While Steve liked to say it’s healthy to rethink, to have more questions than answers, there was a wise consistency to his political analysis. For example, as is clear from his many articles in The Nation in these last decades, he unwaveringly opposed American Cold War thinking both during the Cold War and since the end of the Soviet Union. He was consistent in his refusal to sermonize, lecture, or moralize about what Russia should do. He preferred to listen rather than preach, to analyze rather than demonize.
Archive | Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen was Professor of Politics at Princeton University, where for many years he was also director of the Russian Studies Program, and Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and History at New York University.
He grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, received his undergraduate and master's degrees at Indiana University, and his Ph.D. at Columbia University.
For his scholarly work, Cohen received several honors, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a National Book Award nomination.
Throughout his long and storied career, Cohen visited and lived in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia regularly for more than forty years.
Steve was a frequent contributor to American media, including for many years as a CBS News commentator where he covered the historic Bush-Gorbachev Summit in Malta. With the producer Rosemary Reed, he served as a project adviser and correspondent for three PBS documentary films about Russia.
Cohen served on the Board of the original American Committee on East-West Accord in the 1970s and 80s and served as the founding Board member of the second iteration of the Committee in 2015. The current American Committee for US-Russia Accord hopes to carry on Steve's considerable legacy.
From the Archives: Katrina vanden Heuvel and James W. Carden: Stephen Cohen’s legacy lives on in ACURA
It was Steve who was the guiding force behind the Committee’s re-emergence in 2015, this time as the American Committee for East-West Accord. As Steve noted at the time, “The old Committee, formed mainly by corporate CEOs, was well funded, had offices in Washington D.C., and had supporters in many places – in the media, in Congress, in the two political parties, in the State Department, etc. We have none of these advantages now. Our struggle is therefore much more difficult, but therefore also more important.”
It was also Steve who, far earlier than most, saw the danger of the new cold war that was forming in the mid 2000s and which reached its apex in the months and years immediately following the 2014 crisis in Ukraine. Steve observed with dismay that many journalists, scholars and foreign policy practitioners acted as though the risks of a prolonged East-West confrontation were negligible. In his view, this was the height of reckless irresponsibility. He knew, as we know now, that the inherent risks of a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, each armed with roughly 1350 strategic nuclear warheads, and with our militaries nose to nose across east-central Europe, the Black Sea, and Syria, were enormous. The role of the West in fomenting rebellion against a democratically elected government in Kiev greatly exacerbated the risks of confrontation.
Steve’s decision to re-establish the committee at the high point of what may fairly be characterized as a neo-McCarthyite stance toward Russia, was also very much in keeping with his character.
From the Archives: Vanity Fair: Stephen F. Cohen on Gulag Survivors and Being Followed by the KGB (Nov. 2010)
Historian Stephen F. Cohen spent the better part of 35 years researching and writing his latest book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin. Part historical account, part personal memoir, Cohen’s book chronicles the post-liberation experience of the prisoners who managed to survive Stalin’s brutal Gulag, from their release in the late 1950s to the present. With first-hand accounts from countless victims, Cohen’s work places him in the rare position of being both intellectual observer and active participant in the political history of modern Russia.
From the Archives: VIDEO: Stephen F. Cohen: The Ukrainian Crisis – It’s not All Putin’s Fault (Nov. 2015)
The consensus view in Washington and in the U.S. mainstream media is that the Ukrainian crisis, which some have called the worst international crisis of our time, is due solely to Russian aggression under President Vladimir Putin. Stephen F. Cohen’s view, on the other hand, is that U.S. policy since the 1990s is largely responsible, and that unless this is acknowledged at least in part by Washington, no successful negotiated end to the crisis will be possible.
From the Archives: David A. Andelman: Review of Stephen Cohen’s Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives
Writing in World Policy Journal in September 2009, Andelman observed that “As we stare into the abyss that over the past two decades we thought we would never again confront, Cohen leads us through the tortuous steps that have taken the world’s two superpowers from the age of Stalin and Bukharin to that of Putin and the oligarchs.”
From the Archives: Stephen F. Cohen: The New Cold War and the Necessity of Patriotic Heresy (June 2014)
Mikhail Gorbachev once said of his struggle for change inside the even more rigidly orthodox Soviet nomenklatura: “Everything new in philosophy begins as heresy and in politics as the opinion of a minority.”
