poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 3, 2010

LQD: “Rethinking Russia” by Stephen Cohen.

By now most of you who will read anything I write will have read this. But I’m reposting for several reasons: 1) In the vain hope that my American friends, family, etc. who are not interested in Russia will read it, 2) Because it appears a few people in Russia -like, actual Russians and not smug expats- read this blog, and I want them to know that some Americans have sane takes in U.S.-Russia relations, and 3) I’m in love with Stephen Cohen. And his wife.

It’s not completely accurate to suggest he says anything terribly new in this interview. He’s not only re-thinking, but re-peating. But let us forgo the easy standards of blogland and learn to value wisdom over novelty. I do recommend you read the whole thing. But it is 11 pages long. Below are just the parts I really appreciated.

[Emph. mine.]

Rethinking Russia: U.S.-Russian Relations in an Age of American Triumphalism

From an Interview with Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. Journal of International Affairs. Spring/Summer 2010. Reprinted by, Russia Other Points fo View.

Journal: The world recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How has this event been received in Russia?

Cohen: […] Under Gorbachev, modernization therefore meant both political and economic modernization. After the Soviet Union ended in 1991, Yeltsin continued Gorbachev’s democratization in some respects but his policies resulted in the beginning of Russia’s de-democratization, which in the United States is usually, and incorrectly, attributed to his successor, Putin. The way Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, like a thief in the night, was not constitutional or democratic. There was no referendum on it. If you want to create democracy, you do not abolish the only state and homeland most people had ever known with the stroke of a pen, without consulting them. Yeltsin could have done what Gorbachev had done in March 1991 hold a referendum on the Union. Yeltsin might have won it, ending the Soviet Union consensually and without the widespread bitterness that remains today, and the 15 republics would have gone their own ways. Then, in October 1993, Yeltsin used tanks to abolish a parliament popularly elected in 1990 when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. This too was a Russian tradition the destruction of a legislature in a nation with a long history of overwhelming executive power but without a tradition of strong, independent legislatures. Russia has a parliament today, the Duma, but it is neither.

Note: This is part of a larger discussion about modernization. If you are interested in that topic, read the interview. Me, I suspect “modernization” is code for something (isn’t the history of man the history of modernization? why is this issue such a 3rd rail when it comes to Russia?) but I’m not sure what yet. They continue:

Journal: What opportunities exist for re-democratization in Russia?

Cohen: The main obstacle to democratization in Russia is not contrary to American political and media opinion Vladimir Putin or the KGB, or any single leader or institution. It’s the way the nation’s most valuable state economic and financial assets were “privatized” between 1991 and 1996. The idea of state or commonly owned property was not just a communist idea; it was a Russian idea, with origins long before 1917. The Soviet state property fell into the hands of a relatively small group of insiders not just the billionaires we call oligarchs and created an extremely wealthy class very quickly.

Polls show that a majority of Russians still think that property was taken and is held illegitimately. The people who own that property and who are part of the ruling elite, will never permit free elections or a freely elected parliament, knowing that such elections and such a truly representative legislature would endanger their property, endangering them personally, as well as their families. For evidence, look no further than how they have moved their families and their assets abroad.

Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to both Putin and Medvedev, referred to the existing elite as an “offshore aristocracy.” It’s a remarkably evocative formulation. By moving their assets and families abroad, the very rich show that their first loyalty is not to Russia and its future. Surkov said Russia needs its own real national bourgeoisie, which links its own future to Russia’s future. There is much truth in what he said. After all, you can’t modernize Russia by buying English soccer teams or American NBA teams.[<–Oh, snap!]

The essence of democracy anywhere is a free representative parliament however badly it may work. You can’t have this without free elections, but the Russian elite that holds vast property and controls part of the political system will never permit free elections as long as it fears for its wealth. The United States, by supporting Yeltsin’s privatization policies, was deeply complicit in the way that property was acquired. The Clinton administration and outside advisers called it a transition to a market economy and cheered it, and Americans went to Russia to guide the process. They unknowingly created a kind of firewall against democracy. Thoughtful Russians understand this conflict between ill-gained property and the lack of democracy. Some have proposed solutions, such as a one time super tax on this property, which would go into pensions, healthcare, and education in order to create a new social contract. According to this proposal, the people would forgive the rich and acknowledge their property as legitimate, and then their resentments would diminish over time, making democratization again possible. Social justice is a profound Russian belief. Without it, there will be no Russian democracy.

Is this seriously being considered, does anyone know? This is the first I’ve heard of the one time rape and pillage your country tax…

Journal: Despite the failure of the 1990s, do proponents of western-style liberalism remain a formidable force in Russia?

Cohen: They barely exist at high levels. From 1991 to 1994, they were perhaps the strongest faction in the Russian government due to the carry-over of Gorbachev’s westernism and the belief of Yeltsin’s political team that the United States was its true political partner and would provide generous financial assistance. Then came the calamities of the 1990s associated with shock therapy, which Russians thought had “Made in America” written on it not an unreasonable belief since they saw legions of American economists and other advisers encamped in Russia. I published a book, Failed Crusade, about the consequences of this ill-conceived U.S. policy and behavior.

