Prof. Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University and of Russian studies and history at New York University, his recent book is titled ‘War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate’; Cohen discusses the forces that shaped his political thinking on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay
PAUL JAY Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. And I’m Paul Jay.
People that follow this show know I particularly like to interview people that stick their neck out and stick to their guns for what they believe in, what they’re fighting for. And our next guest is someone who’s done both of those things under a lot of pressure. So this is the story, to begin with, of Stephen Cohen.
Stephen Cohen is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, where for many years he was also the director of the Russian Studies Program, and professor emeritus of Russian studies and history at New York University. His recent book is titled War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate. For his scholarly work Cohen has received several honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships and a National Book Award nomination. Over the years he’s been a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazine, television, and radio. He’s a regular contributor to the Nation magazine. And for almost 20 years he was a consultant and on-air commentator on Russian affairs for CBS News. He’s helped produce documentaries for PBS, including Conversations With Gorbachev, Russia Betrayed, and Widow of the Revolution. Cohen has visited and lived in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia regularly for more than 40 years. And Stephen now joins us in the studio. Thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN COHEN Thank you, Paul. Good to be with you.
Please help us make real news!
PAUL JAY So we are, in the segments coming, going to talk more about current affairs. For people who don’t know your work, let me just say Stephen has been one of the leading–what can I say?–advocates, proponents, critiquing what’s become known as Russiagate. One that making the idea or the allegation that Russia interfered in the American 2016 elections as some kind of existential threat to the United States, an attack on American democracy. And Stephen has been pushing back against that under enormous pressure from I guess almost the entire media; maybe not Fox, but just about everybody else, and the Democratic Party, and so on. We’re going to get into that story in segments coming. But first, as we do on Reality Asserts Itself, we’re going to get Stephen’s backstory.
So all that being said-
STEPHEN COHEN I’m supposed to assert my reality, right?
PAUL JAY You’re supposed to assert your version of what’s reality.
STEPHEN COHEN Well, you know, there is the view that everybody has a different reality.
PAUL JAY There is a view.
STEPHEN COHEN There is that view.
PAUL JAY And we will hopefully on another time do a series where we just argue about philosophy, but it won’t be today. At least, I don’t think it will. Who knows if heads there.
You grew up in the Jim Crow South.
STEPHEN COHEN Yes.
PAUL JAY So the formation of your world view is in the most racist part of America. The most right-wing, anticommunist part of America. The most anti socialist part of America. What do you grow up believing? What’s what’s the discourse in your house, and what’s your view of the world?
STEPHEN COHEN Well, growing up in a Jim Crow town, completely segregated; American apartheid is what it was.
PAUL JAY And you’re born in 1938.
STEPHEN COHEN Yeah. I didn’t think of my hometown the way you just described it; as right-wing, racist. It all seemed perfectly normal to me. I had–there weren’t a whole lot of Jews in that part of the country, either, but I had a perfectly reasonably happy childhood. But … What does the Bible say in Corinthians? I forget the quote, but when we’re child–when we’re children we think childish things, and then when we mature we put aside childish thoughts.
As you grow up I began to look at segregation for what it was. It seemed normal to me as a little kid. Everything seems normal to a little kid. Later, I thought that was a formative experience in my thinking about Russia in this sense. That when I began to study the Soviet Union very early on ,something there–I don’t mean to say they were the same. But controlled repression or suppression–I mean, that’s what segregation was. I mean, black folks were, in effect, suppressed. They didn’t have the freedom that white folks had in any regard. In the Soviet Union, the Soviet authorities before Gorbachev suppressed the population. What’s interesting is that the violence in both cases, in the Jim Crow South and in the Soviet Union, was pretty much in the past. It was now low-level violence. There was still violence. I think the last lynching in Kentucky occurred the year before I was born.
So the worst violence of Jim Crow-ism was passed, but segregation had been institutionalized. The Stalinist terror and repression, when I showed up for the first time to live in the Soviet Union in the late, middle ’70s had passed, but it had left the legacy of repression. The state was able to control the situation without much violence.
So later I began to think, how does this change? How did civil rights and desegregation come to Kentucky? The short answer is, I think, basketball, but that’s another story. And how did it come eventually and slowly to the Soviet Union? Later, when I was a young man but grown up, I lived in the Soviet Union in Moscow off and on, two or three months a year, from 1976 to about 1982–until 1982, when they took away my visa. And it turned out that I lived almost by chance, but not entirely, among Soviet dissidents. So I heard their conversations about how you bring about change; what role laws should play versus violence, who could be trusted and who couldn’t be trusted. And in my brain this kind of echoed conversations among people who fought for civil rights down home.
