I don't want to be the one to tell him, but I don't think Stephen Cohen chose the best possible title for his new collection of essays. Soviet Fates and Lost A lternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War: this title seems gerrymandered to fit the particular essays Cohen wanted to publish, which range from a discussion of Old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin to Barack Obama's Russian policy. One gets the impression that the author himself does not really see these essays as a unified whole.
But I do. In my mind, these essays taken together represent a meditation on the meaning of the Soviet experience-one that is in many ways unique in the Western literature. The first two essays provide us with the necessary historical background-not by means of a narrative account, but by treating two subjects close to Cohen's heart: the historical significance of Nikolai Bukharin and the impact on Soviet society of the hundreds of thousands of camp returnees. Cohen has written book-length discussions of both topics. Here they serve to give the reader an idea of some of the big facts about the Soviet experience: the closing off of the original potential of the 1917 revolution by the Stalin revolution of the early 1930s, the crimes of the Stalin era along with the precarious preservation of original ideals, and the massive but ambiguous attempt to cope with the aftermath of these crimes.
The next set of three essays focus on the end of the Soviet Union. Cohen's main target here is an assumption that is now engrained in our own cultural narrative: the Soviet Union died because it deserved to die, because it was "unreformable." Cohen undermines this assumption on two fronts. First, during the Gorbachev era the Soviet Union showed a vast potential for reform based on aspects of its own tradition. Most of the deeply objectionable parts of Soviet institutions had been dismantled prior to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Second, Cohen fights against the tendency to turn our disapproval of the Soviet system into an explanation of why it collapsed. He shows that the events of the late eighties and early nineties cannot be understood apart from the unpredictable actions of particular leaders, namely, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Without Gorbachev's passionate drive toward radical reforms and without Yeltsin's drive for personal power, the Soviet Union might very well have survived to this very day. In particular, the deep and manifold links among the fifteen republics might not have been broken in the brutal way they were. Cohen clearly admires Gorbachev greatly and just as clearly loathes Yeltsin, but the power of his explanation does not stem from these attitudes. Cohen knows that his outlook represents a minority opinion, and this awareness has the salutary effect of forcing him to consider all the plausible objections to his own interpretation. As a result, these essays are outstanding just as introductory surveys of the debates around the fall of the Soviet Union.
The final set of essays delves into the two post-Soviet decades, focusing on the problems of Russian-American relations. This excursion into post-Soviet history, however, is still part of a meditation on the meaning of the Soviet experience. From the point of view of Russians, these two decades have had an enormous impact on their own reading of their country's twentieth-century experience.
Cohen's enemy in these two final essays is American triumphalism, as expressed in axioms such as: the USA won the cold war; Russia can be treated as a defeated enemy and its interests ignored; Russia no longer counts for much in the world; any assertion of Russian interests against US interests can only be a manifestation of an almost genetic Russian predisposition toward aggressive authoritarianism. Cohen tries to get us to see how the Russians themselves-ordinary Russians as well as elites of various kinds-view the way their country has been treated after the fall of the Soviet Union. It's not a pretty picture.
This last observation brings out one of the great strengths of this book as a whole. More than any other Western writer I can think of, Cohen is immersed in Russian public opinion ("Russian" here means "citizens of a particular country," not just a particular ethnic group). The ultimate strength of his interpretations throughout the book is that they are so strongly anchored in the way Russians have experienced and reflected upon their own history-a strength only available to someone who has spent decades interacting with members of that fascinating society. He matches his grounding in Russian opinion with extensive documentation of American opinions as expressed by specialists, government officials and editorial writers. The result is that the massive endnotes are a wonder to behold and a major boon to any future investigator.
Truth in reviewing: Steve Cohen was my teacher in graduate school at Princeton and has remained a friend ever since. I don't think, however, that this is the reason I mostly agree with his version of events. I may disagree with this or that interpretation of particular events, but overall this is one of the first books I would put into the hands of someone who wanted to get a good sense of what the Soviet Union was all about.