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Meredith Alexander, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail

Stanford political scientist Michael McFaul takes a revolutionary new look at Russian politics

In 1996, a KGB insider who was leading Boris Yeltsin's presidential campaign was so enthralled with Associate Professor Michael McFaul's research on electoral politics that he invited McFaul to a very private rendezvous.

"He said, 'Meet me at the Kremlin at 8 a.m. and we'll go to a quiet place where we can talk about politics,'" recalls the political scientist and Hoover Institution research fellow.

McFaul was wary. Already he had been targeted by angry Russian hard-liners: In 1994, he was denounced by Russian neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Russian parliament, and days later someone shot a bullet through his office window.

Fearful for his safety, McFaul initially tried to avoid the invitation from Yeltsin's spin-doctor Alexander Korshakov, who also was one of the president's bodyguards and a former lieutenant general. But McFaul learned from a mutual friend that "the consequences of not going would be much worse than those of going."

Officials stopped traffic as McFaul was picked up in Red Square by a black Volga and taken to one of Russia's most famous vacation homes, the "Near Dacha," the site of Stalin's death. McFaul spent the rest of the day discussing electoral politics with Korshakov, who suggested that if the two of them were to cooperate closely, their countries could have a much better relationship.

"I said, 'I don't know who you think I am ­ but I'm a lowly assistant professor at a far-away university,'" McFaul recalls.

Although he was not the CIA spymaster that Korshakov took him for, nowadays McFaul is anything but a "lowly" figure ­ as his colleagues attest.

"He really is the leading scholar of his generation, maybe the leading scholar, on post-Communist Russia. It's a huge coup for Stanford to be able to welcome him back," says Coit Blacker, deputy director of the Institute for International Studies.

McFaul has returned to campus after spending three years in Washington, D.C., where his knowledge of Russia was an important resource to politicians and where he recently advised President George W. Bush on his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin (see sidebar). McFaul's new book, Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin (Cornell University Press, 2001), is the fruit of a decade of firsthand observation of Russia as it made a fundamental shift toward democracy. In fact, he not only watched the Soviet Union become a republic but saw his Russian friends and contacts make it happen ­ sometimes with McFaul's help.

In 1981, when McFaul began his studies at Stanford, the United States was embroiled in "the second Cold War" and tensions between the Soviets and the Americans ran high, he recalls. McFaul became fascinated by the two countries' relationship. Diving into a wider world than he'd known growing up in Montana, he registered for Political Science 35 and Beginning Russian that fall.

"I thought, well, if we could just understand each other better, we could have better relations between the countries. That was my initial interest," he says.

In 1983, while still an undergraduate, he went to study in the Soviet Union. At the time, McFaul says, he still had a "sympathetic view" of the country's government. It wasn't until he returned in 1985 ­ during the Moscow winter ­ that his views began to change.

"I got to understand the system a lot better and had a very visceral anti-Communist, anti-Soviet reaction that stayed with me a long time," he says.

At the time, McFaul's Stanford professors already saw an exceptional spark in the young man, Blacker recalls. "It was pretty clear to those of us who had him as an undergraduate that he was a remarkable young man with a very promising future," Blacker says.

A Rhodes scholar, McFaul went to Oxford to earn a doctorate. Professors there told him that his interest in revolutions against the state ­ examples of which he'd studied in Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland ­ would be better served by focusing on Africa. What may sound odd now made sense then: Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa were home to very radical revolutionaries at the time and they were the subject of McFaul's dissertation.

McFaul's passion for studying Eastern Europe reemerged in 1988 when he visited Russia to interview Soviets on the ways they influenced African communists. While the research project proved "a total bust," McFaul calls the year "a kind of turning point in my life." It was then that he encountered a woman who put him on the path to his current interests and new book. An African studies scholar and dissident, she told him that if he was seeking true revolutionaries, he should stay in Russia and meet her contacts ­ who, by the way, were trying to overthrow the Communist state.

"She introduced me to some anti-Communist revolutionaries, people who seemed pretty kooky at the time, frankly," McFaul recalls. Their free-market and free-election-oriented "Thatcherite" politics seemed gravely out of place in the Soviet Union. "It would be the equivalent of meeting someone here ... who said we should have Marxism-Leninism as an ideology and we should create a one-party state."