Now, I’m not drawing a direct analogy. But how change comes to societies, societies that aren’t good, has always interested me and became a theme of my work. So I would actually say that those two experiences, growing up in the Jim Crow South, and then living in Brezhnev’s–before Gorbachev opened everything up–Soviet Union in Moscow from 1976 in 1982, probably more than anything else; along with my mentor, a great–I think the greatest Russianist of his generation, maybe of all time, Robert C. Tucker, his influence on me. Those were the main influences on my own thinking about Russia, and I think about politics more generally.
PAUL JAY You are come to sort of a political awareness of sorts–10, 11, 12 years old, I guess you start–at least the influence around you is extremely anti-Soviet, extreme anticommunism. It’s McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities Committee. On television, I was a–I was a commie for the FBI. I mean, as you get in your teens, all through the 1950s, the culture, American-ism, is practically defined by anti-Sovietism. Is that–do you internalize that?
STEPHEN COHEN You know, it’s really strange–and maybe I was just oblivious. I mean, I had no desire to be a Soviet expert, or anything. I wanted to be a professional golfer when I was very young. I lost that illusion in Paducah, Kentucky to what became a very great golfer, a young Frank Beard. People probably don’t remember Frank, but he won a lot of major championships on the PGA Tour. But I don’t actually recall McCarthyism in this Jim Crow town. I don’t recall people running around hating on communists. And I think the reason was there weren’t any.
The first communist I ever met in my life, except for a trip I took to the Soviet Union when I was very young, in 1959 when I was living in England, was in the Strand bookstore in New York City. When I came here in the ’60s and I went to the section on Russia–they had an enormous section on Russia–and some older man was there. Saw me, as a young person, and began to advise me on which books I should buy. He said, “You know, I should know, because I’m a communist.” And that’s, I think, that was the first American communist I had ever met. Just with the idea of communism–I think also down in Kentucky at that time people were too busy hating on blacks to hate on communists.
PAUL JAY But the idea of the Russian threat–I mean, wasn’t it–it was all in the culture.
STEPHEN COHEN It was in the culture. And it wasn’t really until I went on to college–I went to Indiana University, across the river from–across the Ohio river from Kentucky. At Indiana there was a little bit of it. But you know what the big thing when I was in college was that brought Russia as a threat to the fore, was the Cuban revolution; Castro coming to power. A Fair Play for Cuba. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that. That’s a campus based organization.
PAUL JAY All over North America.
STEPHEN COHEN Well, not only North–in Indiana it was very, very strong.
For some reason–though it clearly affected my parents. And I can tell you why. When I was about to make my third trip to Moscow, I was probably 22 or 23. My father suddenly told me that his uncle lived in Moscow. His father’s brother. My grandfather came to this country from Czarist Russia. His brother, who called himself Dimitri–but we never knew his real name, because he was a revolutionary, so he had different names–came to this country. But he went back when the Russian Revolution broke out, and he stayed in touch with the family until the ’30s, and then he vanished.
It wasn’t until I made my third trip to Russia that my father said, “By the way, you have a”–what would have been to me? My grandfather’s brother, whatever that is.
PAUL JAY A great uncle, maybe.
STEPHEN COHEN Yeah, but a real relative living in Moscow. And I said to my father, why didn’t you tell me before? And he said “We thought it was too dangerous.”
So that was–McCarthyism had taken residence in my father’s concern about his son, who was now studying Russia. By the way, on that trip to Moscow, I found my–whatever he was–great uncle, or whatever he was. He was dying. And he was in the old Bolshevik hospital. And everything was coming together for me. And I met with him. And my Russian was patchy, and his English was patchy. But we spoke for two or three hours. He was clearly dying. And he had learned that my father’s cousin worked in the Kennedy White House, and he was very upset about that. Very upset. And he said, “You know, there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life. You go home and tell your cousin Lee and your father and everybody else that this is the lesson of my life.” This is a guy who’d been a revolutionary, right? “Never get involved in politics.”
PAUL JAY You grew up in a town, a house, as you say, where Jim Crow racism was normal.
You grew up in a house where, as you said, Jim Crow racism was normal. You’ve internalized this yourself. Your parents, this was normal for your parents. What were your politics of the house?
STEPHEN COHEN My parents, if they were political, never much talked about it. My father was an FDR Democrat. And he had a store in this town. And he had an office on the third floor. And in his office was an enormous picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Enormous. When my father died I went looking for that picture. I never could find it. But that was the closest thing I recall of my father making a political statement, and it was hidden away on the third floor of his store in his office.
