Archive for May, 2012

The Undiplomat

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

MOSCOW — This winter, Michael McFaul discovered a number of surprising things about himself. He was imposing odious American holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, on the Russian people. He personally whisked Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny out of the country to Yale on a fellowship. He was inviting opposition figures to the U.S. Embassy “to get instructions.” And he was a pedophile. Or so his online tormentors claimed.

This was McFaul’s welcome to his new job: United States ambassador to Russia. Along with being attacked on state television and having picket lines across from the embassy, he was being followed — and harassed — by a red-haired reporter from NTV, the state-friendly channel. One day, a horde of activists from Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, showed up at the embassy gates in white jumpsuits, and played dead: They did not want to be the victims of a revolution, like the unfortunates of Egypt, their posters said. As a result, the ambassador’s security had to be tightened.

“What I did not anticipate, honestly, was the degree, the volume, the relentless anti-Americanism that we’re seeing right now,” McFaul told me in February, a note of real hurt ringing in his normally chipper, measured voice. “That is odd for us. Because we have spent three years trying to build a different relationship with this country.” He added, almost stuttering, “I mean, I’m genuinely confused by it.”

A month later, he lost it.

The explosion came when McFaul arrived at the office of For Human Rights, an NGO in Moscow’s historic center. He was going to see his old friend, veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, whom he’d known since he was an international studies graduate student running around perestroika-era Moscow. It may have been late March, but it was cold and the stuff that fell from the sky was neither snow nor rain: a long cry from McFaul’s California home. As ambassador, though, he didn’t have to bother with a jacket: he had his black Cadillac.

Had he known that the redhead from NTV would again be waiting for him with a camera crew, however, he may have dressed a little warmer.

What was McFaul going to discuss with Ponomarev?, the redhead asked as the camera bounced to follow the moving ambassador.

“Your ambassador moves about without this, without you getting in the way of his work,” McFaul said in slightly crooked Russian. He was clearly angry but maintained a wide, all-American smile. “And you guys are always with me. In my house! Are you not ashamed of this? You’re insulting your own country when you do this, don’t you understand?”

“We understand,” the redhead said, before going on to inquire which opposition politicians McFaul supported. McFaul, who had already turned to walk into the building, wheeled around, the huge smile now touched with a cartoonish disbelief.

“I met with your president yesterday,” he said, sarcastically nodding at her. “I support him, too. It’s the same logic. If I meet with him, it means I support him, right? It’s called diplomatic work. It’s how it works everywhere.”

He offered the redhead a formal interview, where they could “calmly” discuss everything and anything she wanted, before he remembered something. “I’m not wearing a coat. This is just rude!”

The redhead took no notice and pressed on. What had he discussed with opposition veteran Boris Nemtsov?

McFaul’s smile, now huge and aggressive, looked like that of a man unhinged. Didn’t they read his story in Moskovsky Komsomolets, he asked? Didn’t they read his Twitter feed?

And then he snapped.

“This turned out to be a wild country!” he burst out, reaching up to the gray heavens. “This isn’t normal!” This behavior was unacceptable, he went on, in all “normal” countries: the United States, Britain, Germany, even China. How did they manage to be everywhere he was, anyway? How did they know his schedule? This, he contended, his voice rising, was in violation of the Geneva Convention. (In the heat of the moment, he misspoke: He meant the Vienna Convention, which tightly regulates the obligations of the states sending ambassadors, and those receiving them.)

In fact, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, passed by the United Nations in 1961, stipulates certain things — the inviolability of embassy grounds, as well as of ambassadors’ communications, the duty of the receiving country to ensure the ability of the ambassador to work unmolested, and “to prevent any attack on his person, freedom, and dignity” — that seemed to have been overlooked by Moscow in the last few months.

And the incident in front of the For Human Rights office was merely the last straw: There were rumors of mysterious individuals trespassing on the grounds of Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, of repeated security threats. The apparent interception of his schedule was almost confirmed by NTV, which said, through a spokeswoman that “the ubiquity of NTV can be explained by its broad network of informants, which is well known to every public figure in this country.”

Those informants — whoever they are and wherever they sit — of course obviate the need for any illicit activity on any redheaded reporter’s part, which is why, the spokeswoman said, “NTV’s employees obviously do not hack into anyone’s phones or read e-mails.”

And though the State Department filed an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry after the NTV tussle, it was McFaul’s undiplomatic lament about the wildness of the country that made headlines in Moscow. On Twitter, he wrote, “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.” And in an interview a few days later, he went even further, saying, “I really regret that I expressed myself inaccurately.” And then he pulled out the card he hoped he wouldn’t have to use: “I’m not a professional diplomat.”

And just when things quieted down after the presidential elections in March, McFaul stumbled into another mess. Last week, while discussing the successes of the reset, he told an audience of students at a Moscow university that Russia had “bribed” the Kyrgyz to kick the U.S. off its miliatry base at Manas. (The United States, he said, also bribed the Kyrgyz.) The Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out, attacking McFaul on Twitter late Monday and accusing him of “spreading blatant falsehoods.” On Tuesday, Putin’s foreign policy advisor weighed in, saying, “Ambassadors need to work on a positive agenda because there are already so many agents trying to ruin the atmosphere.” McFaul, again on the defensive, stood by his speech in a blog post, but admitted, “Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken so colorfully and bluntly. On that, I agree and will work harder to speak more diplomatically.”

* * *

When he arrived in Moscow on Jan. 13 to take up his new post, Ambassador McFaul was just being Mike: the easy-going American guy whose informality disarms most everyone; the deft Washington operator who has both neoconservatives and liberals convinced that he’s their guy; the Russia expert famous for his wide-reaching and motley network both in Moscow and in the United States; the man whose swearing-in ceremony — normally a staid and sparsely-attended affair — was packed to the gills with hundreds of friends and well-wishers, as well as the ambassadorial corps of nearly the entire former Soviet Union. In a break with tradition and protocol, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a glowing ode to McFaul and swore him in.

And yet, in Moscow, something was off. The McFaul mojo seemed suddenly powerless. Shortly after his arrival, McFaul stopped by the bar at the Marine House, on the embassy grounds, to have a beer. The regulars — marines and embassy hoi polloi — were rooted to their seats, frozen with fear — they’d never caroused with the ambassador before. When he joined the pick-up basketball game at the embassy one night, one of the Russians approached him afterwards and joked, “I didn’t realize I was playing basketball with the anti-Christ.”

