A Gentleman in Moscow

By Jennifer K. Armstrong

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, takes on a new chapter. (Spencer Brown / Nob Hill Gazette)

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and current Stanford professor-slash-author, turns the page.

These days, Michael McFaul bikes every day from his home on Stanford University’s campus to his job as a professor of political science. He is free of the suit and tie he used to wear — and the drivers and security guards who used to surround him — when he spent his days consulting with President Barack Obama in the White House Situation Room, whispering with Obama in a specially built soundproof room in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, or drawing the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

In fact, you might know McFaul as the guy Putin wanted President Donald Trump to turn over to Russia for questioning in exchange for the 12 Russians indicted for hacking the 2016 presidential election. The request, apparently made during a private meeting between Putin and Trump as part of the two countries’ 2018 Helsinki summit, sparked widespread American concern when Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, didn’t immediately repudiate the suggestion that the United States give up a former state official to an adversary. Instead, she said the president thought it was an “interesting idea.”

The Senate passed a unanimous resolution to oppose this idea, and the president backed away from it afterward. But the incident made one thing clear: That blond, newscaster-looking guy biking around Stanford is a big international deal.

In fact, he’s one of the biggest, given the last few years of renewed tension between Russia and the United States. McFaul has spent his adult life studying, working with and working in Russia. Now that life’s work, summarized in his recent New York Times best-seller From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, serves as a key to understanding the defining international relations predicament of our time.

This makes for the public emotional roller-coaster ride McFaul never anticipated his job becoming. “During that fiasco in Helsinki, there was a moment when I felt like my own government wasn’t protecting me,” he says. “Then thousands of people reached out to me and said, ‘We got your back, thank you for helping us understand this stuff, thank you for your service.’ That has been the positive thing to come out of what is otherwise a pretty tragic story in U.S.-Russia relations.”

Born and raised in Montana, McFaul became interested in Russia while he was an undergraduate at Stanford in the1980s. He studied the Russian language in the then-Soviet Union and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and Slavic languages. He got his master’s from Stanford in Slavic and East European studies in1986, and his doctorate from St. John’s College, Oxford in international relations in 1991.

His book details his time spent studying the dissolution of the Soviet Union from the inside and his work with groups hoping to push the region toward market economics and democracy, all the way through to his consultations with the Obama administration and his stint as ambassador in Putin’s Russia. Between 1988 and 2012, the longest he’d ever been away from Russia was three months. Now, because of his stymied relationship with Putin, he hasn’t returned since 2014.

So while he loves Palo Alto, he misses Russia more than ever and doesn’t know if he’ll return. “Most of my Russia fix comes virtually on Twitter,” he says. “Social media allows me to interact with Russians daily — sometimes with friends, sometimes as an ambassador.” When that isn’t enough, he and his wife, Donna, go to a Georgian restaurant in Palo Alto called Bevri. It’s not classically Russian food, but, he says, “Georgian was without question our favorite cuisine when we lived in Russia.”

His life has shifted from helping to shape U.S. policy on Russia to explaining the current tensions — now at their highest since the Cold War — from his unique perspective. In addition to his work at Stanford, he serves as an analyst for NBC News, writes for The Washington Post, and tours the country speaking. In fact, he was reporting on the Helsinki summit for NBC when he unexpectedly became part of the story.

McFaul was on the air with anchor Lester Holt while the news broke that Putin had proposed questioning about a dozen Americans he claimed were involved with British financier Bill Browder, who has tangled with Putin’s government for years. Russian courts convicted him in absentia on charges of tax fraud; Browder lobbied the U.S. government to pass a law to punish Russia for human rights violations after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in mysterious circumstances in a Russian prison.

At Helsinki, Putin leveled a new charge that Browder had funneled $400,000 in Russian earnings to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign with the help of several Americans. The Americans who Putin wanted to question hadn’t been named yet, so McFaul’s on-air commentary was neither personal nor alarmed. He summarizes his response as: “Well, the president doesn’t understand what Putin’s talking about here. They’ll straighten it out. Of course no American president would ever hand over American citizens.”

On the plane back to America the next day, McFaul started getting emails from Russian journalists as Putin’s team gave a press conference about the matter, enumerating Putin’s exact American targets, including McFaul. Then came the U.S. response: Trump was considering the offer. “That’s when I got nervous,” McFaul says.

He’s since grown more confident that he’s not in imminent danger. But he can’t travel internationally as he used to, for fear that a foreign government might turn him over to Putin. So instead, he travels America, sharing his experiences, expertise and concerns about U.S.-Russia relations. Of course, the questions he gets are less likely to be about the details of the Magnitsky Act and more likely to be about spies or, more specifically, the dossier compiled by British intelligence officer Christopher Steele detailing supposed “kompromat” the Russian government collected as leverage against Trump … or, even more specifically, the “Ritz-Carlton stuff,” as McFaul calls it.

(In late March, Robert Mueller — the special counsel in charge of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the2016 election — delivered his much-anticipated report to Attorney General William P. Barr. Weeks later, a redacted version became public, revealing that Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy, despite “numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign.”)

McFaul’s response to any and all questions regarding whether Russia may have tapes of Trump in compromising situations at the Moscow Ritz is to talk about his own experience at the Ritz in 2009. “The White House security people built a submarine-like structure, with every piece shipped from the United States, so that we could have a private conversation with President Obama at the Ritz-Carlton,” he says, “just as an indication of how paranoid we were.”

These days, McFaul can’t help missing, at times, the other accoutrements of the job as well: namely, the chefs and the Russian ambassador’s mansion, Spaso House. “I didn’t have to have cultural programs to go to, because they would happen in my house,” he recalls, comparing his current and former lives. “Like I had Herbie Hancock, somebody I used to idolize as a kid, perform at my house for 500 of my friends. Our house on campus could fit in the Chandelier Room of Spaso House.”

That he [Putin] is so animated about me five years after I’ve left government underscores to me that the principles that I believe in are important ones.

Michael McFaul

That said, there are advantages to his current life: namely, time with his wife and two sons, who are in high school and college. There are Stanford basketball games, campus concerts, and runs on the Dish. He drives or bikes instead of being driven, no bodyguards in sight. He doesn’t have to wear a suit and tie all the time; now, his coat and tie hang in his office on campus in case he needs to dash to a TV appearance. He loves the work he’s doing on the speaking circuit and at Stanford alongside other former politicos, such as former Secretaries of State George Shultz, who served under President Ronald Reagan, and Condoleeza Rice, who served under President George W. Bush. He calls them both friends and mentors.

But he’s not sure any job will ever measure up to being at the center of things. “Kibitzing on the sidelines about what we should do is nothing compared with being in the White House Situation Room.” Even — perhaps especially — if it means incurring the lifelong wrath of a strongman like Putin: “That he is so animated about me five years after I’ve left government underscores to me that the principles that I believe in are important ones,” McFaul says. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t bother.

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