Nicola Cohen




On Russia, with an open mind

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

I begin with the fact that, along with the United States, no country was more important in the twentieth century than was the Soviet Union. And it may also be true, as years unfold, of Russia in the twenty-first century.

Almost every major turning point in the twentieth century was affected by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Revolution impacted on non-Western world all the way in China, on the rise of Fascism, and particularly on the outcome of World War II, which was fought mainly on the Eastern Front. Russia lost 27 million people or more on that front. We defeated Japan, in the Pacific. The Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany in Europe.

The Soviet Union, as much as any other country, defined the twentieth century. That is why my book includes the premise that the political history in the twentieth century, not the calendar history, began with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and ended with the Soviet Union in December 1991.

My specific interpretations and conclusions are unorthodox.

The book argues that at every major turning point in Soviet history there existed, inside the Soviet political system, a real alternative. That is, at every Soviet historical turning point, which later had an impact on world affairs, there was a road not taken. A road represented not by some hypothetical, fictitious counter-factual, but by an actual Soviet leader or leaders, who were defeated. Had they prevailed, the twentieth century would have been different.

We can’t understand the world in which we live today unless we understand the twentieth century. I want to reach an educated audience who thinks about historical and political issues. I want people to rethink what happened in Russia. I want people to understand why Russians see many things differently from the way many of us do. My book asks the reader to do something that is very hard for all of us: think about Russia with an open mind.

“My book includes an understanding that the political history of the twentieth century began with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and ended with the Soviet Union in December 1991.”

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.

July 10, 2009

A close-up

On page 116 I pose the question: How is the historic end of the Soviet Union to be explained? This is a question discussed in most American high schools and colleges. And the answer is almost always that the Soviet Union ended for two reasons: because it was evil, and because we defeated it.

But according to the Bible, evil does not end. So that’s not even a good theological argument. And it is a historical misrepresentation to say we “defeated” the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan would be among the first to tell you that was not what happened. Reagan, and after him the first President Bush, said that the end of the Cold War had been negotiated, by the both sides, without winners or losers.

In the ten or so pages following page 116, I challenge prevailing clichéd explanations that appear in our media, our textbooks, and our discourse, about why the Soviet Union ended.

Many of these “explanations” are simply mythical. Some say that the Soviet Union died because its economy failed. Well, first of all, there are no cases in modern history of large states dying of economic crisis. Ours didn’t die during the Great Depression. And, in the 1990s, after the end of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet Russian state survived an even greater economic crisis.

Or, it is often said that there was famine in the Soviet Union in 1991, and that’s why it ended. But there was no famine. People do not know that almost all Soviet workers and schoolchildren had their main meal of the day, what we call “lunch,” not at home, but at school or at the place where they worked. And those cafeterias were still functioning fairly well, as I know from my personal experiences.

I’m struck by the fact that soon after the Soviet Union ended in December 1991, Washington, the American media, textbooks, virtually all of our opinion-makers, created a new triumphalist narrative of our recent history. After the Clinton administration took office in January 1993, we came to believe that by defeating the Soviet Union, we had emerged as a historic triumphant nation. There was a sense that if we could defeat the mighty Soviet Union, we could defeat anyone. That mindset helped lead us into Iraq. It’s the triumphalist foreign policy we have pursued since we came to believe we “defeated” the Soviet Union that has led us into catastrophic situations, since 1991.

Another page a reader could first turn to is 141. This page begins the chapter titled “Gorbachev’s Lost Legacies.”

Mikhail Gorbachev led Russia closer to democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history. And with the partners he found in American presidents Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, Gorbachev came closer to ending the decades-long Cold War than anyone before him.

The democracy issue is extremely important. For various reasons, the American political class and media have been obsessed with the state of democracy in Russia. There is a relentless demand that the United States “bring democracy” or “democratization” to Russia. There is also the view that Russia had democracy after the end of the Soviet Union, until Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 and dismantled it.

The history of democratization in Russia is different from the one generally told in the United States. Briefly put, I argue that Russia reached its high point of democratization, while still Soviet Russia, during Gorbachev’s reforms, from 1989 to 1991. And that lasted a bit after the Soviet Union ended.

The “de-democratization” of Russia, a word that’s used to characterize Putin’s rule, actually began in the 1990s, under President Boris Yeltsin. And it was supported by the Clinton administration. Putin is the result of that de-democratization—not the primary cause of it. We have something to answer for in this regard.

The argument that Yeltsin began the de-democratization of Russia leads to an explanation of what has happened in Russia during the last twenty years. Yeltsin allowed a small elite to plunder the property of the state, the country’s enormous natural riches. It was the procreation of this oligarchical class that brought an end of democracy. No plundering oligarchical elite can allow the people to vote freely: the people would vote against them, and probably do even worse to them.

Some role was played, of course, by “the Russian tradition.” But the immediate cause of de-democratization was the desire of the oligarchical class, which had much of this property, to hold on to it. The fear that a democratic Russia, a freely elected parliament, for example, would not only cost them their property, but perhaps even their lives, continues to be the main reason why Russia does not have a democracy today.

In other words, my book argues that something has to happen about the billions and billions of dollars that were stolen, before we begin to think about re-democratization in Russia. A number of real Russian democrats are aware of this. And they have come up with various proposals to solve the property question. But there is little, if any, awareness of that in the United States. I’ve never seen any of this in the American media, even in our leading newspapers.

The fate of democracy in Russia is tied to the plundering of the State property. Some people may not see the connection. But if you think about it, it’s logical. Why did slave owners in the American South not want universal suffrage? Slaves would have voted against slavery.

“Russia reached its peak of democratization during Gorbachev’s reforms – in 1989 – 1991. The “de-democratization” of Russia, a word that’s used to characterize Putin, actually began in the 1990s, under Yeltsin. And the process was supported by the Clinton administration.”


Russia has long been part of our own political history, and is likely to remain so. And our relationship with Russia today is even more dangerous than it was during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, both sides had their weapons of mass destruction under firm control. That is no longer fully the case in Russia. The state remains weak. Some Americans hope that the Russian state will be destabilized and collapse, even though that could bring about the world’s biggest Wal-Mart of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

I don’t expect all my readers to accept all the answers I give. I’d be happy if readers quarrel with me. But I do want them to rethink the questions I raise.

You often hear, for example, that the Soviet Union “collapsed.” But in reality the Soviet Union did not collapse! It was abolished. But once you say it “collapsed,” you have answered the question of what happened at this historic turning point. Wrongly. And you then draw wrong conclusions for today.

If the question is wrong, then the answer is wrong. The questions asked define the answers governments and people live by.

© Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen Cohen Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War Columbia University Press 288 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0231148962 ISBN 978 0231520423
Nicola Cohen

Stephen F. Cohen is professor of Russian studies and history at New York University and professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University. He is a contributing editor to The Nation and a frequent guest on the Charlie Rose Show and other broadcast media. In our conversation leading to this book interview for Rorotoko, he described Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives as reflecting “almost my entire intellectual career.” EP

Cover Interview of
July 10, 2009