Thinking in Russia about its relationship with the West has become more diverse. I simplify a bit, but there are essentially three groups. One says, “We are Eurasian; our civilization, our security, and our future are not with the West.” These political forces advocate minimal relations with the West. They are not urging a new Iron Curtain, but are arguing that Russia cannot stake its national or economic security on the West. Russia, they say, tried that in the 1990s and the early 2000s and was exploited and cheated. Its territory was endangered, promises were broken, and the country was left in ruins. [This would be the scary nationalist types, I think.]

Then there are those who still argue that historically Russia has been backward mainly because its citizens have not been given western-style political and economic freedoms and that the country’s future lies in the West in western models, alliances, and economic integration. To attain this, they hope for partnership with the United States, which they think still exemplifies the West. By the way, this small and diminishing group is the only one that still welcomes U.S. “democracy promotion” in Russia its funds and crusaders. [This would be the liberal intellectuals, then?]

The most interesting group emerging in Russia today, I think, is the one that says, “We are a Eurasian country, but that means we are in Europe and in Asia, and the United States is not a European country.” Their perceived western ally is Germany. It is often forgotten that, though Russia and Germany fought two wars in the 20th century, between those wars they had close relationships, along with a cultural affinity dating back to Tsarist times. That relationship is re-emerging. Look at German Chancellor Merkel. She came to power as an anti-Russian she grew up in Communist East Berlin but has emerged as one of Putin’s strongest European partners. [This would be the people actually running the country. They’re the sane and sober ones! Go figure!]

Germany does not want to be an American protégé. Germany is beholden to Moscow for reuniting it in 1990-91: It wasn’t the United States that made reunification possible, it was the Kremlin leader, Gorbachev. The economic relationship between Berlin and Moscow is strong and growing. Russia is providing some 40 percent of Germany’s energy. They are building new pipelines together, and neither liked Ukraine’s disruption of supplies through its existing pipelines. Indeed, it was Berlin that blocked Bush’s attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO. This emerging Moscow-Berlin relationship, verging on an alliance, is one of the most important new bilateral relationships in the world, and almost no one in this country is paying any attention to it. In fact, for Moscow, Berlin and Beijing its new Eurasian relationships are more important than Washington, though Washington seems not to have noticed.

Stephen takes it personally, but to be fair, this is but a drop in the bucket of matters Washington seems not to notice. Or notices and chooses to ignore because they don’t have a place in the standard narrative we use to justify our actions and inactions. Cohen goes on to discuss China. Then,

Journal: This leads us to foreign policy. What is behind the deterioration of Russian-U.S. relations in recent years, in your opinion?

Cohen: There have been, I think, four major conflicting issues since the end of the Soviet Union between the United States and Russia […]

First, we assumed we could and should instruct Russia on how to create a market economy and democracy, which Washington and legions of American crusaders tried to do in the 1990s. The reality is that Russians themselves know how to do both. More eligible voters have voted in Russian presidential elections than vote in ours. When Gorbachev began democratization in the late 1980s, Russians responded in enormous numbers and positively to the opportunity to participate in democracy not only to vote, but to attend debates and rallies, and argue as citizens. Furthermore, Russians have been buying and selling on the black and gray markets for decades, so they understand market economies. It was arrogance on our part, and the advice we gave was bad. Yet the notion persists it’s now called democracy promotion that every American president must actively throw his support to who we think are democrats in Russia. This not only creates hostility between America and Russia’s elites and people, but it is self-defeating. No good has ever come of it.

The second conflict involves NATO expansion eastward, which was for Moscow a broken American promise. No matter what former U.S. officials now say, Gorbachev was told by Bush and Baker in 1990-91 that if he agreed to a reunified Germany in NATO, the alliance would not move, in Baker’s words, “one inch to the east.” When Clinton expanded NATO eastward, for Russia he had broken a solemn promise involving its national security. That was only the beginning. The triumphalist notion that, “we won the Cold War,” seemed to make Washington think it had the right to break any promise to Moscow.

Americans forget, for example, that after 11 September 2001 Putin did more to help the second President Bush defeat the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan than did any NATO country. Russia gave us intelligence, over-flight rights, and the Northern Alliance its fighting force in Afghanistan, which saved American lives. Putin assumed that in return, after ten years, a real partnership with Washington would result. And what did the second President Bush do? He expanded NATO a second time and withdrew unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which Moscow regarded as the bedrock of its nuclear security. The Kremlin had done all this for us on the assumption of finally attaining a partnership and equality, and therefore felt, as Putin and Medvedev have said, “deceived and betrayed.”

The third post-1991 conflict is stated like a mantra by American policymakers: Russia cannot have the sphere of influence it wants in the former Soviet territories. This issue, the fundamental, underlying conflict in U.S.-Russian relations, needs to be rethought and openly discussed. The United States had and has spheres of influence. We had the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and tacitly cling to it even today. More to the point, the expansion of NATO is, of course, an expansion of the American sphere of influence, which brings America’s military, political, and economic might to new member countries. Certainly, this has been the case since the 1990s, as NATO expanded across the former Soviet bloc, from Germany to the Baltic nations. All of these countries are now part of the U.S. sphere of influence, though Washington doesn’t openly use this expression. […]

And that has created the fourth major conflict with Russia since 1991: Moscow’s perception that U.S. policy has been based on an unrelenting, triumphalist double standard, as it has been. Washington can break solemn promises, but Moscow cannot. The United States can have large and expanding spheres of influence, but Russia can have none. Moscow is told to make its vast energy reserves available to all countries at fair-market prices, except to those governments Washington has recruited or is currently recruiting into NATO, such as the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia, which Moscow should supply at sharply below-market prices. Moscow is asked to support Washington’s perceived national interests in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, but without considering that Moscow may have legitimately different security or economic interests in those places. And so it goes.[Actually #4 is just the result of 1-3…]

He then discusses the August 08 war and START. Which surely no one could actually have anymore to say about. Not here anyway.

