From the archive: Interview by Patrick L Smith with Professor Stephen Cohen, published in two parts on Salon.com, April 16 and April 23, 2015, Reproduced here on New Cold War.org, Aug 31, 2017
‘The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say’: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you
Introduction by Patrick L Smith:
It is one thing to comment in a column as the Ukrainian crisis grinds on and Washington—senselessly, with no idea of what will come next—destroys relations with Moscow. It is quite another, as a long exchange with Stephen F. Cohen makes clear, to watch as an honorable career’s worth of scholarly truths are set aside in favor of unlawful subterfuge, a war fever not much short of Hearst’s and what Cohen ranks among the most extravagant expansion of a sphere of influence—NATO’s—in history.
Cohen is a distinguished Russianist by any measure. While professing at Princeton and New York University, he has written of the revolutionary years in Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, 1973; the Soviet era in Rethinking the Soviet Experience, 1985; and, contentiously but movingly and always with a steady eye, the post-Soviet decades–Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, 2000; Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, 2009. The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin (2010) is a singularly humane work, using scholarly method to relate the stories of the former prisoners who walk as ghosts in post-Soviet Russia. “I never actually lost the uneasy feeling of having left work unfinished and obligations unfulfilled,” Cohen explains in the opening chapter, “even though fewer and fewer of the victims I knew were still alive.”
If I had to describe the force and value of Cohen’s work in a single sentence, it would be this: It is a relentless insistence that we must bring history to bear upon what we see. One would think this an admirable project, but it has landed Cohen in the mother of all intellectual disputes since the U.S.-supported coup in Kiev last year. To say he is now “blackballed” or “blacklisted”—terms Cohen does not like—is too much. Let us leave it that a place may await him among America’s many prophets without honor among their own.
It is hardly surprising that the Ministry of Forgetting, otherwise known as the State Department, would eschew Cohen’s perspective on Ukraine and the relationship with Russia. He brings far too much by way of causality and responsibility to the case. But when scholarly colleagues attack him as “Putin’s apologist”, one grows queasy at the prospect of a return to the McCarthyist period. By now, obedient ideologues in the academy have turned debate into freak show.
Cohen is 76, altogether game and remembers it all. He does not think we are back in the 1950s just yet. But he is now enmeshed in a fight with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which last autumn rejected a $400,000 grant Cohen proposed with his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, because the fellowships to be funded would bear Cohen’s name. Believe it, readers, this is us in the early 21st century.
The interview that follows took place in Cohen’s Manhattan apartment some weeks after the cease-fire agreement known as Minsk II was signed in mid-February . It sprawled over several absorbing hours. As I worked with the transcript, it became clear that Cohen had given me a valuable document, one making available to readers a concise, accessible, historically informed accounting of “where we are today,” as Cohen put it, in Ukraine and in the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Salon will run it in two parts. This is an edited transcript of the first. Part two follows next week.
Salon: What is your judgment of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine? In the current situation, the need is for good history and clear language. In a historical perspective, do you consider Russia justified?
Stephen Cohen: Well, I can’t think otherwise. I began warning of such a crisis more than 20 years ago, back in the 1990s. I’ve been saying since February of last year [when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in Kiev] that the 1990s is when everything went wrong between Russia and the United States and Europe. So you need at least that much history, 25 years. But, of course, it begins even earlier.
As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly.
What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.
What galls me the most, there’s no significant opposition in the United States to this new Cold War, whereas in the past there was always an opposition. Even in the White House you could find a presidential aide who had a different opinion, certainly in the State Department, certainly in the Congress. The media were open—the New York Times, the Washington Post—to debate. They no longer are. It’s one hand clapping in our major newspapers and in our broadcast networks. So that’s where we are.
The Ukraine crisis in historical perspective. Very dangerous ground. You know this better than anyone, I would have thought.
This is where I get attacked and assailed. It’s an historical judgment. The [crisis now] grew out of Clinton’s policies, what I call a “winner take all” American policy toward what was thought to be—but this isn’t true—a defeated post-Cold War Russia, leading people in the ’90s to think of Russia as in some ways analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II: Russia would decide its internal policies to some extent, and it would be allowed to resume its role as a state in international affairs—but as a junior partner pursuing new American national interests.
That was the pursuit that Clinton and Strobe Talbott, who’s now very upset about the failure of his policy, in the Yeltsin era. That’s what they wanted, and thought they were getting, from Boris Yeltsin. You can read Talbott’s memoir, The Russia Hand, and know that all the official talk about eternal friendship and partnership was malarkey. Now it’s all gone sour, predictably and for various reasons, and has led us to this situation.
The problem is that by taking the view, as the American media and political establishment do, that this crisis is entirely the fault of “Putin’s aggression”, there’s no rethinking of American policy over the last 20 years. I have yet to see a single influential person say, “Hey, maybe we did something wrong, maybe we ought to rethink something.” That’s a recipe for more of the same, of course, and more of the same could mean war with Russia….
Let me give you one example. It’s the hardest thing for the American foreign policy elite and the media elite to cope with. Our position is that nobody is entitled to a sphere of influence in the 21st century. Russia wants a sphere of influence in the sense that it doesn’t want American military bases in Ukraine or in the Baltics or in Georgia. But what is the expansion of NATO other than the expansion of the American zone or sphere of influence? It’s not just military. It’s financial, it’s economic, it’s cultural, it’s intermarriage—soldiers, infrastructure. It’s probably the most dramatic expansion of a great sphere of influence in such a short time and in peacetime in the history of the world.
So you have Vice President Biden constantly saying, “Russia wants a sphere of influence and we won’t allow it.” Well, we are shoving our sphere of influence down Russia’s throat, on the assumption that it won’t push back. Obviously, the discussion might well begin: “Is Russia entitled to a zone or sphere in its neighborhood free of foreign military bases?” Just that, nothing more. If the answer is yes, NATO expansion should’ve ended in Eastern Germany, as the Russians were promised. But we’ve crept closer and closer. Ukraine is about NATO-expansion-no-matter-what. Washington can go on about democracy and sovereignty and all the rest, but it’s about that. And we can’t re-open this question…. The hypocrisy, or the inability to connect the dots in America, is astonishing.
The nature of the Kiev regime. Again, there’s a lot of fog. So there’re two parts to this question. The coup matter and the relationship of the Yatsenyuk government to the State Department—we now have a finance minister in Kiev who’s an American citizen, addressing the Council on Foreign Relations here as we speak—and then the relationship of the Kiev regime with the ultra-right.
It’s a central question. I addressed it in a Nation piece last year called Distorting Russia. One point was that the apologists in the media for the Kiev government as it came to power after Feb. 21 , and for the Maidan demonstrations as they turned violent, ignored the role of a small but significant contingent of ultra-nationalists who looked, smelled and sounded like neo-fascists. And for this I was seriously attacked, including by Timothy Snyder at Yale, who is a great fan of Kiev, in the New Republic. I have no idea where he is coming from, or how any professor could make the allegations he did. But the argument was that this neo-fascist theme was Putin’s, that what I was saying was an apology for Putin and that the real fascists were in Russia, not in Ukraine.
