Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2020

Notes on the passing of Stephen F. Cohen

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

This article will be a political assessment of Stephen F. Cohen, who died of lung cancer two days ago rather than an obit. I am including the NY Times obit at the end in order to put my remarks into context. My advice is to read the NYT obit first since it overlaps to some extent with my own attempt to assess his contribution to Marxist scholarship and the left.

In 1980 or thereabouts, when I had some time on my hands, I attended the deliberations of the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Because of Watergate and outrage over FBI harassment, the party filed suit against the FBI for $40 million in damages and an end to Cointelpro, which caught a small fish like me in its net. Cointelpro, which was short for Counterintelligence Program, was used to disrupt socialist and other radical organizing efforts. Supposedly, the government was trying to forestall the violent overthrow of the government but the real intention was to weaken civil rights, antiwar and other social struggles.

I can’t pin down the exact day but I happened to hear the SWP’s star witness that day, Stephen F. Cohen. I had no idea who he was other than that he was a Princeton University expert on Soviet Russia and apparently on the left. Our attorney was Leonard Boudin, the most respected constitutional lawyer on the left. He sought to make the case that the SWP was exercising its constitutional rights as a legitimate political party in the same way the party tried (and failed) in 1940 when the leaders were charged with violations of the Smith Act.

You can read a summary of the case here. We never got the $40 million, which Barnes might have stashed in a Swiss bank anyhow, but Griesa ordered the FBI to stop harassing us. Our victory was instrumental to putting an end to Cointelpro. If you want to find out more about this struggle, you can read Ward Churchill’s book about it here. Although it only has a single reference to Cohen, you can assume that his role was very important for the SWP victory.

Trotskyists argue that the undesirable features of Soviet government are largely the fault of Stalin, Trotsky’s rival. However, realizing that the establishment of the totalitarian state and the suppression of democracy occurred under Lenin, with the assistance of Trotsky, the Trotskyists contend that the anti-democratic developments were forced upon the regime by the civil war which broke out in 1918. Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton testified at the trial and advanced this view.

Against the charges that the SWP was plotting a coup, Cohen testified for the plaintiffs that the Russian Revolution was a democratic movement against a minority that was determined to use violence against the soviets to preserve the status quo. He was so brilliant that Judge Griesa, a life-long Republican, kept overruling objections being made by the FBI attorneys.

Not long after listening to Cohen’s testimony, I grew disaffected from the SWP and hooked up with Peter Camejo whose opposition to sectarianism convinced me to catch up on readings that were outside those blessed by the SWP. I took out a subscription to The Nation, which proved to be a great asset when I got involved with Tecnica in 1986 during a visit to Nicaragua. We used to run ads in the back of the magazines that helped draw in many talented technicians anxious to support a revolutionary society. With my subscription, I used to look forward to Cohen’s articles since they made the case for Gorbachev who most people on the left supported, even if his goal was hardly consistent with Marxist ideology.

In 2002, I married a Turkish graduate student and went to meet her parents in Istanbul a year later. I brought some books along with me to read on the plane and in her home in-between socializing. One of the books was Cohen’s “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution” that floored me in the way that Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” did. It opened my eyes to Bukharin’s brilliance and allowed me to forgive his unfortunate alliance with Stalin. I recommend Tendance Coatsey’s blog on Cohen’s passing that is mainly about the book. He writes:

It is both a study of Bukharin the theorist of Imperialism and World Economy (1917) and political career from left-communism, alliance with Stalin against the left, champion of the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed some private business to continue, and then, the last independent figure to Stalin He emerges as a figure  both accommodated to the Egocrat and, finally, pushed to resisting, tried to mitigate the worst. Fully aware of the depths of mass killing and famine that went with forced collectivisation, Bukharin was, he argued, a far more formidable opponent to Stalin that Trotsky, who had been exiled without great difficulty from a party which did not hold him in high regard.  Out of power the one-time ‘darling of the party’, continued to offer an alternative to totalitarian rule by forced labour and mass murder, a (relatively) moderate ‘right’ Communism.