I met McFaul early on a sunny, freezing Sunday afternoon in February. The staff scurried around, turning on lamps and vacuuming the rich indigo carpets of Spaso House, a sprawling yellow mansion off the old Arbat Street. McFaul came down to meet me in baggy jeans and a blue sweater, a water stain on his belly. Instead of shoes, or even slippers, he wore washed-out blue socks. As we settled into the plush, floral maroon couches of the library, a Russian butler in a tuxedo brought us coffee on official china and then began to stoke the fireplace. “Hey, howyadoin’?” McFaul said to the butler, who didn’t know how to respond.

“When I was here as a kid in 1983, there was all this outrageous stuff,” McFaul explained when I asked him about whether this anti-Americanism was really so new. “But it didn’t reverberate as fast to America as it does today. Because of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, it moves fast. I can tell you from our government’s perspective: At the highest levels, they’re paying attention. And there’s this notion that I get told privately, that, hey, don’t pay attention to this election stuff. We’ll get back to our interests later. Well, that’s going to be a little hard to do because it’s gotten so offensive. And personal. They have to understand that this message that is intended for people here is also being heard at the White House.”

“It makes them look weak in the West,” McFaul says. “Man, we thought this was a more serious country. This is not serious stuff.”

Like other American officials in Moscow, he reminds me that, three weeks after his May inauguration, reinstalled President Vladimir Putin is going to have to travel to the United States for a G-8 summit, and a tête-à-tête with Barack Obama. (A meeting that Putin, perhaps tellingly, canceled.) According to various State Department sources, the anti-American propaganda and personal attacks on McFaul — who served as Obama’s close adviser on Russia matters before being tapped for the ambassadorial post — have severely tested the patience of both McFaul’s bosses: Clinton and Obama.

“This didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union,” McFaul goes on, a small rage rising in his voice. “Let’s be clear about that. This is breaching diplomatic protocol. Imagine the outrage if this happened to the Russian ambassador in Washington. It’s just not the way countries interact with each other. It’s not respectful.”

At the same time, however, McFaul is not your traditional ambassador. Not only is he not a career diplomat, unusual for such a sensitive post, but he came in at a time when the State Department has been pushing its representatives all over the world to actively use social media. In McFaul’s hands, the directive has become a flamethrower. It’s hard to remember a time when an American ambassador to Russia plunged into his work so boldly at such a politically precarious time: McFaul arrived just a month after Putin accused Clinton of stirring up regime change in Russia. On his second day, he had opposition activists over to the embassy. (The meeting, McFaul explains, had been scheduled long in advance of his arrival to coincide with the visit of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.) Not a week into the job, he was tweeting at Navalny. He publicly invited himself onto the TV shows of Russia’s reigning diva-loud-mouths, Tina Kandelaki and Ksenia Sobchak. He accused Margarita Simonyan, the editor of the English-language pro-Kremlin channel Russia Today, of lying. “That was only because I couldn’t get the phrase ‘untrue statements’ into 140 characters,” McFaul explains.

For someone whom friends and colleagues unanimously describe as a man who glides easily between all possible worlds, who is a keen reader of character and situation, McFaul’s transition to diplomacy has been surprisingly bumpy. “I think he may have not totally understood the ramifications of his new position,” says Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, McFaul’s former colleague at Stanford University and co-author on many of his scholarly articles.

“A good diplomat is going to say enough and start enough conversations that will help make his case, not get into arguments that permanently cast him as an enemy,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the diplomatic world. He is also McFaul’s close friend. “A diplomat has to figure out the terrain he’s operating on and to make sure he makes good use of it. He knows there are a lot minefields out there and he has to be careful.” He adds, “He probably responds to things on Twitter a little differently than I would. But that’s Mike, and in general it works for him.”

Alec Ross, a senior advisor to Clinton and one of the architects of this policy of social media diplomacy, disagrees that direct engagement with the people via Facebook and the like sets American diplomats up for disaster. “I don’t agree that it’s going over Putin’s head,” he told me. “Russian officials are very aggressive users of social media themselves. Look at [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, look at [Russian diplomat and politician Dmitry] Rogozin. They started tweeting years before Ambassador McFaul. And the content of his Twitter feed is about his playing basketball. This is not exactly the Radio Free Europe tower.” Ross made sure to add, “Ambassador McFaul enjoys the full support of the State Department.”

And yet this initiative, coupled with McFaul’s unshy public image, played right into the hands of the Kremlin, suddenly rickety and feeling pressed by this winter’s pro-democracy protests, and just when it needed a big and convincing win in the March presidential elections. “They’re using McFaul as a resource,” says Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy and trustee of Vladimir Putin. “It would be a sin not to use it.”

McFaul, for his part, is understandably at a loss. He is, after all, the architect of the “reset,” the man who made Russia an unlikely foreign policy priority for Obama, the man who arranged the spy swap in the summer of 2010 to keep it from torpedoing Russian-American relations, who twisted Georgia’s arm to keep it from blocking Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, the man who, even as officials of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party attacked him — post-election — for meddling in Russian affairs, was in Washington, lobbying Congress to repeal the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prohibits normal trade relations and has long been a sticking point in Russian-American relations. And after all this, he has found himself the target of a dirty and personal attack, orchestrated — or, at least, condoned — by the very people with whom he had worked closely for the last three years, people he thought he knew.

On that bright Sunday afternoon, McFaul talked about the things he and “the president” – Obama — had accomplished so far, and the tougher tasks still left on their plates. He talked about the differences in Russian and American approaches to diplomacy — one ceremonious and legalistic, the other loosey-goosey. But the virulent attacks clearly stung him in a personal way, and at times he sounded like a lover scorned. “They’re the ones who have changed,” he said, shaking his head and spreading his arms in a kind of stunned helplessness. “We’ve changed nothing. Zero.”