Maybe there are fascists in Russia, but we’re not backing the Russian government or Russian fascists. The question is, and it’s extremely important, “Is there a neo-fascist movement in Ukraine that, regardless of its electoral success, which has not been great, is influencing affairs politically or militarily, and is this something we should be worried about?”
The answer is 100 per cent ‘yes’. But admitting this in the United States has gotten a 100 per cent ‘no’ until recently, when, finally, a few newspapers began to cite Kiev’s battalions with swastikas on their helmets and tanks. So you’ve gotten a little more coverage. Foreign journalists, leaving aside Russians, have covered this neo-fascist phenomenon, which is not surprising. It grows out of Ukraine’s history. It should be a really important political question for Western policy makers, and I think it is now for the Germans. German intelligence is probably better than American intelligence when it comes to Ukraine—more candid in what it tells the top leadership. Merkel’s clearly worried about this.
It’s another example of something you can’t discuss in the mainstream media or elsewhere in the American establishment. When you read the testimony of [Assistant Secretary of State] Nuland, this is never mentioned. But what could be more important than the resurgence of a fascist movement on the European continent? I’m not talking about these sappy fascists who run around the streets in Western Europe. I’m talking about guys with a lot of weapons, guys who have done dastardly things and who have killed people. Does that warrant discussion? Well, people said, if they exist they’re a tiny minority. My clichéd answer is, “Of course, so was Hitler and so was Lenin [sic] at one time.” You pay attention and you think about it if you learn anything from history….
We say we’re doing everything we’re doing in Ukraine and against Russia, including running the risk of war, for a democratic Ukraine, by which we mean Ukraine under the rule of Kiev. Reasonably, we would ask to what extent Kiev is actually democratic. But correspondents of the Times and the Washington Post regularly file from Kiev and basically re-write whatever the Kiev authorities say; while rarely, if ever, asking about democracy in Kiev-governed Ukraine.
Rewriting handouts. Is that actually so?
Until recently it was so…. I haven’t made this a study, and one could be done in a week by a sophisticated journalist or scholar who knew how to ask questions and had access to information. And I would be willing to wager that it would show that there’s less democracy, as reasonably understood, in those areas of Ukraine governed by Kiev today than there was before Yanukovych was overthrown. Now that’s a hypothesis, but I think it’s a hypothesis the Times and the Post should be exploring.
I take Kiev’s characterization of its war in the eastern sections as an “anti-terrorist campaign” to be one of the most preposterous labels out there right now.
But, then, why did Washington say OK to it? Washington has a say in this. Without Washington, Kiev would be in bankruptcy court and have no military at all. Why didn’t Washington say, “Don’t call it anti-terrorist?” Because if you call it “anti-terrorism” you can never have negotiations because you don’t negotiate with terrorists, you just kill them, a murderous organization with murderous intent.
By saying that this is not a civil war, it’s just Russian aggression—this omits the human dimension of the entire war, and also the agency of the people who are actually fighting in the east—the hairdressers, the taxi drivers, the former newspaper reporters, the school teachers, the garbage men, the electricians, who are probably 90 per cent of those fighting. There are Russians there, from Russia. But Ukraine’s army has proved incapable of defeating or even holding off what began as a fairly ragtag, quasi-partisan, ill-equipped, untrained force.
The horror of this has been Kiev’s use of its artillery, mortars and even its airplanes, until recently, to bombard large residential cities, not only Donetsk and Luhansk, but other cities. These are cities of 500,000, I imagine, or two million to three million. This is against the law. These are war crimes, unless we assume the rebels were bombing their mothers and grandmothers and fathers and sisters. This was Kiev, backed by the United States. So the United States has been deeply complicit in the destruction of these eastern cities and peoples. When Nuland tells Congress there are 5,000 to 6,000 dead, that’s the UN number. That’s just a count of bodies they found in the morgues. Lots of bodies are never found. German intelligence says 50,000.
Ever since the Clinton administration, we’ve bleated on about the right to protect people who are victims of humanitarian crises. You’ve got a massive humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. You’ve got one million people or more who have fled to Russia—this is according to the UN—another half a million having fled elsewhere in Ukraine. I don’t notice the United States organizing any big humanitarian effort. Where is Samantha Power, the architect of “right to protect”? We have shut our eyes to a humanitarian crisis in which we are deeply complicit. This is what’s shameful, whether you like or don’t like Putin. It’s got nothing to do with Putin. It has to do with the nature of American policy and the nature of Washington—and the nature of the American people, if they tolerate this.
You’ve written about the second Minsk accord as the only hope we’ve got left. Tell me briefly your take on Minsk II and whether there’s a chance it will hold.
The second Minsk Accord [February 2015] has a lot of moving parts. The primary part is the ceasefire and the withdrawal by both sides of heavy artillery. It would appear that this has been significantly accomplished, but the ceasefire is very unstable. The political parts are supposed to come now. Kiev is supposed to pass certain constitutional reforms, giving a certain autonomy to the eastern regions. The eastern regions are supposed to hold new elections that in some way comply with Ukrainian law. If all that happens by December, then the Ukrainian-Russian border will be turned over to the Kiev authorities along with some European monitors. The political parts are going to be the hardest because there is no political support for this in Kiev.[President] Poroshenko went to Minsk because he had no choice: Merkel told him he had to sign Minsk II. But Kiev is ultra-nationalist. They want no concessions to the east or to Russia. Getting Minsk II through parliament in Kiev will be very difficult. But the main fact for now is that Minsk II is the last, best choice to avoid a wider war that might well cause a direct war with Russia. [Since this interview, the Kiev parliament has passed legislation either contradicting or negating the Minsk II terms.–Salon]
Minsk II was Merkel’s initiative with President Hollande of France. Why, at the last minute, she suddenly realized that the situation was different than she thought—desperate—I don’t know. And remember, this is a woman with enormous executive responsibilities for the economic crisis of the European Union and Greece. The enemies of Minsk II…
I think the main enemy is Washington.
That’s right. I wouldn’t call them the enemy, but we can’t be children about this. Washington controls the IMF. Washington controls NATO. NATO and the IMF are the two agencies that can make war happen on a broader basis in Ukraine and in regard to Russia, or stop it. Whoever is the decider in Washington, if it’s Obama, if it’s somebody else, now has to make the decision.
All the enemies of Minsk II speak freely and are quoted in the papers and on the networks as rational people. And yet there’s not one dissenting voice from the establishment. Outwardly, it appears to be a very uneven struggle. One hopes that somewhere in dark corridors and dimly-lit rooms in Washington, serious conversations are taking place, but I don’t think so. [On March 23, 48 members of Congress did vote against sending weapons to Kiev, a point Cohen commended in an email note.–Salon]
Our post-Soviet politics after 1991, turns out to be war by other means. The Cold War never ended, in my view. The tactics changed, perhaps the strategy did, too, but there was very little by way of even a pause.
It’s complicated. The main problem today of getting the American political class to think freshly is Putin. They use Putin as the excuse to do whatever they want and not rethink anything. But Putin came much later.
The historical facts are not convenient to the triumphalist narrative, which says that we defeated the Soviet Union and thereby ended the Cold War, and therefore and therefore. According to Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush, the Cold War ended either in 1988 or 1990. When Reagan left the White House—I think he wrote in his diary in January 1989, “We have ended the Cold War”—so he thought he had ended it with Gorbachev. I was in Moscow when he walked across Red Square in that heat, I think it was July 1988, and somebody shouted to him “President Reagan, is this still the Evil Empire?” And he, in that affable way, said “Oh, no, that was then… everything’s changed.”
The Cold War was a structural phenomenon. Just because the president says its over doesn’t mean it’s over, but then there was Malta in December 1989, when [George H.W.] Bush and Gorbachev said the Cold War was over, and that continued all through the reunification of Germany. Between 1988 and 1990, we were told repeatedly by the world’s leaders that it was over. Jack Matlock, Reagan’s ambassador to Russia, has written very well about this, and because he was there as a personal testimony, of how this truly was. So the conflation of the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War is an historical mistake.
Bush then continued to maintain the official line that he had pursued with Gorbachev that there were no losers at the end of the Cold War, everybody had won. Bush maintained that position until the polls showed he was running behind Clinton in his reelection campaign. And then he declared in 1992 that we, and he in particular, had won the Cold War. I saw Gorbachev shortly thereafter. My wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and I had been friends with him for several years. He was deeply, deeply hurt, with a sense of betrayal. He’s forgiven Bush, being a forgiving man.
But at that moment, 1991 and 1992… well, words are words, but as Russians say, words are also deeds. By announcing that we had won the Cold War, Bush set the stage for the Clinton administration’s decision to act on an American victory, including the expansion of NATO.
This history brings us to where we are today.
What has changed in U.S. policy toward Russia between 1991 and now, and what hasn’t?
I think the history that we know is what I just told you. Behind the scenes, there were clearly discussions going on throughout the 1990s, and there were different groups. Big historical decisions, whether we talk about the war in Vietnam, or–a subject that interests me–why slavery and segregation lasted so long in the American South, where I grew up, can never be explained by one factor. Almost always they’re multi-factored. But you got, in the 1990s, some people who genuinely believed that this was the moment for an enduring post-Cold War, American-Russian, full-scale strategic partnership and friendship between equals. There were these romantics, so to speak.
On this side of the ocean?
I think there were people who believed in this. Just like there’re people who really believe in democracy promotion as a virtuous profession—some of my students have gone into it. They believe in it. It’s a good thing. Why not help good countries achieve democracy? The dark side of democracy promotion for them is either not visible or not in their calculation. People are diverse. I don’t judge them harshly for their beliefs.
There were others who were saying Russia will rise again, and we have to make sure that never happens. To do that, we need to strip Russia of Ukraine, in particular. Brzezinski was writing that. At some point during this time he wrote that Russia with Ukraine is a great imperial power, without Ukraine it’s a normal country. But there were people in Washington, the same people I heard in private discussions, saying that Russia’s down and we’re going to keep it down. They were feeding opinion into the Clinton administration, and that clearly helped lead to the NATO expansion.
They use the excuse that everybody wants to join NATO. How can we deny them the right? It’s very simple. People say every country that qualifies has a right to join NATO. No, they do not. NATO is not a junior Chamber of Commerce. It’s not a non-selective fraternity or sorority. It’s a security organization, and the only criterion for membership should be, “Does a nation enhance the security of the other member countries?” The Ukrainian crisis proves beyond any doubt, being the worst international crisis of our time, that the indiscriminate expansion of NATO has worsened our international security. That’s the end of that story. I don’t know what they think NATO is. Is it like AARP membership and you get discounts in the form of U.S. defense funds? It’s crazy, this argument.
But then you got these guys who are either Russophobes or eternal Cold Warriors or deep strategic thinkers. You remember when [Paul] Wolfowitz wrote this article saying Russia had to be stripped of any possibility ever to be a great power again? These people were all talking like…
It goes back to your comparison with Japan in ’45.
The question is why Clinton bought into this. That would then take you to Strobe Talbott. Strobe was a disciple of Isaiah Berlin, who taught that if you want to understand Russia, you have to understand the history, the culture and the civilization. And certainly if you took that view, you never would have done, as George Kennan said in 1996 or 1997, you never would have expanded NATO. I knew George during my 30 years at Princeton. George’s social attitudes were deeply alarming, but about Russia he had a very important idea. Russia marches to its own drummer; let it, don’t try to intervene or you’ll make things worse. Be patient, understand Russian history, the forces in Russia. That was Isaiah Berlin’s position. Once, that was Strobe’s position. Look at Strobe Talbott today: We have to send in weapons and overthrow Putin and turn Russia around. Now it’s all outside agency.
How did this guy go from A to B?
Well, they say power corrupts, or at least changes people. He had been Clinton’s roommate at Oxford, and he ended up in the White House as a Russia aide, very smart guy. I think Russia disappointed him. One phenomenon among Russia-watchers is that you create an artifice, and that’s your Russia. And when it disappoints you, you never forgive Russia. Check out Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post. Fred was writing from Moscow during the 1990s that democracy was going to be great. So did most the guys who are now were still in editorial positions. Russia let them down. They can’t forgive Russia anymore than they can the ex-wife who cheated on them. They can’t think anew. It’s a phenomenon, probably not only American, but it’s particularly American. You cannot reopen any discussion with these people who bought into Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s and were certain that though the road was rocky, as they liked to say… “Failed Crusade” is about this. They can’t get over it.
Part of it also had to do with Yeltsin. He was so desperate, not only for American affirmation but for American affection. He was so insecure as his health declined, and he became more and more the captive of the oligarchs that he wanted to mean as much to Washington as Gorbachev had. He was getting close to virtually giving Washington anything, saying anything, until the Serbian war. Then it dawned on him that Washington had a certain agenda, and the expansion of NATO [was part of it], but by then it was too late, he was a spent force.
Later, when Dmitri Medvedev was president [2008-12], he told a group of people that Yeltsin hadn’t actually won the election, that Gennadi Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, had. So assuming that Medvedev wasn’t lying and assuming he was in a position to know, all this talk of American support for democracy, when it comes to Russia, at least, is, shall we say, complex.
Let’s go to Putin. What is your view here? What is he trying to accomplish?
It’s impossible to answer briefly or simply. This is a separate university course, this is a book, this is for somebody with a much bigger brain that I have. This really is for historians to judge.
I wrote an article in, I think, 2012 called Stop The Pointless Demonization of Putin, arguing that there is very little basis for many of the allegations made against Putin, and that the net result was to make rational analysis in Washington on Russian affairs at home and abroad impossible, because it was all filtered through this demonization. If we didn’t stop, I argued, it was only going to get worse to the point where we would become like heroin addicts at fix time, unable to think about anything except our obsession with Putin. We couldn’t think about other issues. This has now happened fully. The article was turned down by the New York Times, and an editor I knew at Reuters published it on Reuters.com.
The history of how this came about [begins] when Putin came to power, promoted by Yeltsin and the people around Yeltsin, who were all connected in Washington. These people in Moscow included Anatoly Chubais, who had overseen the privatizations, had relations with the IMF and had fostered a lot of the corruption. He came to United States to assure us that Putin was a democrat, even though he had been at the KGB.
When he came to power, both the Times and the Post wrote that Putin was a democrat and, better yet, he was sober, unlike Yeltsin. How we got from 2000 to now, when he’s Hitler, Saddam, Stalin, Gaddafi, everybody that we have to get rid of, whom we know killed Boris Nemtsov because from the bridge where Nemtsov was killed [on February 27] you can see the Kremlin…. Well, remember, Sarah Palin could see Russia from Alaska! It’s preposterous. But the demonization of Putin has become an institution in America. It is literally a political institution that prevents the kind of discussion that you and I are having.
Kissinger had the same thought. He wrote, last year, I think, “The demonization of Putin is not a policy. It’s an alibi for not having a policy.” That’s half correct. It’s much worse now, because they did have a policy. I think the “policy” growing in some minds was how to get rid of Putin. The question is, “Do they have the capacity to make decisions?” I didn’t think so, but now I’m not so sure, because in a lot of what comes out of Washington, including the State Department, the implication is that Putin has to go.
I asked a question rhetorically several years ago of these regime changers: Have you thought about what would happen in Russia in the event of regime change? If what you say is true, if Putin is the pivot of the whole system, you remove Putin the whole system collapses. Russia has every known weapon of mass destruction in vast quantities. What would be the consequence of that conceit on your part—that we’re going to get rid of Putin—for the rest of the world?
So this Putin phenomenon has to be explained. How did he go from a democrat for sure, now to maybe the worst Russian leader since Ivan the Terrible. How do you explain it? Does that tell us more about Putin or more about us?
I think his sin is an unacceptable take on, broad-brush terms, Eastern ethos vs. Western ethos, and on narrower terms a rejection of a neoliberal economic regime in the Washington consensus style. Although he’s got a lot to answer for, I think, in this respect, he’s not an evangelist for what he’s doing. What does he face domestically? What’s he trying to do?
Let me tell you just briefly. When I ask Russians, they think the answer is American presidential envy. We’ve had a lot of unsuccessful presidents lately. Clinton left basically in disgrace, Bush left not beloved for the war that he had got us into and lied about, Obama is before our eyes a shrinking, failing president. And here’s Putin, now in his 15th year of growing stature inside Russia.
And by the way, until recently the preeminent European statesman of his time, no doubt of this. In the 21st century, only Merkel can stand anywhere near him as a European statesman, whether you like what a statesman does or not. This, of course, changes everything. Not to take the famous cop-out, but let history judge. X number of years from now, when we’ve joined the majority, as Lenin used to say, historians will undoubtedly look back and do the pluses and minuses, and it’s going to be a very close call.
For my short-term take on Putin, he was put in power to save the Yeltsin family from corruption charges, and the first decree he signed upon becoming acting president was to exempt the Yeltsin family from future prosecution. He has honored that, by the way. One of the beefs against Putin in Russia is that he’s honorable to his friends and appointees to an extreme; he can’t bring himself to fire anybody. He’s got this KGB code of honor. I kind of like it. I’d rather that than people stab you in your back….
I operate under the assumption that no matter how or why people come to power, when in power they begin to ponder what their mission is, what history asks of them. For Putin it was quite clear: The Russian state had collapsed twice in the 20th century. Stop and think what that means. It had collapsed in the 1917 Revolution and the Soviet Union didn’t collapse in 1991— it was plucked apart— but then the state collapsed and the result was what Russians call smuta, a time of troubles. It means misery; it means foreign invasion; it means civil war; it means that people fall into poverty. This is the Russia that Putin inherited. Remember, when he came to power in 2000, Russia was on the verge of collapsing for a third time as a result of Yeltsin’s policies. The governors were corrupt, were not obeying the law, were not paying taxes, were running criminal fiefdoms in scores of regions. Russia was highly vulnerable, NATO was expanding, Russia had no influence in world affairs.
Putin comes to power and perceives that his first mission has to be to stop the collapse of the Russian state— which he calls the vertical, because Russia has always been governed from the top down, which has made it ungovernable because it’s so big— and, most of all, to make sure it never, ever, ever happens again. In Russian history, the worst thing that can happen to Russia is smuta, when the state collapses. Stop and think: Between 1917 and 1991, it happened twice in the largest territorial country in the world. Is there any precedent for that in history? How a leader could come to power and not see that….
The second piece of this conversation will run next week.
‘Architects of American policy towards Russia and Ukraine are destroying American national security’: Stephen F. Cohen on the truths U.S. media and politicians hide
Introduction by Patrick L Smith:
If there is a lesson in Stephen F. Cohen’s professional fortunes over the past year, it is the peril of advancing a dispassionate reading of our great country’s doings abroad. Cohen’s many pieces in The Nation on the Ukraine crisis and the consequent collapse of U.S.-Russia relations now leave him in something close to a state of siege. “My problem with this begins with the fact that… I don’t have a vested interest in one of the ‘isms,’ or ideologies,” Cohen says in this, the second part of a long interview conducted last month.
The problem lies with the ideologues infesting the waters wherein Cohen swims. Terminally poisoned by Cold War consciousness, they cannot abide disinterested thought. Cohen has been mostly scholar, partly journalist, since the 1970s. His ‘Sovieticus’ column, launched in The Nation in the 1980s, put a magazine traditionally tilted toward domestic issues among the few American publications providing consistent analysis of Russian affairs. At this point, Cohen’s Nation essays are the bedrock scholarly work to which those (few) writing against the orthodoxy turn.
The first half of our exchange last week on Salon began with events during the past year, and then advanced toward the post-Soviet origins of the current crisis. In part two, Cohen completes his analysis of Vladimir Putin’s inheritance and explains how he came to focus his thinking on “lost alternatives”—outcomes that could have been but were not. Most surprising to me was the real but foregone prospect of reforming the Soviet system such that the suffering that ensued since its demise could have been averted.
Salon: Putin inherited a shambles, then—as he would say, “a catastrophe.”
Stephen F. Cohen: As Russia’s leader, Putin has changed over the years, especially in foreign policy but also at home. His first impulse was toward more free-market reforms, anti-progressive taxes. He enacted a 13 per cent flat tax—Steve Forbes would’ve been ecstatic, right? He offers [George W.] Bush what Clinton never really offered Yeltsin: a full partnership. And what does he do? On September 11, 2001, he called George and said, ‘Whatever you want, we’re with you.’ Bush says, ‘Well, I think we’re going to have to go to war in Afghanistan.’ And Putin said, ‘I can help you. We’ve got major resources and assets in Afghanistan. I even have an army over there called the Northern Alliance. I’ll give it to you! You want overflight? It’s all yours!’
How many American lives did Putin save during our land war in Afghanistan? And do you know what a political price he paid in Russia for that? Because his security people were completely against it.
They were? Please explain.
Oh, yeah. You think they minded seeing America being brought to its knees? They’d been invaded so often; let America get a taste of it! But Putin assumes he’s achieved what Yeltsin couldn’t and that this benefits the Russian state. He has a real strategic partnership with America. Now, remember, he’s already worried about his radical Islamic problem because Russia has nearly 20 million Muslim citizens of its own. Russia sits in the East and in the West; it’s on the front lines.
What does Bush give him in return? He expands NATO again and he unilaterally withdraws the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the bedrock of Russia’s nuclear security— it’s a complete betrayal. Is that how you repay somebody who’s helped you save the lives of your citizens? This is where the word “betrayal” begins to enter into the discourse.
It’s an important word for Putin.
It’s not only Putin; [Dmitry] Medvedev uses it, too, when he becomes president [2008-2012]. America has broken its word, it’s betrayed us, it’s deceived us, and we no longer take America at its word— well, they never should’ve in the first place, just as Gorbachev should have got the promise not to expand NATO in writing. We’d have done it anyway, but at least they would have had a talking point.
This trust, this naive trust on the part of Russians, that there’s something about American presidents that makes them honorable—it suggests they need a crash course in something. This was betrayal for Putin, and for the entire Russian political class, and Putin paid a price.
I’ve heard him called, among right-wing Russian intellectuals, an appeaser of the West. Soft. You can hear this today: ‘Mariupol? Odessa? Should’ve taken them a year ago; they belong to us. What’s he thinking? Why is he discussing it’? [Mariupol and Odessa are two contested cities in the southern regions of Ukraine.]
So Putin sets his course, and then comes this famous speech he gives in 2007 in Munich, with McCain sitting in the front row. Putin says just what I told you. He says, ‘Look, we want to be your partner; this is what we’ve wanted to be since Gorbachev. We believe in the common European home. But every time we turn to you or we negotiate with you or we think we have an agreement with you, you act like a hegemon and everybody has to do exactly what you say if they want to be on your side.’
Putin has come to tell them that America is risking a new Cold War with more than a decade of bad behavior towards post-Soviet Russia. John McCain interprets this as the declaration of a new Cold War.
But the demonization of Putin came earlier, before the Munich speech, when he began to drive a few favorite American oligarchs [oil companies] out of the country. I looked it up: No major oil-producing country permits majority foreign ownership of its oil. So there’s a long, long history of how Putin goes from a democrat for sure in the U.S. media and an aspiring partner of America to becoming the Hitler of today, as Hillary Clinton put it. You can see what a disease it’s become, this Putin-phobia….
RT just aired a documentary in which Putin explains exactly when and why he decided to move as he did in Crimea. It’s striking: The deliberations began the night President Yanukovych was ousted in the American-supported coup last year. Can you talk about Putin’s thinking on the Crimea question, leading to the annexation [sic]?
Putin, in my judgment, did some wrong-headed things. We now know much more about Crimea, but even given what he has said, there was an argument. It wasn’t quite as clear-cut as he says it was. There was a debate with two sides.
One side said, ‘Take Crimea now or fight NATO there later.’ The other said, ‘Let the referendum [on association with Russia, held in March 2014] go forward and they’re going to vote 80-plus per cent to join Russia. We don’t have to act on it; they’ve just made a request and we’ll say what we think about it. Meanwhile, we see what happens in Kiev.’
The Kremlin had done polling in Crimea. And it’s the best bargaining chip Putin will have. He’ll have Crimea wanting to join Russia and he can say to Washington, ‘Well, you would like Crimea to remain in Ukraine? Here’s what I’d like in return: an eternal ban on NATO membership and federalization of the Ukrainian constitution, because I have to give my Crimean brethren something.’
But those arguing that Crimea was the biggest bargaining chip Putin was ever going to have lost. The other side prevailed.
Now, Putin took all the credit, but that’s not what really happened. They were all dependent on intelligence coming out of Kiev and Crimea and Donbass. You see now, if you watch that film, what a turning point the overthrow of Yanukovych was. Remember, the European foreign ministers—Polish, German, and French—had brokered an agreement saying that Yanukovych would form a coalition government and stay in power until December, and that was burned in the street. I’ll never forget the massive Klitschko [Vitali Klitschko, a prizefighter-turned-political oppositionist, currently Kiev’s mayor] standing on a platform at Maidan, all 6’ 8” of him, announcing this great triumph of negotiation, and some smaller guy whipping away the microphone and saying, ‘Go fuck yourself. This thing is going to burn in the streets.’ The next day it did. That night you saw what an undefeated heavyweight champion looks like when he’s terror-stricken.
This is the turning point, and “It’s all due to Putin,” but it’s all due to Putin because demonization has become the pivot of the analysis.
What do we do from here to resolve the Ukraine question? You used the word “hope” when talking about the February cease-fire, Minsk II—“the last, best hope.” It tripped me up. Hope’s a virtue, but it can also be very cruel.
Anyone of any sense and good will knows that it [the solution] lies in the kind of home rule they negotiated in the UK—and don’t call it a federated Ukraine if that upsets Kiev. As the constitution stands, the governors of all the Ukrainian provinces are appointed by Kiev. You can’t have that in eastern Ukraine. Probably can’t even have that in Western and Central Ukraine anymore. Ukraine is fragmenting.
I want to turn this around: what is your view of America’s strategic goal? I ask in the context of your analysis, in ‘Failed Crusade’, of “transitionology”, as you term the paradigm wherein Russia was supposed to transition into a free-market paradise. As the book makes clear, it amounted to the elevation and protection of crooks who asset-stripped most of an entire nation. Now we don’t hear much about Russia’s “transition.” What is Washington’s ambition now?
I think the Ukranian crisis is the greatest blow to American national security— even greater than the Iraq war in its long-term implications— for a simple reason: The road to American national security still runs through Moscow. There is not a single major regional or issue-related national security problem we can solve without the full cooperation of whoever sits in the Kremlin, period, end of story.
Name your poison: We’re talking the Middle East, we’re talking Afghanistan, we’re talking energy, we’re talking climate, we’re talking nuclear proliferation, terrorism, shooting airplanes out of the sky, we’re talking about the two terrorist brothers in Boston.
Look: I mean American national security of the kind I care about—that makes my kids and grandkids and myself safe—in an era that’s much more dangerous than the Cold War because there’s less structure, more nonstate players, and more loose nuclear know-how and materials…. Security can only be partial, but that partial security depends on a full-scale American-Russian cooperation, period. We are losing Russia for American national security in Ukraine as we talk, and even if it were to end tomorrow Russia will never, for at least a generation, be as willing to cooperate with Washington on security matters as it was before this crisis began.
Therefore, the architects of the American policy towards Russia and Ukraine are destroying American national security—and therefore I am the patriot and they are the saboteurs of American security. That’s the whole story, and any sensible person who doesn’t suffer from Putin-phobia can see it plainly.
Is it too strong to say that the point is to destabilize Moscow?
What would that mean? What would it mean to destabilize the country that may have more weapons of mass destruction than does the U.S.?
Is that indeed the ambition?
I don’t think there’s any one ambition. I come back to the view that you’ve got various perspectives in discussion behind closed doors. I guess Mearsheimer [John Mearsheimer, the noted University of Chicago scholar] is right in the sense of saying that there’s a faction in Washington that is behaving exactly as a great power would behave and trying to maximize its security, but it doesn’t understand that that’s what other great powers do, too. That’s its failure. Gorbachev and Reagan, though it wasn’t originally their idea, probably agreed on the single most important thing: Security had to be mutual. That was their agreement and they built everything on that. We have a military build-up you’re going to perceive as a threat and build up, and I will perceive your build-up as a threat… and that’s the dynamic of permanent and conventional build-up, a permanent arms race. And that’s why Gorbachev and Reagan reasoned, ‘We’re on the edge of the abyss. That’s why we are going to declare the Cold War over’, which they did.
That concept of mutual security doesn’t mean only signing contracts: It means don’t undertake something you think is in your security but is going to be perceived as threatening, because it won’t prove to be in your interest. Missile defense is the classic example: We never should have undertaken any missile defense program that wasn’t in cooperation with Russia, but, instead, we undertook it as an anti-Russian operation. They knew it and we knew it and scientists at MIT knew it, but nobody cared because some group believed that you’ve got to keep Russia down.
The truth is, not everything depends on the president of the United States. Not everything, but an awful lot does, and when it comes to international affairs we haven’t really had a president who acted as an actual statesman in regard to Russia since Reagan in 1985-88. Clinton certainly didn’t; his Russia policy was clownish and ultimately detrimental to U.S. national security interests. Bush’s was reckless and lost one opportunity after another. Obama’s is either uninformed or completely out to lunch. We have not had a statesman in the White House when it comes to Russia since Reagan, and I am utterly, totally, 1000 per cent convinced that before November 2013, when we tried to impose an ultimatum on Yanukovych—and even right now, today—that a statesman in the White House could end this in 48 hours with Putin. What Putin wants in the Ukraine crisis is what we ought to want; that’s the reality.
What does Putin want? He’s said the same thing and he’s never varied: He wants a stable, territorial Ukraine—Crimea excepted—and he knows that’s possible only if Ukraine is free to trade with the West and with Russia but is never a member of NATO. However, somebody’s got to rebuild Ukraine, and he’s not going to take that burden on himself, but he will help finance it through discounted energy prices. It could all be done tomorrow if we had a statesman in the White House. Tomorrow! Nobody else has to die.
I think Chancellor Merkel understands this, too.
I think she’s come to, but how strong she is and whether Washington will cut her legs out from under her as they’re trying to do now… [Shortly before this interview, Senator McCain delivered a blunt attack on Merkel at a security conference in Munich for opposing the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine. The Arizona Republican was similarly critical when Merkel began to explore a diplomatic solution in Ukraine in spring 2013.–Salon]
They have very little respect for her, which is wrong.
What Lindsay Graham and McCain did in Germany, in her own country, on German national television, to her face—and the fact that she’s a woman didn’t help, either. The way they spoke to her, I can’t think of a precedent for that.
Parts of your work are very moving, and that’s not a word a lot of scholarship prompts. The enormous value the Soviet Union accreted—most Americans know nothing of this; with the media’s encouragement, we’re completely ignorant of this. There’s nothing encouraging us to understand that the hundreds of billions of misappropriated assets during the 1990s was essentially the misappropriation of Soviet wealth.
A lot of it came here, to the United States.
Can you talk about this?
I can tell you about a guy who was formerly very high up in the CIA. I called him about a something I was writing on Russian wealth smuggled through the banks into the United States, and he said, ‘We have informed the FBI exactly where all this wealth is in the United States but we are under strict political orders to do nothing about it.’ Now, the interesting thing is, why now? Well, it would have badly damaged the Yeltsin regime, which the Clinton administration had unconditionally embraced, but also because that money became part of the flourishing stock and real estate markets here at that time.
Even today in Russia, when you ask people if they wish the Soviet Union hadn’t ended, you’re still getting over 60 per cent, among young people, too, because they hear the stories from their parents and grandparents. It requires a separate study, but it’s not rocket science. If young kids see their grandparents dying prematurely because they’re not being paid their pensions, they’re going to resent it. When the bottom fell out of the Soviet welfare state and out of the professions, what happened in the 1990s was that the Soviet middle class— which was one of the most professional and educated, and had some savings and which therefore should have been the building block of a Russian free market sector— that middle class was wiped out, and it’s never been recreated. Instead, you got a country of impoverished people and of very, very rich people—with a small middle class serving the rich. That changed under Putin; Putin has rebuilt the middle class, gradually.
The Russian middle class isn’t the same as ours. A lot of Russia’s middle class are people who are on the federal budget: Army officers, doctors, scientists, teachers—these are all federal budget people. They’re middle class, but they don’t become middle class as autonomous property owners. A lot of my friends are members of this class, and a lot of them are very pro-Putin, but a lot of my friends are very anti-Putin, too. The thing about the Soviet Union can be summarized very simply: The Soviet Union lasted 70-plus years, so that would be less than the average life of an American male today. A person cannot jump out of his or her autobiography any more than they can jump out of their skin; it’s your life. You were born in the Soviet Union, you had your first sexual experience in the Soviet Union, you were educated, you got a career, you got married, you raised your kids: That was your life. Of course you miss it, certainly parts of it.
There were ethnic nationalities in the Soviet Union who hated it and wanted to break away, and this became a factor in 1991, but for a great many people— certainly the majority of Russians and a great many Ukrainians and Belorussians and the central Asians— it’s not surprising that 25 years later, those adults still remember the Soviet Union with affection. This is normal, and I don’t find anything bad in it. You know, Putin wasn’t actually the first to say this but he did say it and it’s brilliant and tells you who Putin is and who most Russians are. He said this: Anyone who doesn’t regret the end of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who thinks you can recreate the Soviet Union has no head. That’s it, that’s exactly right!
Didn’t Putin say that the end of the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest catastrophe?
It all has to do with the word “the.” There’s no “the” in Russian. Did Putin say, in translation, that the end of the Soviet Union was “the” greatest catastrophe of the 20th century? If so, there’s something wrong with that, because for Jews it was the Holocaust. Or did he say, “one of” the greatest catastrophes?
I would have guessed the latter.
All four professional translators I sent Putin’s phrase to said you have to translate it as “one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century.” Now, we can have a discussion. He’s taken a moderate position, but what are the others? Fair enough, but catastrophe for whom? Americans don’t think it was a catastrophe. Putin would say, “Look, 20 million Russians found themselves outside the country when the Soviet Union broke up, that was a tragedy for them, a catastrophe. Seventy or 80 per cent plunged into poverty in the 1990s, lost everything.
Can I put that on the list of “one of the greatest?” I would say sure, because for everybody there’s a greater catastrophe. For the Jews there’s no catastrophe greater than the Holocaust. For the Armenians, their genocide [in 1912]. Again, people can’t jump out of their history. I’d tolerant, democratic person acknowledges that. Each people and nation has its own history. I’d like to write an article about this, but I’m not going to live long enough to write all the articles or books I want to write. We say, for example, the Russians have not come to grips with and fully acknowledged the horrors of Stalinism and its victims. I would argue in this article that they have done more to acknowledge the horrors of Stalinism than we have of slavery.
For example, do we have a national museum of the history of slavery in the United States? They’re building a large one in Moscow to commemorate Stalin’s victims. He recently signed a decree mandating a monument in central Moscow to those victims.
In the way of being moved by some of the things you write, I’ve wanted to ask you about this for years. It has to do with the sentiments of Russians and what they wanted, their ambitions for themselves, some form of… as I read along in these passages I kept saying, “I wonder if he’s going to use the phrase ‘social democracy’.” And, sure enough, you did. These passages got me to take Rudolph Bahro [author of The Alternative in Eastern Europe] off the shelf. The obvious next step after East-West tension subsided was some form of social democracy. I don’t know where you want to put it. I put it between Norway and Germany somewhere. To me what happened instead is a horrific tragedy, not only for Russia but for Eastern Europe.
My problem with this begins with the fact that I’m not a communist, I’m not a socialist, a social democrat. I’d like to have enough money to be a real capitalist, but it’s a struggle. [Laughs.] I don’t have a vested interest in one of the “isms” or the ideologies, but I agree with you. I don’t know about Eastern Europe, let’s leave it aside, but look at Russia. You’d have thought that the logical outcome of the dismantling of the Stalinist Communist system, because the system was built primarily by Stalin from the 1930s on, would have been Russian social democracy and that, of course, was what Gorbachev’s mission was. Lots of books have been written, most persuasively by Archie Brown, the great British scholar, who knows Gorbachev personally, probably as well as I do, that Gorbachev came to think of himself as a European social democrat while he was still in power. That’s what his goal was. He had this close relationship with the Social Democratic prime minister of Spain, I forget his name.
I don’t remember, but I remember that they did a lot of social democratic socializing and talking.
Felipe Gonzalez, I think it was.
Gonzalez, that’s right. Gorbachev was a very well-informed man and his advisors during his years in power were mostly social democrats and had been for years. Their mission had been to transform the Soviet Union. Now, remember, Lenin began as a social democrat, and the original model for Lenin had been not only Marx but the German Social Democratic Party. The Bolshevik or Communist Party was originally the Russian Social Democratic Party, which split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. So in a way, and I once said this to Gorbachev, historically you want to go back to Lenin before he became a Bolshevik. He said, “Well that’s kind of complicated.” Then Gorbachev said, “Everybody agrees Russia is a left-of-center country.”
The Russian people are left of center. They’re a welfare-state country. Gorbachev had this interesting conversation with Putin, when he went to tell Putin that he, Gorbachev, was going to start a social democratic party. There had been several start-ups and they never went anywhere. And Putin said that’s the right thing to do, because Russia really is a left-of-center country. So Putin said the same thing. And so Russia is, if you look at the history of Russia…
Are you talking about Russia very early, thinking about Russian givenness to community and all that?
However you put it all together, the peasant tradition, the urban tradition, the socialist tradition. Almost all the revolutionary parties were socialist. You didn’t have a Tea Party among them. This is a Russian tradition. Now, it’s obviously changed, but I would say that today, looking at the polls, most Russians overwhelmingly believe that the state has obligations that include medical care, free education, and guaranteeing everybody a job. In fact, it’s in the Russian constitution, the guarantee of a job. Most Russians feel there should not be a “free market” but a social or regulated market, that some things should be subsidized, that the government should regulate certain things, and that nobody should be too rich or too poor. For that you get 80 per cent of the vote every time. So that’s a social democratic program, right? Why don’t they have it?
I ask everybody in Russia who wants a social democratic party. They exist, but not a party that can win elections? What’s the problem here? I think know, but I want to hear Russians tell me what’s right. People cite what you and I would guess. First of all, there’s the hangover from communism, which was social democratic and somewhat socialist, in some form.
Second, and this is probably the key thing, social democratic movements tended to grow out of labor movements—labor unions, historically, in England and Scandinavia and Germany. They became the political movement of the labor movement, the working class movement. So you normally get a labor movement that favors political action instead of strikes, creates a political party, you have a parliamentary system, they begin to build support in the working class, elements of the middle class join them, and you end up eventually with European social democracy.
Old Labour in Britain is a perfect example.
Well, the labor unions in Russia are a complete mess. I shouldn’t say that, but they’re complicated. The major one remains the old Soviet official one, which is in bed deeply with state employers. The independent one, or ones, haven’t been able to get enough traction. In almost every European country there were circumstances, you might say the political culture was favorable. Those objective circumstances don’t exist [in Russia]. First, you have an insecure savaged middle class that’s seen its savings confiscated or devalued repeatedly in the last 25 years. You’ve got a working class trapped between oligarchs, state interests and old industries, and private entrepreneurs who are very vulnerable. In other words, the working class itself is in transition. Its own insecurities don’t lead it to think in terms of political organizations but in terms of issues—of whether Ford Motor Company is going to fire them all tomorrow. They’re localized issues.
Then you don’t have a leadership. Leadership really matters. No one has emerged, either in the Russian parliament or in Russian political life. By the 1990s Gorbachev was past his prime and too hated for what had happened to the country. He hoped to be, when he ran for president that time [in 1996] and got 1 percent, he hoped to be the social democratic leader. There are a couple guys in Parliament who aspire to be the leader of Russian social democracy…. When I’m asked, and I’ve told this to young social democrats and to Gennady Zyuganov, whom I’ve known for 20 years, the leader of the Russian Communist Party, the only real electoral party, that Russia needs social democracy with a Russian face….
What this means is that the most important force in Russia, and people were wrong to say Putin created it, is nationalism. This began, in fact, under Stalin. It was embedded during the Brezhnev years, and it was overshadowed during perestroika in the late-1980s. Then there was an inevitable upsurge as a result of the 1990s. You cannot be a viable political candidate in Russia today unless you come to grips with nationalism.
Therefore, the best way, in my judgment, if you also want democracy, is social democracy with a Russian nationalist face. What’s interesting is the guy who was until recently the most popular opposition leader, Navalny [Alexei Navalny, the noted anti-corruption activist], who got nearly 30 per cent of the vote in the Moscow mayoral elections and then blew it by becoming again a foe of the entire system instead of building on his electoral success—he’s too nationalistic for the taste of a lot of democrats.
Truly? You wouldn’t know it from what you read.
He’s got a bad history in regards to the Caucasus people, among others. But what’s interesting in this regard is, we don’t ever speak of American nationalism. We call it patriotism. It’s weird, isn’t it? We don’t have a state, we have a government….
Every American politician who seeks the presidency in effect tries to make American nationalism the program of his or her candidacy, but they call it patriotism. They’re fully aware of the need to do this, right? So why they think Putin doesn’t have to do it, too, is completely beyond me. There’s no self-awareness.
In Russia, people had lost hope tremendously after 1991 but their hope later attached to Putin—imagine what he faced. For example, can you imagine becoming the leader of such a country and for the sake of consensus having a textbook putting together Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet history? Our presidents had a hard time dealing with slave and post-slave, Civil War and post-Civil War history. How do they do it? Each president did it differently, but Putin inherited this conflicting history, and the way he’s tried to patch all three together into a consensual way for Russians to view their history and to teach kids in school is very interesting. Now, of course, it’s being ruptured again with this war and with Crimea and with this new nationalism.
I’d like to change the subject. Often in the books you mention an interest in alternatives: What could’ve happened if this or that hadn’t. We just covered one, the missed opportunity for a historically logical social democratic outcome in Russia. How do you account for this tendency in your thinking?
We have formative experiences—what shaped you, at least so you think when you look back. You don’t know it at the time, you don’t know a formative experience is formative until later. You’d agree with that.
It’s only in hindsight. “Reality takes form only in memory.” Proust.
For me it was growing up in the segregated South. But the reality was valid in retrospect, because I later realized that what I was doing had been so shaped by growing up in the segregated South, the way I reacted to that and the way I learned from it later, actually, in a strange way, led me to Russia.
You suggested this in the book on gulag returnees, The Victims Return. I wonder if you could explain the connection. How did growing up in Kentucky [Cohen was raised in Owensboro] lead you to Russian studies, and what does it do for your analysis of the Russian situation? How does a Kentucky childhood keep you alert to alternatives?
Well, you have to remember what segregation was. I didn’t understand this as a little boy, but it was American apartheid. Owensboro, probably had fewer than 20,000 people then, including the farmers. For a kid growing up in a completely segregated county, first of all, the world you’re born into is the normal world. I had no questions about it…. I didn’t perceive the injustice of it.
And then you get older and you begin to see the injustice and you wonder, how did this happen?… At Indiana University I ran into this professor who becomes my mentor, Robert C. Tucker, [Tucker, who died in 2010, was a distinguished Russianist and author of a celebrated biography of Stalin]. I’d been to Russia—accidentally, I went on a tour—and he asked, “What in Russia interests you?” And I said, “Well, I’m from Kentucky, and I’ve always wondered if there was an alternative in Kentucky’s history between being deep South and not being deep South.” And Tucker said, “You know, one of the biggest questions in Russian history is lost alternatives. Nobody ever studies them.” And I said, “Aha!”
So the title of your 2009 book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, is in his honor?
I began to live in Russia in 1976, for two or three months a year until they took my visa away in 1982. This is when I got deeply involved in the dissident movement, smuggling manuscripts out and books back in and all these things. I begin to think, how does Russia change today? And my mind reverted to segregation and the end of segregation and the friends and foes of change…. I wrote an article called ‘The Friends and Foes of Change’ about reformism and conservatism in the Soviet system, because I thought that it was institutions, it was culture, it was history and leaders and that you needed a conjunction of these events before you could get major change in Russia and the Soviet Union…. I published that as an article in 1976 or 1977 and I expanded it for a book I wrote, Rethinking the Soviet Experience, which was published in 1985, a month before Gorbachev came to power. And everybody would later say, “He foresaw Gorbachev.”
Actually I didn’t quite. What I foresaw was perestroika. For me, it wasn’t about the name of the leader, but the policy such leader would enact. I got one thing wrong. Because it was so hard to make this argument in Cold War America–that the Soviet Union had a capacity for reform awaiting it, if factors came together. I didn’t think to carry the argument beyond liberalization to actual democratization. So I didn’t foresee a Gorbachev who would enact actual democratization, free voting, and dismantle the Communist Party…. But I always thought that thinking about the history of Kentucky, living through segregation, watching the change, seeing the civil rights movement, seeing the resistance to it and why helped me think more clearly about the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and about my dissident friends. And I also knew reformers in the party bureaucracy pretty well, and when we would talk at night, I never mentioned this but my mind would always kind of drift back.
The connection is not at all obvious but you explain it very well and it’s clear once you do.
Well, sometimes people read a book that opens their eyes. I think the whole secret, particularly as you get older… Trotsky I think wrote that after some age, I think he said 39 or 45, all we do is document our prejudices. And there’s some truth to that, obviously. But one of the ways that you avoid becoming dogmatic about your own published views is to keep looking for things that challenge what you think. You try to filter them through whatever intellectual apparatus you’ve been using for, in my case, 40 years.
I thought it would be interesting to get through those sections of Kennan’s journals [The Kennan Diaries, 2014] that would be germane to our exchange. What struck me coming away from them was the enormous sadness and pessimism that hung over him in the later years. I wonder if you share that.
My position has always been, America doesn’t need a friend in the Kremlin. We need a national security partner. Friendships often don’t last. Partnerships based on common interests, compatible self-interests, do.
I have always known such a partnership would be difficult to achieve because there are so many differences, conflicts, and Cold War landmines. There were numerous chances to enhance the relationship—during the Nixon-Brezhnev détente period, Gorbachev and Reagan, Gorbachev and Bush, even with Putin after 9/11, when he helped [George W.] Bush in Afghanistan. But they all became lost opportunities, those after 1991 lost mainly in Washington, n ot Moscow.
When I speak of lost alternatives, I do not mean the counter-factuals employed by novelists and some historians—the invention of “what-ifs.” I mean actual alternatives that existed politically at turning points in history, and why one road was taken and not the other. Much of my work has focused on this large question in Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history and in U.S.-Russian relations.
So you ask if I’m disappointed by the lost opportunities for an American-Russian partnership, especially in light of the terrible confrontation over Ukraine? Having struggled for such a partnership for about 40 years, yes, of course, I’m personally disappointed—and even more so by the Ukraine crisis because I think it may be fateful in the worst sense.
On the other hand, as an historian who has specialized in lost alternatives, well, now I have another to study, to put in historical context and analyze. And it’s my historical analysis—that an alternative in Ukraine was squandered primarily in Washington, not primarily in Moscow—that those who slur me don’t like.
To which I reply: Let them study history, because few of them, if any, seem ever to have done so.
Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.