Journal: How has the lack of political cooperation affected other areas of U.S.-Russian relations?

Cohen: The same is true regarding Iran and Afghanistan. If Washington wants Moscow’s cooperation toward Iran, it needs to understand Russia’s special problems. Iran has never caused Russia harm. It is not going to join NATO. It’s a large neighboring nation that is not part of America’s sphere of influence. Second, Russia has 20-25 million Islamic citizens of its own. Iran has done nothing to agitate them against Moscow’s secular authority. The Kremlin fought two wars in its Islamic republic of Chechnya. Iran did nothing to support the Chechens. So, Russia’s beholden to Iran in this regard, not to mention their important economic relationships. In other words, U.S. policymakers have to understand that Russia’s essential national interests in Iran, and elsewhere, may not be identical to Washington’s due to its different geopolitical realities.

Journal: Would Russia like to see a new regime in Iran?

Cohen: They don’t want a pro-American regime in Iran. But they’ve grown increasingly weary of the current Iranian government, which has not kept its word to Moscow on several occasions. Moscow is just as worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions as we are. Indeed, Russia no less than us doesn’t want Iran to develop a nuclear capability, if only because Iran is much closer to Russia and would not need an inter-continental missile to threaten its territory. Moscow therefore has compelling reasons for not wanting a nuclear-armed Iran but it needs the United States to understand its different geopolitical circumstances. In particular, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly stresses, Russia, unlike the United States, is located at the crossroads of civilizations that are in an increasingly antagonistic relationship. Great diplomats begin by understanding the other side’s problems. I don’t recall a recent American president or secretary of state demonstrating this kind of awareness of Russia’s circumstances. Instead, they’ve told Moscow: “We have a problem and if you don’t help us solve it, you are behaving like the Cold War is not over.” When Russia doesn’t agree, we say they are still thinking in zero-sum terms.

Again, this is really more a reflection of Washington’s stubborn inability to care about anyone else’s problems than Russia’s perceived stubborn inability to be cooperative. At the risk of repeating Cohen’s “double standard” grief, one must admit it is true: It is not only understandable, but commendable, heroic even, for Washington to act in American interests. For Russia to act in her own interests, however, is not only perplexing, but downright threatening.

Journal: The February 2010 election in Ukraine saw Viktor Yanukovych elected President. In terms of the United States’ relations with Russia’s neighbors, does the election change anything?

Cohen: […] The question is what the Obama administration and the strong pro-Ukraine lobby in Washington will do. Both Georgia, which will eventually restore relations with Moscow, and Ukraine are major defeats for long-standing U.S. policy. Will the proponents of the policy of expanding America’s sphere of influence now stand down or continue it, as they have in their words and deeds in connection with Georgia since the war? For the moment, their leading representatives, like Biden, Richard Holbrooke, and McCain are silent about Ukraine. Let’s hope they are re-thinking their follies. Ordinary Ukrainians and Georgians have only experienced more economic misery and political instability from these Washington projects in their countries. As for Kiev, I hope the Obama administration backs off and lets Yanukovych try to do what he can to help his people. My guess is that the Kremlin will see that its in its interest to help him in this respect with regard to energy prices, for example. Indeed, if Washington promises to never put military bases on Russia’s borders, and Russia in return promises to respect the political sovereignty of these former Soviet republics, the governments of Ukraine and Georgia could turn their attention and resources to the economic needs of their people instead of focusing on the military build-ups and political conflicts required to join NATO.

But what do we get out of that? Surely stability in Ukraine and Georgia cannot be profitable for arms dealers or Congressmen. Cohen speaks truth to power, I mean Obama:

Journal: Does … a shift in U.S. policy seem likely under the Obama Administration?

Cohen: I’m not optimistic. Look at President Obama’s foreign policy team. Virtually every one of them comes from the Clinton era or the Clinton administration, which began this disastrous policy. As a senator, Biden was deeply involved in NATO expansion, and in both the Georgian and Ukrainian projects. Obama’s national security adviser, General James Jones, was head of NATO when it expanded. Michael McFaul, who heads the Russian section of the National Security Council, was a leading pro-democracy crusader in the 1990s. There is not a single dissenter, not one person who was in opposition to the policy in the 1990s who has a high-level foreign policy job in the Obama administration. I don’t see anyone near Obama who will or can tell him, “Mr. President, we need a new policy toward Russia, the clock is ticking, and only you, the president, can bring it about.” But it isn’t fair to blame Obama alone. No other American leader has proposed a new policy.

Journal: Let’s focus on the idea that underlies this discussion: that there is an absence of debate about issues surrounding Russia and the United States.