From the Archives: VIDEO: Stephen F. Cohen: Intelligence Squared Debate on National Security (Sept. 2018)
Five esteemed foreign policy thought leaders argued for or against a number of motions revolving around some of America’s most pressing national security issues, including: Is it time to take a hard line on Iran? Is NATO no longer fit for purpose? And is the Russia threat overblown? Featuring Stephen F. Cohen, former State department official Derek Chollet, Professor John J. Mearsheimer and others.
From the Archives: Lev Golinkin: Stephen F. Cohen Kept the Faith (September 2020)
Steve was the only major figure in America who insisted on remembering the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who, like my family members, distrusted and hated the new Kiev government. He spoke of neo-Nazi paramilitiaries who fought for the US-backed government committing war crimes against civilians in eastern Ukraine. He spoke the truth, regardless of how unwieldy it was.
From the Archives: James W. Carden: Getting Stephen F. Cohen Wrong (May 2014)
The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe has penned a pretty extraordinary piece on TNR’s website attacking NYU Professor emeritus and Nation contributor Stephen F. Cohen’s latest article on U.S.-Russia policy, which he co-authored with his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel. Cohen, perhaps the country’s foremost scholar of Russian studies, certainly doesn’t need my help in defending himself against what amounts to a scurrilous – and frankly hysterical – ad hominem attack on his work and character.
ACURA ViewPoint: Artin DerSimonian: Searching for Alternatives in US-Russia Relations
History is not determined by fate. There is always an alternative. – Mikhail Gorbachev
With relations between the United States and the Russian Federation near their lowest in decades, one voice is seriously missed in the academic and policy conversations surrounding US-Russia relations and American national security–the late scholar and professor Stephen F. Cohen. [Read more…] about ACURA ViewPoint: Artin DerSimonian: Searching for Alternatives in US-Russia Relations
Foreword to ‘His Way: Remembering Stephen Cohen’ by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Gennady Bordiugov
The death of Stephen Cohen is a huge loss to what little is left of public sanity in the United States. His wisdom sprang from knowledge but also from generosity of spirit, and his inherent capacity to regard the people he studied as fellow human beings.
Those close to Stephen Cohen knew he had a CD with a dozen versions of the song “My Way,” from Billy Bragg to Frank Sinatra. It was natural, then, to name our memorial book of Stephen “His Way”. His passing inspired an immense outpouring of condolences and tributes in both social and academic fields across numerous nations. And yet, even a year later it’s difficult to grasp both the full impact of losing such an outstanding American scholar as well as the scope of his contributions to historical science, pedagogy, and the course of US-Russia relations.
Our contributors often begin by addressing what set the historian and politologist apart from others: his disagreement with the notion that the USSR’s creation in 1917 was illegitimate; his discovery of the true history of Bukharin; his influence on the architects of perestroika; and his theory that the Soviet Union was not doomed to end but could’ve been reformed instead. There’s also Steve’s speech at the 1989 May Day parade on Red Square – a uniquely incredible opportunity for a foreign scholar – as well as his friendship with the Larin-Bukharin family. What other historian could immerse himself in a family’s past to the point of being considered a close relative himself?
At the same time, while all our authors touch on the same overarching aspects of Steve’s life, each one found something unique to focus on: some stressed his development of NEP as an alternative to Stalinism or the distinctive “Princeton approach” to the high politics of the 1920s-1930s; others were drawn to Steve’s work chronicling the fates of dissident thinkers who had returned from the gulag and his unwavering support of A.V. Antonov-Ovseyenko in the creation and development of the GULAG History Museum. The reader will often encounter reflections on Steve’s passion for history’s truths, his talent as an educator and lecturer, or his amazingfriendship with the family of Bukharin and with Gorbachev.
Steve’s primary academic field was the study of alternatives – options and consequences of decisions made at inflection points in history – buoyed by his firm belief that there’s always a choice. His life, too, had choices and inflection points. In the spring of 1959 he had to decidebetween going on a trip to Pamplona or a tour of five cities in the Soviet Union, the sleeping giant just beginning to awaken and recover after decades of state terror, as he described it. Thirty years later, Steve was about to decline the chance to speak at the 1989 May Day celebrations on Red Square, only to heed the urges of his Russian friends and accept the invitation. “It was fate,” he reflected in an interview for an oral history project.