With the arrival of Perestroika, Cohen became an informal adviser to Gorbachev largely on the strength of his book. For Cohen, it must have seemed like a return to the NEP policies with Gorbachev keeping it together, a task that was beyond any Soviet leader’s capability in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, they were just as doomed as they were in the 1920s when a layer of the former bureaucracy conspired with Western imperialism to turn the USSR into a Wall Street banker’s wet dream. Using Jeffrey Sach’s shock therapy, Yeltsin made plutocrats wealthy and the rest of the country miserable.

The best thing would have been a worker’s revolution against Yeltsin but, as so often turns out, you only had a reversal of the worst aspects of the Yeltsin years but within the overall neoliberal framework. Tony Wood described this evolution in his “Russia Without Putin” that I reviewed in CounterPunch:

What about Sachs’s shock therapy? Would a nationalist like Putin make sure to secure a social base for his new administration by easing up on the working class? Wood debunks the idea that Putin was a left-populist back then or ever for that matter:

Putin’s first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps the most energetically neoliberal, introducing a series of measures designed to extend the reach of private capital: in 2001, a flat income tax set at 13 per cent; in 2002, a labour code scaling back workers’ rights; tax cuts for businesses in 2002 and 2003. These moves were widely applauded in the West at the time: the right-wing Heritage Foundation praised “Russia’s flat tax miracle”, while Thomas Friedman gushed about Russia’s embrace of “this capitalist thing”, urging readers of the New York Times to “keep rootin’ for Putin”. His second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a ‘monetization’ that prompted popular protests in the winter of 2004-05, but which was carried through in modified form all the same.

While I am not privy to the particulars, it soon became obvious that Cohen began to support Putin as a lesser evil to Yeltsin and the West. Like liberals in the USA, this meant downplaying the evil, even if it was lesser. If Trump is evil incarnate, shouldn’t the left support Biden? If the CIA and the IMF were evil incarnate, shouldn’t internationalists rally behind Putin? It should be added that Cohen was not the only prominent and highly respected people in the West who followed this logic. The list is endless: Tariq Ali, Robert Fisk, David Bromwich, Seymour Hersh, Julian Assange, ad infinitum.

Once I figured out that Cohen was committed to this kind of bastardized anti-imperialism, I had no choice other than to call him out.

In 2014, I wrote an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen is not the man he used to be” that was focused on his support for Russian intervention in Ukraine. I wrote:

I was terribly disappointed to hear Cohen making the case for Putin the other night on George Noory’s “Coast to Coast” radio show on WOR, an AM talk radio station in NY that is now home to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. There was a time when Cohen’s usual venue was someplace like the PBS News Hour or Charlie Rose. How the mighty have fallen.

Cohen told Noory that people had to understand that Russia was the only nation in the world that had suffered two collapses in the 20th century, one in 1917 and one in 1990. I could understand the reference to 1990 but 1917? I wonder if the SWP filed suit this year instead of in 1981 whether  Cohen would be such a reliable witness. The only thing that collapsed in 1917, after all, was Czarist oppression.

Noory’s show is just one small step above Alex Jones. I usually turn it on for a minute or two late at night to hear some guest talking about vapor trails, flying saucers or why global warming is a myth. I invite you to check out the website for Coast to Coast and see for yourself. There’s a story on “Polaroid Ghost Pictures” and one on Noory’s appearance at a UFO fest.

In his zeal to defend Putin of all charges, Cohen went on John Batchelor’s AM radio show on a regular basis. Batchelor is the author of “Ain’t You Glad You Joined the Republicans?: A Short History of the GOP” and a solid supporter of Donald Trump, even if his rhetoric is not as inflammatory as Tucker Carlson’s. During the years that Cohen was a weekly guest on Batchelor’s show, the only other men who made an equal number of appearances were Malcolm Hoenlein and Gordon Chang. Hoenlein is a member of the Israel lobby as hateful as Abraham Foxman, while Chang is an advocate of economic warfare against China and North Korea that makes Donald Trump pale in comparison. I should add that in all the years I’ve been monitoring the Batchelor show, I’ve never heard a single African-American guest, not even a righwing one.

