Stephen F. Cohen, a veteran Russian scholar at New York University and Princeton, has lately gained some dubious notoriety as Vladimir Putin’s number one apologist in the ranks of American punditry. After a piece in The Nation slamming the American media for “toxic” anti-Putin reporting and a CNN appearance defending Putin’s incursion into Crimea as an attempt to protect “Russia's traditional zones of national security,” Cohen was excoriated not just by the conservative media but by The New Republic and New York magazine. More recently, a critical but respectful feature in Newsweek dubbed him “the man who dared make Putin’s case.”
But what drives Cohen’s ongoing battle against “the demonization of Putin”? Some of his detractors sound baffled by the paradox of a longtime leftist defending an essentially right-wing authoritarian regime; New York’s Jonathan Chait blames it on “the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism” transferred onto a no-longer-communist Kremlin. In The Daily Beast, James Kirchick treats Cohen as one of the “realists” advocating a pragmatic rather than morality-based foreign policy. And Cohen himself, in the Newsweek interview, avers that he is the true American patriot seeking to keep the United States out of a reckless confrontation.
Yet none of these explanations quite captures the motives or the history behind Cohen’s passion, which is ultimately less about realism than frustrated idealism. Regrettably, this idealism has led Cohen—a man of unquestionable erudition, sometimes insightful analysis, and by all appearances genuine sympathy for Russia’s tribulations—into some strange places at odds with both reality and morality.
As he writes in the foreword to his 2009 book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Cohen’s interest in Russia dates back to his days as a college student in the late 1950s, when he became keenly concerned with social justice after growing up in segregated small-town Kentucky. He developed a particular interest in Soviet alternatives to Stalinism and Nikolai Bukharin, the revolutionary and theorist killed in Stalin’s purges whom Cohen saw as the embodiment of such an alternative—a champion of a mixed economy and more humane politics. (Other historians argue that Bukharin, earlier a full supporter of revolutionary mass terror and state-controlled production, saw liberalization in the 1920s as merely a strategic retreat to rebuild the Soviet economy and pacify the populace.) Cohen’s first book was an acclaimed 1975 biography of Bukharin, an expanded edition of which is to be published this year.
Cohen had a strong personal investment in his subject. In the mid-1970s, he began spending a lot of time in Moscow in academic exchange programs, an experience he describes in his 2010 book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin; he grew close to Bukharin’s widow Anna Larina, herself a gulag survivor, and developed friendships with a few Soviet dissidents. He was a devout foe of Stalinism—at the time, he was already doing research on gulag survivors—and no fan of the Brezhnev-era Soviet regime, which for unspecified reasons barred him from travel to the Soviet Union from 1982 to 1985. However, a running theme in Cohen’s writings was the possibility of “socialism with a human face.” He argued that Communism was not monolithic; that Stalinism was not an organic continuation of Leninist Bolshevism (a “richly diverse movement,” as Cohen, then a junior fellow at Columbia University’s Research Institute on Communist Affairs, wrote in a 1967 letter to the New York Review of Books) but a radical break from it; and that the Soviet system had real potential for peaceful reformism. It is telling that his closest dissident friend was Roy Medvedev, probably the only notable dissident in the 1970s who still considered himself a Marxist-Leninist.
In his 1985 book, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917, Cohen noted with regret that, as reformist hopes withered and died in the 1970s, most liberal dissidents “concluded that the entire Soviet system was hopelessly ill-conceived and corrupt—that reform from within the Communist party-state was impossible,” and their protests “grew increasingly anti-Soviet.” This, he argued, only led to more repression, drawing dissenters into a “political cul-de-sac” since change in the Soviet Union could only happen through “reform from above.” Around the same time, he claimed in The Nation that the Reagan administration’s quest to pressure the Soviets into change would inevitably fail since it was “predicated on wildly exaggerated conceptions of Soviet domestic problems. In reality, the Soviet Union is not in economic crisis; nor is it politically unstable.”
Not long after, Cohen’s cherished “reform from above” suddenly became reality as the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, embarked on a course of liberalization and reform. Still more excitingly for Cohen, glasnost included a Bukharin revival, with major support from Gorbachev himself. Bukharin was formally exonerated in 1988 and became, as Cohen recounts in Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, “virtually canonized as Lenin’s rightful heir, anti-Stalinist prophet and hero, and forerunner of Gorbachev’s perestroika reformation.”
