A Voice in the Wilderness: Stephen F. Cohen’s Russia

John Huston, the legendary screenwriter and director, once stated that the best documentary filmmaking allows the source material to reveal the true subject. This does not mean that documentarians do not have an agenda, but that the highest documentary art occurs in the discovery of what the film really is once the shoot is over and editing begins. This view is also echoed by Werner Herzog, whose documentary output is on par with his landmark narrative fictional films.

Compelling historical scholarship may be compared to documentary filmmaking. It allows texts, data, and archival and material sources to reveal a subject, a truth, or a false narrative. An agenda may instigate the process of research, but ultimately the data and the evidence must disclose themselves. Scholarly historical writing is the presentation — the distillation — of this discovery. And, like the best documentary films, premium historical scholarship raises more questions of its writers and readers than it answers. It agitates, provokes, punctures, points to untaken alternatives, suggests new possibilities, but concludes with an agnosticism of outcome.

One stalwart practitioner of this kind of historical scholarship was Stephen F. Cohen, emeritus professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University and New York University, who passed away on the opening evening of Rosh Hashanah. Cohen was most widely known in the US public for his media appearances as a journalist and analyst-commentator on Russian affairs for CBS, C-Span, CNN, and MSNBC for over forty years. Cohen was of the rare breed who bridged academic scholarship and public information service, being an active research and teaching professor since 1968, while at the same time writing and reporting as a journalist for The New York Times and The Nation and as a correspondent analyst for CBS News.

Cohen’s media work was a distillation and extension of his work as an academic, in which he provided extensive analysis of Soviet current affairs, US-Soviet relations, and US foreign and nuclear policy. His analyses were critically disjunctive to the perspectives prevalent in the US media, academic and policy circles, and the intelligence communities. The perspectives Cohen offered were shaped by both his academic historical research and his extensive relationships with Soviet officials, dissidents, journalists, and citizens (many from his multiple stints living in Moscow), which gave his analysis far more humanistic and contrastive dimensions than the overarching fundamentalism and hawkishness of American Cold War thinking.

While sonorous television appearances made Cohen a household public personality, it was his academic research and writing that made him a deeply respected, if polarizing, figure among the US intelligentsia. Cohen’s academic work was wide-ranging, covering the history of the Russian revolution, reconstructing historical alternatives to Stalinism, authoring a biography of Nikolai Bukharin, and retrieving the voices of Soviet dissidents — those lost to the Stalinist purges and those that were emerging in the era of glasnost. This was not just academic esoterica, , but scholarship aimed at questioning the concrete course of history and the possibility of reclaiming or constructing viable alternate paths. It was this aspect of Cohen’s work that endeared him to no less than Mikhail Gorbachev, who was significantly influenced by Cohen’s book on Bukharin and became a lifelong friend of Cohen’s.

The key to the profound scope of Cohen’s work is a persistent critical querying of the ideologies, policies, and decisions that subtend the state of Soviet-US geopolitics. His patient, thorough immersion in the data and material record illuminates, the unyielding dogmatisms, myopia, and corruption that forestall paths to peaceful, mutual relations. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cohen applied this critical lens to US policy and media coverage towards post-Soviet Russia, exposing the inherent dangers of a looming new Cold War, and advocating for a new, humane framework that suspends the presumptions of American exceptionalism and hegemony.

The trajectory of Cohen’s career demonstrates his pioneering and fluid use of critical historiographic and research methodologies, from archival and documentary analysis, ethnographic and oral testimony, to alternate and revisionist histories, and media criticism. Early in his academic career, Cohen was one of the first American scholars to be granted access to the Soviet archives of documents, transcripts, papers, and records from the revolutionary and Stalinist eras, which had been sequestered by authorities from researchers and the public until the 1960s. Cohen’s first book, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888–1938, which won him a National Book Award, was based on his extensive archival research and lays out a revisionist account of the Russian Revolution before Stalin, and most notably underscores Bukharin’s near successorship to Lenin and the possibility of anti-authoritarian, humane, internationalist Communism — an outcome that was not to be, as Bukharin was undermined and later executed by Stalin.

