His Way: Remembering Stephen Cohen (Его Путь: Вспоминая Стивена Коэна) is a collection of letters, stories, and reminiscences of the scholarly and personal life of Stephen F. Cohen who passed away on September 18th, 2020. The compilation was a project of his wife of over 30 years, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and the Russian editor Gennady Bordyugov.
The book begins with an introduction by vanden Heuvel and Bordyugov, who highlight the importance of alternatives in both shaping, and directing, the path Professor Cohen took throughout his career in Soviet and Russian studies. The inclusion of a letter by former General Secretary of the Soviet Union and the first and only President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev is noteworthy. Those who know anything about Professor Cohen are aware of the critical role Mr. Gorbachev played in his life–and the role Professor Cohen played in his.
Mr. Gorbachev’s words regarding Professor Cohen’s passing hold much weight: “He was one of the closest people to me in his views and understanding of the enormous events that occurred in the late 1980s in Russia and changed the world.”
Included in the collection are many letters of condolences, sent to vanden Heuvel. Notes from members of the Russian political élite include Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and current Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov, who shared their sincere appreciation for the contributions and clarity Cohen brought to the field of Soviet and Russian Studies. There are also letters by esteemed scholars from around the world, including Archibald (Archie) Brown, Leonid Nikolaevich Dobrokhotov, and Paul T. Christensen, to name but a few.
The book’s largest section, Obituaries, Tributes, and Reminiscences, is a collection of personal memories of Cohen written by his colleagues and students at Princeton, NYU, and in the media world. Esteemed journalists such as Jonathan Steele, politicians like former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, as well as fellow historians Alex Rabinowitch and Ronald Suny, express deep sadness, while sharing their own meaningful stories and memories of Professor Cohen.
The historian Ronald Suny writes that, “Steve’s courageous example of challenging the prevailing winds of opinion remain an inspiring example of what critical scholarship ought to be.” Throughout the collection, there are remembrances of Professor Cohen’s, “maverick’, views and his, “authoritative”, confidence both in written and spoken word.
Much of what defined Professor Cohen’s academic and professional career has been his willingness to go against the mainstream when it came to analysis of Soviet/Russian affairs as well as American foreign policy. Never was this done for the sake of standing out, as the latter years of his life proved, as the cost of dissent was painfully steep.
Cohen was committed to the belief that properly understanding the motives and interests of the Soviet/Russian elites was essential for crafting effective U.S. policy, something he quite correctly believed was lacking in mainstream analysis.
This collection of remembrances offers a chance to appreciate the extent to which colleagues, friends, students, politicians, journalists, and others viewed Professor Cohen’s contributions to Soviet/Russian studies. At times emotional, and at others quite exhilarating, the book is undoubtedly the most genuine tribute to the one-and-only Professor Cohen, who remains a leading authority in Russian studies to this day.
Professor Cohen’s often stated that, “American national security runs through Moscow” is no less true today than it was 10, or even 20, years ago. As we face an uncertain future with the potential for multiple crises, we may all need to embrace Professor Cohen’s alternativist view on both history and contemporary politics while finding the courage to take the necessary steps to preserve our planet for generations to come.
As Lars T. Lih recounts, Professor Cohen once commented to him that, “If you don’t enjoy writing something, the reader will sure as hell not enjoy reading it.” I’m humbled to offer a review of this collection on an individual whose scholarship and analysis has inspired me to pursue my own path in Russian studies.
In the words of Friedrich Schiller: “He who has done his best for his own time has lived for all times.” As His Way makes clear, there can be little doubt that Professor Stephen F. Cohen surely lived for all times.
Artin DerSimonian is currently the Russia Research Intern for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.