* * *

McFaul was born in 1963, in Glasgow, Montana, a tiny town near the border with Canada, but he grew up on the other side of the state, in Butte. The city is famous for its gold, silver, and copper mines, and for the Berkeley pit, a lake of acidic water laced with heavy metals so poisonous that it kills whole flocks of foul unwise enough to rest there. (It was once a copper mine.) As a scholar, McFaul can appreciate Butte as an interesting town, one with parallels to contemporary Russia. “In the 19th century, it was the fourth largest city west of the Mississippi,” he says. “There were oligarchs in Butte, and they made a lot of money there and they shipped it to New York and lived there. There was a similar tension between the metropole and the regions,” referring to the Russia outside of Moscow.

Things looked less interesting closer to home, however. Butte was classic middle America, a rough mining town where social status was directly proportional to athletic prowess. Even now, sitting in the ambassador’s sitting room at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during another interview, 30 years later, McFaul can boast of the fact that the high school wrestling team swept the national championships 17 years in a row. He demurred when I asked him what sport he played. “These are delicate moments for me!” he exclaims. It was, he says, “a pretty rough experience growing up there.” (McFaul ran track.)

The pain eased two years later, in 1978, when the family moved 90 miles down the road to Bozeman. McFaul’s father had quit his job as a music teacher, and decided to become a professional musician. He would end up spending decades on the road, but in those days, his steadiest gig was at the Ramada Inn in Bozeman. He split his time between the Ramada and Butte, where his wife and children still lived. Bozeman was a university town and, in addition to reuniting the family, the McFauls figured they would have an easier time putting their five kids through college if they could live at home. Three months after moving to a trailer in Bozeman, McFaul’s father lost his gig at the Ramada. “He virtually never played in Bozeman again,” McFaul says.

Despite the family’s financial straits, the young McFaul underwent a renaissance in Bozeman. He discovered the town’s thriving counter culture; he was elected student body president. He took the debate class where, at the height of the Cold War, he argued for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. It was his first exposure to foreign policy and Soviet-American relations. “That’s when I developed the view that our policy toward the Soviets was wrong,” he recalls. “I had what in retrospect what I would call a naïve view, that if we just could communicate and get to know people better, we could reduce tensions.”

Two years later, when he got to Stanford, he signed up for introduction to international relations and Russian. “I was horrible at it,” he says of the latter. “I hated it. I still do. I’m not good at languages. But my whole motivation was to go to the Soviet Union.”

In June 1983, after his second year at Stanford — and two years of Russian — McFaul arrived in Leningrad. It was the first time he had traveled abroad, and yet the leap from California to Leningrad seemed smaller than the one he had made from Bozeman to Stanford. His arrival in wealthy Palo Alto had politicized him and moved him further to the left. “There were rich people in Montana, but that’s because they have a lot of land,” McFaul recalls, slipping his foot out of a clunky black shoe. “They all drive pick-up trucks and wear blue jeans.” Stanford was different. “The first day of freshman year, I met a guy who had 90 Grateful Dead tapes. That was like a sign of wealth to me. I just never met anybody who had 90 tapes of anything! That blew my mind.”

Leningrad in the early 1980s had the right dash of gritty authenticity. That summer, McFaul experienced the city’s famous white nights. He waited in line for ice cream with chocolate sprinkles; he argued with his American friends about unemployment and trickle-down economics.

That summer, McFaul laid the foundations of what would become a wide social network in Russia. He made a local friend, Yuri, with whom he snuck into underground jazz concerts. He became acquainted with the local refuseniks and the farsovschiki, or black-market speculators. “They’re the ones you could meet because they had business to do with you,” McFaul says. “Yes, they were taking our blue jeans and changing our dollars, and it was all business. But they also listened to Led Zeppelin and did things that college kids want to do.”

The next time McFaul came back to the Soviet Union, in 1985, it was for his semester abroad, at Moscow’s State Institute of Russian Language, part of the city’s prestigious Moscow State University. “That took the edge off the romance,” he says. The cafeteria had given someone food poisoning before the foreign students’ arrival and remained shuttered for the rest of the semester. “It was a struggle to get calories,” McFaul remembers.

His saviors were the African students he roomed with. They fed him homemade stews and taught him how to eat something rarely eaten in Middle America: vegetables. McFaul was still socializing with Moscow’s refuseniks and farsovschiki, but it was the African crew that became the fulcrum of his time in Soviet Moscow. Life was hard for them, McFaul recalls: racism, sporadic violence. “But those guys knew how to throw parties. They could access beer. Buying a beer in 1985 was not easy to do in this country. And they knew how to do it.”

The star of the crew was Fani, the Nigerian. “He was the Michael Jackson of Moscow,” McFaul grins. “The best disco was at [Stalinist agricultural expo center] VDNKh. What’s that hotel called? Cosmos! Is it still there?” He remembers Fani bribing the doormen to get their friend Natasha, a student at the elite state diplomatic academy, MGIMO, into the club. “The Nigerian guy was sneaking in the MGIMO students, in their own country,” he says. Through Fani, McFaul met the children of the elite of Eastern Europe — they were friends with the son of the Polish defense minister — and through them, the MGIMO kids. “They reminded me a lot of the elite right now,” he says of the gilded youth of the Soviet Union’s twilight. “They liked their lifestyle, they were appreciative of what they have, they don’t want to lose it, but they also know the system’s limitations and want more.” But he adds, “they were scared to death of real dissidents.”

McFaul didn’t meet any real dissidents on that trip, but he became interested in the African question, and would end up writing his doctoral dissertation on Soviet and American influences on revolutionary movements in southern Africa. “They came to Moscow on these scholarships to learn communism,” McFaul says of his African friends. “Nothing was a more powerful tool of making them pro-American than the experience that most of them were having here.” McFaul also says those hungry months made him increasingly anti-communist.

At the end of his semester in Moscow, he shipped off to Nigeria, where a Stanford student named Donna Norton — his then girlfriend, now wife — was doing research on urban-to-rural migration. Fani met him in Lagos. It turned out he was the son of the general secretary of the Communist Party of Nigeria. “In all my time here, I never knew it,” McFaul says. “He’s an entrepreneur now. He’s making a lot of money in Nigerian-Russian trade.”