This twist of fate would form the backbone of Cohen’s next major work, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917. Here, building on the archival and documentary history of his previous book, Cohen presents to US readers Soviet political history from the experience of the Soviet people. In this, he offers an important corrective to standard American paradigms of reading the Soviet Union, and argues that the Soviet perspective is one marked by tragedy and suffering (particularly under Stalin) but even more by fear and anxiety fostered by US aggression and bellicosity. At the same time, Cohen’s book outlines the pluralist views within Soviet Communism (Stalinism is not the singular and inevitable option) and the potential for a Communist Soviet Union that could be an economic provider for its people and an ally in nuclear non-proliferation — a possibility, Cohen points out, that is as dependent on a transformation in Western thinking and policy as it is on a change of the guard in the Kremlin. In Sovieticus, a quasi-companion volume, Cohen reinforces this view, documenting the disjuncture between US perceptions of the Soviet Union, the impact of US Cold War policy and action on Soviet experience, and the avenues that could be pursued toward deconfliction and partnership.

Despite accusations by critics and detractors, Cohen was not an ‘apologist’ for Soviet regimes. A significant part of Cohen’s work, both academic and personal, consisted of archival documentation of Soviet repression and atrocities. Cohen, for instance, edited a volume of oral and written testimonies of survivors of the Stalinist gulags that is still a widely used sourcebook in history and political science. As well, Cohen was committed to the dissident movement within pre-glasnost Russia, editing and translating important dissident writers and producing volumes of dissident perspectives for English readers. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation (and Cohen’s wife), recounts Cohen’s longstanding efforts of providing support to dissidents inside the Soviet Union, including smuggling books and manuscript into and out of Russia. In this regard, Cohen’s work had concrete consequence and came to inform the policies of the last Soviet premiere, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the implementation of glasnost.

Perhaps Cohen’s most significant contribution — certainly the most pertinent for our current state of affairs — is the pair of books he produced in the first two decades of the twenty-first century: Failed Crusade: American and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, written at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, and War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate, written during Putin’s reign. Taken together, these two books thoroughly eviscerate US foreign policy towards Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the abject complicity of US media in disseminating distorted information, propaganda, and outright fomenting economic hostility, aggression, and racist xenophobia. The two works, though separated by nearly twenty years, form a coherent unity in demonstrating that current fractured geopolitical relations are the direct result of US foreign policy decisions since 1991 with no regard to the political and human consequences for the Russian people. These policies were — and continue to be — abetted by the intelligence-media complex, in which US media, relying on and championing figures in the intelligence and state apparatuses, breathlessly cheer-led US democratic and economic intervention and experimentation in Russia, and US- and NATO military encirclement. The intelligence-media complex, as Cohen shows, is even more responsible for the recent hysteria in the US surrounding supposed Russian ‘meddling’, which is not only staggeringly hypocritical, but also inherently dangerous to political freedom through the creation of a new ‘Red Scare’ redolent of the McCarthy era and to geopolitics as it threatens to usher in a new and more perilous Cold War.

To understand the roots of the current crises, Failed Crusade is essential. Here, Cohen elucidates how the US failed to support Gorbachev’s reform program and acted deliberately to seize upon the opportunity, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to remake Russia in an image of its choosing. Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration pursued this objective with what Cohen characterizes as a ‘missionary cause’, a reckless crusade to transform the former Communist bloc into a radical free market zone. With Boris Yeltsin in charge, a pliable if sordid US client, the Clinton administration flooded Russia with economic advisors and planners to oversee and facilitate the liquidation of state assets, the establishment of markets, and the implementation of radical, austerity-driven ‘reform’ — economic shock therapy (Cohen’s account here forms a major backbone to Naomi Klein’s analysis of post-Communist Russia in her volume Shock Doctrine).

