Contrary to general impressions in the West, several Russian newspapers are politically independent, irreverent and lively. They also vary in content, initiating new features to appeal to their specific readerships. One of the most innovative is the democratic opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (The New Gazette), edited by Dmitri Muratov, and which includes former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as a minority shareholder. During its tenth anniversary year, 2003, it ran an occasional series entitled “Novaya’s Questionnaire” (Anketa), asking prominent people to answer the same questions without the mediation of an editor or interviewer. In this twentieth anniversary year, Novaya resumed the series. With few exceptions, the respondents have been Russian writers, political figures and other public personalities. One exception is Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen, whose articles and books published in Moscow are known to many of Novaya’s readers. His “Questionnaire,” which appeared in the issue of October 14, is translated and posted below in a slightly edited form.
1. What might alienate you when you meet a person for the first time?
Excessive political correctness, which makes a meaningful intellectual or political relationship impossible; and excessive bad breath, which makes a close social relationship very difficult.
2. It is pointless to ask you to do—what?
To discuss God, because I lack sufficient knowledge.
3. Is there an incomplete undertaking you regret?
Looking back on my life, from my home state of Kentucky to Russia and elsewhere, and having had the good fortune to live in such interesting times, I deeply regret having failed to keep a consistent diary—and the lack of self-discipline it reflects.
4. What kind of book would you not permit your children to read?
After children reach a certain age, perhaps 14 or 15, there are no such books. I dislike all kinds of censorship, including the “benevolent” kind. Anyway, they will see and hear everything on television or on the Internet. Nor have I forced my children to read any books. As a result,only one of my three children, Nika, has read any of my own books, and she read only one, The Victims Return, because it is a partial memoir of our years together in Russia.
5. Which is more difficult for you to hear—words of gratitude or words of apology?
Neither is difficult to hear, if they are sincere. Indeed, all of us should express such sentiments more often—in order to acknowledge kindness or reliability on the part of others and to acknowledge our own imperfections.
6. What could you make with your hands to sell?
When I was young, I wanted to be a professional golfer. I no longer have those skills, but I can still teach people how to play golf, which involves the use of my hands; though when Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, once asked me in Princeton to teach her, I politely declined.
7. Which attribute of your youth do you dream of regaining?
My abilities as a golfer and, when I was in my early 20s, the inclination to prepare myself to become some kind of political leader. Now they are personal variants of those “lost alternatives” I write about in my historical books and articles.
8. How much cash do you need in your pocket to feel comfortable?
Enough for a taxi, in case there is a sudden storm and no subway nearby; and for a slice of pizza (my favorite fast food) if I am hungry. Having spent so much time in less than fully safe neighborhoods, first as a basketball player and later as an organizer of tournaments, I developed the habit of having on me only as much money as I need.
9. What do you lack adequate time for on a daily basis?
Work, love (including sex) and sleep.
10. The element of comfort that is most difficult for you to do without?
Quiet and an absence of stress.
11. Was there an aspect of Soviet reality that you miss?
From 1976 to late 1982, when I could no longer obtain a Soviet visa, I often lived in Moscow under Brezhnev. I still miss two aspects of that Soviet reality: the close, honorable relationships among my Moscow friends; and the rich, uncensored, sincere “kitchen” conversations in their apartments. Later, from 1985 to 1992, I also lived frequently in Moscow. I miss the intellectual and political excitement, the hopes, and (yes) the great achievements of those perestroika years, now increasingly forgotten or derided, both in Russia and the West.