I first reached out to Stephen Cohen because I was losing my mind.
In the spring of 2014, a war broke out in my homeland of Ukraine. It was a horrific war in a bitterly divided nation, which turned eastern Ukraine into a bombed-out wasteland. But that’s not how it was portrayed in America. Because millions of eastern Ukrainians were against the US-backed government, their opinions were inconvenient for the West. Washington needed a clean story about Ukraine fighting the Kremlin; as a result, US media avoided reporting about the “wrong” half of the country. Twenty-plus million people were written out of the narrative, as if they never existed.
I tried to explain to American friends what was happening, but quickly realized that ultimately, even friends believe what they read in the newspapers, and the newspapers were pushing the Washington line.
Except for Steve Cohen. Steve was the only major figure in America who insisted on remembering the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who, like my family members, distrusted and hated the new Kiev government. He spoke of neo-Nazi paramilitiaries who fought for the US-backed government committing war crimes against civilians in eastern Ukraine. He spoke the truth, regardless of how unwieldy it was.
And so I e-mailed him, asking for guidance as I began my own writing career. Of course, there were many who clamored for Steve’s time, but I had an advantage over others. Steve and I were both night owls, real night owls, the kind who have afternoon tea at three am. It was then, when the east coast was sleeping, that he became my mentor and friend.
There’s a lot to say about Steve. He was extraordinarily kind, never forgetting that in geopolitics, the ones who have the most to lose aren’t strategists but everyday individuals impacted by policy. He was a consummate teacher, insisting on giving mentees the skills to navigate the world, a real proponent of the Teach a man to fish philosophy. He had facets and stories and memories; he lived life with empathy and gusto.
But one thing Steve taught me is to stick to my strengths, and truth be told, there are others who can describe his life better than I. I’ll stick to what I learned during our conversations at three in the morning, which is that, above all else, Stephen F. Cohen was a man of faith.
Steve’s insistence on speaking the truth about Ukraine and US-Russia relations drew all sorts of attention. America was hurtling toward a new cold war with Russia, and Steve… well, from the perspective of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, Steve was fucking up the narrative. Steve talked about inconvenient things, things like US-backed war criminals and America’s own meddling in Russian affairs; in the process, he himself had become inconvenient.
After all, this wasn’t some random blogger. This was one of America’s foremost Russia experts, a tenured professor at Princeton and New York University, someone who didn’t just write about history but had dinner with it, had briefed US presidents, and was friends with legends like Mikhail Gorbachev. Steve had clout earned from decades of brilliant work; by 2014, he was using that clout to throw a wrench in the think tank world.
The DC apparatchiks couldn’t discredit Steve’s credentials or track record—he’d predicted events in Ukraine and elsewhere years before they occurred. They couldn’t intimidate him—he’d faced far worse threats, like the KGB. Instead, they set out to turn him into an America-hating, Putin-loving pariah.
This went beyond an ad hominem campaign. It was something far colder, more sustained, something that ironically the Soviets did to dissidents: a relentless crusade to render the target untouchable, a leper without a platform. The barrage of articles and diatribes hurled at Steve in the national press painted him as not just a dissenter but a supporter of dictators and murderers. It was a vicious, prolonged assault carried out by think tank toadies, the kind of people who win races by kneecapping the competition.
I’d often talk with Steve after a new hatchet job or smear on national television. Of course, the attacks were hurtful—the only way to not be affected was to not care, and Steve cared. But I also noticed he was remarkably free of bitterness. Every time I thought he’d snap, he’d return the next day to write, discuss, keep fighting.
It took me a couple of years to understand that what kept Steve going was faith in his beloved institutions. He believed in academia, in scholarship, in discourse, debate, and civility. He believed in the capacity of everyday people to explore and engage with their world, he believed in Russia, and he always believed in America. He believed in these things far more than he believed in the power of today’s warmongers.
Steve liked movies and would often end a lecture with a movie reference to drive home the thesis. When I think of him, I think of the ending of The Shawshank Redemption, the line about Andy Dufresne crawling through filth and coming out clean on the other side. Steve didn’t live in a movie; I can’t claim he emerged unscathed. What he did was come through without bitterness or cynicism. He refused to turn away from the ugliness, but he didn’t allow it to blind him to beauty. He walked with grace. And he lost neither his convictions nor his faith.