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.