Stephen F. Cohen


On his book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

Cover Interview of July 10, 2009

The wide angle

Most historians and journalists in the United States say that what happened in the Soviet Union was a straight line of inevitable development, from the moment the Communists took power in 1917 until the time the Soviet state broke apart in 1991.

Each chapter of my book disagrees with this orthodoxy.  And it explains why one road was taken and not another.  I look at the real alternatives that were at each turning point and at the fates of the leaders who represented those roads not taken.

The seven chapters are linked by this theme, and by a historical narrative.  Each treats a different large episode in history.  So readers can decide for themselves whether they want to read the book from beginning to end.  I will not be offended if they decide to focus on those chapters that most interest them.

For example, the first chapter raises a basic question about whether or not Stalinism, this murderous phenomenon that lasted twenty-five years in the Soviet Union, was inevitable.  And it argues that it was not.  Stalinism did not inevitably grow out of the Soviet revolution; I spell out the alternatives, the opposition to Stalin on the eve of his rise to power, and even after.

Or, to jump ahead, in the 1950s and 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, introduced some major reforms.  Some would say Khrushchev talked the talk but didn’t really walk the walk.  But Khrushchev did end the Stalinist terror, and he released millions of people from the Gulag.  That was a fundamental reform.  So the question becomes, why did those reforms end when Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964?  This is not an empty question: many Russians argue that, had Gorbachev-like reforms begun or grown out of Khrushchev’s reforms, the Soviet Union would exist today.  Why did this not happen?

Many readers will be interested in what happened to Mikhail Gorbachev, who dominated headlines in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  One chapter in the book is about Gorbachev’s efforts to fully de-Stalinize the Soviet system, to carry out a full-scale Soviet Reformation, which he called Perestroika.  There is virtual consensus in American history writing and journalism that Gorbachev “failed.”  I argue that Gorbachev did not fail, that each of his reforms within the system was remarkably successful in barely six years.

Some people may be more interested in current events.  Americans assumed that the Cold War would end with the Soviet Union.  Maybe it did, as virtually everyone says.  But U.S.-Russian relations have been so bad during the last two decades that my book argues a new cold war began very soon between the U.S. and non-communist Russia, even anti-communist Russia.

In fact, a struggle goes on in Moscow today, within the political class, over whether or not the new Russia should join the West or turn away from the West.  That is, Russia is at another historical turning point, and I argue that it grows out of the preceding ones.  Did Gorbachev and President Reagan create an opportunity to end the Cold War that was somehow lost in the last twenty years?  Is this what Obama means when he says he wants to “reset” Russian-American relations?

Finally, autobiography. I am what the Russians call an “alternativist”—a person who believes there are always alternatives in history and politics.  There’s a lot of joking around my household, when my children and my wife make a decision, say about going to the beach or not, and I say, “well, let’s consider the alternative.”  They think that’s hysterical, that I carry over my take on history into household decisions.

But I did become interested in historical alternatives because of personal circumstances.  I grew up in a segregated small town in Kentucky.  It was basically an American apartheid.  Black and white lived close to each other, but we were kept apart.  We went to separate schools, we used separate bathrooms, we sat on separate places on the bus, in movie houses, and the rest.

As a young boy, and aspiring basketball player, I wanted to play with the black kids.  That was not permitted, even dangerous.  So I began to wonder why that was so.  Later on, when learning that Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the two presidents of the Civil War, had come from my home state of Kentucky, I began to wonder if therefore there had been an alternative in Kentucky’s history.

I might have become a historian of the American segregation, had it not been for a trip I made at the age of eighteen.  At Indiana University, about 120 miles up the road from my Kentucky hometown, I lucked upon a professor of Russian history and politics, Robert C. Tucker, one of the great alternativists in American Russian studies.