Cohen: There is virtually no serious discourse about contemporary Russia underway in the United States today not in public policy circles, not in the media, very little in academic life. Certainly, there is no substantive debate. That is in sharp contrast to when I entered the public debate in the 1970s, writing about policy for newspapers and appearing on television and radio. At that time, as I said before, the debate was between advocates of détente, those who wanted to do something to diminish the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and the cold warriors. There were organized lobby groups on both sides. And the media would almost always solicit both points of view. […]

When Reagan decided to become the greatest détente-ist of our time, a heretic in the eyes of many of his long time supporters, in 1985-88 he and Secretary of State Schultz were opposed by many members of his administration, party and much of the media. But for all Obama’s talk about having a “team of rivals,” he has surrounded himself with like-minded people. […]

For some reason, it was easier to get public and political attention for alternative policies when Russia called itself communist. People who used to blame communism for what they didn’t like about Russia now blame Russian tradition but the accusations are the same: Russia is inherently imperialistic, aggressive, autocratic and anti-democratic. This is false, and is even a kind of ethnic slur toward Russians. Russia’s political elite has much to answer for, but so do Washington policymakers. Some will say that I am anti-American or pro-Russian, as they have in the past. I have learned to disregard these comments as remnants of the McCarthy years. People like me, who claim to be knowledgeable intellectuals not shouting heads on cable television should not be like cooks preparing recipes for popular tastes. Our mission is to try to learn, understand, and speak the truth as best we can. Others will say, more kindly, that I am naïve about what kind of U.S.-Russian relationship is possible. But who would have predicted what Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan accomplished in the 1980s, or that it would be so quickly lost?

You may say, he’s a dreamer…

And you may say I only read this for self-serving reasons of confirmation bias and romantic ideas about how it is cool to be a Russia expert. To be honest, I do find him to be a little gloom and doom. Who wants to listen to such a depressive? And the whole idea that “The greatest threats to our national security still reside in Russia.” Really? I think they reside in Washington – but that’s just me. But just when I’m about to accuse dear Stephen of hysteria mongering, I realize that it’s just that he’s so passionate about it all. Easy to get worked up like that, especially when it seems no one will listen to you. You end up coming off as the town loony. I do it all the time. At least in Russia we might have the dignity of being Holy Fools.

I also find his evolution as a Russia expert person a little surprising at first. I’m reading a collection of dissident samizdat he edited in the bad old days. He clearly felt an affinity, a passion then, for these Soviet dissidents, struggling for freedom of expression, democratization, etc. We’ve had a lot of discussion here about the modern dissidents in Russia, who also claim to be fighting these age-old wars with their leaders. But judging from the interview above, it would seem he’s left the camp. Instead of aligning himself with the victims of the current Russian government, he’s -whether he’d admit it or not- advocating on behalf of the Russian government itself. At least on behalf of their better angels.

Maybe it’s not our hero who has changed, but the bad guy? As someone recently said, there are lots of serious problems facing Russia today, and whether or not to hang a picture of Stalin is not one of them. I don’t entirely relate to the bad old days Cohen because, frankly, I can’t get so worked up about Stalin. I can, however, get pretty worked up about the United States of America though. Being American, and not Russian, and all.

Check it out: We’re the new dissidents. Apologies to Yulia.


  1. That’s interesting.

    However, what if the solution to the problem might lie in the entirely different domain?

    I enjoy the point of view of a Russian writer Vyacheslav Rybakov (e.g., “Zvezda Polyn'”, “Na buduschiy god v Moskve”). When people in a family start to have tensions, they need to expand their liveable place. We on the Earth are like the people in a communal apartment. We have to deal with each other, to be careful not to create enemies among your neighbors. But when this doesn’t work, we need to expand our habitat.

    With the development of new technologies, the time is ripe for an enhanced attempt of human space exploration.

    Any way, whether you support or not huge space investments, you shall understand that unlike the U.S. military programs, the U.S. (Russia’s, China’s, EU’s, etc.) space research program is your strongest ally, because it releases pressure and tensions between peoples on the Earth.

    Comment by Evgeny — June 4, 2010 @ 1:02 AM | Reply

    • space exploration is good thing from psychological point of view but is it viable economically. I mean present day capitalist economy based on credit. Credit economy is not suitable for space exploration. It aint gonna happen on any significant scale “to release pressure bewtween peoples” any time soon till we have fundamental discoveries in energy field.

      Comment by FarEasterner — June 5, 2010 @ 12:45 PM | Reply

      • Hi, FarEastern.

        Good to hear that you are also interested in the space stuff!

        In the present-day conditions, the major reason for exploring the space could be ideological. A mutual international project which would bring attention of the TV and allow politicians to say: “Look, Russians and Americans have nothing to divide on the Earth. But we want to explore the farthest outreaches of the Humankind with a join effort.” However, with the time passing the Humankind will be pressurized more and more to move dangerous industry enterprises to the space and to start mining resources of the Solar System.

