Stephen F. Cohen’s Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (Columbia; $28.50) left this reader oscillating between disillusionment and hope. Disillusionment in the face of an account of how visions of political reform and reconciliation propounded by the likes of Nikolai Bukharin or Mikhail Gorbachev were crushed in ugly power struggles in the Soviet Union and even expunged from the historical record. But hope, too, for it seems that even though manuscripts may burn, political alternatives have a life span of their own. They can outlast their authors and enjoy a resounding revival, with a delay. In a final twist, Cohen, a historian at New York University, a political commentator and frequent contributor to The Nation, brings his story of Soviet and Russian political alternatives to the doorstep of the White House, to powerful effect.
The book begins in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, where Bukharin, one of the first Bolsheviks, spent the last days of his life furiously sketching the contours of a socialist humanist order. (Several of Bukharin’s prison manuscripts, including an autobiographical novel, poems on world history and a treatise on Socialism and Its Culture, were later found in Stalin’s archive, published and translated into English.) In having Bukharin executed on charges of “anti-Soviet” activities, Stalin sought to cast him out from the Bolshevik pantheon; but, as Cohen later shows, he could not suppress Bukharin’s ghost. Astoundingly, when the Gulag was disbanded after the dictator’s death, a commitment to reform endured among some of Stalin’s political prisoners. A small number of these zeks (the colloquial acronym for prisoner) unexpectedly appeared near the power center in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Called “Khrushchev’s zeks,” admiringly by some, derisively by others, they were a vital force behind the policies of the Thaw, and they even persuaded Khrushchev to consider building a national memorial to Stalin’s victims. Fearing the effects of such a momentous turn against the recent past, the Soviet establishment had Khrushchev removed from power. The monument awaits construction to this day.
Even fewer former zeks were in Gorbachev’s vicinity when he became general secretary in 1985. Yet the memory of Bukharin’s alternative vision remained a driving force in his quest to devise a socialism with a human face. This memory was partly transmitted by Cohen himself: a translation of his Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, published in 1980, had come into Gorbachev’s hands early in his tenure as general secretary. An avid student of Soviet history, Gorbachev understood that for his reform vision to work, it could not be decreed from above; instead, it required the people’s consent and active support from below.
As he democratized the Soviet order, Gorbachev relinquished crucial powers available to him as an authoritarian ruler. Others, notably the power-hungry Boris Yeltsin, took advantage. Cohen is indignant about Yeltsin’s illegal “coup” of December 1991, which brought the Soviet Union to an end. He also blames Yeltsin for an active policy of “de-democratization,” evident in the president’s violent shutdown of the Parliament in 1993, and for his privatization of property of the former USSR, which foreshadowed the spirit and practices of the Putin administration. This view may surprise those Western readers who regard Yeltsin as a democratic hero. For Cohen, such a characterization is a telling misrepresentation; it shows how unreceptive the West was to the idea of a reformed Soviet regime, and how quickly and without due reflection it celebrated the end of the Soviet Union as a breakthrough for democracy. Indeed, Cohen also reminds us that beyond democratizing the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was also the architect of New Thinking in Soviet-American relations. Yet the foundations he laid for an equal, strategic partnership were also abandoned–this time by a succession of US administrations that recast the demise of the Soviet project as a story of American triumphalism.
Cohen’s book concludes with an appeal to President Obama to restore the lost strategic partnership with Russia, which the author regards as vital for the United States’ long-term security interests. For Cohen, Washington today is eerily reminiscent of Moscow in 1985: a young new leader surrounded by advisers from an earlier age, too entrenched in old ways to see to new shores. That Cohen’s analysis of past lessons not learned will find Obama’s ear, as his earlier analysis found Gorbachev’s a quarter-century ago, is unlikely. After all, communist regimes were caught up in a unique pathos of history, which turned the writing or rewriting of history into political dynamite: witness Bukharin’s prison writings, Khrushchev’s rehabilitation policies, Gorbachev’s recourse to Bukharin. Even Vladimir Putin, a sober and cold-blooded man by all accounts, is known for his prolonged excursions into the field of history. Still, Cohen sees Obama as capable of launching an agenda of New Thinking in Gorbachev’s tradition. “Is American democracy,” he asks, “any less capable of such an alternative than was the Soviet Communist system?”