Cohen threw himself enthusiastically into this reformation. He traveled regularly to the Soviet Union with his wife Katrina Vanden Heuvel, an editor at The Nation and currently its editor-in-chief and they co-authored the 1989 book, Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev’s Reformers, a collection of interviews with fourteen officials, journalists, and intellectuals, all of them proponents of a kinder, gentler (and more efficient) Soviet socialism.
Then, in late 1991, the dreams of reformist socialism crashed with the end of the Soviet Union. The new Russian leadership was far more interested in embracing Western-style democratic capitalism than in reforming socialism. Lenin was tossed on the dustbin of history—even if his mummified body remained in the Mausoleum on Red Square—and Bukharin’s ghost faded into irrelevance. As Cohen notes with tangible bitterness in Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, “Of what political use or historical interest was a founding father whose country no longer existed?”
For many observers, the Soviet Union’s downfall leads to the logical conclusion that Soviet communism was not reformable after all: virtually the moment its coercive mechanisms weakened, the entire edifice began to crack and promptly collapsed. Not surprisingly, Cohen strongly disagrees. His view is most succinctly summed up in a 2011 talk at a conference sponsored by the Gorbachev Foundation: the Soviet Union, he believes, did not “collapse” but was dismantled by the power-hungry Boris Yeltsin—aided by “the radical intelligentsia” which “hijacked Gorbachev’s gradualist reformation” and helped bring Yeltsin to power, and by greedy bureaucratic elites eager to plunder the Soviet Union’s wealth. To make this case, he drastically downplays both the economic crisis of 1990-1991 (when, as Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovich once quipped, “Soviet power still existed but the food had already run out”) and the separatist tensions in the Soviet republics.
Meanwhile, Cohen blames Yeltsin’s reforms in the early 1990s for causing “the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime.” That’s a rather startling assertion from someone familiar with Stalin’s brutal collectivization of agriculture and the ensuing “terror-famine” of the early 1930s.
Of course, few would disagree that Russia’s “Wild West capitalism” of the nineties was not a pretty picture, with the rise of oligarchs who gave robber barons a bad name and millions of people cast adrift and struggling. One can argue about the causes and the specifics of this crisis—for instance, whether Yeltsin-era policies were really free market-oriented (the private sector remained crippled by byzantine taxes and regulations, official corruption, and lack of effective legal protection for property rights) and whether some of the decade’s social ills were caused by the transition to the market or by the disastrous Soviet legacy. (Thus, the decline in Russians’ life expectancy began in the Soviet era, with male life expectancy at birth dropping from 64 years in 1965 to 61.4 years in 1980.) Still, Cohen has an indisputable point when he says that the hardship and chaos of the 1990s explain widespread Russian support for Putin’s neo-authoritarian rule—as well as the resurgence of Stalinist nostalgia, with both Putin and Stalin seen as symbols of the “strong hand” bringing order and security.
“It’s rather sad to see Cohen, who has written with sensitivity and compassion about gulag survivors, sink to the level of a pro-Kremlin Internet troll”
This, however, should hardly preclude a critical view of Putin and Putinism: if anything, an authoritarian strongman is all the more dangerous when he rides a wave of legitimate popular discontent with economic and social chaos. The fact remains that after his rise to power, Putin systematically strangled Russia’s free press (the remnants of which are now under attack in the warmongering over Ukraine), crushed political opposition, turned elections into a farce and the parliament into an obedient rubber stamp, and moved toward making anti-Western nationalism an official ideology. And these are facts that Cohen either glosses over or downplays—for instance, by asserting that “de-democratization began under Yeltsin, not Putin” (which is true only in the sense that power was increasingly concentrated in the presidency rather than elected representatives).
All this autocratic thuggery seems a more than adequate explanation for why the Western media would take an uncharitable view of Putin, the ex-KGB officer who has always taken conspicuous pride in his Soviet-era career. Yet Cohen professes to be utterly baffled by why Putin is so “villainized.” His explanation in The Nation article is that the U.S. press “adopted Washington’s narrative” of Yeltsin as the man steering Russia to democracy, still treating him as “an ideal Russian leader.” By contrast, in the 2000s, the media—again taking their cue from Washington—began to treat the Kremlin as the enemy. (This account completely ignores, among other things, the complexities of U.S.-Russian relations in both the 1990s and the 2000s: the chill between Moscow and Washington at the end of the Yeltsin years, the initially cordial relationship between George W. Bush and Putin—the War on Terror ally in whose eyes Bush famously got “a sense of his soul”—and the “reset” at the start of Obama’s presidency.)
