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Dear Stephen Cohen: I Love You; I’m Sorry; You’re Wrong

Steve, I hope you don’t mind an expression of affection from an admirer of a certain age. We’ve never met, but I’ve known you my entire professional life. I came into the field as a Stanford undergraduate in 1987, scared to death of nuclear war and hoping to do whatever little I could to prevent it. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, taking a course in arms control from David Holloway and sitting in the back of Alexander Dallin’s huge Soviet history class as he filled the board with notes and encouraged students like me to enter graduate school because looming retirements promised to make Soviet studies a growth field (ah, the perils of prognostication). It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that my first contact with you was in that liminal zone between political science and history that you and Dallin and Holloway occupied so forcefully. I eventually trimmed my sails more clearly in the direction of history under the tutelage of Nancy Shields Kollmann and Terence Emmons, but you remained a presence.

And there you were again in graduate school! Sheila Fitzpatrick assigned Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution in her demanding seminar and assigned me the task of reading and reporting on the recently published stenographic reports of Stalin’s attack on Bukharin at the February 1937 plenum of the Central Committee. I’m still standing, so I suppose I passed that test, but only with an assist from you. In short, you were a central intellectual figure of my youth, and those people always hold a special place in one’s heart. Thank you.

I found out only last week that you have been subjected to humiliation by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), an organization that I belong to. As a voting member, I bear some responsibility for the actions of the board I helped elect, and so please let me say, from the bottom of my heart: I’m Sorry. I know that others in our organization feel the same way. I’ve read a copy of your January 13 letter to “The ASEEES President, Executive Committee, Board of Directors and All Interested Members of the Association,” which is circulating in samizdat form and will link to it here (or upload it in full if you wish) if and when you want it to be published. It is a painful piece. More than a hundred of us have joined together to append our signatures to a letter written by David Ransel that expresses the shock and outrage felt by those not only in our cozy area studies community but more broadly across academia. We do not understand how the academics on our board could turn up their noses at the generous grants to graduate students proposed by the KAT Foundation simply because your name (and that of your mentor Robert Tucker) was attached to the prize.

As you know, but perhaps some of the readers of this blog do not, the gift that you and your wife proposed from your foundation was proceeding normally until August, 2014. It had been arranged through the executive director of ASEEES and approved by the Executive Committee of the Board with an eye toward conducting the first round of grants this academic year. Then everything went off the rails. Though the workings and decisions of the board remain shrouded in secrecy, one or more members apparently objected, and the decision was made to discuss the issue at the annual board meeting in November. As far as I can tell as an outsider to this process, there were two points of objection. The first, and clearly most prominent, was that some members of the board vehemently protested the positions you have publicly staked out in regard to the crisis in Ukraine and suggested that honoring you would alienate a significant sector of the ASEEES membership. The second (was it even articulated at this early stage?) was that the KAT Foundation wished to take part in appointing the selection panel for the proposed grants. In my view, it is possible to make too much of this second issue. I don’t think that it’s outlandish for donors to make a request like this, but I also think it’s proper for ASEEES to reject it. In any case, my understanding is that this was not a sticking point for you and that you would have gone forward with the gift and granted ASEEES the authority to run the selection process.

The big issue is the first one. I hope you’ve already read the thoughtful essays on this issue by Hank Reichman and Yanni Kotsonis. Yanni is right to warn, I think, that this is not a “free speech” issue in the sense of a First Amendment issue. In the first place, you’re not exactly being silenced. You have a larger public presence and a louder bullhorn than most of us, so a free speech argument isn’t very compelling. In the second place, money isn’t speech. As Yanni suggests, it is both more and less than that. For the same reason, this is not a straightforward “academic freedom” case either. Money isn’t speech in academia either. Donors are of course always welcome to make proposals to academic institutions – Lafayette’s REES program needs help, by the way, so anyone reading this can call me at any time! – but they never get full control. Still, naming rights seem to me to be fairly standard. Academic institutions don’t have to accept any name, of course. Any proposal for an ASEEES Bandera Prize or Beria Prize ought to be rejected. But I can’t remember a case in which a professor’s name was rejected on a prize. The bar for rejecting a name on a gift should be really very high. As Yanni points out, the very notions of “clean” and “dirty” money are quite problematic. I’m pretty sure that I could find something objectionable in the writings of Frederic Bancroft, but if offered, I would accept the Bancroft Prize. Call me crazy.

