Back to Yalta?: Stephen Cohen and the Ukrainian crisis


Nikolay Koposov in Eurozine (Photo: Zurbagan / Source: Shutterstock):

Cohen built his reputation as a leading scholar of Russian studies in the 1970s, and his interest in Soviet history was informed by his leftist political sympathies. Cohen's focus has always been on the “lost alternatives” to Stalinism and the possibility of “socialism with a human face”. In the 1980s, he was an ardent supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to reform Soviet society. But the more hope he invested in perestroika, the bitterer his disappointment became in Boris Yeltsin's “dismantling” of the USSR. Cohen considers Yeltsin's reforms “the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime”, and even a case of the “de-modernization” of a highly developed society. Hence his sympathy for Putin, whom he refuses to accuse of “de-democratizing” Russia simply because what Yeltsin built had (according to Cohen) nothing to do with democracy. However, the United States wholeheartedly supported Yeltsin through its “ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous crusade to transform post-communist Russia into 'the kind of Russia we want'”, or a society similar to the American one. But for Cohen, that was a purely messianic and unrealistic goal.

Cohen's critics have suggested several explanations for his praise of Putin: a desire to always go against the flow, ardent anti-Yeltsinism, or a rejection of “American imperialism” that makes him blind to the problems associated with its opponents. Some even suspect him of anti-Americanism. For his part, Cohen presents himself as a “political realist” and an American patriot whose concern is the security of the United States, which according to him has been consistently undermined by US policymakers and experts whose incompetence and “Putinophobic follies” have deprived the United States of “the best potential partner we had anywhere in the world to pursue our national security”.

This is not perhaps the most natural self-presentation for a leftist intellectual. However, it reflects the contradictory situation in which an “old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism” can find himself. Indeed, Putin's Russia, “a country of corrupt crony capitalism […] and a repressive state that increasingly leans on a subservient church as its source of moral authority” can only “stand for everything a leftist should detest”. The “fellow travellers” of the 1930s managed to overlook the gulag because their dreams of the “radiant future” were associated with the USSR. There are no similar dreams in the present-day world: “Russia is not the vessel for their [former Soviet fellow travellers'] ideological fantasies, but merely a placeholder for their accumulated discontent”, writes Jonathan Chait.”

I value Cohen's calls for critical re-examination of US foreign policy as well as Russian history. However, this re-examination need not lead us to support an openly anti-democratic regime and identify its interests with the legitimate interests of the country it runs.

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