In essence, Cohen is arguing that the American media dislikes Putin because he is seen as the anti-Yeltsin. But this seems like classic projection: the far more likely explanation is that Cohen sympathizes with Putin because he sees Putin as the anti-Yeltsin, and Yeltsin as the anti-Gorbachev who destroyed the bright and shining hopes of Soviet reformism. The irony, of course, is that Putin’s rule hasn’t seen a restoration of socialism, Soviet-style or otherwise (except for the fact that, while Yeltsin repudiated the Soviet period, Putin treats it as a source of real achievements and legitimate pride). Putin’s Russia is a country of corrupt crony capitalism, conspicuous consumption by the rich and the affluent, and a repressive state that increasingly leans on a subservient church as its source of moral authority. It stands, in short, for everything a leftist should detest.
Many of Cohen’s arguments about post-Communist Russia are legitimate subjects of debate, and his scholarship has been serious enough to draw praise from the likes of Robert Conquest, the British historian and author of The Great Terror. And yet his Putin cheerleading increasingly crosses the line into denial or outright recycling of Kremlin propaganda. Last October, at a New York University symposium, Cohen asserted with a straight face that the game of musical chairs between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev (who was handpicked to succeed Putin in 2007, then stepped aside for his mentor four years later) was not a carefully orchestrated ploy to circumvent the Russian constitution’s ban on two consecutive presidential terms but a genuine, though unsuccessful, “tryout” for Medvedev. “I don’t believe that Putin’s return was agreed upon in advance,” said Cohen—flatly contradicting Medvedev’s own statement to the media in 2011 that he and Putin had “long ago” agreed on the power arrangement.
In a 2012 Reuters column, Cohen complained that Putin is often blamed for the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, even though “the editors of Politkovskaya’s newspaper, the devoutly anti-Putin Novaya Gazeta, believe her killing was ordered by Chechen leaders, whose human-rights abuses were one of her special subjects.” He forgets to mention that the Chechen leader in question, Ramzan Kadyrov, is Putin’s best buddy—or that Novaya Gazeta has also asserted that the actual killers are connected to Russian special services and protected by the government.
But the disconnect from reality is most glaringly evident in Cohen’s Newsweek interview. Take this gem: “We don’t know that Putin went into Crimea. We literally don’t know. We’re talking about ‘facts’ that are coming out of Kiev, which is a mass of disinformation.” Cohen must be the only person in the world who thinks there’s any doubt that the armed men who are all over Crimea wearing Russian army uniforms without insignia and wielding Russian weaponry—“little green men,” as irreverent Russians call them—are actually Russian soldiers.
And he hits an all-time low when asked about Pussy Riot, the activist punk rockers given a two-year prison sentence in 2012 for an anti-Putin protest performance in a Moscow cathedral. After noting that “in 82 countries they would have been executed” (a statement later amended to say that the women “would have faced criminal charges in many countries and the death penalty in several of them”), Cohen tells the interviewer, “You know what they were doing before they went to prison? They would go into supermarkets, strip, lay on their back, spread their legs apart and stuff frozen chickens in their vagina. There were people in there with their kids shopping and Russian authorities did nothing. They didn’t arrest them.”
The very slight factual basis for this outlandish claim is that two members of Pussy Riot once belonged to an activist performance art group called Voina (War). In one of its “performances,” a woman discreetly stuffed a supermarket chicken inside her panties and into her vagina (an act not witnessed by anyone except other group members who took photos), then left the store and “birthed” the chicken in an empty lot outside. However tacky, this was hardly the flagrant public obscenity Cohen alleges. What’s more, the chicken stunt did not actually involve any of the Pussy Riot defendants—though Russian television falsely implied that it did.
It’s rather sad to see Cohen, who has written with sensitivity and compassion about gulag survivors, sink to the level of a pro-Kremlin Internet troll, perpetuating a crude slander against courageous young women who are currently braving harassment and physical assaults as they advocate for prisoner rights.
Cohen is doubtless sincere in his conviction that he stands against a propaganda war that incites dangerous hostility to Russia. Yet his sincerity leads him to channel Kremlin propaganda as effectively as any paid shill. A verse composed by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for Cohen’s seventieth birthday in 2008 included the lines, “I love you, my unique friend, Steve / And envy you that you're naïve.” Alas, this brings to mind an old Russian proverb: “There’s a kind of simplicity that’s worse than thievery."
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields, 1989). You can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63