        About the “fundamental discoveries in energy field”, they are already done and the general public doesn’t like them much. I mean the nuclear rocket engines of various types. Unfortunately, it seems that we are unable to use nuclear engines for liftoff from the Earth — because of ecological concerns. However, there is no single reason against using nuclear engines or nuclear energy reactors for long-scale space missions — such as a lunar ferry or interplanetary spaceships. It’s cheap and it’s safe ecologically (Earth is not harmed any way). In fact, Russians and Americans are going to explore this option very time soon.

        Comment by Evgeny — June 5, 2010 @ 1:07 PM | Reply

      • For example, probably you have heard of a “Mars-500” Earth-bound experiment. Any sane person would ask, why the hell 520 days?!

        The answer could be found in the 2006 book by the Russian Space Agency, “Manned expedition to Mars”:


        (Hope the link is operational yet.)

        The authors consider three options for a manned flight to the Red planet: (1) Use of chemical rocket engines, (2) Use of electrical drives powered by electricity generated by large solar panels, (3) Use of electrical drives powered by an on-board nuclear reactor.

        The option (1) involves a far too great start mass of a spaceship, the option (2) takes too much time (over 700 days). So the option (3) has the benefit of four times less starting mass compared to (1) and shorter journey time compared to (2).

        Comment by Evgeny — June 5, 2010 @ 2:14 PM | Reply

  2. Cohen is always impressive even when he is repeating. Given the paucity of quality Russia analysis, I think he needs to repeat himself since he is a lone sheep in a forest of wolves.

    I often wonder whether Cohen’s insights come from not only the fact he is a smart guy but because he also intimately knows Russian history. It allows him to do something that most poli-sci people can’t–see developments in a long view of historical processes and social and cultural formations.

    Also, one of the things I appreciate about him, and this is I think are the best chapters in his book, is that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. It was on a path to democratic reform until Yeltsin and the eventual crooks around him ruined it. Nobody has the guts to say this because this would mean questioning the foundations of their liberal ideology.

    Finally, Cohen’s assessment that the issue of how Russia was privatized bares on the possibility of democracy is spot on. The current elite would never allow democracy because to them democracy means having to give up some of their wealth and power. This is why the elite is mostly satisfied with the Medvedev/Putin tandem. They know that the pair will never totally upset the apple cart.

    Comment by Seansrussiablog — June 4, 2010 @ 5:30 AM | Reply

    • I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said.

      But I have a question: Why is it that Cohen is just about the only Russia specialist in America saying these things? It can’t be that he is the only lefty with a knowledge of Russian history. You’re in academia; are there more people like him roaming the halls and just not getting the invites, or is he as exceptional as he seems?

      Comment by poemless — June 4, 2010 @ 11:17 AM | Reply

      • Because the Anglosphere foreign policy elite hate the USSR, and cannot bear the idea that there ever was anything good about it. I have taken to pointing out the degree of population decline in Ukraine and the Baltics since 1992. I usually get silence. At most the reply mentions that a lot of the decline is in their Russophone populations, the implication being that it’s okay if Russians die out.

        The losers of the “Detente” wars of the 70s and 80s know that there is simply no hope of prevailing against the degree of demonization they were subjected to when the USSR was still around.

        Comment by rkka — June 6, 2010 @ 5:05 PM | Reply

    • @Sean – Yeltsin was an unmitigated disaster in most people’s eyes. But can you expand a bit on how such a declaration entails “questioning the foundations of their liberal ideology”?

      Comment by James — June 4, 2010 @ 3:29 PM | Reply

      • @James Basically, to the McFaul’s and Aslund’s of the world Yeltsin personified the assumption that capitalism = democracy / democracy = capitalism. This in my view is the foundation of the historical determinism of liberal ideology. To admit that not only did Yeltsin not bring democracy to Russia but more importantly prevented it must in my view also require questioning the teleology in the capitalism = democracy / democracy = capitalism formula. Maintaining the false equation is how people fail to recognize that Putin is more a personification of really existing capitalism that its enemy. This is why I consistently maintain that Putin is nothing less than a good (conservative) liberal. When it comes down to it, he understands that human rights must be sacrificed for the benefit of capital and the elite class that reaps it.

        @poemless I’m not too familiar with Russian political scientists, but in my travels, Cohen is pretty much the only academic who is saying these things. At least this consistently. Part of the reason is that poli-sci people aren’t required to really know the history of the country they study and the field in general has been reduced to modeling and math. Cohen’s “old school” approach makes him more cutting edge than most.

        Comment by Seansrussiablog — June 5, 2010 @ 5:55 PM | Reply

  3. I agree with him generally speaking, but he is way too nice to Gorbachev, who is kind of a dick.

    Comment by Chris Yog-Dossoth — June 4, 2010 @ 7:41 AM | Reply

    • Gorbachev’s failures are without question profound. But just how is a he a dick? I see him as an incredibly intelligent and progressive fellow who may have floundered at crucial points and let himself be taken advantage of (though out of idealism rather than stupidity). But not a dick. No way. No evidence of that that I have ever seen.

      Comment by poemless — June 4, 2010 @ 11:28 AM | Reply

      • To refer to a political leader with contradictory tendencies, caught in a crisis situation fraught with dilemmas and bad choices, as merely a “dick” is IMHO an inadequate response to a complex state of affairs. That said, I think Gorby was severely misread in the West. I don’t think of him as “incredibly intelligent and progressive.” Let us bear in mind that his goal was to preserve the Communist Party monopoly on power, not to destroy it. He actually believed in Marxist-Leninist ideology, the poor guy. Really, he was more like Khruschev Mark II than anything else, believing that an injection of liberalism would serve to make the system run more smoothly. I think he really didn’t understand the can of worms he had opened.

