I'm very critical of our US envoy to Russia, Ambassador Michael McFaul, finding him undiplomatic in demonstratively visiting the opposition so soon off the plane, finding his misrepresentation of the opposition's support for retiring Jackson-Vanik manipulative (he didn't say they advocated passing the Magnitsky Act); finding his position in general on cancelling Jackson-Vanik but not passing Magnitsky short-sighted and inexplicable (there is no reason not to pass the Magnitsky Act along with graduating Russia permanently from Jackson-Vanik).
So that's why I hope that my unabashed praise for him today will resound even more persuasively -- on prosto molodets -- he was right on target with this impromptu NTV street interview. ("Molodets" is a Russian expression of approval that people say to you which literally means "fine young fellow" but which is used with both sexes to mean "great job!").
This clip with a confrontation with NTV is not only an Internet classic, it's a classic in the annals of Russian-American relations.
To understand this clip, especially if you don't know Russian, you have to know the context about NTV and its behaviour.
NTV has long since ceased being "independent TV" (which its initials originally stood for) and is now an arm of the Kremlin's propaganda, owned by the Russian state gas monopoly, Gazprom. Some decision was instantly made at the top of the state broadcasting empire to allow stations to cover the recent demonstrations and even some criticism of Putin, but that doesn't mean this state-run TV is now "free". If anything, it's resorting more to form now as the backlash begins for the "mini-thaw" of recent months.
A good example of NTV's bad behaviour is when a few months ago it burst into the offices of Golos, the election monitoring non-governmental organization which has some funding from the US. The TV crew goaded and harassed the staff and stuck the cameras right in their face, as if they were some kind of reality-TV or real-time real-life crime show (they may have borrowed the idea from American TV).
The difference is that Golos is just an NGO doing its job and performing a legitimate function in a democratic society and the status of its US funding isn't sinister or the center of its gravity. (I'm critical of Golos for other reasons, but support its right to be funded by the US government or private sector).
The head of Golos, long-familiar with this KGB tactic of trying to harass and bully people with dissenting views, simply kept answering one thing to all of NTV's belligerent questions: "Vy -- Surkovskaya propaganda". "You are Surkov's propaganda -- Surkov is the Kremlin's ideology tsar who has controlled every aspect of media and civil society, such as it is, and who was recently replaced by Volodin, another ideology czar, and moved to a different position, but he is still following the fine ideological manipulation traditions of the Soviet era's Mikhail Suslov.)
Each time NTV nastily asked an insinuating and tendentious question, the Golos guy would say "Because you're Surkov's propaganda." It was really something to see -- he just wouldn't quit. "What are you doing with Hillary Clinton's money?" "Because you're Surkov's propaganda."
And he was right to do that, because NTV wasn't doing an investigative report, they were doing a KGB-style counter-propaganda ambush, and they weren't there to cover the news, but to perform a disgusting chore for the state intelligence apparatus.
You would have to see years of the Soviets and their fellow-travelers in action to understand this particular brand of odious behaviour. Example: you are at a meeting of the peace movement at Riverside Church in New York in 1982 and people begin to discuss not just opposing Pershing and Cruise missiles, but also criticizing Soviet SS20 missiles deployed in Europe, and a voice bellows from the back of the room with the familiar formula. "Don't you know," the voice insinuates. "That the Soviets lost 20 million people in World War II and have faced a hostile encirclement ever since their revolution on behalf of worker's rights -- blah blah blah." The 20 million war dead were insinuated into every discussion -- you could never point out that any act of the Soviet Union was belligerent, even the invasion of other countries, because, see the Soviets lost so many people in War War II that they are for peace and couldn't possibly be for war.
Or say you are covering a demonstration for democracy in Moscow in 1991 with a hundred thousand people, and suddenly you see an unmarked TV camera crew roving through the crowd demonstratively shooting the faces of the marchers. This is KGB-TV. They aren't covering the news. It's like the Turkmen delegation at the UN the other day, demonstratively filming the emigres who came with alternative reports exposing the vast human rights violations of Turkmenistan -- it's that same Soviet school of media-as-intimidation, counter-propaganda in action.
Or say you're on Twitter in 2012 and you say something critical of Russia's support of Syria's mass crimes against humanity or of Assange and WikiLeas. Suddenly, you find the pro-Kremlin ankle-biters following you, some with day-old alts and funny names like "Pavel Falshengobbler" (a parody of Felgengauer, get it?) writing nasty stuff about Edward Lucas and Valeriya Novodovrskaya, or on Foreign Policy in the comments, others with long-established personas, reminding you of America's awful role in the Iraq war or the Afghanistan war, as if they are moral equivalents. Or going back to the massacres of Native Americans and falsely reporting the deaths as even more than the total population of the United States at that time.
There's a particular nasty aggressive form of propaganda and counter-propaganda that has always been the Soviet KGB's trademark, and has spread through its networks and allies and supporters to this day. In the modern age, some might call it "trolling" but it's beyond trolling -- it's a particularly aggressive form of media intimidation that now has modern broadcast TV with more portable and versatile cameras and new social media capacity for its playground.
Sure, camera crew ambush officials all the time. That's their job. That's what they do. They wait in the "stake-out" at the UN every day, for example, and call out questions and try to get quotes and dog various reluctant diplomats. If there is some notorious case, like DSK, down at the courthouse, naturally the tv crews will all be waiting. The infamous "perp walk" has evolved in tandem with this media pouncing.
