On a warm winter night in 2014, I was lost and alone on a street corner in Moscow. The city is excessively confusing, and I was confused.
Soon, a group of friendly Russians joined my search for a hidden jazz club. After 10 minutes of pointing, loud talking and laughing, an American in Moscow finally found his club.
For a man who grew up in Colorado in the 1970s, this Moscow moment was uplifting and surprising. The American mindset of my youth didn’t teach me to hate Russians. That mindset did instruct me to believe evil might be lurking in their commie minds. I encountered a crowd of kindness, not evil.
Michael McFaul first visited Russia in 1991-92 as a college student in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. He listened to Led Zeppelin with Russian friends. He made an effort to listen, understand and show respect. He embarked on lifelong friendships.
“Some people like to assign cultural reasons and classic civilization reasons for why Russians and Americans can’t get along,” McFaul says. “I don’t see it that way.
“If you go back then, to 1991-92, most Russians deeply admired America. There was no ill will. I was treated as a rock star in Russia. What has changed is the government, not the Russian people.”
McFaul has a deep understanding of the change. He’s been banned from entering Russia by dictator Vladimir Putin, who is displeased by McFaul’s accurate and biting assessment of Putin’s reign. McFaul served from 2012 to 2014 as the United States ambassador to Russia in an era when we saw the U.S. president, Barack Obama, glaring icily at Putin.
Wednesday night at Colorado College’s Gaylord Hall, McFaul will talk of his Russian adventures and his optimism for the future of Russian-U.S. relations. The 7 p.m. lecture is titled “From Cold War to Hot Peace.”
That hot peace has been fiery for McFaul.
In July 2018, Putin announced in a joint press conference with President Donald Trump he was willing to allow U.S. investigators to interview 12 Russians suspected of hacking Democratic computer systems during the 2016 election. But this willingness came with a troubling requirement.
America, Putin said, would need to allow the Russian government to interview 11 Americans, including McFaul. Putin implied McFaul had broken Russian laws.
“We would expect the Americans would reciprocate,” Putin said. Trump at first called Putin’s idea “an incredible offer.”
McFaul, as you would expect, failed to share Trump’s enthusiasm. In a tweet, he wrote he hoped the White House would denounce Putin’s request.
“Not doing so,” McFaul wrote, “creates moral equivalency between a (legitimate) US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”
Fourteen months later, McFaul says the incident remains “deeply disturbing.” He never broke Russian law. He was working for the White House, coordinating policy, doing his job as an ambassador. Putin’s claim was, he says, “completely outrageous.”
McFaul questions Trump’s diplomatic efforts with Russia.
“I just feel that President Trump goes out of his way to ignore some of the very belligerent things that President Putin has done, and that kind of appeasement strategy doesn’t work,” McFaul says. “We should judge President Trump with results of his diplomacy. Good relations are not the goal. Concrete objectives are.
“It’s hard to find one concrete outcome that has been positive for America as a result of his happy talk with Putin.”
Don’t expect the talk at CC to be all about Putin and Trump. McFaul looks forward to a future when Putin no longer runs Russia and when the tension dial is turned down and he can return without worries to a country he deeply loves. He is, despite everything, optimistic.
“Government to government, it can be in a bad place from time to time, as they are today,” McFaul says. “But that doesn’t mean Russians and Americans can’t connect.”
He’s correct. On a warm winter night in 2014, I listened to music at a cozy jazz club in Moscow. I never would have arrived there without aid from Russian brethren.