PAUL JAY Because certainly in the politics of the day–people were calling FDR a socialist, and people that supported them socialists, and-
STEPHEN COHEN You don’t understand. You don’t understand what it was like. Unless you grew up in a Klan family–and I went to high school with Klan kids. And the Klan was not very active, but it was around somewhere–for a kid, a child, segregation didn’t make sense. I mean, it was so normal. Black folk lived over there, we lived over here. Be careful about lines crossing.
For example, every Saturday, we kids–I mean, I’m 8, 9, 10 years old. We go to the movies, the double features, every Saturday. Movie house down the river called the Strand. White folk enter through the front door, sat downstairs. Black folk entered through the ‘colored only’, it said, ‘white only.’ It was all over.
You see this recent movie called green … Green Book.
PAUL JAY Green Book.
STEPHEN COHEN Yeah, it captures it half. I remember it being much worse than that. But that was sort of the way it was.
So we white kids sat downstairs in the movie theater, right. And the black kids sat upstairs. What do kids do in movies? They have popcorn fights, right? You can’t throw popcorn up. So the black kids are raining us with popcorn, and we can’t throw popcorn up. So I go home and complain to my mother, “Why do the black kids get all the advantages? Why do they get to sit upstairs?” Now, they were sitting upstairs because they were segregated. But through my eyes, seven or eight years old, they were the privileged people because they could throw the popcorn down. I mean, you got to process this through the eyes of a child. It’s not–it’s different. The interesting question is how and when you begin to learn it’s wrong.
PAUL JAY That was my next question. And what does this do to your vision of America? Because, I mean, I assume you grew up with a lot of Americanism in you, as most kids grow up here do.
STEPHEN COHEN I wasn’t an aggressive patriot. I mean, it wasn’t my thing. I … You know, I began to think about America, and I think this is true of quite a few people who take up the study as a vocation of Russia–rather, take up the study of Russia as a vocation. I began to think about my own country more intensely, more interestingly when I was studying Russia. Because you begin to do the comparative prism; you know, you see things in Russia that are similar, but they’re different. I mean, people say, peaceniks say, why can’t we get along with the Russians? It’s so easy. They love their kids. They go to work. They’re just like us. They aren’t just like us. They come out of a very different history.
So the answer to these questions, how things changed in Kentucky, how things changed in Russia, the answer is in history. I mean, you can’t start with a snapshot. So my own history was, is, I had incidences in my life. And things that were, or happened, that made me see that things were wrong.
PAUL JAY What would you do during the ’60-
STEPHEN COHEN I remain convinced, though–I mean, people get angry at me when I say this, and of course the civil rights movement played a big role.
PAUL JAY I was about to ask you.
STEPHEN COHEN But what really desegregated the South was basketball. South was basketball crazy. It was religion in Kentucky. The University of Kentucky had a racist coach named Adolph Rupp who wouldn’t recruit blacks. Just wouldn’t. And then Kentucky started getting beat in the Southeastern Conference by teams who did. So Rupp recruited blacks, and pretty soon Southern basketball had become substantially black basketball. Hollywood’s made a couple of films about this, one called Glory Road, I think, where an all-black team beat Kentucky in the national championship one time. And it was–it was like a revolution. But you know, sports played a very, very big role.
PAUL JAY 1960s. The civil rights movement, antiwar movement. What does this do to you, your view of the world? And how did you engage in it? What’s your…
STEPHEN COHEN Well, you’re talking about Vietnam, now.
PAUL JAY Well, the civil rights movement in the South [crosstalk].
STEPHEN COHEN I was out of the South by then. I was in New York at Columbia as a graduate student. And my main concern was not getting drafted, because I was prime meat, and Johnson was calling up an enormous number of people a month. So I was racing toward the exemption age, which I think was 27, while the draft board was, you know, waiting to call me for a physical. The fact is that lots of people had ways of legally avoiding the draft. You get married and you could have kids. You could do various things.
But Vietnam was, of course, the moment when, those of us who were of my generation, it really focused our attention, let me put it to you like that. I mean, I was against the war in Vietnam for the first reason–from the beginning. Not because I knew it was folly from the beginning. I was already a student enough of history to know that. Not only because I didn’t want to be drafted. But it was–I knew it was going to be a disaster for this country. And of course it got fused with the civil rights movement, partly because Martin Luther King did that. He fused it to the antiwar and the civil rights movement.
