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 (“Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” 1973), the Soviet era (“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, who is 76, altogether game and remembers it all, 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.
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?
Well, I can’t think otherwise. I began warning of such a crisis more than 20 years ago, back in the ’90s. I’ve been saying since February of last year [when 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.