Stephen F. Cohen at the East Hampton Library's 15th Annual Authors Night Benefit on August 10, 2019 in Amagansett, New York. (Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images)

Stephen Cohen: historian, polemicist and friend of Gorbachev

Cohen was a prophet of America’s decline

Artillery Row

The passing of Stephen Cohen – historian, polemicist and friend of Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev – at the age of eighty-one brought to a close an important chapter of American intellectual life.

Along with being a lifelong supporter of détente between Moscow and Washington D.C. he emerged as the most prominent American leftist critic of the so-called “Russiagate” narrative. A conspiratorial confusion which contributed to the thorough collapse of the American public’s trust in whole swathes of the prestige American media. While an investigation into the possible collusion of the Trump campaign was surely warranted, for more than two years supposedly unbiased print and television journalists hyperbolically reported on a story that would mostly fizzle out.

In unapologetic and apocalyptic tones, incessant political proclamations – rather than reporting – took place amid unfulfilled promises of imminent grandiose revelations from the Mueller report. This helped propel along our partisan polarization as Americans quickly retreated into their own private epistemic spheres of knowledge. It was truly bittersweet that Cohen did not live another ten days. The acerbic political bruiser would have been thrilled by the revelations of the New York Times investigation into President Trump’s tax returns.

Along with piquant revelations of the ways in which Trump spent his life gaming the US tax code, the New York Timesconfirmed that the documents it had received contained no previously unknown information regarding business dealings with Russia. Thus, through internal logics particular to each side, scepticism of the “Russiagate” narrative united American conservatives and old school left wingers in an unholy alliance. Professor Cohen proceeded to gamble a lifetime of credibility commenting on Soviet and Russian politics on his unyielding denunciations of “Russiagate”. Despite Cohen’s undeniable intelligence and scholarly contribution, he turned out to have been invariably wrong in most every major debate of his life. Yet in the final argument of an archly quarrelsome career, he was proven to be perfectly correct. If for all the wrong reasons.

Cohen’s leftism was characterised by an uncompromising and austere anti-Americanism

The course of the historian’s life and later influence was set in motion with the publication of his Magnum Opus: Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938. Published when he was thirty-five years old, the book was met with universal acclimation for its revolutionary scholarship and revelations on the life and times of the lovable rascal. Bukharin possessed by far the most appealing personality among the dour, ascetic, doctrinaire and mostly pitiless old Bolshevik leaders. The book posited Bukharin as the emblematic figurehead of an untaken and humane Soviet Socialist future. The great Russia scholar Leonard Shapiro pronounced it to be magnificent a somewhat sly 1974 essay review in the New York Review of Books: it was a “full, fair, balanced, enormously well-documented, sympathetic yet not uncritical study of Bukharin’s life and thought”. Shapiro asked, “what is the significance of Bukharin for posterity?” The book’s implicit answer was that “for those socialists to whom Stalinism has proved a disillusionment, and for those who see little to hope for from the various forms of violent revolution in which followers of Trotsky or Mao see the vision of a happy future, Bukharin offers the only alternative—a form of post-revolutionary revisionism.” Everything would have worked out perfectly fine if only Stalin had not killed Bukharin and the other old Bolsheviks.

The book augured Cohen’s concerns over the next half century at the same exact same moment that its great feat of scholarship was being rendered obsolete. “The opening of the Soviet archives in the late 1980s and early 1990s has rendered all research on Bukharin which had been conducted without access to those relevant archives pretty much obsolete” the Harvard historian Serhii Plohii informed me. Instead, Cohen abandoned the field, never returning to the research or big question that had launched his career. Instead he embarked upon a transformation from being an acclaimed and promising historian into a giddy bomb throwing polemicist. It was a role for which he possessed undeniable gifts. Including a properly acerbic temperament and the gait of a born dueller.

The Russian translation arrived at an optimal moment to create waves just as Gorbachev laughed Perestroika. It appeared at the exact moment when the crumbling system began grappling for alternative interpretations of early Soviet events and alternative ways forward. Gorbachev became a fan and befriended Cohen, bringing him into his inner circle.

The political access that Prof. Cohen enjoyed offered him ringside access to historic events that his colleagues in academia could only have dreamed of. He opined on reforming Soviet communism along gradualist transition lines into a mixed economy, which was not radically dissimilar an impulse from the “New Economic Plan” that Stalin had rendered moot when he had Bukharin and the other old Bolshevik leaders executed. This was faintly ludicrous as a solution to Soviet problems, even as the economic transition that actually transpired likely could not have been any worse. Scholars of Russia who had known Cohen in the late 80’s judged him very harshly for having failed to predict the oncoming dissolution of the Soviet Union. He missed the Communist Party apparatus losing its grip over the union despite standing with them up the tribunal and observing victory day parades with Gorbachev.

Cohen lacked all understanding of the dynamics taking place within the Baltics

Professor Cohen’s atavistic leftism was characterized by a deeply reflexive, uncompromising and austere anti-Americanism. For decades he had advocated a return to Kissingerian Realism in relations with Russia. Which he thought needed to be allowed to retain its traditional sphere of influence. That impulse made him sympathetic to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign for its openly promising the latest in a series of doomed resets of relations with Moscow. That ideal was always held at the expense of the democratic and national aspirations of former imperial subjects who yearned for liberty, for their own nations. His remarkable lack of curiosity regarding the Soviet Union’s so-called “nationalities question” led to him having a reputation for never having taken very much interest in the thoughts and desires of anyone other than the most elite Russians living in the major cities.

Likewise, Cohen lacked all understanding of the dynamics taking place within the Baltics, which he never seemed to have visited (and which one needed to have done in order to understand that the Soviet system was definitively on its way out). Despite all of the many years of producing polemics on the Ukrainian relationship with Russia, several Ukrainian-Americans know knew him have related to me Cohen admission to never having visited Kyiv. After the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, he emerged as perhaps the fiercest defender of the Kremlin position within American intellectual and public life: he habitually blamed Crimean annexation on NATO expansion.

Cohen’s marriage to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, ensured that his views on Soviet history, Russian politics and the war in Ukraine were firmly stamped on The Nation’s editorial line. Vanden Huevel’s moving and ethereally naive account of their romance (“In fact, it was samizdat manuscripts that first brought us together”) is very much worthy of a mid-period Woody Allen film. A fellowship that they had planned to offer in Cohen’s honour to the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies foundered in scandal after many association members objected to being associated with Cohen`s divisive politics. At the time The New York Times noted at the time “his largess and his divisive reputation have collided, opening a rift in the main scholarly association covering the post-Soviet world and spurring charges that the polarizing politics of the Ukraine crisis are stifling free speech and compromising the groups scholarly mission”.

In every instance Cohen would blame America “first, second, third and last”, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations once told me. Cohens tempestuous 2000 book Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia blamed the stilted Russian democratic transition process almost entirely on malign advice of the American advisors, journalists and diplomats whom he judged to have led Russia astray. No one familiar with what transpired in Russia during the1990s would argue that the advice was always good. Yet the overdetermined judgment and intense castigation of American policymakers characteristically denied all agency to the Russians. Who, let us face it, did not need American assistance to make a total mess of an already catastrophic situation.

The Russian transition to liberal democracy likely would not have taken place in any different manner even if not a single third-rate American expatriate had arrived to find his fortune in Moscow. The chaotic and criminality inflected transition process that followed the total collapse of societal values was no more likely to have produced Swedish style governance than the Bolshevik revolution was to have produced Communism and universal brotherly love if only Bukharin could have outwitted Stalin. The pitch of Cohen’s rage was not entirely fair or well directed, but it was very much born of honest disappointment.

Cohen was a prophet of America’s decline

Habitually visiting the Soviet Union during its twilight years, Cohen cultivated strategically close ties amongst the Nomenclature and the intelligentsia. Spending time with the dissidents, he quite understandably came to love them. This was understandable. No one especially no feisty Jewish American leftywho had spent his life emotionally immersed in Russian history while drinking with Russian intellectuals in their grubby Perestroika kitchens could have avoided absorbing some of our more glorious and nasty character traits. Still, many of the Russian dissidents whom he had cultivated and came to love in the 80s (such as Solzhenitsyn), went to on disappoint him with their embrace of embarrassingly conservative nationalist politics.

The children of the Russian emigres whom he had helped immigrate to America have universally spoken to me in warm tones of his personal decency to them. “Young Russians were about the only people that he was nice to” an academic who know him quipped. The only time that I personally interacted with Cohen fifteen years ago was at the New York City retirement party of The Nation’s legendary editor Victor Navasky. Cohen was affable enough and remained deeply enthused in defending Bukharins legacy to a young Russian. Rereading the volumes that Cohen later published of his deeply sympathetic conversations with dissidents and Gulag survivors, I almost forgave him his endless depredations against my beloved Ukraine.

By the end of his life, Cohen was reduced to publishing collections of his increasingly crankish pro-Kremlin apologias and incidental polemics with ever more obscure publishers. He also continually claimed that “no Russian attack had occurred on America during the 2016 election”. That was not strictly true but it did have the salutary effect of coinciding with his emotional commitments as well as his deep need to see America as the responsible actor in every conflict.

Despite being totally outside of the mainstream on most political questions in his worldview, he clearly understood what large swathes of ostensibly professional American journalists did not. The short-sighted, histrionic and often desperate attempts to tie Moscow to a Trump conspiracy that largely did not exist did far more damage to American institutions than they did to either Trump or Moscow. They also constituted an existential threat to the credibility of American media. Cohen was a prophet of its decline, and he stamped the anti-imperialist left with his views. Somewhere in either heaven or hell Cohen, Trotsky and Bukharin are spending the rest of eternity arguing in a musty kitchen over the meaning of socialism and the Russian way.

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