But there's a big difference between covering the news of a criminal suspect or a Security Council president with news of a resolution, and aggressively dogging and goading an ambassador visiting a leading human rights defender before his meeting. McFaul was visiting Lev Ponomaryev -- that was indeed normal. NTV doesn't ambush US NGOs as they come out of the Russian Embassy or the ambassador goes to various think-tanks to hear various speakers in Washington. Nor does US television. That's not what you do. It isn't even about etiquette, although that's part of it; it's about news judgements and about how you gather the news; it's about the very question of whether you are independent media, investigating something, versus Surkov's propaganda arm, harassing something. This clip really shows the difference.
If you didn't think this was tendentious enough, read the text that NTV used to accompany this report. They make it seem as if McFaul has fended off their rightful questions by pointing to the fact that he didn't even have a coat on, and it was raining, and it was unfair to expect him to keep standing out in the rain and giving an impromptu interview, they should call his secretary and make an appointment.But that was a distortion of the whole conversation, picking out only the last line after the ambassador had in fact given them ample face time and ample sound bites.
Indeed, the Golos staff said the same thing -- they pointed out that they'd already given interviews, and that they'd give them again, if they made appointments and sat down at a table and talked normally -- bursting into their office with the cameras blazing as if they are uncovering a drug den is ridiculous and unprofessional.
In fact, McFaul spoke at length and probably -- in the view of some commenting now -- talked too long. But it's good that he said something which he is already apologizing for now -- that Russia is a "wild country" where this media-ambushing as a KGB-style tactic happens, and it doesn't happen anywhere else, not even in China. (In fact, if you listen closely to exactly what he said, it was like this: "What a wild country where such a thing could happen," i.e. a hypothetical.)
Indeed. There are KGB-like Chinese secret police, but their culture is different and they don't use the media confrontation method in the same way (although forums sock puppets and the 50-cent brigade of regime tools spouting the communist line are their specialties.)
McFaul tries to teach this KGB gang a lesson in civility -- and civil society.
This is NORMALNO he says in American-accented Russian. (It's hard to get that soft l' sound in "normal'no" for all but native speakers and very talented linguists. I think I can produce a much softer version of it than McFaul's all-American hard "l", but then I have only to listen to my children, who grew up bilingual, to hear how to do it right. I will never forget how startled I was when my daughter at age 3 looked out the window and pronounced soulfully and with the proper soft sound the single word "Noch'" -- like the Blok poem. "It is night.")
And it is NORMALNO to visit dissidents. My critique was that it was too in-your face to open with this; my critique was that to report only half of what the opposition was saying about Jackson-Vanik/Magnitsky was manipulative. But the mere act of visiting dissidents does have to be defended. Robustly. In just this way. By saying NORMALNO to people who are NENORMALNO.
One Russian media colleague is complaining privately to me that McFaul seemed too nervous, and that undid his performance, or that he hesitated leaving and then coming back and still arguing. Oh, not at all. That an American -- an American, those yahoos, those dummies who near learn where countries are on maps and never learn foreign languages! -- could sustain a lengthy intervention and counter-attack to these goons, standing his ground and giving it right back to them, was priceless, priceless, priceless. Perhaps in some ways it represents the culmination of 50 years of trying to have Americans learn Russian, work and study in Russia, and try to address the Russians on their own terms. Finally we have stopped cringing like the Sovietologists did for fear of losing access. Maybe the pitch isn't perfect, but we're getting there.
What McFaul did was exactly what needs to be done with the Russians -- Russians like these -- and it serves to respond not just to nagly (impudent) NTV, but to the wider audience of the "aggressive obedient majority" as Yury Afansiev so brilliantly called the Soviet crowd still present in the Russian public. Fight back not with missiles or with boycotts of their entire country, but with rhetorical disputes and strategic sanctions. Fight back indeed mainly with words -- it is not the time to be cutting RFE/RL or Voice of America in any sense at all
Sure, McFaul's Russian could be better or he could be more robust or polished -- but so what, the job was done. You try doing it. I've done it. I know it's hard. I've faced down these kind of Russian KGB stand-ins primarily on Russian talk shows and some Voice of America shows, when I used to do call-in shows with people from the hinterlands calling in with the "Don't you know" sort of standard whine -- or worse. I've been in public meetings where Russian officials used these techniques and I've faced them, but on live TV with the camera in your face -- well, you try it, and tell us about it. McFaul does deserve the "molodets".
There were some nice touches, too, like McFaul pointing out that he had already written an article for Moskovsky Komsomolets that he appeared the previous day that outlined all his positions, NTV could read that. "Everything's in MK," he says confidently. "Do you subscribe?" It was perfect. It was perfectly pitched in the Russian lexicon. It was if to say, "Do you read?"
UPDATE: McFaul also protested about the fact that NTV seems to be benefiting from Russian intelligence engaging in electronic surveillance. And now the US government is formally protesting. He rightly asked the "journalists" -- how did you find out my schedule? It seemed likely they could only find it out because Lev Ponomaryev's phone is bugged, and when McFaul's office called to make the appointment, the surveillance team got the information and then dispatched their pals at NTV.
That's just indeed how it worked in the Soviet era and continues to work. Not only the KGB but the UPDK, the diplomatic services corps, kept a watch over diplomats to "protect" them. Of course everyone knows that the KGB's successor, the FSB, still does this, but there's a kind of dance that happens with the US and the Kremlin -- there are bug-free swept areas where there's an understanding the secret police can't probe. It's significant if this tacit understanding breaks down.
What McFaul is doing is putting his foot down and calling these NTV operatives out on their duplicity and arrogance in following him around so aggressively in this fashion. They couldn't be doing this unless they had some help.