This weekend, ACURA’s founder, the legendary Professor of Russian Studies and Politics at Princeton and NYU, Stephen F. Cohen, would have turned 85. To mark the occasion, we are publishing the foreward to the forthcoming book, Russian Fate: Memoirs That I’ll Never Write, From the archives of Stephen F. Cohen.
This book is a collection of unique documents from the personal archive of American historian and Russianist Stephen Cohen: His letters to friends and colleagues in the Soviet Union and Russia, notes on and sketches of future writings, accounts of him and his work by those in the US and Russia. Documents are published in chronological order, the earliest from the period of perestroika when Cohen’s biography of Nikolai Bukharin was published in the Soviet Union, and the most recent material from after his death.
This collection traces the trajectory of Cohen’s scholarly career which began – at least in Russia – with the 1988 publication of the Russian-language edition of his biography of Bukharin. It is therefore quite logical that this collection opens with Steve’s extensive correspondence with his Russian friends and colleagues regarding preparation of that edition. Their correspondence shows the book was considered by the Soviet side as not only a scholarly project dealing with the restoration of historical truth and the revision of dogmatic views – but rather as an important political project.
As a result of this correspondence, one understands that Cohen’s view of the Bukharinist concept of reform, an alternative to Stalinist socialism, was an integrated and clear program for building a humane, non-capitalist system. The program took revolutionary experience and the legacy of Marxism-Leninism into account but also acknowledged other sources. Cohen’s deep insight into the Soviet realities of the 1920–30s, his knowledge of historical sources unfamiliar (then) to many readers, his feeling for the political atmosphere of the era, were critically important. It would not be an exaggeration to say Stephen Cohen’s biography remains the most important, internationally acclaimed study of Nikolai Bukharin. Without it, the historiography of the Soviet interwar period would be impossible to imagine.
Extremely interesting are notes Stephen Cohen made to himself at significant moments of recent history. For instance, in 2009 – for events with readers of his book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives. It is worth noting his insights on the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow and his summit with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. In his notes, Stephen makes his central argument – in one way or another set forth in many works: That there were real alternatives to what had happened in the Soviet past. Cohen makes the case that Bukharin’s model of socialism, and not Stalin’s, could well have succeeded. And he goes further – he challenges popular opinions that Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure was inevitable; that the Soviet system was un-reformable; and that the Soviet Union «collapsed» in 1991.
But the end of the Soviet Union did not limit Cohen’s scholarship. Quite the contrary. Soviet history serves in his books as a kind of «launchpad» for jumping to the main topic – present-day history. He reveals unpopular, and for the Russian audience, a somewhat unexpected interpretation of the end of the cold war. He argues it was ended by Mikhail Gorbachev and two American presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, at the very end of the1980s, by mutual agreements, «without any winners or losers». And it was only after the break-up of the Soviet Union that the United States decided it had won the Cold War.
Perhaps, that was how Americans viewed the situation of the early 1990s. But in the Soviet Union the stain of «defeat» was noticeable after the collapse of the Berlin wall – at least in public comments on the event. Cohen always regarded Mikhail Gorbachev with great respect – as is evident in many of his works. As a result, he paid more attention to the heretical and remarkable reform policies of the first and the last president of the USSR. His views of Gorbachev may be the only thing in Cohen’s argument one might disagree with. Yet Steve brilliantly and uncompromisingly exposed the disaster of the 1990s’ American policy towards Russia and criticized Washington for making hollow declarations of friendship while acting as a triumphalist winner, ignoring Moscow’s interests.
In this sense, Cohen’s evaluation of the last short period of warmer relations between our countries – the so-called «reset» – are particularly interesting. He shrewdly notes that «the friendly working relationship» Barack Obama established with Dmitry Medvedev was not only based on their «generational affinity,» but also on their «mutually weak position at home.» Cohen doesn’t fail to notice that Obama’s declarations of «cooperation» were undermined by the anti-Russian position of his administration – which was playing «the so-called ‘Medvedev card’ against Putin.»
Cohen bitterly criticized the US administration for its concept of «selective cooperation» towards Moscow: while calling for a «reset» in the relationship, Washington in fact, treated Russia as a «junior partner» and denied Russia the right to have its own geopolitical interests. He also noted the particular role of Vice President Joseph Biden, who pursued his own political line, different from Obama’s (at least different from what Obama publicly declared).
An important part of this book presents students’ views of Cohen as a professor. In this role, Cohen was enthusiastic, striving to share his experience and knowledge with his undergraduate and graduate students alike. A characteristic example in the book shows his rigorous review of a graduate student’s paper. He offers scrupulous comments on the paper’s pluses and minuses, and also advises the young student to strike a difference between his own political sympathies and historical events – and to avoid dogmatic positions.
The title of this book – Russian Fate – can be understood in several ways. On the one hand, it is fate that predetermined Stephen Cohen’s lifelong, passionate and scholarly engagement with Russian and Soviet studies. On the other hand, it is fate that linked him personally to many Russian (Soviet and post-Soviet) people. Stephen Cohen indeed had an amazing, genuine interest in people. His letters reveal both professional and human layers. As to the latter, Cohen had a great memory of names and related facts and events. He was able to revive, in just a few words, a dialogue that had taken place ages ago.
How could he do this? The answer is simple. He had a sincere, authentic interest in people he met, of all kinds. If you read this correspondence attentively, you will understand that Steve Cohen was not interested in transactional relationships. He always wrote thoroughly, even meticulously, about the matter at hand – it could be the «Bukhariniana,» his books, Russia, or Russian-American relations – and then he easily turned to subjects of interest to his correspondent. There was nothing forced in these steps. Cohen was such a man. Possibly, he was more Russian – in what corresponds to classical images of Russian culture and especially literature – sympathetic, open-hearted, attentive, kind – than Russians themselves in their routine present-day reality. In this sense, the Russian fate of Stephen Cohen means also his rebirth into a Russian man as the type was described by Dostoevsky and Chekhov. No wonder curators of the historic house/ museum of Anton Chekhov in Yalta noticed a resemblance between the Russian writer and the American historian.
Stephen Cohen for many years intended to write memoirs about his eventful life, but he never had time to realize his intention. This book is comprised of materials which could establish a basis for such memoirs – And it can be interpreted as a partial realization of that idea.