Michael McFaul Discusses Montana, His First Trip Abroad, and the Importance of Empathy


Michael McFaul sitting in Memorial Church
Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, discusses "What Matters to Me and Why" with Sughra Ahmed, Stanford’s associate dean for religious life.
Photo credit: 
Alice Wenner

Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, recently talked about growing up in Montana, his experience living in Russia, and the values that he hopes to instill in his children, as part of the Office for Religious Life’s “What Matters to Me and Why” speaker series. The series is designed to spark conversation between Stanford faculty, administrators and the larger university community on topics including values, beliefs and motivations. Below are highlights from McFaul’s interview with Sughra Ahmed, Stanford’s associate dean for religious life.

SA: You grew up in the state of Montana. What was that like?
MM: I lived in three different cities — Glasgow, Butte, and Bozeman. When I was about 12, my father decided he was done teaching high school music, he wanted to go on the road. And he basically traveled as a musician for the next 30 years. I was the oldest of five children, so that was a very formative experience for me.

We moved from Butte to Bozeman between my sophomore and junior years in high school.  At the time, I was not enthusiastic about the idea of moving, but it completely changed my life. Because Bozeman was a college town, people were more interested in academics. I was not interested at all in academics at that stage in my life. But I joined the debate team, and the topic that year was “How to Improve U.S. Trade Policy in the World,” and that's when I got interested in the Soviet Union. We ran a case, as they're called in debate, to increase trade to the Soviet Union. That was 1979, 1980 — and it had a big impact on me.

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Are you musical yourself?
I was back then. I played trumpet and I played bass guitar in the jazz band. Every now and then I would join up with different groups on campus, and I played in a band when I was a pre-doctoral student here. We got fired from a couple of gigs here on campus. We were not good but we had a lot of passion.

Tell me about your first trip abroad, when you traveled to Leningrad.
It was 1983, when the president of the United States was calling [the Soviet Union] the “evil empire.” That trip changed my life. I was at Stanford and taking classes from very prominent professors, but I always was suspicious of what they were telling me — Stanford teaches you to challenge authority.

I had this notion that “maybe this cold war thing could be reduced if we understood each other.” By the way, I came back from that trip even more convinced of that hypothesis because I met people who seemed a lot like me. They were college kids and they liked to drink and they liked to listen to Led Zeppelin. They didn't seem so scary to me. I later learned over time that that was just a particular part of society — those that were not afraid to meet with Americans. But that theory has animated a lot of my thinking ever since. We are not going to agree with countries like Russia or China or North Korea on everything, obviously. But we can't have disagreements, let alone war, based on misperception or bad information. I got to test that theory that I developed as a young college kid as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

What was your experience like as an ambassador living in Moscow?
We lived in downtown Moscow with our kids in this giant mansion called Spaso House. (Take a virtual tour here!)  We had these incredible experiences together, which I think you'd have whenever you live abroad. I always encourage my students to go abroad to help understand their own country better.

My kids got to hear jazz played by Herbie Hancock in their house, and go to the opera and to the Bolshoi Ballet. And the people that they got to meet — especially Americans visiting, but also Russians visiting — had a huge impact on the way they think about the world and I'm very grateful for that experience for them.

Which of your values and beliefs would you like your children to pay attention to?
Empathy. Empathy does not mean you agree, but you listen and you engage, and I've had to do that both internationally and domestically…I want them to always be pushing themselves to have those interactions. They've been very privileged to be able to do that, given the life that they've lived here and the guests that they get to encounter at my house, because we have people from all over the world coming over. I want them to understand how important personal relationships are.