Nevertheless, these "crazy" activists captured McFaul's attention. He went so far as to help members of a group called Democratic Russia get in touch with Western agencies and foundations who gave them money to support their activities. McFaul got funding to spend more time in Moscow, where he attended mass meetings and got to know the opposition leaders better.

"I just kind of soaked in the historical moment," he recalls.

One way he helped his friends was to facilitate their discussions with the Hoover Institution, which made a deal to obtain the archives of Democratic Russia. The group needed the money badly. "Stanford, in a kind of very small way that was actually quite important, [helped] in terms of financial assistance," McFaul says.

At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the people he'd met in 1988 ­ nobodies at the time ­suddenly were leaders of a new state. "Many of my friends then went on to become senior government officials after the collapse, and that sort of sucked me into Russia for the next decade," McFaul says. "I haven't been able to cut my ties since."

McFaul has lived in Russia on and off since then, never spending more than four months at a time away from the country. Over the past few years, he's taken advantage of his visits to research Russia's Unfinished Revolution ­ a book filled with inside information on Russia's transformation.

The book was informed by McFaul's own experiences, a fact that makes his work stand out, Blacker says. "His understanding of what was going on was not simply academic, simply based on study from afar or brief field work. He lived there and he worked there and he continues to spend a lot of time on the ground," Blacker explains.

Russia's Unfinished Revolution was in the making since 1990, on subject matter that was a moving target because ­ as the title points out ­ the revolution in Russia still hasn't ended. "Throughout the whole 1990s, I kept waiting for stability, a new equilibrium, when we could say, the revolution is now over, this is the end point, time to write the book," McFaul explains. He finally decided to conclude with the end of Yeltsin's rule.

The book is an attempt to bridge history and political science ­ to tell a story about political events in Russia with the aid of a framework of theoretical arguments but without losing the drama of the events themselves. McFaul's main argument points to the dimensions of this revolution ­ despite being relatively peaceful, it has experienced tremendous shifts.

"The big thing I want people to realize about the period is that this was a triple transition of redefining the boundaries of Russia, creating a new economy and transforming the political system," he says. "In many ways it might be, in terms of the largeness of the task, the largest set of issues of all the revolutions. I teach a comparative course on revolutions here and I think it definitely ranks as one of the biggies."

That argument counters those who describe the period as merely a series of reforms. Others have complained that it moved too slowly, or that Gorbachev or Yeltsin botched it. But McFaul emphasizes that all revolutions have daunting hurdles to overcome ­ and that this one has had them in spades.

He reminds readers that not all Russians agreed with the changes initiated under Gorbachev. "Russia, its society and elites were divided about what they wanted post-Communism, and it's easy to forget that a good half of the population and a good half of the elites didn't want this revolution," McFaul says.

In fact, it's entirely possible that the revolution might never have happened, he explains, emphasizing the importance of contingency in politics. The August 1991 coup attempt by the military "was a lot closer to succeeding than we thought," for instance. If things had gone the other way, Russia would not have become democratic.

Some argue that it still is not ­ that Russia hasn't made the kind of progress needed to join international clubs such as NATO or the European Union. McFaul understands this point and in some ways agrees. Yet all revolutions take time, he says. He points to a very American case-in-point: Ten years after the beginning of the American War of Independence, the United States still had no constitution.

Even now, McFaul says, he has his share of KGB types keeping tabs on him. That's not unusual, according to Blacker. "Intelligence is about other things than black ops, skullduggery and turning agents. It's about gathering information," Blacker says. "They would know that Mike was deeply knowledgeable about things going on inside the country, so they'd be eager to talk to him."

But they must find it hard to keep up with someone who has divided his time between Russia, Washington, D.C., and Stanford. After three years as a senior associate at a Washington-based think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ­ where he set up a Moscow office that now employs 35 Russian scholars and policy analysts ­ McFaul is now back in the swing of things on the Farm. His upcoming course on revolutions is bound to be filled not only with topics of the day ­ he's planning to include a unit on Afghanistan ­ but with examples from McFaul's own experience as a fellow-traveler in this new Russian revolution.


By Meredith Alexander

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