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From Stanford to Spaso House: In Conversation with Michael McFaul

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Interview / I talk to Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia during the Obama Administration.

In January 2009, Michael McFaul, a renowned Stanford political scientist and author of several influential books on Russian politics, joined President Obama's National Security Council. The war between Georgia and Russia had just sent U.S.-Russia relations to their lowest point since the Cold War, and McFaul's job was to advise the President on all Russia- and Central Asia-related matters. For three years he guided the President in designing a strategy known as the "reset" policy, and it appeared to narrow the rift between the two countries.

In 2011, tired of the chaotic lifestyle that comes with working in the White House, McFaul decided to return to Palo Alto. The President had other plans. That September, he nominated McFaul as the second non-career U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation in thirty years. McFaul was excited to return to Russia. He had fallen in love with the country as a Stanford undergraduate studying abroad in the 1980s, and has been returning there ever since--while writing his dissertation on a Rhodes scholarship in the 1990s, while researching his numerous books on democratization and revolution, while working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and during his various roles as a political adviser. Throughout the years he had established relationships within the Russian government and he was looking forward to building on the foundation of his "reset" policy. But when he got to Russia in January 2012, the atmosphere had shifted. A series of street protests against the fraudulent December 2011 parliamentary elections and the corrupt practices of the ruling United Russia Party resulted in a backlash from the authorities and a general distaste toward foreign influence. McFaul's appointment to the ambassadorship quickly elicited suspicion from the Kremlin, as he was a known critic of the Putin regime and proponent of human rights and democratization in Russia (he had published books with titles like Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin). To further complicate things, his second day on the job coincided with a visit from Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, whom, according to protocol, he had to accompany on a meeting with human rights activists and members of Russia's political opposition. The Russian media jumped on the story and within days of arriving, McFaul was portrayed as the agent of Western-imposed revolution. McFaul stayed for two years, during which relations between Russia and the U.S. continued to sour. The day after his departure in late February 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. Since then, the Ukraine crisis has persisted, the West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered. I met with McFaul twice-once in early April 2015, in a conference room at the Harriman Institute the day after he addressed Columbia University at the annual Harriman Lecture, and again a month later over tea at the Omni Berkshire Place hotel in midtown-to discuss his career and this turbulent time in U.S.-Russia relations.

Read the interview in the Fall 2015 issue of Harriman Magazine.


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