* * *

When I met Sergei Markov, the United Russia Party foreign-policy hawk and Putin enthusiast, he was on crutches and had a cast on his left foot — a motorcycle accident in January had left him with a broken ankle. We talked as he waited in the freezing green room of a Russian television studio. He had set up an invisible conveyer belt from the refreshments table to his mouth. “The reset has fulfilled its mission, which was to remove the foolishness of the Bush era,” he said, inhaling a mushroom pastry in one bite. “Now it’s time for the Americans to meet us halfway.” That means: Get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, develop their military strategy with Russia’s interests in mind, and change the anti-Russian “regimes” in Latvia and Estonia. (How? Well, that is up to the Americans, he told me.)

Even with these beliefs, Markov thinks McFaul is the right man for the job. “He’s the perfect representative of America,” he told me, devouring a cucumber spear. “He is open, friendly, generous. He’s very democratic. He has a strong moral compass, and he really wants to help.” Markov knows all this firsthand.

It is one of those strange twists of fate that this man was once McFaul’s close friend and colleague. The two were observers of the ferment of Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Markov was a philosophy graduate student at Moscow State and active in Democratic Russia, an early shoot of the Russian democracy movement, and McFaul was studying international relations at Oxford. Together, they chronicled the collapse of the Soviet Union, interviewing scores of participants in the events of the time for a book called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. (Markov’s then wife earned some extra money transcribing the interviews.) They had tea at Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s tiny apartment in Moscow’s northern suburbs. They went to see the hard-core “Pamyat” (or “Memory”) movement, where one activist greeted the two students in full SS regalia, and another nearly killed Markov for accidentally sitting on the group’s flag. Markov recalls McFaul noting afterwards that it was his first time seeing a real racist, in the flesh.

Markov began to work with the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute — a decade-long gig. He went to McFaul’s wedding in California, where he — unsuccessfully — hit on another Russia scholar and friend of McFaul’s, Condoleezza Rice. In 1994, McFaul and Markov helped found the Moscow Carnegie Center, which hosted regular discussions and seminars featuring a novel feature to draw an audience: free dinner. A few years later, Markov was pushed out of Carnegie because he was viewed as the propagandist of the second Chechen War. McFaul defended him and the two have remained friends to this day, “which can be kind of difficult at times,” says a mutual friend who had been part of their crew in the 1990s. “The last time I was in Washington, I stayed with McFaul,” Markov told me. “We debated vigorously.”

But if McFaul is famous for his ability to befriend anyone, he is also famous for a hot, quick temper (as the redhead from NTV can well attest). At one academic conference, McFaul got into a long, full-throated throwdown with Stephen Kotkin, the famous Soviet historian, because he had criticized McFaul’s 2008 essay in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Stoner-Weiss, his Stanford colleague, and called “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back.” (Someone from the Kremlin called the two authors to tell them, “Mr. Putin has read the article, and it was not entirely to his liking.”) But McFaul’s views on Russia escape easy categorization. He seems to dish it out on a purely egalitarian basis. Former Bush administration official David Kramer, who runs Freedom House, an organization known for its very anti-Kremlin views, frequently squabbles with his old friend McFaul. “I’ve gotten some very long emails from him after I’ve written some things,” Kramer told me. “And, yes, it had some colorful language sprinkled in.”

And yet, McFaul has been able to hop between the lily pads of academia, politics, and journalism. After a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, he stayed on to complete a DPhil, the rough British equivalent of a Ph.D. This put him at odds with many in the political science community in the United States, where the methods rely less on local knowledge — as per the British model — but on computation and a strict methodology. “He kicked the door open into the American system in a way I haven’t seen,” says Stoner-Weiss. “Look at how many DPhils you see at elite American universities. There aren’t that many. And the fact that he got tenure without doing hi-tech methodology tells you how good he was.” (McFaul puts it this way: “I went to Oxford so I’m considered a Neanderthal.”)

If he was able to win over the gray beards of the academy with his mastery of the subject, he was also the friend of every Western journalist covering Russia, past and present. Sometimes he managed to beat journalists at their own game. In 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was facing an uncertain election, the hardliners around him — Alexander Korzhakov and Oleg Soskovets — were at times encouraging the sick old man to stall the election or call it off entirely. “They didn’t talk to Western correspondents much, and we never knew what they were up to, or thinking, ” recalls David Hoffman, Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow during the 1990s. McFaul, meanwhile, had no problem penetrating the barrier: Once, Korzhakov and Soskovets even brought him back to one of their dachas to drink and talk politics. “I was terribly jealous,” Hoffman says. “I also wanted to meet with these guys. They sent an official Volga for him!” Hoffman’s jealousy subsided when he found out the reason for the Yeltsin crew’s hospitality. They had thought McFaul was CIA.

* * *

McFaul’s entry into politics came in the run-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Long at home in policy circles in Washington, he had become a foreign-policy advisor to John Edwards, who was running against Obama in the primaries. (Edwards later flamed out in scandal, admitting he fathered a child with a campaign staffer while his wife was dying of cancer, and McFaul now tries to downplay their relationship.) Then he switched to Obama. With the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, McFaul’s share of Obama’s attention span grew. He was able to convince the president-to-be that repairing the Russian-American relationship would be a great opportunity to set the new administration apart from that of George W. Bush. It would be another way to improve America’s image on the international stage, an image Bush had done so much to mangle.

McFaul relished the role of advisor, joining the White House staff as a senior director on the National Security Council. He became simply “McFaul” to Obama. In his office in Washington, in the Old Executive Office Building, he had a poster of a New Republic magazine cover that showed Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, leaning over Obama’s desk in the Oval Office. Once, when I visited McFaul there, he explained it to me: The illustration had actually been based on a picture of him, but the designers at the magazine swapped Emanuel’s head for his. McFaul loved to talk about his experiences negotiating with the Russians, about accompanying the president to summits, about getting to know the Russian mucketymucks and to rub elbows with them. He loved participating in an historical process and gathering anecdotes along the way: He can tell a long story about how the “burger summit” between Obama and Medvedev happened, and how Vice President Joseph Biden got on the phone and boxed Saakashvili’s ears after Georgian state television led an evening newscast with a fake Russian invasion.

But by 2011, his family was itching to return to Stanford. When McFaul broke the news to Obama, the president offered to make him ambassador — a strange move, given how much the Russians loved then ambassador and Russophile John Beyrle. But Obama was keen to keep McFaul: As his domestic agenda ran up against an intransigent and radicalized Congress — which majorly delayed McFaul’s confirmation — and American policy in Middle East went up in flames, Russia was one of the few major successes that Obama could point to.