One of Cohen’s appearances on the Batchelor show was so appalling that I was forced to correct the record in an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen on the 2001 Ukrainian shoot-down of a civilian airliner”:

If you don’t have the time (or the motivation) to listen to the podcast, let me summarize Cohen’s “high” points.

    1. “Some people” say that the men seen firing the missile were in Ukrainian uniforms. I wonder if these Ukrainian men were the same ones that Parry reported as being surrounded by empty beer bottles. Of course, the use of unnamed sources allows Cohen to play the same game as Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh—to raise suspicions without the need for evidence.
    2. He reminds listeners that in 2001 Ukraine accidentally shot down a Russian jet filled with Jews headed for Israel. So clearly the country has a record of incompetence when it comes to deadly firepower.
    3. He advises that when such incidents occur, the first thing to ask is cui bono; he uses the words “who had a motive?” but he means the same thing. If you Google “MH-17” and “cui bono”, you will get 59,500 results—the top of which is Michel Chossudovsky’s website. Now there’s a big surprise. Just as was the case with the sarin gas attack in Syria, the Putinite left takes the position that a “false flag” operation was required to deepen the war on Russia.
    4. The US has been in a new Cold War with Russia since the proxy war in Georgia of 2008, which the conflict in Ukraine continues.

You get the picture, right?

The 2001 shoot-down was news to me. This morning I did a little bit of checking. It turns out that it took weeks for Ukraine to fess up that it was at fault, even though it was obviously just an accident as is obviously the case with MH-17.

In 2001 the president of Ukraine was one Leonid Kuchma. Remember him? He was widely regarded for improving Russian-Ukrainian ties in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence. He won office in 1994, mostly on the basis of strong support from the Russian-speaking East of the country. His prime minister was Viktor Yanukovych. Like Yanukovych, Kuchma favored co-integration with the EU and the Russian trading bloc.

Kuchma, like Putin, was not the sort of ruler to put up with critical reporters, including Georgiy Gongadze who was kidnapped and then beheaded in 2000. Four cops were eventually arrested and found guilty.

It was this abuse of power and rampant corruption that led to the Orange Revolution of 2004. For Cohen the Orange Revolution had lots in common with Euromaidan, a movement that resulted in a “coup” that overturned the democratically elected Yanukovych government. In 2005 he referred to “very large and well-organized pro-Yushchenko crowds in the streets” who “intimidated the Supreme Court into ruling in his favor and the Parliament into changing the electoral laws while the electoral process was still under way.” I guess the CIA must have manipulated them into taking to the streets after an investigative reporter was kidnapped and beheaded, the filthy imperialist tools. Didn’t they understand that Kuchma was defending the nation against imperialist predators?

On October 13, 2001 the NY Times reported on how Kuchma had finally come around to admitting his military’s responsibility.

In strained language that acknowledged only a ”tragic coincidence,” Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, stated today that he accepted investigators’ preliminary finding that his military accidentally destroyed a Russian airliner over the Black Sea last week with an errant missile.

Kuchma’s written statement, released tonight, did not explicitly state that the military was at fault. ”Obviously, final results of the commission’s inquiry will be known after experts complete their in-depth investigation and make appropriate assessments public,” he said. ”But even today it can be said that a big tragedy took place.”

But of paramount interest is this:

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials insisted for days after the crash that a Ukrainian missile could not possibly have been involved. Ukrainian military experts said a re-examination of data from the launchings for that day showed that all missiles had been accounted for and that none had flown more than 25 miles off the Crimean coast before plummeting into the sea.

Kuchma called an accidental aircraft strike impossible. Mr. Tkachyov said all Ukrainian data showed that a missile could not have struck the plane. Relying on these assurances, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, dismissed speculation about a missile strike as a ”so-called” theory.

Cohen was right to bring up the 2001 incident but obviously not in the way he intended. I think the facts will bear out that not much has changed when it comes to the Kremlin and its stooges’ tendency to dig in their heels when involved with such gross displays of incompetence.

I was not the only person who found Cohen’s evolution inexplicable. In 2017, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?” that chronicled his descent. It was quite damning:

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

Since the Chronicle article is behind a paywall, I include just below the NYT article.


Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.

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In Moscow he was befriended by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who invited him to the May Day celebration at Red Square in 1989. There, at the Lenin Mausoleum, Professor Cohen stood with his wife and son one tier below Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership to view a three-hour military parade. He later spoke briefly on Russian television to a vast audience about alternative paths that Russian history could have taken.

Loosely identified with a revisionist historical view of the Soviet Union, Professor Cohen held views that made him a controversial public intellectual. He believed that early Bolshevism had held great promise, that it had been democratic and genuinely socialist, and that it had been corrupted only later by civil war, foreign hostility, Stalin’s malignancy and a fatalism in Russian history.

A traditionalist school of thought, by contrast, held that the Soviet experiment had been flawed from the outset, that Lenin’s political vision was totalitarian, and that any attempt to create a society based on his coercive utopianism had always been likely to lead, logically, to Stalin’s state terrorism and to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.

Professor Cohen was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Gorbachev, who after coming to power in 1985 undertook ambitious changes to liberate the nation’s 15 republics from state controls that had originally been imposed by Stalin. Mr. Gorbachev gave up power as the Soviet state imploded at the end of 1991 and moved toward beliefs in democracy and a market economy.

Mr. Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with his biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin.

A prolific writer who mined Soviet archives, Professor Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” a biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin, who envisioned Communism as a blend of state-run industries and free-market agriculture. Critics generally applauded the work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award.

After Lenin’s death, Mr. Bukharin became a victim of Stalin’s Moscow show trials in 1938; he was accused of plotting against Stalin and executed. His widow, Anna Mikhailovna Larina, spent 20 years in exile and in prison camps and campaigned for Mr. Bukharin’s rehabilitation, which was endorsed by Mr. Gorbachev in 1988.

Ms. Larina and Professor Cohen became friends. Given access to Bukharin archives, he found and returned to her the last love letter that Mr. Bukharin wrote her from prison.

In “Rethinking the Soviet Experience” (1985), Professor Cohen offered a new interpretation of the nation’s traumatic history and modern political realities. In his view, Stalin’s despotism and Mr. Bukharin’s fate were not necessarily inevitable outgrowths of the party dictatorship founded by Lenin.

Richard Lowenthal, in a review for The Times, called Professor Cohen’s interpretation implausible. “While I do not believe that all the horrors of Stalinism were ‘logically inevitable’ consequences of the seizure of power by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party,” Mr. Lowenthal wrote, “I do believe that Stalin’s victory over Bukharin was inherent in the structure of the party’s system.”

As Professor Cohen and other scholars pondered Russia’s past, Mr. Gorbachev’s rise to power and his efforts toward glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) cast the future of the Soviet Union in a new light, potentially reversing 70 years of Cold War dogma.

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As Mr. Gorbachev arrived in Washington for his 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan, The Times wrote, “With an irreverence for precedent and an agility uncommon in Soviet leaders, he has disrupted old assumptions about Soviet impulses, forced reappraisals of Soviet purposes and rendered less predictable the course of East-West competition.”

To widen the focus, Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel published “Voices of Glasnost: Interviews With Gorbachev’s Reformers” (1989).

Professor Cohen affirmed his support for Mr. Gorbachev in a March 1991 Op-Ed article in The Times. “He has undertaken the most ambitious changes in modern history,” he wrote. “Their goal is to dismantle the state controls Stalin imposed and to achieve an emancipation of society through privatization, democratization and federalization of the 15 republics.”

As 1991 ended, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Mr. Gorbachev resigned, giving way to Boris N. Yeltsin’s tumultuous elected presidency. Mr. Yeltsin tried to transform the state economy into a capitalist market by imposing a “shock therapy” of nationwide privatization without price controls. Inflation and economic calamity ensued.

Credit…Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

By 1997, as Professor Cohen saw it, the Russian economy had become “an endless collapse of everything essential for a decent existence.” He became a persistent critic of Mr. Yeltsin, who survived an attempted coup and tried to promote democracy but resigned in 1999 amid growing internal pressures. He was succeeded by his deputy, Mr. Putin.

