Stephen F. Cohen: Tributes by Gorbachev and Yevtushenko

Stephen F. Cohen: Tributes by Gorbachev and Yevtushenko

Stephen F. Cohen: Tributes by Gorbachev and Yevtushenko

A statesman and a poet pay tribute to a historian of Russia.


Editor’s Note: Stephen F. Cohen–a Nation contributing editor, New York University professor and–full disclosure–husband of Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel–is well known in Russia from his many years of visiting that country and his publications there.

In connection with his “Jubilee” birthday later this year, thirty-five of Cohen’s Russian friends and colleagues contributed to a book in his honor, Stiven Koen i Sovetskii Soiuz/Rossiia (Stephen Cohen and the Soviet Union/Russia), which has just been published in Moscow. Contributors include former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who wrote the foreword, and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Here are their tributes, translated by George Shriver.

Mikhail Gorbachev:

‘Frank Conversations Made Us Friends’

When I was told that Stephen Cohen–the well-known American historian, political scientist, and specialist on Russian affairs–was going to be 70 years old, I didn’t believe it. The image of him that immediately came to my mind was of a person full of life and with a great sense of humor, an image clearly in conflict with such a “serious” age. That often happens: the image you have of a person is shaped not so much by his years as by his attitude toward life, people, and his work.

I have known Steve Cohen a long time. We have often met and discussed various historical and political questions. These frank conversations made us friends. His books about Russia have always been distinguished by their timeliness and relevance and by their profound and many-sided study of the subject at hand.

I remember that during the years of perestroika many of my acquaintances were literally engrossed in reading his book on Nikolai Bukharin. Steve’s evaluations of this prominent and complex figure in our history were surprising in their accuracy and consistent conclusions. I remember that this book, which in many respects resonated with the social changes of that time, became a bestseller in the Soviet Union.

But even more significant was his book Rethinking the Soviet Experience. In that book, unlike “traditional Sovietologists” who ignored the contradictory character of Soviet history and in every possible way sought to portray it as “Stalinist” throughout, Steve Cohen gave an objective interpretation of its major stages. As I was reading this book and reflecting on its contents, I thought to myself that I had a great deal in common with the author’s assessments of the various periods and major events in Soviet history.

In his studies of post-Soviet political history, Steve Cohen again showed himself to be a courageous and objective scholar. Particularly characteristic in this respect is one of his most recent works–Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia. In this book, as a specialist and expert on Russian affairs, he spoke out against the direct intervention by American authorities in the reform process in Russia, opposing in particular the official US backing for the destructive Yeltsin policy of “shock therapy.”

I admit it pleases me greatly that in his studies of Russian history Steve has worked productively with the Gorbachev Foundation. His recent work dealing with the question of whether the Soviet Union was reformable became an integral part of the collectively-authored monograph Proryv k svobode (Breakthrough to Freedom), dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of perestroika. I hope he will continue to work with us in the future.

I think that Steve’s successes as a scholar would have been impossible without his wise friend and beloved wife, Katrina. Having an expert knowledge of Russia herself, and being the editor of a democratic magazine, The Nation, she has always provided and continues to provide her husband with indispensable assistance, without which his books would have been less on the mark and less accomplished. Whenever Steve came to Russia, I noticed that his charming daughter Nika was always at his side and always asking her dad difficult questions, which he would try to answer candidly. This was not an easy thing to do, but it is precisely this kind of personal interaction that is the best way of raising and educating children. It was noted long ago that children should not be educated in some “special” way. They should simply be full-fledged participants in the lives of their parents. I am sure that Katrina and their daughter Nika have been sources of inspiration for the man whose 70th birthday we are about to celebrate. His life would, of course, have been far less joyful and productive without them.

In concluding my comments, I want to emphasize again such qualities of Steve’s character as courage, objectivity, and a constant striving for truth. Today not many historians, other scholars, or writers on current events have these qualities, but it is precisely these that are needed, as never before, by people and by humanity as a whole as we live through the global challenges of today’s world. What is needed for an analysis of these challenges is not some form of apologetics for the present-day state of affairs, but a dispassionate search for objective truth, without which it is impossible to understand the present or envision the future.

Today’s world, as never before, needs a new democratic and humanistic vision of the future. I think that with his knowledge and his bold and original research Steve Cohen has contributed to the formation of such a vision.

On the eve of his 70th birthday I want to send him one wish: “Keep up the good work!”


Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

‘The Fate of Russia Always Troubles Him’

Things are not calm and peaceful for Steve Cohen
The fate of Russia always troubles him

Ever and anew it brings him woe
Like a tormenting love of long ago

Through his rusty, Biblical unshavenness
Glimmer ideals that simply were not realized

His own Russia he loves, without concealing
Scorn for the Russia of bureaucrats’ wheeling and dealing

In return, through some wizardry, he received
A daughter from a Russian poet’s kiss

On the navel of his charming wife Katrina
vanden Heuvel, one of politics’ sheer wonders.

This Platonic-ideal daughter of the poet
Is like the best, most vivid line he wrote.

But let’s return to Steve. Who is this Stephen?
He’s like Ukraine. He’s truly samostiyen*.

A rarity in politics, no two-faced Janus,
He’s like a small-town lad, a real romantic.

He took in all the crazy rhythms of Moscow,
Absorbed as well the pain of Bukharin’s widow.

He has pronounced a verdict on our era:
“Cold peace is pregnant with a worse cold war.”

I love you, my unique friend, Steve
And envy you that you’re naïve.

O, if only
For moral purity
The naïve and innocent
Could be elected President!


* Ukrainian for “independent”

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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