Shock therapy could not be fully administered without the suspension of the Russian constitution and Parliament, allowing Yeltsin to rule by executive decree, which the US government and media wholeheartedly supported. Cohen shows, to withering effect, how the US media writ large framed the wholesale violation of Russian democracy as necessary for the sake of Russian democracy. When the predictably toxic economic medicine proved catastrophic to the Russian population and the threatened Yeltsin’s chances of re-election (Yeltsin’s polling plunged to single-digits), the US did not hesitate to rush in with election ‘advisors’ and billions of dollars in aid that was given out as outright bribes — US intervention, in fact, somehow miraculously catapulted Yeltsin from single-digits to winning re-election handily (some sectors reporting returns of nearly 99% for Yeltsin) — meddling or interference that won the Clinton administration plaudits across US news media, including a celebratory Time magazine cover story.

With Yeltsin’s re-election ensured, the reform program was able to continue with a free hand. The net result: violent economic paroxysm, the creation of the oligarchic class, open corruption and grift, the erasure of the savings and pensions of Russian citizens, and the plunging of living standards and average lifespans of ordinary Russians. Meanwhile, with an increasingly drunken but compliant Yeltsin, the Clinton administration dramatically expanded NATO eastward across former Soviet territories, in open violation of a diplomatic agreement struck between Gorbachev and the former Bush administration. Subsequent administrations would continue to push NATO expansion up to Russia’s borders.

Where Failed Crusade outlines the disastrous US policy experiments to transmogrify post-Communist Russia into a client market state, Cohen’s War with Russia? details the descent into hostility and hysteria. Vladimir Putin, Yeltin’s successor, was not initially regarded as a bad actor by the US, as Cohen points out, but an ally in extending finance capitalism in Russian markets and combating international terrorism post-9/11. Two major turning points during the George W. Bush years shifted policy viewpoints about Putin: Russia’s refusal to back the American invasion of Iraq and the unilateral US decision to withdraw from the nuclear arms reduction treaty. From there, the deterioration of geopolitical relations accelerated, particularly during the final six years of the Obama administration. As Cohen argues, the Obama administration pursued an array of policies that continually threatened and encroached on Russian interests, such as the dramatic expansion of US Middle Eastern operations from Afghanistan and Iraq and by-proxy conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The latter involved the orchestration of a coup in Libya, leading to the violent murder of Muammar al-Gaddafi (which nearly coincided with the US-backed coup in Honduras).

More alarming to Russia was the continual US interference in Ukraine, including attempts to foment coups to overthrow Russian-allied governments and to bring western Ukraine into NATO orbit. At the same time, the Obama administration utilized economic sanctions and embargoes to enfeeble the Russian economy. Economic sanctions were coupled with more visible US and NATO military presence in Poland, the Baltics, and the Eurasian maritime spaces — all while the Obama administration was pressing hard to finalize the Transpacific Partnership free trade agreement, which would sideline Russian economic and trade influence through a consolidation of US-EU-Pacific open partnerships. What Cohen documents here is the US’s increasing isolation of and hostile actions towards a nuclear superpower still grappling with the scars of the US’s internal misadventures, a highly combustible situation.

Unsurprisingly, the most controversial elements of War with Russia? orient around ‘Russiagate.’ Cohen argues that US intelligence and media claims about Russian ‘meddling’ in the 2016 presidential election are not only belied by the dearth of evidence,[1] but the hysteria and belligerence propagated by intelligence officials and endlessly expatiated upon by news media are profoundly disingenuous given the US’s track record of open interference in Russian affairs. Such interference has taken place in the recent past and extends back to US military intervention in the Russian Revolution in the late 1910s to early 1920s, as well as its extensive record of coups and regime-change operations (Cohen’s argument here is considerably supplemented by Stephen Kinzer’s recent Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and A.G. Hopkins’s American Empire: A Global History).