In his book, “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia” (2000), Professor Cohen laid the blame for Russia’s post-Communist economic and social collapse on the United States, for providing bad advice; on academic experts, for what he called “malpractice throughout the 1990s”; on Western journalists; and on Mr. Yeltsin, for a range of sins: abolishing the Soviet Union, creating a bureaucratic vacuum and generating hyperinflation with his economic shock therapy.

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“Cohen’s thesis is that Yeltsin, rather than Russia’s first democratic leader, was a neo-czarist bumbler who destroyed a democratization process that, in fact, should be credited to Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a Times review. “Cohen is particularly scathing toward American journalists, whom he depicts as overly influenced by the prosperity of a small, rapacious upper class in the major Russian cities, and who seldom ventured out into the countryside to see the terrible price of the reformers’ handiwork.”

Stephen Frand Cohen was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 1938, the older of two children of Marvin and Ruth (Frand) Cohen. His father owned a jewelry store and a golf course in Hollywood, Fla. Stephen and his sister, Judith, attended schools in Owensboro, Ky., but Stephen graduated in 1956 from the Pine Crest School, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He loved the novels of Hemingway. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, he went to England on a study-abroad program. He had saved $300 for a side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls. But an advertisement he saw for a 30-day, $300 trip to the U.S.S.R. changed his life.

Back at Indiana University, he gave up plans to be a golf pro and took up Russian studies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy in 1960 and a master’s in Russian studies in 1962. In 1969, he received a doctorate in that subject from Columbia University.

Professor Cohen’s marriage in 1962 to the opera singer Lynn Blair ended in divorce. He married Ms. vanden Heuvel in 1988. In addition to her, he is survived by a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Alexandra Cohen, from his first marriage; another daughter, Nicola Cohen, from his second marriage; a sister, Judith Lefkowitz; and four grandchildren.

His Columbia dissertation on Mr. Bukharin’s economic ideas grew into his first book, copies of which reached Soviet dissidents, the K.G.B. in Moscow, and eventually Mr. Gorbachev, who put Professor Cohen on his guest list for the 1987 Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Washington.

Professor Cohen taught at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, rising to full professor of politics and Russian studies, and at New York University thereafter until his retirement in 2011. His last book, published in 2019, was “War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.”

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Many journalistic colleagues accused Professor Cohen of defending Mr. Putin, who curtailed democratic freedoms but boosted the economy, which grew for eight straight years. Wages for ordinary Russians tripled, poverty was reduced, and national growth jumped fivefold as rising prices of Russia’s plentiful oil and gas overcame a depression.

In a recent interview for this obituary, Professor Cohen denied that he had “defended” Mr. Putin.

“He holds views that I also hold,” Professor Cohen said. “It’s the views that I defend, not Putin.

“From the moment Yeltsin came on,” he continued, “Americans thought the Cold War was over. There was disappointment with Putin as a more rational leader. I see him in the Russian tradition of leadership, getting Russia back on its feet. He frightens some of our observers, but I didn’t see it that way.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. 

Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?

How Stephen F. Cohen became the most controversial Russia expert in America

The Winter 1

VLADISLAV DOKSHIN

Here is a picture of Gorbachev with Steve. Here is another picture of Gorbachev with Steve, this one with some Russian dissidents. And look, there is one of Gorbachev and Katrina, Steve’s wife, holding their infant daughter. There is even a Gorbachev magnet on the refrigerator.

Walking around this book-lined apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on an August evening, it is almost as though the man with the world’s most famous birthmark is the third partner in the marriage of Stephen F. Cohen and The Nation editor-publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.

For more than four decades, Cohen has been a leading voice on Russian affairs, pinballing between the academy, where he is now emeritus at Princeton University and NYU, and the media, influencing world events along the way. Few scholarly works can be said to have equaled the direct political impact of Cohen’s 1973 biography of the Soviet founding father Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf) didn’t just suggest a new understanding of the Russian Revolution when it was released in the middle of the Cold War — it profoundly affected the course of that war. Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev wrote, “Some of us had already read the book, and we encouraged Gorbachev to do so. He took the book on vacation with him. He read it closely and kept quoting it to me. … The re-evaluation of Bukharin’s role and personality opened the sluice gates to reconsidering our whole ideology.”