        Another point I like about Cohen is that he mentions how Reagan, in his 2nd term, almost turned into a kind of peacenik. Of course, neocons and their ilk are always shouting about how Ronnie’s “standing firm” and Evil Empire rhetoric brought down the commies. The actual historical record supports the opposite view.

        Comment by Scowspi — June 5, 2010 @ 3:20 AM | Reply

        • Technically, anybody’s life is too complicated to be summed up in a single word, such as “dick.” However, Gorbachev’s trademark style of being a pussy and pretending problems didn’t exist brought much bad fruit, as in the “what, me worry?” response to Sumgait.

          The idea of Gorbachev being intelligent baffles me. 🙂 In Russia he’s normally considered something, well, less than bright, incapable of uttering a coherent sentence. We are talking about somebody who believed a verbal promise to not expand NATO.

          I agree about Cohen’s stuff on Reagan’s second term. The extent to which the history of the 80s is being rewritten amazes me.

          Comment by Chris Yog-Dossoth — June 5, 2010 @ 3:29 AM | Reply

          • He didn’t pretend problems didn’t exist. If that were the case he would have maintained the status quo. He spoke as openly as he could without being thrown out then and there. He said and did enough to make enough enemies to stage a coup as it were. He had few if any allies. The Party either accused him of going too far or not far enough.

            First off, just because it’s popular wisdom in Russia that he was tool (a sentiment which is slowly changing, according to recent polls I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog) doesn’t make it true. It’s also popular wisdom in Russia that democracy brought about the troubles of the 1990’s when in fact it was corruption, an unregulated market and lack of rule of law which were responsible. People make emotional associations – and it is understandable. And let’s not forget that when the reforms began, the majority of Russian supported them and him. And continued to support his social reforms. Many blame him for the fall of the USSR. The buck stops with him, but he did not sign the pact dissolving the union. He did not wish for that. He simply did not have the political capital, at home or abroad to prevent it, because there were far too many people in power who could personally profit from the collapse.

            You can call names all you like, but know that you would not be reading this blog, or even know me, if it weren’t for him.

            Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:25 PM | Reply

        • Scott, I agree with all you say except this:

          I don’t think of him as “incredibly intelligent and progressive.” Let us bear in mind that his goal was to preserve the Communist Party monopoly on power, not to destroy it. He actually believed in Marxist-Leninist ideology, the poor guy.

          These are not nec. mutually exclusive things. I base these assertions about him on 1) the things he has actually said in speeches, interviews, writings, etc. and 2) what I have read about the fall of the Soviet Union in the past year or so. For a politician, he is quite intelligent indeed. Doom would have you believe there has not been an intelligent person born in the past century, but I disagree. More often than not, Gorby calls it like it is these days. And his foreign policy as leader of the Soviet Union was visionary. VISIONARY. As for “progressive,” he was willing to get rid of all nukes, allow countries like Hungary and East Germany to choose their own fates, independent of Moscow’s approval, allow more liberal levels of public debate, personal expression and economic enterprise in Russia, etc. etc, This is progressive. To admit things are not working and to try something new, with all the risks that come with that. Did he attempt to do all of this within the framework of Marxist-Leninist ideology? Yes. And understandably so. His country was founded on that ideology and he was chosen to lead it. We can call Jefferson or FDR progressive even though they did not seek to fundamentally overturn the very values American was founded upon. Don’t conflate progressive leadership with revolution…

          Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:12 PM | Reply

          • You make some sensible points. Since I spent several months in the USSR in 1987, I was able to view “the Gorbachev phenomenon” close up. And yes, he was indeed popular during that period of early glasnost, and many people did see him as a somewhat progressive figure, sweeping away the repressive cobwebs of the past. (On the other hand, his anti-alcohol laws rankled some people I knew.) This early popularity and sense of freshness deserves to be remembered.

            But Gorby’s early popularity had mostly disappeared by the end of 1989. The commies were all gone in the satellite countries by then, and in comparison CPSU-led perestroika was starting to look threadbare, incompetent and timid. The economy was going into the toilet and ethnic tensions were boiling. Gorby presided over the last two agonizing years of the Soviet collapse, looking helplessly on. I don’t think he ever overcame his basic self, which was the mentality of a provincial Party secretary.

            So I tend to view him as a contradictory, somewhat tragic, and limited figure. Not a “dick” really, but not terribly intelligent and progressive in the final analysis.

            Comment by Scowspi — June 5, 2010 @ 3:34 PM | Reply

        • From the Cold War history that I read, it was the combination of Ronnie’s firmness and engagement that helped bring down the Soviet Union. I’m not sure one would have worked without the other.

          Comment by Tim Newman — June 5, 2010 @ 11:01 PM | Reply

  4. you know when you first yelled that you’re in love with Stephen Cohen I thought about the guy in Brookings, well known expert on India and Pakistan. About your “Stephen Cohen” I learned here so I’ll call them “Indian Stephen Cohen” and “Russian Stephen Cohen”.

