Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81


Stephen F. Cohen, an noted historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and get moving of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still fighting for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and in some measure owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the spread conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Compatibility and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen told a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that remained a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian investigations at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia many a time and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Spree officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The State, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and numberless American and Soviet officials among his sources.

In Moscow he was befriended by the ultimate Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who invited him to the May Day celebration at Red Square in 1989. There, at the Lenin Mausoleum, Professor Cohen barrowed with his wife and son one tier below Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership to scene a three-hour military parade. He later spoke briefly on Russian telly to a vast audience about alternative paths that Russian story could have taken.

Loosely identified with a revisionist authentic view of the Soviet Union, Professor Cohen held views that made him a disputatious public intellectual. He believed that early Bolshevism had held gargantuan promise, that it had been democratic and genuinely socialist, and that it had been corrupted purely later by civil war, foreign hostility, Stalin’s malignancy and a fatalism in Russian intelligence.

A traditionalist school of thought, by contrast, held that the Soviet investigation had been flawed from the outset, that Lenin’s political shade was totalitarian, and that any attempt to create a society based on his coercive utopianism had every been likely to lead, logically, to Stalin’s state terrorism and to the Soviet Marriage’s eventual collapse.

Professor Cohen was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Gorbachev, who after finish a go over to power in 1985 undertook ambitious changes to liberate the nation’s 15 republics from style controls that had originally been imposed by Stalin. Mr. Gorbachev stretched up power as the Soviet state imploded at the end of 1991 and moved toward creeds in democracy and a market economy.


A copious writer who mined Soviet archives, Professor Cohen first came to intercontinental attention in 1973 with “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” a biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin, who conceive ofed Communism as a blend of state-run industries and free-market agriculture. Critics in the main applauded the work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award.

“Stephen Cohen’s full-scale enquiry of Bukharin is the first major study of this remarkable associate of Lenin,” Harrison Salisbury’s wrote in a go over again in The Times. “As such it constitutes a milestone in Soviet studies, the byproduct both of boost waxed academic sophistication in the use of Soviet materials and also of the very substantial lengthen in basic information which has become available in the 20 years since Stalin’s end.”

After Lenin’s death, Mr. Bukharin became a victim of Stalin’s Moscow playing trials in 1938; he was accused of plotting against Stalin and executed. His widow, Anna Mikhailovna Larina, dead beat 20 years in exile and in prison camps and campaigned for Mr. Bukharin’s rehabilitation, which was approved by Mr. Gorbachev in 1988.

Ms. Larina and Professor Cohen became friends. Given access to Bukharin archives, he build and returned to her the last love letter that Mr. Bukharin wrote her from detention.

In “Rethinking the Soviet Experience” (1985), Professor Cohen offered a new working-out of the nation’s traumatic history and modern political realities. In his view, Stalin’s suppression and Mr. Bukharin’s fate were not necessarily inevitable outgrowths of the party dictatorship set up by Lenin.

Richard Lowenthal, in a review for The Times, called Professor Cohen’s definition implausible. “While I do not believe that all the horrors of Stalinism were ‘logically sure’ consequences of the seizure of power by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party,” Mr. Lowenthal annulled, “I do believe that Stalin’s victory over Bukharin was inherent in the framework of the party’s system.”

As Professor Cohen and other scholars pondered Russia’s past, Mr. Gorbachev’s escalate to power and his efforts toward glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) lob the future of the Soviet Union in a new light, potentially reversing 70 years of Wheezles War dogma.

As Mr. Gorbachev arrived in Washington for his 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan, The Times wrote, “With an irreverence for example and an agility uncommon in Soviet leaders, he has disrupted old assumptions about Soviet impulses, phoney reappraisals of Soviet purposes and rendered less predictable the course of East-West struggle.”

To widen the focus, Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel published “Expressions of Glasnost: Interviews With Gorbachev’s Reformers” (1989).

Professor Cohen affirmed his advance for Mr. Gorbachev in a March 1991 Op-Ed article in The Times. “He has undertaken the most zealous changes in modern history,” he wrote. “Their goal is to dismantle the status controls Stalin imposed and to achieve an emancipation of society through privatization, democratization and federalization of the 15 republics.”