At first, McFaul spoke of himself as “an accidental ambassador” — a phrase he says he is trying not to use anymore. And the early miscalculation — and Russia’s icy reception — aside, McFaul is coming to relish this new role, too. “Actually, I think that Mike has become a pretty disciplined diplomat,” says Sestanovich. “He does this ‘aw, shucks I’m not a professional diplomat,’ but he’s gotten pretty good at managing public statements, at managing public-policy process. He’s found his balance pretty quickly.” Nor does Sestanovich buy into the talk of McFaul’s naïveté. “My children grew up hearing Mike talk about knife fights in Montana mining towns,” he says. “The idea that the world is dominated by misunderstanding that can just be dispelled by dialogue is not Mike’s worldview.”

* * *

“There’s this notion out here that all I taught was regime change,” McFaul told me that February afternoon at Spaso House, referring to the infamous commentary on state-owned Channel 1, which alleged that McFaul, an expert in revolutions, was coming to finish the job he started in 1991. McFaul did, in fact, teach a class in revolutions at Stanford, but, he points out, he also taught a course on U.S.-Russia relations and on the political economy of the post-communist world. As for the Channel 1 allegations, McFaul says they are “absolute nonsense.”

“I’m not here to foment a revolution,” he says. “If we were here to foment revolution, we’d be doing very different things. I know exactly what we did in other countries. I’ve written a lot about how external actors impact on domestic change and the punchline of most of my work is that it’s always incredibly marginal and, in big countries, almost negligible.”

Given all that’s happened, does he feel that the reset is stalling, or dead? Or, given the extent to which simple spite and wounded pride factor into Russian foreign policy, that it was a naïve endeavor to begin with? “Our policy is that we think it’s in our national interest to have governments that are open, more transparent, and more accountable to their people,” he says, citing the widely held theory that democratic countries are more likely to be at peace with each other.

But at times this winter, the reset has looked more and more like the jolting dance of unwilling partners who occasionally — and perhaps purposefully — step on each other’s feet. On one hand, Medvedev told Obama in Seoul in March that this was the best Russian-American relations had ever been. Then came the hot-mic incident — Republican challenger Mitt Romney went at Obama for asking America’s “geopolitical enemy No. 1” for “room to maneuver” — and Medvedev’s testy response. He asked “all U.S. presidential candidates” to “check the time — it is now 2012, not the mid-1970s.” Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin youth groups were harassing Obama’s ambassador to Moscow.

In the meantime, a split seems to have developed inside the State Department as a result of all of this. Career Foreign Service officers are appalled at McFaul’s undiplomatic behavior — what kind of ambassador gets down and argues with a sham television reporter? — while McFaul’s big bosses still insist he’s the right man for the job.

But the incident with NTV proved “a breaking point,” according to one U.S. official in Moscow. Afterward — and after the State Department filed an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry — the Russian promise that the harassment would die down after the presidential elections came true. Shortly after Putin’s inauguration, in May, McFaul boasted, “It’s the last time I ever saw those guys.”

The State Department, for its part, has decided to show a unified face and step up its public defense of McFaul. Speaking amid the ashes of the controversy surrounding McFaul’s Kyrgyz “bribe” comment, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear that the Americans weren’t about to change anything. “He speaks plainly. He speaks clearly. He doesn’t mince words. He’s not a professional diplomat,” she said. “I think that for the Russian government, the fact that he speaks clearly when things are going well and he speaks clearly when they’re going less well is something that they’re having to get used to.”

The Undiplomat [FP]

The Boy on the Bicycle

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been asked many times, by people from around the world, how I came to take a photo of the boy on a bike with training wheels, facing a row of Russian riot police. That story is simple: it was a complete accident. What is harder to explain is how the image fits into the larger picture of what has been happening in Russia in the past few days.

On Sunday, May 6th, about seventy thousand Muscovites—as well as some people who came from other parts of Russia—gathered to peacefully protest Vladimir Putin’s third presidential inauguration, scheduled for the next day. They marched down a wide avenue, carrying funny signs and chanting “Russia without Putin!” They marched until they got to Bolotnaya Square, the site of two other unprecedentedly huge anti-Kremlin rallies this winter. But the police, apparently going back on agreements with the protest’s organizers, stood in such a way as to make entry into the square very difficult, and then cut the electricity to the stage. A sit-in started, someone pushed someone, and the scene became very violent very quickly. Protesters hurled bottles and chunks of cement, police threw tear gas. Smoke bombs flew back and forth. Riot police—dubbed “cosmonauts,” for their shiny round black helmets—descended into the churning, angry crowd in a V formation to pluck out young men to beat and drag away. Over four hundred people were arrested that day, and at least a hundred of them were later slapped with draft cards.

I watched this for about three hours, occasionally getting caught in a terrifying crush and once catching a chunk of concrete to the leg. I watched the plainclothes cops videotape the proceedings. I watched riot police approach terrified bystanders—women and middle-aged men who had come to the rally but had not signed up for this—pull them off the fences, and force them into the scuffle. “I don’t want to go in there!” a woman yelled. “I’m scared!” I saw people keel over, wheezing and coughing from the tear gas, as I pulled my sweatshirt over my nose and mouth. Very scary angry young men, either anarchists or nationalists or provocateurs, who looked very different from the mass of middle-class protestors, threw themselves into the battle. I saw someone hoist a police helmet on the tip of a red flag while four others bobbed in the water of the canal behind us. I saw a burly riot cop stumble out of the scuffle, fluorescent red blood streaming down his face. I saw bloodstains on the ground, and yellow port-a-potties go down, spilling their contents, turning into makeshift barricades. I saw row upon row of internal-security troops blocking the bridge leading to the Kremlin, as if Moscow were preparing for a foreign invasion. I saw two rows of riot police press in on the stragglers from two sides, and I saw the panic in the faces of those around me.

I took ham-fisted pictures of all of this with my iPhone and tried to upload them to my Twitter feed, which in these situations is especially convenient: a notebook and a newswire in one. Then I, too, got squeezed out of the square. I was shaken, exhausted, and strangely hungry, and walked with a friend to get something to eat and catch our breaths. We headed up to another small bridge over the canal, where some protesters had gathered. Everyone was riled up, and no one really wanted to go home.

