as if he had bought it last week. His offices—he has three of them, for various bureaucratic reasons—overflowed with books that now seem superfluous: endless volumes on the perestroika years, books about transitions to democratic governance. I glanced at the book McFaul had published with Sergei Markov and remarked on how much Markov had changed.
“When I met him, he was against the status quo, he was for change,” McFaul said. “He was for social democracy. But, remember, they hadn’t had decades to discuss ideas. They were against the regime—that was the main thing, being against. This happens in lots of transitions: a coalition against Them. And then what they are for gets worked out in the post-revolutionary phase. That’s natural and normal. What’s a little more depressing are those others who get bought out and co-opted for financial reasons.”
Although McFaul feels a deep sense of outrage about Putin, he also understood the mind-set of resentment and conspiracy. “I didn’t go to foment revolution,” he said. “I went to take the reset to the next stage. That was my mandate.” He added, “Obama people don’t sponsor color revolutions. Other Administrations had done this. Has the U.S. used covert operations to foment regime change? The answer is yes. I don’t want to get in trouble or go to jail, but has the U.S. supported the opposition to bring about political change? Serbia is a paradigmatic case: direct money to the opposition to destabilize things, and it was successful.” He also cited the overthrow of Mossadegh, in 1953, in Iran, and the support for the Nicaraguan Contras.
“Putin has a theory of American power that has some empirical basis,” McFaul went on. “He strongly believes this is a major component of U.S. foreign policy. He has said it to the President, to Secretary Kerry. He even believes we sparked the Arab Spring as a C.I.A. operation. He believes we use force against regimes we don’t like. . . . By the way, he damn well knows that the government of the Soviet Union used covert support. He worked for one of the instruments of that policy. He really does kind of superimpose the way his system works onto the way he thinks our system works. He grossly exaggerates the role of the C.I.A. in the making of our foreign policy. He just doesn’t get it. Or maybe he does get it and doesn’t portray it that way. I struggle with that: is he really super-clever and this is his psych op, or does he believe it? I think he does believe that we are out to get him.”
Last month, Obama named a new Ambassador to Moscow: John Tefft, a career diplomat who has been Ambassador to Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia. This is a geography that will not necessarily enamor Tefft to the Kremlin.
On July 4th, I went with some Russian friends to Spaso House for the annual Independence Day party. The place was filled with hundreds of guests, diplomats from the other embassies, Russian officials, members of the downtrodden opposition. McFaul loved throwing these parties. He loved the jazz and blues bands he got to play in the back yard, the talk over the buffet tables, the intrigue, the conversation, the promise of it all. I sent McFaul an e-mail saying I’d somehow never been to Spaso and found the scale of the place shocking.
“The scale is shocking indeed,” he wrote back from Palo Alto. “Big downgrade to our place here at Stanford. I saw photos and got emails from people at July 4th, which made me very nostalgic.”
On July 17th, a surface-to-air missile shot Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 out of the air over the Donetsk region of Ukraine, killing almost three hundred men, women, and children. Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies agree that the evidence implicates pro-Russian separatist forces in the region, which are funded, directed, and supported by Vladimir Putin, in Moscow.
Prokhanov and Dugin were entirely in tune with the reigning propaganda. All blame lay with Obama and the “illegal regime” in Kiev. “America did this—with a hand from Ukraine,” Prokhanov told me. “How could it be otherwise? A catastrophe like this helps America, not Russia. It serves to demonize Novorossiya and the forces there. It demonizes them to look like Al Qaeda. It brings us back to the sort of moment when Ronald Reagan called us the ‘evil empire.’ It tightens the international noose on Russia and it brings powerful pressure to bear on Putin, pressure designed to break his will. And, by blaming this on us, it helps our liberal intelligentsia consolidate their forces, the way the Orange Revolution and the Bolotnaya demonstrations did. There is a history to such conspiracies. Or have you forgotten your General Colin Powell at the U.N. with his ‘evidence’ and his theories about Saddam Hussein?”
McFaul is trying to enjoy his return to paradisal Palo Alto. His wife, Donna, is happier now that the family is no longer followed by spies and hostile reporters. The boys are spending long summer days at leisure. But McFaul can’t fully escape the tragic course of things.
“Just when I thought relations between the U.S. and Russia couldn’t get any lower, this tragedy happened,” McFaul said. “Of course, Putin could use this tragedy/accident/terrorist attack to distance himself from the insurgents that he has been supporting. It gives him a face-saving out. He could say, ‘They went too far, enough is enough. Time now to get serious about deëscalation and negotiation.’ I assign this possible outcome a small probability. More likely is that he will not change his course, the U.S. will then increase sanctions, and the war will continue. Neither scenario, however, offers a way to reverse this negative trajectory in U.S.-Russia relations. I really don’t see a serious opening until after Putin retires, and I have no idea when that will be.”
“In the long run, I am still very optimistic about Russia and Russians,” he went on. “In my two years as Ambassador, I just met too many young, smart, talented people who want to be connected to the world, not isolated from it. They also want a say in the government. They are scared now, and therefore not demonstrating, but they have not changed their preferences about the future they want. Instead, they are just hiding these preferences, but there will be a day when they will express them again. Putin’s regime cannot hold these people down forever. I do worry about the new nationalism that Putin has unleashed, and understand that many young Russians also embrace these extremist ideas. I see it on Twitter every day. But, in the long run, I see the Westernizers winning out. I just don’t know how long is the long run.”
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992.