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Remembering Stephen Cohen Ivan Kurilla looks back at the American historian who helped redefine Soviet studies before becoming a pariah at home in the age of Putin

Source: Meduza
Eugene Gologursky / East Hampton Library / Getty Images

The historian Stephen Cohen died on September 18 at the age of 81. During Perestroika, the American scholar’s work on early Soviet history (translated into Russian) influenced the USSR’s own understanding of Stalinism. Over the past 20 years (especially in the last decade), however, Cohen became a darling of the pro-Kremlin media and disappointed many liberal-leaning readers, both in Russia and in the United States. At Meduza’s request, Ivan Kurilla — a professor of history and international relations at European University at St. Petersburg and the author of the book “Frenemies: The History of Opinions, Fantasies, Contacts, and Mutual (Mis)understanding Between Russia and the USA — reflects on Stephen Cohen’s contributions to public debate and the study of history in America and Russia.

Stephen Cohen belonged to the generation of American Russianists who advanced in academia in the 1960s and challenged stereotypes about the Soviet Union. These “revisionists” criticized the West’s hardline policies and believed that constructive engagement with Moscow would strengthen reformist elements in the Soviet leadership. Scholars like Cohen supported the policy of détente in the 1970s when their recommendations seemed to resonate in Washington. 

Cohen was one of the historians who revised perceptions of the Soviet past in order to change attitudes about the Soviet present. Representatives of the older generation of American Russianists — primarily emigrants from Russia (like Mikhail Karpovich, for example) — argued that Russia would have transformed into a modern democracy, were it not for the First World War. Cohen transferred this logic to the next decade: the USSR would have built real socialism, were it not for Joseph Stalin.

Cohen’s 1973 book, “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography,” challenged the consistently anti-Soviet orthodoxy that prevailed in American academia while attracting mostly positive reviews from fellow historians. Many American scholars of the 1970s entertained the suggestion that Soviet Socialism held some appeal and the USSR’s problem was in its implementation, not in leftism itself.

Cohen viewed Bukharin’s ideas as an alternative to the Stalinist understanding of socialism. In fact, he went so far as to cast all Soviet history as a choice between the paths offered by Stalin and Bukharin. Naturally, Cohen saw elements of Bukharin’s approach in Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms. He was confident that reformists would ultimately return to power in Moscow, and he urged the United States not to prevent this by putting too much pressure on the USSR, which he warned would only reinforce the “hawks” in the Soviet leadership. 

Things changed, however, when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 and the value of the Soviet-American friendship fell into question. Nixon had been a big supporter of détente, but President Jimmy Carter abandoned the policy almost completely. From then on, Stephen Cohen would devote most of his work to promoting the idea of a rapprochement between the two countries. He helped found the American Committee for Soviet-American Accord and roundly criticized the Carter administration. 

In the first years of Perestroika, Cohen’s Bukharin book (translated into Russian and published in mass-circulation) marked a reinvention of the old Stalinist narrative about Soviet Russia’s early history, which had been modified only mildly by the Communist Party’s 20th Congress (when Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech,” denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and dictatorship). Cohen argued that the Stalinist path for developing the USSR wasn’t the country’s only option and Bukharin had actually articulated an alternative: developing socialism without repressions while permitting private initiatives. Had Bukharin won, the Soviet Union would have built “socialism with a human face,” people wrote in those years. (Or perhaps the Russians would have gone what is now known as “the Chinese route.”) Suddenly, Cohen’s book was perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times.

The affection was mutual. Perestroika’s architects viewed Cohen as an ally, and he developed a deep respect for Mikhail Gorbachev, seeing him as a politician working to return the USSR to the path set by the hero of his book. Cohen was invited to appear on Soviet television programs and he even watched Moscow’s 1989 Victory Parade from the podium near Lenin's Mausoleum at Red Square.

But the Russian discourse soon went further, breaking not only with Stalinism but with socialism entirely, as new opinion leaders argued that neither ideology existed “with a human face.” After the Soviet collapse, Cohen criticized Boris Yeltsin (lamenting Gorbachev’s defeat) and temporarily fell out of favor in Russia, though his books remained in regular circulation, as they do to this day, thanks to the Association of Researchers of Russian Society (AIRO–XXI).

Beginning in the late 1990s, Cohen again turned his attention to U.S. policymaking, which led to a new surge of interest in his work. In most public speeches over the past 20 years, he focused on the mistakes committed by the White House in U.S.-Russian relations since 1991. Cohen defended and justified policies adopted by Vladimir Putin, arguing that they were a natural response to the political conditions imposed by the United States.

Cohen adopted especially contrarian views in 2014 and 2015 when he essentially repeated talking points from Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. After the election of Donald Trump, Cohen tirelessly challenged the American axiom of Russian election meddling and publicly hoped that Trump and Putin would be able to negotiate. In Russia, his work became another instrument for state propagandists. Cohen’s book “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia,” written in the wake of his disappointment with U.S. policymaking in the 1990s, was especially popular among Russian readers. 

