Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In this series of essays, Stephen Cohen, a well-known scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union, looks at “alternative possibilities” in Russian and Soviet history – possibilities “grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized” (p.xi). Throughout the book’s seven essays, along with an epilogue written early in the Obama administration, Cohen challenges what he terms a “school of inevitability” prevalent in the United States that treats seventy five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to alternatives” (p.xii).

The first essay, “Bukaharin’s Fate,” takes a new look at the enigmatic Nikolai Bukaharin, one of several original Bolsheviks whom Stalin liquidated in the 1930s. Cohen speculates that the Soviet Union would have been a very different country, without the terror of the 1930s and 1940s, had Bukarhin prevailed over Stalin in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. The second essay, “The Victims Return,” focuses on the Soviet Gulag and highlights the ambivalence of the Soviet Union and Russia about the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his country.

Although Gulag returnees were “survivors in almost the full sense of victims who had survived the Nazi extermination camps,” (p.34), the Soviet Union never undertook exercises like those that sought to hold Nazis accountable for their war crimes after World War II. The primary reason, of course, was the complicity of post-Stalin Soviet leadership in Stalin’s crimes, including Nikita Khrushchev himself. Even today, a fault line runs through Russia between those who contend that Stalin was a despicable, inhuman tyrant, and those who see him as a wise leader of his country. This is not simply an historical debate, Cohen contends, even though most of the survivors of the Soviet Gulag have now died. 27% of Russians today have ancestral links to the Gulag, according to a 2006 poll. A reckoning remains on Russia’s political agenda, Cohen argues, because “there is no statute of limitations for historical crimes as large as Stalin’s . . .the victims’ return is not over” (p.60).

These two essays are polished and thoughtful, with Cohen indulging in the reasoned speculation that is a prerogative of a senior scholar. The last five essays and the epilogue blend together, and are more polemical and provocative. In these pages, Cohen addresses critical questions involving Russia and the Soviet Union. The titles of three of the five essays are themselves questions: Was the Soviet System Reformable? Why Did It End? Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace? Here, Cohen takes on the conventional wisdom – conventional at least in the United States and much of Western Europe — that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and internal contradictions; that it was beyond reform; and that Gorbachev’s petrosoika and his goal of “socialism with a human face” were hopelessly naïve in light of the nature of the Soviet state. In response, Cohen argues that the Soviet Union could have been transformed into a functioning democracy; that its current anti-democratic tendencies could have been avoided; and that the United States bears considerable responsibility for setting post-Soviet Russia on its current anti-democratic path.

To Cohen, Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, a “Lincolnesque figure determined to ‘preserve the Union’ – in his case, however, not by force but by negotiating a transformation of the discredited ‘super-centralized unitary state’ into an authentic, voluntary federation” (p.105). At some point in the 1980s, Cohen argues, Gorbachev “crossed the Rubicon from Communist Party liberalizer to authentic democratizer,” evolving from a “proponent of ‘socialist pluralism’ to a proponent simply of ‘pluralism,’ from advocate of ‘socialist democracy’ to advocate of ‘democracy,’ from defender of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ to defender of the need for a multi-party system” (p.78-79). During Gorbachev’s last years, “all the basic forms of economic activity in modern Russia were born” — born, that is, “within the Soviet economy and thus were evidence of its reformability” (p.105). Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia (then Soviet Russia) came “closer to real democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history” (p.141).

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, was the anti-Gorbachev (p.140), driven by a “pathological, destructive, all-consuming hatred of Gorbachev” (p.132). Yeltsin oversaw the breakup of the Soviet Union, dissolving it in a manner which, according to Cohen, was “neither legitimate nor democratic,” but rather, a “profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to gradualism, social consensus, and constitutionalism,” and a “return to the country’s ‘neo-Bolshevik’ and earlier traditions of imposed change. . . ” (p.151). In the privatization of former state-held property, Yeltsin unleashed a “true bacchanalia of redistribution,” sometimes euphemistically called “spontaneous privatization,” which Cohen and others derisively term “grab-it-ization” (p.137). Gorbachev, by contrast, was prepared to “go boldly” toward “destatization” but only on the condition that “property created by whole generations does not fall into the hands of thieves” (p.139). Even today, Cohen finds the political and economic consequences of the manner in which privatization unfolded in the 1990s “both the primary cause of Russia’s de-democratization and the primary obstacle to reversing it” (p.154).

