Editor’s Note: This interview with Professor Stephen Cohen, longtime Nation contributing editor and Professor of Russian Studies and History at NYU, appeared first in The Journal of International Affairs, a leading foreign affairs periodical published by the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. The Journal has earned worldwide recognition for its unique, single-topic format and for presenting top scholarship on the key debates in international affairs since 1947.
Stephen F. Cohen is Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution; Rethinking the Soviet Experience; Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia; and, most recently, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. His forthcoming book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin, will be published in August.
He spoke with Johan Kharabi of the Journal of International Affairs about the U.S. approach to Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, the role of history in shaping Russia’s future, and the dangerous lack of debate within U.S. policymaking circles.
Journal: The world recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How has this event been received in Russia?
Cohen: For Russians, the more important date is this March, which marks 25 years since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and began the reforms he called perestroika. There will be very conflicting opinions in the Russian press about what happened to the nation in the past 25 years. The angriest view will lament the loss of the Soviet Union, which many Russians still do.
In that connection, something that has happened repeatedly in Russian history is now unfolding again. Modernization has been a political goal for centuries and it has almost always involved the same issue: Do we do it evolutionarily or through a revolutionary transformation imposed from above? This debate and political struggle are now under way again. The from-above, or "leap" model is historically associated with Peter the Great and Stalin, and is non-democratic in nature. Indeed, the result has always been to greatly empower the state at the expense of the people. The alternative model in Russian history is associated with Alexander II, who in the 19th century freed the serfs and began legal and local political reform, giving Russians more freedom and initiative. We could say he tried to modernize or liberalize Tsarism. The other evolutionary example was Lenin, who introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the early 1920s, which sought to modernize the country by re-introducing market relations and limited political initiatives. Stalin overthrew NEP in 1929 for an economic leap he later termed, rightly in my view, "Revolution from Above."
Nearly sixty years later, Gorbachev and his people attempted to modernize the Soviet Union by dismantling the Stalinist system with the consent of the people and, for the first time, with democracy as the driving force of the modernization process. 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.