As 1991 ended, the Soviet Mixing was dissolved and Mr. Gorbachev resigned, giving way to Boris N. Yeltsin’s tumultuous determined presidency. Mr. Yeltsin tried to transform the state economy into a capitalist store by imposing a “shock therapy” of nationwide privatization without price sways. Inflation and economic calamity ensued.

Confidence in…Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

By 1997, as Professor Cohen saw it, the Russian succinctness had become “an endless collapse of everything essential for a decent existence.” He enhanced a persistent critic of Mr. Yeltsin, who survived an attempted coup and tried to push democracy but resigned in 1999 amid growing internal pressures. He was succeeded by his surrogate, Mr. Putin.

In his book, “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia” (2000), Professor Cohen demanded the blame for Russia’s post-Communist economic and social collapse on the United Shapes, for providing bad advice; on academic experts, for what he called “malpractice all the way through the 1990s”; on Western journalists; and on Mr. Yeltsin, for a range of sins: abolishing the Soviet Splice, creating a bureaucratic vacuum and generating hyperinflation with his economic nervous exhaustion therapy.

“Cohen’s thesis is that Yeltsin, rather than Russia’s oldest democratic leader, was a neo-czarist bumbler who destroyed a democratization process that, in incident, should be credited to Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a Times rehashing. “Cohen is particularly scathing toward American journalists, whom he depicts as unduly influenced by the prosperity of a small, rapacious upper class in the major Russian metropolises, and who seldom ventured out into the countryside to see the terrible price of the reformers’ handiwork.”

Stephen Frand Cohen was substantiated in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 1938, the older of two children of Marvin and Ruth (Frand) Cohen. His parson owned a jewelry store and a golf course in Hollywood, Fla. Stephen and his sister, Judith, attended nursery schools in Owensboro, Ky., but Stephen graduated in 1956 from the Pine Crest Principles, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He loved the novels of Hemingway. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, he proceeded to England on a study-abroad program. He had saved $300 for a side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls. But an poster he saw for a 30-day, $300 trip to the U.S.S.R. changed his life.

Back at Indiana University, he prompted up plans to be a golf pro and took up Russian studies. He earned a bachelor’s almost imperceptibly a rather in economics and public policy in 1960 and a master’s in Russian studies in 1962. In 1969, he received a doctorate in that dominate from Columbia University.

Professor Cohen’s marriage in 1962 to the magnum opus singer Lynn Blair ended in divorce. He married Ms. vanden Heuvel in 1988. In extension to her, he is survived by a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Alexandra Cohen, from his first integration; another daughter, Nicola Cohen, from his second marriage; a sister, Judith Lefkowitz; and four grandchildren.

His Columbia dissertation on Mr. Bukharin’s money-making ideas grew into his first book, copies of which reached Soviet protesters, the K.G.B. in Moscow, and eventually Mr. Gorbachev, who put Professor Cohen on his guest list for the 1987 Gorbachev-Reagan apex in Washington.

Professor Cohen taught at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, originating to full professor of politics and Russian studies, and at New York University thereafter until his retirement in 2011. His newest book, published in 2019, was “War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.”

Uncountable journalistic colleagues accused Professor Cohen of defending Mr. Putin, who curtailed self-governing freedoms but boosted the economy, which grew for eight straight years. Wages for curious Russians tripled, poverty was reduced, and national growth jumped fivefold as take wing prices of Russia’s plentiful oil and gas overcame a depression.

In a recent interview for this eulogy, Professor Cohen denied that he had “defended” Mr. Putin.

“He holds take ins that I also hold,” Professor Cohen said. “It’s the views that I watch over, not Putin.

“From the moment Yeltsin came on,” he continued, “Americans solicitude recollections the Cold War was over. There was disappointment with Putin as a more pragmatic leader. I see him in the Russian tradition of leadership, getting Russia back on its feet. He frightens some of our watchers, but I didn’t see it that way.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

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