In particular, privatization in Russia has led to endemic corruption throughout the public and private sectors, buttressed by frightening violence:

The shadowy, illicit procedures and contract murders that fostered the birth of the oligarchy spread with the new system. As a result, corruption also now deprives Russia of billions of dollars and the efficiency needed for modernization. Meanwhile most of the frequent assassinations of journalists and related crimes, usually attributed to the Kremlin, are actually commissioned by corrupt “businessmen” and officials against reporters and other investigators who have gotten too close to their commercial secrets (p.205).

Cohen provides a disturbing analysis of the role that the United States has played in Russia’s authoritarian turn over the last two decades. Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush supported Gorbachev and the path toward reform he tried to follow. But the Soviet Union was gone by the time Bill Clinton became President, and US policy toward Russia embarked on a disastrous course during his presidency that has continued to the present. The United States elected to treat post-Communist Russia as a “defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests” (p.171). The United States thereby squandered the “historic opportunity for an essential partnership in world affairs – the legacy of Gorbachev, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush” (p.181). Cohen labels this approach “triumphalism,” a “bi-partisan” and “unbridled” exaltation that America had “won” the Cold War and therefore Moscow’s direction “at home and abroad should be determined by the US government” (p.181).

What the United States euphemistically termed a “strategic partnership” with Yeltsin’s Russia was unbalanced from the beginning, Cohen argues, a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness” (p.168). Washington’s insistence on expanding NATO eastward was for Russia the “original sin” (p.189), with Washington unwilling to acknowledge legitimate Russian security concerns with such expansion. “As the Western military alliance continued its ‘march to the east,’ taking in former Soviet-bloc countries and republics along the way, it finally convinced Moscow that U.S. policy was not ‘strategic partnership’ but a quest for domination” (p.189). Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO was (and still is) seen in Moscow as “hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as a great power” — exactly the motive behind the United States’ support for Ukraine membership, Cohen contends (p.190).

In his epilogue, Cohen seeks to refute the notion that a reset in US-Russia relations occurred when Barack Obama became President. “Reinforced by a cult of conventional ‘tough-minded’ policy-making, which marginalized and invariably ‘proved wrong’ even ‘eloquent skeptics’ like George Kennan, the triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolized the political spectrum, from ‘progressives’ to America’s own ultra-nationalists, in effect unchallenged in the parties, media, policy institutes, and universities” (p.218), Cohen argues.  For a real reset, triumphalism must be replaced “in words and in deeds, as the underlying principle of U.S. policy by the original premise that ended the Cold War in the years from 1988 to 1991 – that there were no losers but instead a historic chance for the two great powers, both with legitimate security interests abroad and full sovereignty at home, to escape the perils and heavy costs of their forty-year confrontation” (p.195).

There is certain crankiness to Cohen’s relentless assault on two decades of Washington policy toward Russia, reminding me of Ron Paul taking on the Federal Reserve. I do not have anywhere near the expertise to reach a conclusion as to whether Cohen has made his case in these essays that US policy toward Russia has been as consistently wrongheaded as he contends. But I can easily conclude that his provocative views will prompt me to look at Russia and US-Russian relations through a different lens going forward.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, Soviet Union

4 responses to “Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

  1. Post-Communist Russia actually was a defeated nation – a nation defeated by itself. This accounted for both its ambivalence about Stalin’s misdeeds and its being treated rightly or wrongly as a defeated nation, especially in the context of a ruthless cold war that had been raging for decades.

  2. Chanh, I never really noticed the heavy-handed American approach to post-Soviet Russia that Cohen describes and bemoans, perhaps because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. But the more I read about World War II, the more I realize how the war perspective still shapes Russia today, even if most of the people who lived through WW II are now deceased. The sacrifices that the Russians and Soviets made to defeat the Nazis are mind-boggling. Americans, English and French all made sacrifices, to be sure, but if you total up the casualties, the injuries, the homes and families destroyed, the Soviets far outnumber all the others combined. I know that we in the West tend to undervalue the Russian and Soviet contribution to the war effort, and this too has to shape current Russian attitudes.

  3. Thank you, Tom, for reminding us about the huge sacrifices inflicted on the people of the USSR during WWII, which did not end when the war ended, what with the costly arms and space races, the Cuban missiles and recurring Berlin crises, and a ruinous war in Afghanistan in addition to Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
    Fortunately history has not ended!

  4. Chanh, It seems like regularly, every 15-20 years or so, a wise and learned person declares history over –“the end of history,” to use a book title from the early ’90s. But history keeps moving on, regardless of what the wise and learned people say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s