Cohen’s path was inimitable, one-of-a-kind. It was a path he had chosen and invariably hewn to. Many of the twists were interconnected but not predetermined, and in the end were shaped by his determination and willpower. It took courage to denounce the Washington politicians who, impelled by triumphalism, expanded NATO eastward, placed US anti-ballistic missile systems on Russia’s borders, fomented blind anti-Russian hysteria in America, and demonized Vladimir Putin.
His stances on Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria led to baseless smears and public harassment. He survived a particularly painful episode when a group of colleagues attempted to abolish the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship and yearly dissertation prize for Russia scholars. Steve was ostracized in academia and the media, yet he was prepared for these unexpected turns and stayed true to his path. “It hurts to know that Steve didn’t live to see his truths prevail,” writes his friend Marshall Auerback, “but he is survived by an impressive written legacy which will no doubt withstand the test of time.” Another testament to that legacy is this book, its authors, and all those who played a role in its creation – designers, editors, translators and photographers. We are deeply grateful to them all.
-Katrina vanden Heuvel and Gennady Bordiugov
Translated by Steve’s friend and protege, the author and journalist Lev Golinkin.
From the Archives: VIDEO: Stephen F. Cohen: Searching for Common Ground in U.S-Russian Relations
At a Carnegie Council event in New York on February 17, 2016, Professor Cohen noted that “The Putin that is so irrationally demonized in America today, this Putin is the almost inevitable result of…unwise American policies. He is the effect, not the cause.”
From the Archives: Stephen F. Cohen: Second Chance With Russia (From Nov. 9, 2001)
In the aftermath of 9/11, Professor Cohen observed that “The events of September 11 confront George W. Bush with not one but two historic challenges–to defend America from unprecedented dangers and to develop an unprecedented relationship with Russia. Properly understood, they are inseparable.”
From the Archive: Stephen F. Cohen and Richard Holbrooke on The Balkans and Russia (1993)
Appearing on Charlie Rose in January 1993, then-former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke and Princeton University Russian studies professor Stephen F. Cohen discussed the unrest in Yeltsin’s Russia, the war in Bosnia, and the foreign policy problems President Clinton was about to inherit.
From the Archive: Stephen F. Cohen: Interview before the Munk Debate on Russia (2015)
In the 15th semi-annual Munk Debate, acclaimed academic Stephen F. Cohen and veteran journalist and bestselling author Vladimir Poznar squared off against internationally renowned expert on Russian history Anne Applebaum and Russian-born political dissident Garry Kasparov to debate the future of the West’s relationship with Russia.
From the Archive: Stephen F. Cohen’s Speech at the Commonwealth Club of California
In the fall of 2015, Professor Cohen outlined his views on the Ukraine Crisis to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Then, as now, the consensus view in Washington and in the U.S. mainstream media was that the Ukrainian crisis, which some have called the worst international crisis of our time, was due solely to Russian aggression under President Vladimir Putin. Cohen’s view, on the other hand, was that U.S. policy since the 1990s was largely responsible, and that unless this is acknowledged at least in part by Washington, no successful negotiated end to the crisis will be possible.
From the Archive: Stephen Cohen F. Exposes Absurdity of Media on Russia
Stephen F. Cohen’s patience and magnanimity were on full display in this segment during which he was “interviewed” (not quite the right word) by former Al Jazeera talking head Ali Velshi (who is now with MSNBC, naturally).
From the Archive: May 2003: Anatol Lieven and Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen and Anatol Lieven examined Vladimir Putin’s goals in a post-Iraq world and the status of bilateral relations with the U.S.
From the Archive: Russia Betrayed? Voices of the Opposition, Part III of IV
Part III of a documentary film by Rosemarie Reed examining Russia in the chaotic 1990s through interviews between Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen and oppositionists Aleksandr Lebed, Aleksandr Rutskoi, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Gennady Zyuganov. From 22 November 1995.
From the Archive: Russia Betrayed?: Voices of the Opposition, Part II of IV
Part II of a documentary film by Rosemarie Reed examining Russia in the chaotic 1990s through interviews between Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen and oppositionists Aleksandr Lebed, Aleksandr Rutskoi, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Gennady Zyuganov. From 22 November 1995.