Gorbachev’s affection for Cohen’s ideas — and for Cohen himself — turned a lowly scholar of the Russian Revolution into an intellectual VIP who sat in meetings with heads of state. Eric Alterman, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College and a Nation columnist who has known Cohen for decades, calls Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution “one of the most consequential books of the past century.” It realized “the dream of all writers to have an effect not only on world leaders but also on history itself.”

But these days, Cohen is better known for his views on a different Russian leader. In his columns and media appearances in recent years, he has become perhaps the most prominent defender of Vladimir Putin. “Putin is not a thug,” he declared on CNN. “He’s not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union. He’s not even anti-American.” The defense extends to the U.S. president, who has had some nice things to say about Putin. “The number-one threat to the United States today,” Cohen told Fox News, is the continuing investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia: “There is no evidence there was any wrongdoing.”

Perspectives like that have attracted the ire of a wide array of critics. Writing in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called Cohen “Putin’s American apologist.” Jonathan Chait in New York magazine labeled him a “dupe” and “a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism.” Cathy Young in Slate said Cohen was “repeating Russian misinformation” and “recycling this propaganda.” And there are many others who share those views, even at the magazine his wife runs.

Cohen’s ideas about Russia, which once got him invited to Camp David to advise a sitting president, now make him the most controversial expert in the field. His enemies and friends ask the same question: What happened to Stephen F. Cohen?

When Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution was published, détente between the United States and the Soviet Union was well underway. But Russian studies was still dominated by the view that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, immune to reform because the logic of total control was embedded in the Soviet DNA. “The Western view [is] of Stalinism as the only outcome of Bolshevism,” Cohen wrote.

His book exploded that notion. It showed that Bukharin, a Marxist theoretician and member of the Russian Communist Party, offered a programmatic Soviet alternative to the Stalinism that eventually triumphed. “It was a huge statement,” says Eugene Huskey, a political scientist at Stetson University. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution did what scholarly history should do: Use primary source materials to revise the understanding of the past. But it had obvious implications for the present and future as well. If the Soviet Union had become a tyrannical regime as an accident of history rather than as the inevitable end of a deterministic ideology, then perhaps reform was possible.

The book might have remained merely well regarded if not for Gorbachev. For those Russians looking for an alternative between capitalism and Communist dictatorship — and members of Gorbachev’s cabinet were foremost among those who were — Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution suggested one. “During the years of perestroika, many of my acquaintances were literally engrossed in reading his book,” Gorbachev wrote in an essay that was included in an anthology featuring 35 prominent Russian political, cultural, and media figures marking Cohen’s 70th birthday. “I remember that this book, which in many respects resonated with the social changes of that time, became a best seller in the Soviet Union.”

There was a brief, glorious period in the late 1980s when humane reform of Russia seemed possible, and Cohen was a hero to Gorbachev and his fellow reformers. He was seen as a man who offered an intellectual blueprint for a democratic socialism that could save Russia. Cohen visited Camp David at the request of President George H.W. Bush, squaring off against Harvard’s Richard Pipes in a scholarly battle to influence U.S. foreign policy and determine the course of the Cold War. He wrote frequently for The New York Times, almost leaving Princeton to become the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent.

But that was decades ago. Gorbymania is passé. Now it’s Putin. Putin, Putin, Putin. And Cohen is not friends with Putin, though he downplays the Russian leader’s failings. Presidents are no longer interested in the opinions of Cohen. But at least he can do his best to ensure that what he has for years been calling a second Cold War does not become a hot war. Cohen thinks we are closer than we have ever been, closer than we were during even the Cuban missile crisis or Able Archer. And the idea that he is unable to stop the downward spiraling of U.S.-Russian relations is nothing short of agonizing. A nuclear war between Russia and the United States is his biggest fear. (Well, that and irrelevance, if you believe his critics.)

Not that any such anguish is immediately evident when we meet in his apartment. He’s from Kentucky, he says, and retains “a skepticism about everything except horses and bourbon.” Dressed in jeans and a black-and-gold shirt, he smokes Marlboros on his living-room couch. The view of Central Park from here is of green treetops at sundown. At 78, he is still handsome, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Vanden Heuvel, who walks in and out of the room, is 20 years younger and looks like a dark-haired heroine out of Tolstoy.

Cohen spends much of his time writing for The Nation. Their daughter, Nicola, who is here for dinner tonight, attends Columbia Law School, going into criminal-justice reform. Which, if you had to guess what a child of Cohen and vanden Heuvel would be doing with her life, is pretty much what you would come up with. “I’m very proud talking about my daughter’s passion for justice,” he says, listing off her accomplishments. It’s not a bad life.

But the attacks in the media have stung. Vanden Heuvel can recite the worst of them. And they have also started to come from inside The Nation, where editors and reporters wonder if Cohen’s influence is responsible for the country’s leading left-wing magazine taking the side of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on U.S.-Russia policy.

In academe, Cohen gets more regard. He has a chest of good will stored away, for his Bukharin biography primarily, but also for his essays on Russian history, collected in books like Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives (Columbia University Press, 2009). “He’s well-respected as a sort of historical political scientist,” says Ronald Suny, a Russianist at the University of Michigan.

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

“I would say he’s not in the mainstream,” says Huskey. “He’s clearly an outlier” in absolving Russia for its military excursions and electoral interference. “Many have the perception that his comments make him out to be an apologist for Russia.”

That perception has tarnished Cohen’s name. In 2014, vanden Heuvel initiated discussions with the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies on funding a dissertation fellowship named after Cohen and his mentor, Robert Tucker. But the association delayed approving the fellowship when some board members complained about establishing one with Cohen’s name. Stephen Hanson, the group’s president at the time, told The New York Times, “It’s no secret that there were swirling controversies around Professor Cohen. In that context, consulting with a wider community of scholars was the prudent thing to do.”

Cohen and vanden Heuvel withdrew the offer. The association later asked if the couple would take Cohen’s name off the fellowship but still provide funding, a request that further insulted them.

In January 2015, David Ransel, an Indiana University professor and former editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a letter to the association, saying that its handling of the matter “reeks of a censuring of public discourse and should be regarded by all decent people as a profound embarrassment to our association.” It was signed by more than 60 scholars. A few months later, the group finally approved the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship Program, which is still in existence.

The affair left Cohen dismayed. “I went ballistic,” he says. Vanden Heuvel calls it “a poke in the eye.” Cohen thinks that young scholars are afraid to voice views similar to his. He says he gets email to that effect. “They’re going to be careful. And you can’t be a good scholar and be careful.”

On a Tuesday evening, Cohen arrives at the WABC studios in midtown. He appears weekly on The John Batchelor Show, a talk-radio program, for a 40-minute discussion, highlights of which are summarized on The Nation’s website. He sports a light beard (the legendary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once called Cohen’s facial hair a “rusty, biblical unshaveness”), and he smokes from a vaporizer on the elevator up to the studio.

Winding our way through the halls, he brings up several times appearing on the show with Oliver Stone to discuss Putin. “It was shown all over the world,” he says. For his segment, a giant image of Putin is displayed on the studio wall. Cohen, fluid and articulate, is comfortable here, cracking jokes with the host. He was a CBS commentator during the 1980s and appeared regularly on television. His smooth, deep voice, the product of decades of cigarettes, is made for broadcast. Vanden Heuvel shows up and lovingly takes a few photos of Cohen before scrolling through her emails.

On the show, Cohen unleashes the opinions that have turned him into one of the least popular Russia experts in America. Speaking about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to Russia’s invasion, he asks: “If you’re sitting in the Kremlin, and you see this as surreptitious NATO expansion, and Ukraine, which is virtually a kinship of Russia, do you do nothing?” Putin “is reacting. … He had few alternatives.” He continues: “If we’re going to ask who undermined Ukrainian democracy, it wasn’t Putin.” It was Western leaders.

He similarly blames America for panicking about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Why did America embrace what is clearly, or seems to be, a fiction for which there is no evidence?” He speculates on the answers: Putin was an obstacle to global American hegemony. Another scenario: “Sinister forces, greedy forces, high in our political system and in our economy, need Russia as an enemy because it’s exceedingly profitable.” U.S.-Russian relations “didn’t go wrong in Moscow.” They “went wrong in Washington.”

Not many scholars concur with those views. But even those who think Cohen is wrong now have to acknowledge that he has been right about a lot in the past. In addition to his views in the 1970s on the possibilities of Soviet reforms, he was proved correct in his assessment in the late 1980s that Gorbachev was a genuine democrat, in contrast to those who, like Richard Pipes, believed he was merely a kinder, gentler Soviet apparatchik. In the 1990s, Cohen was among the first to identify Boris Yeltsin as someone doing deep damage to Russia through his corruption. “Much of the academy were pro-Yeltsin,” recalls Suny. And Cohen was prescient in observing that post-Cold War NATO expansion would revive Russian nationalism.

Suny says Cohen “tries to fight all windmills at once” but adds that he is “rather courageous” and “covers for more timid colleagues” in countering the standard U.S. narrative about Russia. Robert Legvold, a Columbia University political scientist, says serious Russian experts “see him as wrong, but not as a traitor.” He notes, “Anybody who thinks he’s a tool of the Soviets or Russia is a fool.”

Vanden Heuvel offers her own frame: “If you have to define Steve, he’s an alternativist. This idea of don’t accept — seek the alternative.” Cohen’s views have made life difficult not only for him but also for vanden Heuvel. With his support of Putin and Trump (at least on Russia) “now there’s double toxicity” regarding him, as he puts it.

Staffers at The Nation are openly revolting against the magazine’s pro-Russian tilt. “There is a widespread feeling that he has always been involved and had lots of influence on vanden Heuvel, but that it ratcheted up with [the Russian invasion of] Crimea,” says the longtime Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. “He has a view that we are on the edge of World War III, and it’s not a view that I or other people hold.”

Vanden Heuvel points out that Cohen’s tenure at The Nation preceded hers and finds claims of his control over her insulting. But it is undeniable that the flagship magazine of the American left supports the Russia policy of Donald Trump. In June, some Nation writers told vanden Heuvel in a letter that “the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions.”

Cohen is insouciant about the controversy, except insofar as it hurts vanden Heuvel. His time working with Russian dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s inspired his nonchalant attitude. “There’s no real price for dissent in America compared to what it was in the Soviet Union,” he says. “I’m emeritus at two universities. That means I’m old and I got a lot of health care. What are they going to do to me?”

But the flashes of defiance can’t obscure the heartbreak. The tragedy for Cohen is that Gorbachev’s democratic Soviet alternative never materialized. Instead he lost control of the Soviet empire, and Yeltsin came to power, dissolved the Soviet Union, and oversaw a transition to a country based on hyper-capitalism devoid of the rule of law. And then Yeltsin selected Putin as his successor. None of the rest is history.

As I left their apartment, Cohen gave me a copy of his book The Victims Return (PublishingWorks, 2010), about survivors of Stalin’s gulags. On the train ride home, I looked at the inscription he wrote inside:

For Jordan —

Wishing you a happier fate.

Steve

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-PresidencyHis writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineThe Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

2 Comments »

  1. In 2020, as in 1924 (with Socialism in One Country as the bureaucracy’s response to the 1923 failure of revolution in Germany) or 1914 (the split in Social Democracy over WWI) – the fundamental issue of the bankruptcy nationalist “solutions” versus an internationalist perspective remains. Hitching your fortunes to the former is bound to end badly. Cohen strikes me as one such academic who entertained those illusions. Donald Trump certainly holds front rank over Vladimir Putin as the “most dangerous man in the world” but Putin’s no friend of the international working class and anyone who goes shopping among bureaucrats and criminal thugs for allies has nothing to do with Marxism.

    Comment by june2401 — September 20, 2020 @ 10:47 pm


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