    Indian SC was also whistleblower, he was talking relentlessly about rise of Pakistani Taliban, about diversion of American mopney by Musharraf on fight with India, but in Washington nobody wanted to interrupt “lovefest” between Bush and Mush. When I wrote diary on DK using Indian SC’s interview many asked “Stephen who” and questioned his credibility, which is impeccable, he is great American patriot. Only he doesn’t wear rosy glasses.

    The same thing it seems happened to Russian SC. Many around Obama would not like to hear things he’s talking about, but I belive that Obama and Clinton are aware of them and in foreign policy they are deciders now. The current strategy to “engage” Russia and China in order to ride piggyback on their diplomatic clout to push some unpopular policies like Iran sanctions was devised by them, not by Biden, Holbrooke or McFaul.

    Comment by FarEasterner — June 4, 2010 @ 3:22 PM | Reply

    • So, there are A LOT of Stephen Cohens:


      This is worse than the Andrei Kolesnikov fiasco!

      But since this is a lefty Russia-focused blog, I just assume everyone knows I mean Stephen F. Cohen the Russia scholar when I say I am in love with him and his wife.

      Comment by poemless — June 4, 2010 @ 3:31 PM | Reply

  5. I liked a lot of the stuff Cohen had to say in his interview, but I don’t know if it’s all that bad that Prok wants to buy the Nets … there’s already all kinds of Russophobia popping up with people trying to block him:


    I get the point – that too many Russian elites have gated themselves into Londongrad, and don’t give a damn about the future of the country. But there’s something to be said for cross-cultural communication, awareness on behalf of the broader American public that Russia still exists and is very interesting, and engendering a kind of environment where young Russian students want to come to the United States and study, and more Americans want to go live in Russia and learn what it’s all about.

    I don’t know if having Prok own a basketball team accomplishes any of that, but at least we could dream of seeing Andrei Kirilenko get traded to the East Coast.

    Comment by James — June 4, 2010 @ 3:24 PM | Reply

    • I agree with you that we’ve a long way to go toward cross-cultural communication, and if buying the Nets helps that, wonderful. (Though one might argue that the sports world is one of the arenas where we’ve had a decent history of this. Athletes don’t like to get too political.) BTW, Have you seen the Onion:



      I thought Cohen’s comment was particularly timely in light of Surkov’s recent rebuttal to Polonsky’s suitcase remark.

      Comment by poemless — June 4, 2010 @ 3:39 PM | Reply

    • “and engendering a kind of environment where young Russian students want to come to the United States and study”


      do you think it’s fair that 40% of students in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are the international ones who do not have to pay anything, while for many capable American students studying in the MIT is forbidden because of the high cost of the education?

      If I were an American I would have been angry as hell about that.

      Comment by Evgeny — June 5, 2010 @ 8:45 AM | Reply

      • Oh we are. I don’t know of any Americans begging for more international student to attend our universities!

        Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:26 PM | Reply

  6. Really interesting stuff. He’s absolutely right that there’s no serious post-Soviet discourse about Russia. Plenty of people are shouting, but they’re all in the same camp. It’s a goddamn echo chamber.

    Comment by A Good Treaty — June 4, 2010 @ 10:24 PM | Reply

    • But you’ll change that when you are all grown up. 🙂

      Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:43 PM | Reply

  7. This interview is a good example of why I don’t bother reading many blogs dealing with Russia. Desperate to try to show they are different from what they perceive to be the usual westerner’s view of Russia, they compensate by using much the same cliches as the people they are trying to diffentiated themselves from. Eg.

    The main obstacle to democratization in Russia is not contrary to American political and media opinion Vladimir Putin or the KGB, or any single leader or institution. It’s the way the nation’s most valuable state economic and financial assets were “privatized” between 1991 and 1996.

    No, the main obstacle to democratization in Russia is that like the African kleptocracies anybody at the top cannot help but be utterly seduced by the trappings of power and the material wealth which the Russian system allows to come with it. It is the mind-boggling bureacracy and the money it brings in for those that operate them which is the greatest obstacle to Russian democracy, not some bollocks about the way businesses were privatised 20 years ago.

    How many of these Russian experts can write with experience about the difficulties a medium-sized business would have in setting up in Russiam, and understand that the small-medium sized business are the backbone of any local economy? And that if these business are perpetually prevented from getting off the ground there will always be a belief – and an accurate one at that – that power only resides with an elite who own all the wealth? Really, unless somebody is writing about their direct experience – such as Sean’s look at the May Day parade – I find most of what is written about Russia to be pointless navel gazing which seems so far removed from my own experience of Russia that I wonder if Sakhalin really was a different country.

    Nb. I’m not getting at you here, Poemless. More at Cohen.

    The United States, by supporting Yeltsin’s privatization policies, was deeply complicit in the way that property was acquired.

    Erm, no. The US did not tell the Russians to engage in a series of acquisitions almost of all of which began by brute force and intimidation. The Americans naively showed the Russians a system which demonstrably works and true to form the Russians cocked it up completely by unable to do so much as trust one another one iota. Even truer to form, the Russians blamed the Americans for their predicament.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 5, 2010 @ 6:14 AM | Reply

    • Tim,
      I believe, that “the Russians” and “the Americans” are way too general terms, which do not explain anything. You could equally say “things here happened that way” and it would explain nothing as well.

