Social networking

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is likely to accomplish something none of his predecessors ever dreamed of: he is becoming a household name.  His ascension to the status of celebrity of sorts might be surprising; yet, it’s hardly accidental.

Attention to McFaul’s persona was first drawn last year when U.S. President Barack Obama surprisingly tapped him, a diplomatic novice, to replace seasoned career diplomat John Beyrle as the envoy to Moscow.  By nominating McFaul, the White House was sending a message that the Obama administration was going to pay more attention to the issue of human rights in Russia.  McFaul, one of the leading U.S. experts in “democracy promotion,” was supposed to personify this policy shift.  Characteristically, even sworn enemies of the administration’s Russia policy hailed McFaul’s nomination.

McFaul didn’t disappoint his supporters.  His “democracy promotion” credentials went to work immediately after his arrival in Moscow: In his second day on the job, McFaul invited a group of Russian opposition politicians and civil society activists to the ambassador’s residence, Spaso House.  The meeting was extensively covered by the Russian media.  It appears that hosting social events will become a prominent venue for McFaul to keep himself visible.  Last week, he threw a party featuring a folk band that was flown to Moscow from McFaul’s native Montana.  Images of the ambassador dancing with his wife were promptly made available to the electronic and print media.

In addition, McFaul is working hard to establish his presence in social networks.  His first post (in Russian) on LiveJournal, a popular blogging portal, appeared on the day of his arrival in Russia.  McFaul also opened a Twitter account where he writes both in English and Russian.

At the same time, the ambassador doesn’t forget what he promised during his Senate confirmation hearings: to meet regularly with the Russian opposition.  One such meeting got him in trouble.  Last Thursday, having arrived for a chat with the human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, McFaul was confronted by a group of young people with a camera who introduced themselves as reporters from the state-sponsored NTV station.  According to McFaul, for several minutes, the “crew” had prevented his from entering into the building.

Later, McFaul let his frustration into the open on Twitter.  He complained that the NTV reporters stalked him everywhere he went to and wondered how they knew his schedule.  McFaul even suggested that NTV employees read his emails and listen to his phone.

If someone hoped to treat this story as a benign street encounter, this hope was squashed by the U.S. State Department’s formal complaints to the Russian Foreign Ministry alleging that McFaul’s “security and safety” had been compromised.  Incidentally, this is not for the first time that Russian youngsters – with TV cameras or without – have harassed foreign diplomats, and it’s hard to believe that the Russian authorities weren’t aware of the accidents or couldn’t do anything about it.

Naturally, the NTV officials dismissed McFaul’s charges of eavesdropping and instead attributed their knowledge of the ambassador’s whereabouts to the extensive network of “informants.”  The Russian Public Chamber threw its support behind NTV, arguing that there was nothing wrong with journalists’ desire to “learn more about a public figure – an ambassador, a patriarch or politician.”  A patriarch?  Can anyone imagine an NTV crew constantly following Patriarch Kirill?

McFaul knows Russia well and is aware that “promoting democracy” there is a safe business for a foreign diplomat – as opposed to some other countries where his colleagues can leave the embassy compound only with an escort of armored vehicles.  Yet, having spent the bulk of his professional life in the academic environment, McFaul didn’t learn what other celebrities around the world know all too well: increased public profile comes at the price of reduced privacy and additional security challenges.  It’s now time for McFaul to learn this lesson.

At the same time, one can’t deny McFaul’s remarkable ability to use his current job position to advance future career aspirations.  Once can be sure that for the rest of his life – and certainly during his next Senate confirmation hearings – he’ll carry the NTV encounter as a badge of honor.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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6 Responses to Social networking

  1. Alex says:

    He is an interesting, personage, McFaul. When I listen to him, he sounds good – as an intelligent person (and despite his English being, apparently, adjusted to the standards of VOA Special English program – he still manages not to sound stupid). But so did Bayerly…

    Thanks for the post – I added Mc’s Twitter account to my “watch” as the result 🙂 To your (IMHO insightful) remark that “..McFaul knows Russia well and is aware that “promoting democracy” there is a safe business” may I add that as any sin, a “business” needs at least two participants..


    • Eugene says:


      What I meant by “business” is that when you have tens of thousands people and hundreds of millions dollars involved in some activity, this activity eventually becomes business — with its own rules, leaders, lobbyists, etc. At certain point, the original purpose of the activity may get lost, but the money keeps circulating, and the people go to work every day.


      • Alex says:

        Sure, Eugene. I am absolutely & totally with you. (but forgot to mention the main characteristics of any business – personal monetary gain for the participants 🙂 While I don’t think Mc would be wise wasting his time with the Russian “opposition” , it is his business – he, probably, knows better…

        • Eugene says:

          Look, for McFaul, the ambassadorship to Russia is an excellent springboard, and perhaps, he doesn’t have much time: in case Romney becomes president, McFaul will be very likely replaced.

          But even if Obama stays, and McFaul stays, further investment in the “reset” promise questionable ROI, whereas putting stock in “democracy promotion” in Russia will ALWAYS pay back handsomely back home.


  2. andor1 says:

    You neglected to mention that Mr.McFaul was not prevented to enter the building – he deliberately turned toward the journalists after already reaching the open door. Later, when his host Lev Ponomarev came out and tried to pull him in, McFaul refused to badge, continuing arguingharassing the journalists. He accused them in harassing him, and called Russia a wild (in a sense of crazy, uncivilized) country. His lame excuses of his “poor command in Russian) are not holding water – he knew exactly what he said and what he meant, since he supported the premise of Russian being uncivilized by siting several other countries as examples of civility.
    Obama’s golden boy is making one mistake after another…

    Ten years ago The Exiled printed a good piece on McFaul. They brought it back recently:

    • andor1 says:

      Mikey McFaul and the Three Bears: A Review of “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution”
      Why, then, does McFaul’s dormant indignation spring up when the topic is Putin? McFaul and his fellows dislike Putin for a simple reason: Putin isn’t their guy. Yeltsin was. So Yeltsin can do no wrong; Putin can do no right. McFaul — who was loudly denying rumors of graft and embezzlement right up to the 1998 crash — is up to his neck in the blood and filth of 1990s Russian politics. He has no choice but to prop up his crimes with repeated fairy-tales like this long retelling of the three little pigs. But there were far more than three of them, and they stayed at the trough till they had stolen every scrap…and their advocate, this smiling Palo Alto grant-getting Oval-Office parasite–

      Words will not suffice. One sees why so many cultures have a notion of Hell, or vengeful reincarnation as a slug or a toad…because I know very well that McFaul and the hundred thousand McFaul-facsimiles clogging the campuses, the op-ed pages, the grant committees and the policy teams, will squirm from success to success, with no prospect of justice this side of the grave.

      This article was originally published in The eXile, November 27, 2002.

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