Not only is Russian election interference largely a figment, according to Cohen, but it is accompanied by a more alarming phenomenon manufactured by the intelligence-media complex: an all-consuming attribution to Putin of a continual assortment of global misdeeds, which creates a consumable, fictive foreign bogeyman, one highly inflected by racist and xenophobic stereotypes and replete with leftover tropes from the anti-Communist scaremongering tactics of the Cold War. The latter points are particularly crucial, as Cohen sees in them the reification of the most misguided and damaging misperceptions of the Cold War (e.g., the ‘marauding’ Communist who seeks world dominance and the hardening of anti-Russian US policy—both redolent of Curtis LeMay ‘Strangelovian’ propaganda.  The dual denunciations of Trump as a collusionist agent and ‘Putin puppet’, common assignations throughout US media, further cement the perception of Putin’s nefarious omnipresent reach. But, as Cohen points out, this is repeated ad nauseam in total contradiction to the fact that the Trump administration has pursued far more aggressive policies against Russian interests. Most notably, Trump has sold arms to anti-Russian factions in Ukraine (a move the Obama administration refused) pressured the EU to nix an agreement to export Russian natural gas (a deal widely acknowledged as one of Putin’s highest priorities), and has stocked his administration with the most zealous anti-Russian hawks from the neoconservative far right.

Far from a defense or exculpation of Trump (or Putin), Cohen’s ardent concern is the diminishing ability of any administration to foreclose on or maneuver to avoid the possibility of nuclear conflict. Both countries have already abandoned key pieces of nuclear arms control agreements,  and are pursuing new, advanced nuclear weapons systems. All the while, and the number of geopolitical hotspots that harbor potential for all-out conflict are on the rise. Russiagate, fueled by media ratings, drives public perception that the US must confront and combat a demonic foe, and necessitates partisan brinksmanship: to appear contrastive to Trump’s supposed ‘Putin appeasementship’, Democrats outflank each other with anti-Putin saber rattling, from Hillary Clinton’s denunciations of Putin as worse than Hitler, various congressional Democrats invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as analogues to Russian election meddling, to Democratic presidential candidates one-upping each other with ‘get tough on Russian’ rhetoric. In Cohen’s analysis, this creates the very real possibility that a global conflict or, worse, a nuclear exchange is unavoidable. The crux of the book is a call to step back from the precipice of over two decades of myopic policy and to seek a path to detente — partnership and cooperation between two heavily armed nuclear powers will be even more urgent as we face the disruptive threats and geopolitical upheavals that climate change is already bringing and that are guaranteed to scale-up over the coming decade.

It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that Cohen’s work in Failed Crusade and, especially, War with Russia? resulted in the diminishment of his appearance in US media. In challenging the prevailing narratives and criticizing the role of journalists and media outlets as functionaries in the propagandizing of the public, Cohen was no longer invited on to most news programs, with fleeting few exceptions. Cohen was undeterred by this and continued to pursue the truth wherever it took him, even if into the wilderness. His was a pursuit of history, in which the subject unveiled itself in tragic and fragile contours. He was undaunted in his conviction that the truth cannot be dimmed or ultimately thwarted even when the loud and vociferous noise of propaganda tries to keep it hidden and buried.

[1] Cohen’s examination of the evidence in Russiagate has been quite influential to and expanded upon by several key US journalists, such as Aaron Maté, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald. Maté won an I.F. Stone award for his investigative reporting debunking many features of Russiagate, and his work can be found in two locations: 1) http://www.thenation.com/authors/aaron-mate/ and 2) https://thegrayzone.com/tag/russiagate/. Taibbi has also contributed essential pieces critiquing the mediathe political class, and the function of Russiagate as propaganda. Greenwald has documented extensively media errors and misreporting in its coverage of Russiagate.

Michael Gibson is senior acquisitions editor at Lexington Books and author of a forthcoming monograph on Stanley Kubrick from Rutgers University Press. He is contributing editor in film, literature, and culture for The Bias Magazine.


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