Back a quarter century ago, in what today seems a never-never land, during the depths of the time when Communists were running Russia, the KGB was still shipping dissidents to Siberia, when American journalists, including this commentator were playing footsie with the mili-men (really KGB in gray great-coats) who stood guard at the entry to the foreign ghetto at Sadovo Samotechnaya where many of the world’s journalists were penned, Stephen Cohen had already passed through the looking glass and was building his vast network of sources that today enables him to understand what has gone right and oh so wrong in Russia—and especially our perceptions of it.
We should all be gratified today for his diligence, plumbing these sources and delivering, finally, this compelling, cautionary tale of good intentions gone so terribly awry—Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009). For, as this brilliant Princeton and New York University professor so meticulously chronicles, we have indeed gone off the rails in our dealing with the realities of today’s Russia, taking us once again to the brink. As we stare into the abyss that over the past two decades we thought we would never again confront, Cohen leads us through the tortuous steps that have taken the world’s two superpowers from the age of Stalin and Bukharin to that of Putin and the oligarchs.
Organized by eras, but effectively as a succession of myths and consequences, Cohen leads us vividly through the reign of Stalin and the political show trials he so carefully orchestrated with Nikolai Bukharin as the centerpiece (Cohen and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, became close friends of the widow and descendants of the family of this quintessential Marxist theoretician, Bolshevik revolutionary, and Soviet politico). Then it’s on to the vast dark decades from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, via Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko to the chaos of Boris Yeltsin and the arrival of the archetypical post-communist apparatchik, Vladimir Putin.
Cohen’s own career has been embroiled in tracking much of this period. Born, as he points out, the year Bukharin was executed for having posed too clear an intellectual and political challenge to Stalin, “decades later [Cohen] developed a friendship with his widow…and other Gulag survivors.” And he concedes, “I have had friendly relations with Gorbachev for more than twenty years”; there is even an opinion (though not mine) that Cohen’s biography of Bukharin “once influenced him in a significant way.” During his years as director of Russian studies at Princeton, Cohen was a frequent companion of George Kennan at the Institute for Advanced Studies. More than three decades earlier, Kennan had authored the famed 5,300-word “long telegram,” followed by the pseudonymous X article, publicly elaborating on “the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” which, after the Russian Revolution, “became mixed with communist ideology and “Oriental secretiveness and conspiracy.”
Cohen’s contention is that America’s failures in the post-communist era spring from a failure of comprehension as profound as the failure that impelled Kennan to write his classified long telegram, and then go public with it. The difference, of course, is that Kennan’s writings led to the Truman Doctrine and the entire concept of containment—“that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Today, alas, Cohen’s warnings are being largely ignored. He is not being summoned by congressional committees, as was Kennan. His alarms are not being heeded. Yet the bottom line of what Cohen so adeptly chronicles is that Russia, and particularly the Russian psyche, have changed little in the post-Kennan decades, and for the purposes of our story here, in the post-communist decades as well.
In the course of this work, Cohen explodes a succession of myths— effectively cautionary tales: the end of the Soviet Union was “inevitable,” or as he puts it “doomed by some irremediable genetic or inherent defect”; the Soviet system, undermined by an unworkable economy, fell victim to a popular anti-communist revolution from below; perestroika’s gradualism succumbed to a long Russian tradition of extremism; and finally that the Soviet breakup was an “elite-driven” consequence of excesses of the nomenklatura in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The result of the failure to understand these myths has led to a near-catastrophic lapse in dealing with today’s Russia and its people, not to mention its leaders. And this is due largely to a succession of American policies based on denials.
First, there is the consummate denial “that a new cold war [is] even possible.” Second, and even more fundamental, there is the widespread belief, originating in Washington and encouraged among the broader American body politic, that as President George W. Bush observed, “America won the Cold War,” which deserves to stand in the pantheon of such declarations alongside “Mission Accomplished.” In the case of the Cold War victory, by contrast, only a small number of voices have been raised in protest—among them, Kennan himself who, shortly before his death in 2005, observed that such a “victory is intrinsically silly and simply childish.”