      In my amateur view, a couple of books which help to understand the local history are Gaidar’s “The death of the Empire” and Anton Pervushin’s “Zvezda”.

      Gaidar has excellently shown the crisis of the Soviet system. Its ever increasing dependence on oil export and unability to provide a more diverse foundation of the country’s economy did eventually make the USSR a failed state.

      Gaidar writes, that to prevent that crisis, the Soviet Union had to start creating the normal economy, starting from at least 1970s. In 1980s the economic crisis was already well formed. But as Gaidar writes, when Gorbachev became the Soviet leader, it took his team three years to understand how did the Soviet economy work. So the political drawbacks of the system — its unability to generate competent leaders — worsened the economical situation to the situation of the collapse.

      But it’s all well known.

      Anton Pervushin is a hard science fiction writer with technological background. In “Zvezda” novel he attempted to show the alternative history of the Soviet Union — with the competent leader taking the power in 1980.
      The policies taken by that leader focused mainly on providing opportunities for small and medium businesses, while making sure that the laws are not violated (no stealing/ no corruption).
      With that, the country maintained the governmental control over the heavy industry.

      And I think that only such approach — i.e., the Chinese approach — could solve the Soviet economical crisis.

      I am not sure if you realize that it’s impossible to develop small and medium businesses in the situation of the total collapse. The troubles of our real 1990s are also well-known: 1) the people were poor. what kind of a business can you launch if people can’t buy whatever you produce? only the most primitive trade: what was called “chelnoki”. 2) the legal system did not work. so okey, you managed to create your business, but the next day it shows success the bandits take it over.

      So, like you that or not, the policies of weak state and headlong economic liberalization lead to the “lost decade” of 1990s.

      Of course, nobody says that it were “the Americans” who caused that. But certain American economists actively promoted such policies. Similarly, it’s wrong to say that “the Russians” caused that situation. But the populist (and incompetent) Russian leaders in 1990s implemented the policies which resulted in the greater troubles.

      And, you are much welcome. I don’t understand why a lot of English-speaking expats in Russia feel alienated. You are welcome, whatever your views and everything.

      Comment by Evgeny — June 5, 2010 @ 7:23 AM | Reply

    • This interview is a good example of why I don’t bother reading many blogs dealing with Russia. Desperate to try to show they are different from what they perceive to be the usual westerner’s view of Russia, they compensate by using much the same cliches as the people they are trying to diffentiated themselves from. Eg.


      I ain’t making you read my blog, Tim.

      Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:34 PM | Reply

      • No, I like reading your blog because I like what you write about. What I wouldn’t bother reading is the site the interview first appeared on.

        Like I said, my comment was not aimed at you or your blog.

        Comment by Tim Newman — June 5, 2010 @ 10:56 PM | Reply

  8. Sorry, paragraphs mixed up a bit there.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 5, 2010 @ 6:18 AM | Reply

  9. But certain American economists actively promoted such policies.

    Can you name any that said the free market they were espousing should exist in an environment devoid of the rule of law?

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 5, 2010 @ 12:55 PM | Reply

    • Hello, Tim.

      No, I can’t. And, the problem is, I am not much interested. I do not understand the American politics, I do not understand the American culture, that’s why I am not much interested in the topic. Even if some American citizens were involved in looting Russia in 1990s, this does not reflect to my attitude to Americans in general and I do not think that Americans are responsible.

      Regarding the topic in general, I recall some articles from Inosmi, however. For example, browse to the section “Globalizer and Russia Looter” of the recent article by American dissidents, “Why Larry Summers Must Go Now!”:


      Comment by Evgeny — June 5, 2010 @ 1:34 PM | Reply

    • However, the only thing I said was that Americans advocated the minimal role of the state. I am not any good in economics, however, Wikipedia sais: “Neoliberalism is an approach to economic and social policy based on neoclassical theories of economics that _minimise the role of the state and maximise the private business sector_.” Those American advisers in 1990s were neoliberals, as far as I recall.

      Comment by Evgeny — June 5, 2010 @ 1:37 PM | Reply

      • Yes, but any free marketeer worth a damn will acknowledge that you need a legal system capable of enforcing contract law in order for it to work. The state having a minimal role does not imply that law an order will be abandoned, and it was this which caused the Russian system to fail so spectacularly, not the free market principles the advisors were advocating.

        Comment by Tim Newman — June 5, 2010 @ 11:05 PM | Reply

        • That’s why we in Russia usually blame the fault of 1990s on Yeltsin’s team — they _had_ to understand what were they doing and what were the consequences.

          Comment by Evgeny — June 6, 2010 @ 8:39 AM | Reply

    • Have you read “The Oligarchs”? No one openly said it, but some were quietly happy to take advantage of it until it meant they were in danger, financially or physically.

      Don’t underestimate what people will turn a blind eye to in order to make a lot of money.

      Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:30 PM | Reply

  10. One of the things I love about my blog is that the topics that everyone says they are sick of talking about (Khodorkovsky, the 1990’s, etc.) are the same ones that get the most discussion. hahahahahahaha

    Comment by poemless — June 5, 2010 @ 2:41 PM | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: