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#37 - JRL 2009-129 - JRL Home
Date: Thu, 09 Jul 2009
From: Robert English <renglish@usc.edu>
Subject: re Moscow-published collection in honor of Stephen Cohen

Readers might be interested in this piece on a Moscow-published collection in honor of Steve Cohen that appears in this month's RUSSIAN REVIEW. The book will appear in an English-language edition next year as STEPHEN COHEN, THE SOVIET UNION AND RUSSIA (PublishingWorks, Inc., February 2010).


Bordiugov, Gennadii and Leonid Dobrokhotov, eds., Stiven Koen i Sovetskii Soiuz/Rossiia. Moscow: AIRO-XXI, 2008. 243 pp. ISBN 978-5-91022-051-9 Reviewed by Robert English

This modest volume may not attract much academic attention. Indeed, as a collection of testimonials from Russian friends and colleagues dedicated to New York University Professor Stephen Cohen on the occasion of his 70th birthday, it might not even seem a normal subject for scholarly review. Yet it is, and a valuable one at that, because it vividly calls attention to several critical but prematurely “closed” questions about recent Soviet and Russian politics. As uncoordinated as any festschrift tends to be, its varied tributes are nevertheless united by a common theme of the importance of the “human factor,” the role of the individual in history.

One such individual is Cohen himself, reflected in the wide-ranging impact his Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution had on Soviet politics in the mid-to-late 1980s. First published by Knopf in 1973, smuggled copies of the English edition, and then a tamizdat Russian translation, had become underground Moscow classics by the mid-1980s. Anti-orthodox historians (from Roy Medvedev to Valery Pisigin) marveled at such a model of empirical, non-dogmatic, yet passionate narrative on perhaps the most fateful period in their country’s history­the 1920s-1930s, and the fateful triumph of Stalin. Survivors of Stalin’s terror, and relatives of its victims, took bittersweet solace in the drama of Bukharin’s, and their country’s, tragedy (from Anton Antonov-Ovseenko to Anna Larina­Bukharin’s widow, whose family grew especially close to Cohen). And anti-Stalinist journalists, playwrights, and even Communist party officials shared a fascination with Cohen’s story of a lost alternative in the Soviet past (and thus suggestion of a reform model for the Soviet future).

One of the latter was Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the outset of perestroika read a copy of Bukharin that did not have to be smuggled from abroad. That was because a semi-classified edition had been prepared by the Soviet Progress publishing house, under the editorship of Alexander Avelichev, whose essay on the reform currents percolating in some circles of Soviet officialdom by the early 1980s sheds further light on the origins of perestroika (pp. 37-54). Associates recall Bukharin’s impact on Gorbachev as “colossal” and a key factor in the critical early stage of his reforms (p. 153). The depth of the USSR’s pathologies (a corrupt party elite, an undemocratic political culture, and a fickle, venal intelligentsia) may have doomed a democratic “socialism with a human face” from the outset, as some of Cohen’s plain-spoken admirers­calling him insightful and honest, but also sometimes romantic or naïve­argue here (e.g. poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and journalist Leonid Parfenov, pp. 103, 137). But few were so cynical in the late 1980s, when Gorbachev’s decision to rehabilitate Bukharin­and sanction publication of Cohen’s book in a mass Russian edition­were signal events in the development of glasnost, in the rethinking of the Soviet past and future, and in launching a genuine democratization to facilitate meaningful economic as well as political reforms.

The latter also included foreign policy, the so-called “new thinking,” that went far beyond various troop withdrawals or arms reductions on which most Western analysts focused. Arguably even more important was the rapid opening of debate, the shedding of Cold War dogmas, and the enthusiastic embrace of the West as a partner in pursuing a new global order based on cooperation, non-violence, and “universal human values.” Generally assessed as a rejection of Marxist-Leninist precepts, this book vividly evokes the crucial personal dimension of that episode in perestroika­the joy of intellectual liberation, the hopes of a new idealism, and the vital participation of a handful of Western figures in that process. Again and again, Cohen’s admirers recall the articles and speeches, TV interviews and historians’ roundtables, through which his role in eroding the “enemy image” likely surpassed that of even George Kennan or Margaret Thatcher.

Cohen’s enormous range of activities, and personal as well as professional generosity, played a key role here as well. Russian colleagues describe his tireless efforts in organizing lectures and panels, arranging publication of articles and books, supporting an infant independent historical press (AIRO), and much more. These activities would become even more difficult (but, to their beneficiaries, crucially important) in the 1990s as much of the intelligentsia, tired of historical debates and Gorbachev’s gradualism, endorsed Boris Yeltsin’s promise of radical reforms and even his dissolution of the Soviet Union­changes that would soon shatter many of their lives/professions.

Cohen has published several other books in Russian, including a translation of his controversial Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (Norton, 2000; AIRO-XXI, 2001). This is his stinging indictment of Western academics and journalists, along with Western (particularly American) leaders and a self-serving Russian political elite, for the disaster that befell Russia in the 1990s. Most readers are familiar with Cohen’s passionate arguments about the manifest failures of “shock therapy”­and the policies of the U.S. government, Western advisers, and international financial institutions­in the disastrous effort to either transform Russia in America’s image, or take geopolitical advantage of Russia’s weakness, or both. It is a view most of his Russian colleagues share, with some notable exceptions: commentator Vladimir Pozner seeing the USSR’s collapse as inevitable as that of any other empire, for example, or journalist Vitaly Tretiakov faulting Ru ssian leaders for their own mistakes and viewing Washington’s opportunism as entirely predictable (pp. 139-40, 163-64). Dramatist Aleksandr Gel’man argues that “things turned out as they had to…if there’d been a chance that events could have happened differently, then they would have” (p. 74).

Still, a majority of the testimonials in this collection think otherwise. Their reminiscences of the 1980s and 1990s vividly evoke the unrealized possibilities of perestroika, the cynical mistakes of the decade that followed, and withal the malleability of history­from critical turning points, to the fateful choices of key individuals. They are also unanimous in praising Cohen’s own role as a gadfly and dissenter from academic orthodoxy, as an unswerving friend of Russia and advocate of a non-adversarial Russian-American future, and as a tireless idealist­a true intelligent.

Robert English
University of Southern California.