But by then I was in New York in Manhattan at Columbia. You remember there was the famous events that were the famous events of Columbia in 1968. And nobody knew from one day to the next if it was about Vietnam, civil rights, race relations. It had all been fused by 1968 into one–I wouldn’t call it a revolutionary movement. But a dissident movement all across the United States, from Berkeley to New York to the south.
PAUL JAY When do you start studying the Soviet Union?
STEPHEN COHEN You know, oddly enough-
PAUL JAY And why?
STEPHEN COHEN Well, it’s strange. Let me tell the story in flashback. In 1989, 1989, the Gorbachev government–Gorbachev was then the leader of the Soviet Union–published my biography of Nikolai Bukharin, because Bukharin had been rehabilitated. And the Gorbachev government saw him as the authentic Leninist alternative to Stalin, because Gorbachev was repudiating the old Stalinist era. Not all of it, but most of it, and the terror and the rest.
So the book was published, I think in 200,000 copies, and became a sensation. And because of that the Gorbachev government asked me–I couldn’t believe it–to speak for three minutes on Red Square on May Day. Can you imagine? What am I doing? A kid from Kentucky speaking on national television to the Soviet people? On May Day? I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t. I thought it wasn’t appropriate. All my Russian friends said, “You have to do it.” So I did it. And afterwards we gathered at a friend’s home, and we were all reflecting on this strange event. And the question came up, “Steve, how did you end up on Red Square speaking, having grown up in Kentucky? So there was a time when I wanted to write–I don’t know that I got time–a memoir, which I was going to call ‘A Russian Fate, Or How You Get From Kentucky to Moscow and Back.’ But it happened almost by accident.
But here’s how Americans and Russians differ. You and I, looking back on our lives, you and I, Paul, you and I look back on our lives, and we see certain crossroads in our life, right? And we took one or we took the other, and it led us to where we ended up, and maybe where we are now. So you and I are inclined to call that ‘accident.’ Russians call it ‘fate,’ sud’ba. So we’re sitting there talking about how I got it from Kentucky to Red Square. And I’m saying, you know, this was a complete accident. And they’re saying no, it was your fate. You’re wrong. It was, like, predetermined.
The accident is very simple. I went off to the University of Birmingham in England for a year in 1958-’59. And I had $300 left, the equivalent in pounds. And it was my intention before I came back the United States, like all boys who read Hemingway, to go and watch the bulls run in Spain. I had saved the $300, right? That’s what those of us who read Hemingway wanted to do. And then go home after a year. I’m walking in the working class district of Birmingham one day, and I see an enormous sign that you can spend a full month, four weeks, in the Soviet Union for exactly $300 in pounds. So I think to myself, so I can go to Spain for three days, or I can go to the Soviet Union for 30 days for the same amount of money. So I got on the ship to Russia, the Soviet Union.
Turned out to be a Fabian Society pensionair. So I’m like 19, and everybody else is 60, 65, 70. So I carried a lot of bags. But for nearly five weeks I drifted with this group across the Soviet Union. I couldn’t speak Russian. But this was a society emerging from the Stalinist terror. Remember, Stalin died in ’53. Khrushchev gave his denunciation of Stalin in ’56. So three years later, by accident–my Russian friends say no, no, no, no, it was sud’ba. It was your fate–by accident, because I didn’t go watch the bulls run, I ended up in the Soviet Union. And there was something about this society awakening from this long terror, small things and big things, that intrigued me.
Now, how oblivious was I, Paul? I go back to Indiana University–my own university. I did not even know that they had one of the leading Russian studies programs in the United States. That’s how little interested I was in Russia before I didn’t go to Spain. Are you following the story I’m telling you? So I go back to Indiana. And now I’m interested in Russia. So I decide I’ll take a couple courses. And that’s where I met my great mentor, and I think the greatest Russianist of his generation, Robert C. Tucker, who wrote books about Marx, but also–he didn’t finish it–a two volume biography of Stalin. Still the best biography, no matter what anybody says, that we have of Stalin. And Tucker–I went to Tucker and said, you know, I went to Russia by accident. He said, “Well, if you’re interested, learn the language.” And he became my mentor.
So how did I get interested in Russia? That’s how it began, by not going to Spain to watch the bulls run. I say it was just accident. If I hadn’t been walking in the working class district of Birmingham, England, and seen this sign you can go for the same amount of money to Russia, I never would have gone to Russia. But my Russians friends say “Nyet, nyet, [inaudible]. Eto tvoya sud’ba.” That’s your fate. So take your choice.
PAUL JAY Please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Stephen Cohen on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News.