As a result, Cohen irritated American Democrats as a Trump supporter and alienated Russian liberals as a Putinversteher. Some American leftists were also suspicious, given Cohen’s marriage to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the heiress to the fortune amassed by MCA Records founder Jean Stein, despite the fact that this wealth funds the important leftist magazine The Nation (which incidentally became Cohen’s main public platform). 

Leftists’ wariness of Cohen was never entirely justified. In the end, he was mostly interested in U.S. domestic policy. The degradation of relations with Russia served merely as a pretext to criticize the people he held responsible for failing to realize the hopes of the Perestroika era.

It’s not surprising that Jack Matlock — another American well-known to Russians and one of Washington’s last ambassadors to the USSR — appears to share many of Cohen’s views (though Matlock expresses himself more diplomatically and seems to criticize U.S. policy without justifying Moscow’s actions). The domestic political aspects of Cohen’s opinions are lost almost completely on Russians; Putin’s opponents automatically dismiss him as a Kremlin loyalist without realizing that he took relatively little interest in contemporary Russian politics.

Cohen’s positions proved to be so problematic for dispassionate discourse that he ended up in the minority even within the American academic community, which had embraced his earlier work. A few years ago, he donated family money for a dissertation grant in Russian history, proposing to name it the Cohen-Tucker Research Fellowship, in honor of his late adviser, Robert Tucker. The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) tried to convince Cohen to remove his own name from the grant but ultimately agreed to his terms. This capitulation led to public protests from some scholars in the field and a few even left ASEEES altogether. (Cohen also used his private wealth to finance the publication of work by young researchers in Russia through the Association of Researchers of Russian Society.) 

Whatever his political views, Cohen wasn’t wrong to say that his name meant something in the study of history. From his very first books, he challenged the “teleological” scientific history described by scholars like Johan Huizinga — that is, the idea that all past events could only have led to the version of the present with which we are now familiar; that everything is natural and no alternatives are possible. The teleological perspective erases free will and the ability to fight for a better future; everything is predetermined if there are firm “laws of history.” From the beginning, Cohen devoted himself to exploring alternatives and “forks in the road.”

What would the Soviet Union have been, had Bukharin, not Stalin, prevailed within the Communist Party? It was an impossible question before Perestroika and not particularly interesting afterward, but it remains important for our understanding of the past and, with it, the present. After all, if the question’s formulation works in principle, the next questions also have merit (and Cohen articulated them clearly): What would have happened if Gorbachev won, instead of Yeltsin? Where would Perestroika have taken the USSR, if the coup and collapse had not disrupted it? And could Russia’s post-Soviet development have followed another path? Could America’s influence on Russia have been more fruitful if Washington had pursued other foreign policies?

Many find Cohen’s answers to be unsatisfying, but scholars still grapple with the questions he raised. The real challenge lies in the discomfort of how Cohen formulated his questions. Entertaining alternatives at historical crossroads forces us to analyze the choices made in the past and encourages active participation in politics in pursuit of a better future. But participation isn’t always comfortable, and it’s far easier to chalk up the past to the unstoppable force of external circumstances. 

Yes, Stephen Cohen was probably not entirely accurate when he wrote about the USSR’s prospects in 1929 or 1991. And he likely misjudged Vladimir Putin’s politics, as well. But what you cannot deny is the courage it took Cohen to go against public opinion and the opinions of most of his colleagues. 

Even before the Russian Revolution, in the late 19th century, attitudes about Russia in the United States fell roughly into three camps. First, there were supporters who called themselves “realists,” represented in the late 20th century by the historian Richard Pipes, for whom Russian history was essentially unchanging and, in a certain sense, modern-day Russia merely reproduces the USSR, which in turn reproduced Imperial Russia. Another school of thought — the “friends of Russian freedom” — view Russian society as striving for freedom in a fight against a repressive state. (The political scientist and recent U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul embodies this thinking today.)

Stephen Cohen supported a third approach, believing that Russia can change and that its historical experience is unique from the West’s, constituting a potentially important, independent lesson for the rest of the world. Those like Cohen sometimes call themselves “Russophiles,” and they have always been in the minority. 

These three schools of thought also correlate roughly to the three ways American diplomacy has engaged Moscow: containment, promoting democratization, and, finally, rejecting any active policy on Russia at all. Advocates of this last approach argue that any American activity in the past has always transformed into “missionary work” or “a crusade.” 

In August 2020, Politico published hotly debated open letters from two groups of U.S. diplomats and scholars assessing America’s current Russia policy. The two texts, signed by 136 different people, clearly reflect the positions of the “realists” and the “friends of Russian freedom.” There’s been no third letter. With Stephen Cohen gone, it’s hard to say who will write it.

Sean Guillory reflects, as well

Text by Ivan Kurilla

Translation by Kevin Rothrock