This is where I took the picture. There was a phalanx of riot police on this bridge, too, blocking another route to the Kremlin. In front of them stood a young brunette in a short red dress and wedge platform shoes. She was waving the orange flag of the opposition Solidarity movement, and, judging by the expression on her face, she thought she was Moscow’s Lady Liberty—the icon of the protest. I thought she was, too. It was just so Russian: a woman in heels, even during a violent protest, self-consciously, calculatingly, making herself into a consumable, sexy image while those around her talked about fair elections and Putin’s villainy.

I was wrong. My friend, Olaf Koens, a Dutch reporter, had the better eye. (He does some television work.) But after hours of documenting the violence, his iPhone was dead. He smacked my arm and said, “Look! Look! There’s the picture!” I saw a small boy on what looked like a tricycle moving through a scrum of people raining abuse on the police. Then he just stopped. I had followed him, my phone still in hand, and, when he stopped, I kneeled down and snapped the picture. I posted the picture on Twitter, misspelling Tiananmen, and went to get something to eat.

The picture went viral, though I was too distracted by the protests to really notice at first: they continued, uninterrupted, for another three days. After Bolotnaya, the protesters fanned out into the surrounding streets, and the police followed, chasing them into cafés and metro stations. Two of my friends, Russian journalists, were arrested. One of them was hit in the head with a truncheon. The following day, people wearing white ribbons (the symbol of the protest) were pulled off the streets, as were those who didn’t know what the white ribbons meant. A café where the opposition likes to drink was raided.

Soon, the protest morphed into something opposition politician Alexey Navalny called the “people’s strolls”: on the night of May 7th, I was with him as hundreds of people trailed after him through the streets of Moscow. Improvising on the spot, they kept going until five in the morning, passing cars honking their support, passengers hanging out their windows and flashing peace signs. It was an exercise in escaping the baffled riot police. “How can I turn them around?” I heard one officer say into his walkie-talkie. “It’s just me and five warriors here!”

Over the next two days, scores more were detained by the police only to be quickly let go: the jails were already too full after the events of May 6th. And yet the protests kept going, moving around the city, from square to square, even as Navalny and the other opposition leader, the radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. “I was born and raised here,” a thirty-five-year-old man told me. “And now they’re going to arrest me for strolling through my own city? Now I’m going to come every night.” At each gathering, the faces were different. Twitter and Facebook were used to marshal reinforcements. I slept only infrequently, for a couple hours in the early morning, periodically marvelling at the blooming bruise where the concrete had hit my thigh.

I never did find out who that little boy is, or how his parents let him wheel that close to the police. Instead, I’ve found myself observing the evolution of the protests. After running from the police all over town on Wednesday, about seven hundred people gathered by the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, the Kazakh poet-philosopher and new symbol of the roving protests, in Chistye Prudy. (The movement is now using the hash tag #occupyabai.)

Chistye Prudy was the site of the gathering, on December 5th, a day after a disputed parliamentary election, that launched the protest movement, a wave of discontent among the middle class to which the Kremlin has responded by alternately ignoring it and issuing threatening statements. (A couple of days ago, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, allegedly told a parliament deputy that the protesters deserved to have “their livers smeared on the pavement” for each injured cop.)

And yet, there was no anger here. People sang songs and socialized. A trio of drummers showed up. A young man handed out McDonald’s burgers, saying, “Who wants a State Department burger?” (Putin and his allies have portrayed the opposition as American pawns.) So many of those present had been arrested, some more than once, that it became almost unfashionable not to have been arrested. The police with their herd of personnel carriers stood ready in the streets, but the order to move in never came. They hung around blasting music from their cars and eating sunflower seeds, or catcalling to passing girls from the protest. It was a party, and it looked a lot like Union Square on a Saturday night. No one knew where it was going, or how it would all end, but most people I spoke to predicted that blood would be a factor in that end. They seemed calm about that prospect.

The Boy on the Bicycle [TNY]

Putin’s Inauguration: Satire and Violence

Monday, May 7th, 2012

For a man so allegedly beloved by his people as Vladimir Putin believes himself to be—he cried at his victory rally in March, which he then ascribed to the wind—it was a strange sight to see his black cortege speed through the deserted streets of Moscow on the way to his third Presidential inauguration. No parade wave from the new President; he sat behind the most tinted of windows. Not a soul cheered from the sidewalks as Putin and a phalanx of security sped to the Kremlin; they had all been cleared and the streets and metros cordoned off. The people may have elected him, but this was not an event for the people.

Even the Queen of England, elected by no one, I thought, waves to her subjects.

I sat watching Putin’s frigid Presidential ritual with Sasha and Masha, the two “Persidents” of Ruissia, a farcical country whose borders happen to coincide coincide with Russia’s. They are the authors of the KermlinRussia twitter account, which started as a biting parody of the twitter feed of the now departed Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev. It has become a wildly popular satire of Russia’s bizarre, “Sopranos”-like political system and economy. If Russia had a Stephen Colbert, it would be Sasha and Masha. (I profiled the anonymous duo, and you can catch a glimpse of them in David Remnick’s recent account of Russia twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

“Where are the citizens who elected him?” I wondered aloud.

Were there citizens who elected him?” Sasha said, looking up from his iPhone, where he’d been checking responses to their most recent tweet. “I think the citizens of Moscow would kill him.”

“I can only imagine what they’d write on their posters if they were allowed out,” Masha added.

Even with fraud, Moscow delivered one of the lowest shares of votes for the new-old President: forty-five per cent. His total nationally was sixty-four.

Putin’s cortege swung off the embankment off the Moscow River and up past the ice-cream cones of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We remembered the legend of its construction: a Russian architect had built it for Ivan the Terrible, to mark the capture of the Tatar cities of Kazan and Astrakhan. Ivan loved the unusual construction, and asked the architect, “Think you can build another?” When the architect answered in the affirmative, Ivan blinded him.

“That’s what happened with Putin and Medvedev,” Masha explained, referring to their swapping the roles of President and Prime Minister after Medvedev had served one term as President. “Putin said, ‘Think you can get elected again?’ Medvedev gave the wrong answer.”

By this point, Putin’s limousine was already inside the Kremlin gates. It rolled over the cobblestones past the lush Kremlin gardens, blooming with the fragile blossoms of spring. Putin was mounting the stairs, draped in red carpet.

“Oh, I see the swelling has gone down,” Masha said, alluding to Putin’s alleged—but very obvious—plastic surgery, which had appeared late last year.

Putin was announced, and two guards in full 19th-century regalia pulled open a set of massive doors to let the President-elect into the hall. (“Why don’t they just slam him with the door?” Masha wondered.)

To say that the Andreev Hall, the site where Putin was about to swear his oath to protect the Russian constitution, was gilded would be like calling Times Square “well-lit.”

“My god, it is so tacky!” Sasha moaned. “Why did they decorate it like that?”

“Well, that’s certainly not Italian,” Masha said, referring to the Renaissance Italian artisans who built the Kremlin walls.

The camera panned across the crowd applauding as Putin strode into the hall: the invited political, economic, and artistic élite, some guests from “the people,” all aged, all loyal, all of distinctly Soviet—or Botoxed—aspect: the modern nomenklatura.

There’s the electorate!” Masha said.

Sasha shook his head.

“They’re so ugly,” he sighed.

The camera caught sight of Lyudmila Putina, Putin’s wife, who disappeared from public view around the time rumors surfaced that Putin had taken up with the young rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. (Rumors also place Putina in a convent near Pskov.) Putina blinked rapidly and seemed unsteady on her feet. She did not look well. Kabaeva was in the crowd, too, and someone posted a picture of her at the event on Twitter.

“Let’s repost it and write ‘The first lady,’ ” Sasha suggested.

“No, no,” Masha said, knowingly shaking her black bob. “Second lady.”

Up it went.

“Really, though, Medvedev is the first lady,” he said. “He goes to all the social functions, he does the children’s charities.”

On the screen, Medvedev was intoning something about the duties he dutifully, perfectly carried out. He seemed to be giving a wedding toast or a bar-mitzvah speech.

“Oh, the pathos,” Masha rolled her eyes. “Stanislavski is spinning in his grave listening to you, comrade.” The camera panned to Silvio Berlusconi, also in the audience: “Where’s Qaddafi?” they tweeted.

Putin stepped up to the dais, rolling like a tough guy. The camera showed his hand, with wedding ring, on the red leather-bound copy of the constitution. He promised to uphold the freedoms of the Russian people, the country’s security and sovereignty.

“Your sovereignty from the constitution,” Masha said. She added, flatly, “Looks like there’s no wind in the Andreev Hall of the Kremlin.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s not crying!”

We laughed, they tweeted it, but the mood was quickly souring. The day before, Moscow was convulsed with violence as riot police clashed with opposition protesters. Four hundred people were arrested. Scores were injured. The police snatched some of them from cafés and metro stations. Young men of military age were specifically targeted, and then slapped with draft cards. Today, as we sat in a sunny Moscow café, laughing at the pomp and the circumstance, reports were coming in over Twitter of more people being arrested all over the city. There was supposed to be a flashmob of people wearing white—symbol of the winter’s peaceful anti-Kremlin protests—and the order had come down to arrest people walking the streets with white ribbons. People were snapped off of park benches, as they strolled Moscow’s romantic boulevards. Riot police stormed a café, Jean-Jacques, known as a hub of opposition social life. They grabbed people sipping coffee outside, turned over tables, and shattered dishes. Then they occupied it, and the pub next door. Immediately, a picture juxtaposing today’s image with a photograph of Wermacht enjoying a Parisian café in June 1941 made the rounds online. “This,” one blogger declared, “is war.”

And, increasingly, it’s begun to feel like one. But if satire is perfect for ribbing the stagnant, silly regime of a leader who dives for urns and rides around with Orthodox Christian motorcycle gangs, it can feel a little out of place in a war, and, especially, in a siege.

Putin was walking back out the hall now, passing hundreds of his clapping guests. They were reaching out to shake his hand, to touch him. If he felt any pleasure at their adoration, he didn’t betray it.

Masha quietly scrolled through her phone. Sasha looked out the window.

“It’s so sad,” he said. “All of this.”

Putin’s Inauguration: Satire and Violence [TNY]

Vladimir the Unstable

Monday, May 7th, 2012

MOSCOW — On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles — his cavalry — sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets. He’ll pass St. Basil’s iconic domes, and drive through the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin walls, step out of the limo onto a red carpet — the first proof that he was in that car at all — salute the guards and go inside, to a grand, chandeliered room, where he will take the oath of office. He will have performed this ritual for the third time.

There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin’s inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon. We’ll see the images that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, have become instantly iconic: the black police batons slicing over the barricades and through the smoke to hack at protesters; the police special forces officer dragging a young woman by her neck; the police officer huffing after battle, his face streaming with blood. We’ll see the videos of the rocks flying and the bottles flying and the smoke bombs flying and the batons raining down on people’s kidneys. We’ll see the photos of toppled port-a-potties serving as makeshift barricades, of kicking young men, bellies and rumps exposed, being dragged by the police into waiting armored incarceration vans.

What the world won’t see is the peaceful, buoyant march down Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, just south of the Kremlin, which brought out at least 70,000 people on a day when many Muscovites had abandoned the city for the holiday weekend. They chanted “Russia without Putin!” and carried the witty posters that have marked this winter’s protest movement. It was a largely pointless event: Aided by fraud or not, Putin had already won, and won in a landslide. Everything he’s done and said in the last five months indicates that the man is not looking for an exit strategy. He will try his damndest to serve the full, six-year term — at least. During his recent address to the Russian parliament last month, his last as prime minister, someone asked Putin if it wouldn’t be a bad idea to strike “in a row” from the Russian constitution. That formulation is what necessitated the elaborate loop-de-loop of Putin stepping down to become prime minister for four years, while a seat-warmer named Dmitry Medvedev tried to make Russians and the rest of the world believe that he wasn’t really a seat warmer. “I think it’s reasonable,” Putin said in response to the tee-ball suggestion. “We should probably think about it.”

And yet on Sunday, people came out in droves. “I’d be ashamed not to go,” one young woman told me. “My grandchildren will ask me, ‘And what did you do when this was happening in Russia?’ I had to go so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by my answer.” An older woman, a semi-retired courier missing most of her teeth said, “If not me, who? You get it.” The point was to show Putin that, on the eve of his sumptuous, champagne-soaked inauguration, as another young protester told me, “He may have won, but he didn’t win. He didn’t win us.”

When the cheering, chanting, motley phalanx — of hipsters, nationalists, anarchists, pensioners, and the middlest of the middle class — finished its parade route, it found its way onto Bolotnaya Square — the site of the day’s rally, as well as of two previous such events — was blocked by a column of OMON special police, and a column of the radical Left Front activists. The corridor to get to Bolotanaya shrank steadily, especially when Sergei Udaltsov, the Left Front leader and organizer of the protest, called for a sit-in with anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny. People didn’t have a chance to sit for long. In an instant, there was shoving and pushing and the people who had just been sitting were up, elbowing and screaming in panic. It was all downhill from there: the smoke bombs, the rocks, the glass bottles, the tear gas, the blood, the spreading of violence into the surrounding streets as nationalists and anarchists went chanting down the avenues, and the police chased them into cafes and metro stations to twist them into headlocks and into overflowing police vans.

It’s not clear who started the violence. There were smoke bombs streaking through the sky in both directions, and the protesters quickly lost their diversity: They became, almost uniformly, angry, young, and male, some of them wearing the signature masks of soccer hooligans. They resisted not only the calls of the police to disperse, but of the organizers to get them into a small camp of tents (an attempt to stay for days, as the protesters in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution did in 2004-2005). “Who is that guy in a blue shirt?” one of the protest organizers barked, pointing to a young man who kept stirring up those around him not to move an inch. “He’s a provocateur! Get him out of here!”

There were definitely provocateurs in the crowd, but whose? Dmitry Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the Just Russia party who has been active in the protest movement, said afterwards that he heard rumors of officers in the notorious anti-extremism wing of the police briefing a group of soccer hooligans — the state’s weapon of choice — in a café before the rally began. But that couldn’t be confirmed. He himself saw young men in black masks charge the police cordon during the sit-in. But he couldn’t confirm whether they were state-hired goons or simply the young men of which the nationalists and anarchists have plenty in their ranks, the young men, full of testosterone, who are only too happy to come out and rage against the machine.

In some ways — indeed, in all the important ways — it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the only lasting images — and memories — of yesterday’s protest will be the blood and the brute force. And, in that, a line has been crossed. The protest movement, once festive and peaceful, then downtrodden but channeled into concrete, effective actions like election monitoring and contesting municipal elections across the country, has become one marked by and met with violence. It has, in other words, entered a period of radicalization, and here’s a tell-tale sign: In the run up to Sunday, the organizers of previous rallies pooh-poohed the May 6 event or were on vacation, while the more radical figures in the movement — like Udaltsov, a Stalinist — took the wheel. And this, of course, plays right into the hands of Putin and company, who have been insisting for months that radical agents bent on creating chaos and bringing color revolutions to Russia, not the liberal middle class, are the core of the protest movement, and should be quashed like the enemies that they are.

The pattern that’s emerging here — the ossification of the Kremlin, the hardening of the opposition — is one that we’ve seen a number of times in recent Russian history. It’s also one that does not end well for Russia. The famously ruthless Bolsheviks who seized power in November 1917 had been radicalized by years of being forced underground by the repressive system of Nicholas II. In response to the social unrest born of rapid industrialization and an unresponsive political system, Nicholas cracked down and insisted on his divine supremacy. The political reforms he did allow — a weak parliament that existed for barely two years — was window dressing that only discredited the process of constructive opposition and political debate. It disillusioned both the establishment and the opposition. Nicholas’s secret police and Siberian prison camps not only did not deter, they inspired. In 1902, imagining what the ideal revolutionary party would look like, Vladimir Lenin wrote that it should be run by a “few professionals, as highly trained and experienced as our security police.” Josef Stalin, who escaped from tsarist prisons in Siberia seven times, made sure no one would escape from the ones he built to replace them. He populated them with anyone who could in any way be interpreted as being in dialogue with the state. By the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to gently reform the rusty Soviet state, the people who had pushed for “socialism with a human face” 30 years earlier had been so marginalized and criminalized by the state that they come to see it as an enemy — which, of course, is exactly how the state viewed them. Consequently, they were not interested in its evolution; they were only happy to see it disappear completely.

What happens, in other words, is that a paralysis sets in: Those in power see compromise as weakness, while those forced onto the streets by its absence see it as selling out. And the more each side digs in, the less a constructive solution becomes possible. The only way out becomes a revolution and the complete destruction of the status quo. And, as the Russian experience of 1917 and 1991 showed us, striving for a clean slate and a fresh start has a very steep cost.

We saw the seeds of this process in the winter. Addressing a pool of Russian journalists on Dec. 24, four days after an estimated 100,000 Muscovites protested on Sakharov Avenue, an unprecedented number for the past two decades, Putin shrugged and said, “there’s no one to talk to.” In the preceding weeks, he had dismissed the protesters as U.S. State Department pawns, as provocateurs bent on violence, and as the howling, delusional monkeys in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. He even nervously admitted to mistaking the symbol of the protest — a white ribbon pinned to the lapel — for a condom. It didn’t help, of course, when the protests kicked off Dec. 5, Navalny roared into the microphone with the promise that “we will cut their throats.” Or that, in the two days of protests that followed, police arrested nearly a thousand people in Moscow.

As Putin puts his hand on the constitution and celebrates with a feast of duck and avocado puree and sturgeon steaks and the finest Russian crus, Russia will stand at a crossroads. The opposition can go the way of excruciatingly slow but constructive civic activism of past months, or it can splinter into the hard and the angry on one side, and, on the other, the majority that is turned off by their tactics. (And we’ve seen how that’s worked out for Russia before.) As for the Kremlin, it seems to have staked out a clear and definitive position. Putin, with his diving for ancient urns and shooting tigers for the public’s adoring gaze, seems bent on comic, sinister ossification, perhaps à la Qaddafi. And while the streets of Moscow filled with the spreading chaos of Bolotnaya, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was even more direct. “In my opinion, the police acted gently,” he said in an interview with Dozhd television. “I would like them to be harsher.” Hearing this, an opposition blogger tweeted: He wants them to be harsher, he wrote. “What are they going to do, shoot?”

Vladimir the Unstable [FP]