Yet such a perspective has impelled the entire post-Cold War reaction of American policymakers, and most scholars and journalists as well, as Cohen pointedly, and quite accurately, observes.
The result today is that America is confronted with a nation that continues to horde “enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, all of which are sought by terrorist organizations [and] an impaired early-warning system controlling nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert.” In short, “a much greater threat than any the Untied States faced during the Soviet era.” The myth, this time, is that “the danger of a nuclear apocalypse ended with the Soviet state.” Meanwhile, the United States and its Western allies have become deeply dependant in so many ways on Russia—for natural resources like oil and gas, and as an important trading partner with the European Union. By 2010, the United States, “lacking its own spacecraft will be completely dependent on Russian shuttles for transporting astronauts and cargo to and from the international space station,” Cohen points out in one of his 98 pages of compelling footnotes that are themselves a fascinating companion to this slim, but dense and riveting work.
If the United States, or should I say, the Obama administration—since it is they who are now in charge of this corrupted legacy—continue to blame the Kremlin for the warped state of our bilateral relations, the result “could lead to a Russia that both possesses weapons of mass destruction and a large proportion of the world’s energy resources and is headed by men much less accommodating than Putin and [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, and even more hostile to the West than was its Soviet predecessor.”
As Cohen repeatedly observes, “a small number of critics, myself included, [have] warned of the mounting danger” of the arrival of a new cold war in which we risk being drawn ever more deeply and irreversibly into the depths. This is a compounded failure of understanding—ranging from any sort of appreciation of just what constitutes a “cold war” in the first place to a fundamental ignorance of the nature of the Russian people themselves. For centuries, their dark history, their profound insecurities and mistrust of foreigners and enemies poised on their every frontier have motivated them to choose or follow strong leaders and apparently undemocratic systems of government.
As NATO begins to draw the noose ever tighter, as every successive administration in Washington—Democrat and Republican like—inherits the same misunderstandings and prejudices from its predecessors, the fears of the Russian people and the Kremlin leadership will become only more deeply confirmed. So, as Cohen observes, Bill Clinton’s “shock-therapy crusade” of the 1990s, implemented in part by Obama economic czar Lawrence Summers, was followed by Condoleezza Rice and her view that “talk about a new Cold War is hyperbolic nonsense,” who in turn was succeeded by Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James L. Jones, the former NATO commander who was committed to a policy of expansion of the alliance to the very frontiers of Russia.
Indeed, when NATO began its expansion, swallowing the cordon sanitaire of the Soviet Union’s onetime allies in Central Europe, and now knocking at Russia’s backdoor in Georgia and Ukraine, it was merely “fighting terrorism and protecting new states,” while Russia’s protests reflected “Cold-War thinking.” Washington’s meddling in the electoral processes of Ukraine and Georgia was simply “promoting democracy,” Cohen observes, while the Kremlin was engaged in “neo-imperialism.”
Such “unbridled triumphalism,” he continues, “practically guarantees the onset of a new cold war.” Indeed, could we ever imagine Russia intruding on America’s Western hemisphere of influence as enunciated in the Monroe Doctrine? What if the Kremlin were to again implant nuclear missiles in Cuba? Recall the horror when Russian naval vessels paid a simple port visit to Venezuela last November.
Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives is unfortunately, a work that has been little reviewed and barely noticed since its publication in June—a tragedy brought on, I suspect, by Cohen’s quite realistic, but scarcely diplomatic, indictment of American policymakers of both parties, as well as a broad swath of academics, journalists, and intellectuals across the entire political spectrum.
Still, in the end, Cohen offers us a lesson, and a solution that is at once simple and of priceless value. The whole blame-Russia-first concept that is so prevalent in Washington must be replaced, along with the idea that there is any longer even a single superpower. Partnership must replace confrontation at all cost. In the end, Cohen suggests a single, fundamental prescriptive—hew to the Hippocratic injunction, “do no harm,” and re-set the entire U.S.-Russian relationship, before it is too late.
David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.