Yet I must disagree a little with Yanni, who argues that your accomplishments are “real but beside the point.” In fact, I think they are quite to the point, for there are several currencies at play here. One is money, but it is a curious currency here, since it matters most to the very people least likely to be heard in the debate – those graduate students desperate for money to go live in Russia (or Ukraine, or Kazakhstan), greet the archivists when they open the doors in the morning, and turn out the lights in the reading room on their way out. No, the legal tender in this debate is status. We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about status as a worthwhile goal, despite our marination in nineteenth and twentieth century egalitarian texts. We like to pretend that people who disregard what their peers think of them are brave heroes. But we could, with equal accuracy, point out another potential term to describe them: sociopaths. It’s OK, even laudable, for you to care about your reputation, especially amongst the scholars with whom you’ve worked for your entire career. You argue that your case will have a chilling effect on the scholarship conducted by professionally vulnerable people early in their careers. Perhaps so, or perhaps there is plenty of chill out there anyway.

But even if it just matters to you, it still matters to us. Leaving aside all the issues of “rights,” the question is: should a national scholarly association humiliate one of its members for expressing contrarian views. The answer, quite simply, is no. Never. As an organization, we should seek to encourage the exchange of ideas and to support those who seek to exchange them. Full stop. This does not mean that our speech or writings must have no consequences whatsoever. That would be not only unrealistic but profoundly depressing. But we are perfectly capable of criticizing one another – scholar to scholar. And if that results in a loss of prestige or sympathy or status in certain circles, that’s fine. This role should not be played by ASEEES, unless we want to start new competitions for the “worst book in the previous year” and the like.

One more thing, this time directed to the ASEEES Board. What the hell happened? Before I go further with this, let me give one positive shout-out. The cryptic signals from the organization suggest that there was quite a fight in that board room, which means that one or more of you went to the wall for maintaining the original naming and then have preserved the expectations of confidentiality in that room despite all the criticism that has poured down on you. Can I just say, molodets? For the rest of you, let’s not pretend that telling a long-standing member of our community that you will take his money but only if he admits that he is somehow so reprehensible that his name cannot be mentioned in connection with the prize is anything other than deeply, deeply offensive. And the explanation? “Compromise??” Oh, it made my heart sink. I wonder if this isn’t an indictment of an entire academic governance system, one with which I’m all too familiar. We have the hurried move to examine “best practices” and establish a “gift policy,” followed by somber declarations of the necessity of proper procedure, and then the ultimate self-deception that cutting the baby in half is a compromise. I wasn’t in that room, but I’ve been in that room. Often the hardest decision to make is to resist compromise, and I wish you’d done that. At the end of the day, we need leadership from our leaders. As Yanni and others have pointed out, the gift policy, by using words such as “unacceptable consequences,” does not make your role on the board any different. Thank goodness for that. We will still rely on the judgment of our elected colleagues, as we should. In this case, I think that your judgment was terribly flawed, and if you fail to reverse course, it will be the role of the full membership to correct it, but no policy is ever going to substitute for good sense.

Steve, with all that said, can we talk about Ukraine for just a moment? My God, you’re in the wrong here. Look, I am not going to present myself as an expert on the conflict. Like lots of people I know, I try to read the news from Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in between figuring out a way to explain who the Pechenegs were to 19 year old kids from New Jersey and writing an agenda for a department meeting. It’s completely possible that I’m wrong too.

In the interest of brevity, can I focus on one of your pieces, your article in the September 14, 2014 issue of The Nation entitled “Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War?” You structured the piece by presenting five “fallacies” that must be refuted in order to move toward a durable resolution of the conflict. OK, fine, but why construct most of these fallacies as straw men? For instance, “Fallacy No. 4” – “Today’s civil war in Ukraine was caused by Putin’s aggressive response to the peaceful Maidan protests against Yanukovich’s decision.” I wouldn’t deny that some pundits in the US would phrase it this way. Having debated them, you would know better than I that sometimes straw men exist, but why didn’t you just leave out the “peaceful?” Phrasing it the way you did leads to disastrous passages like this:

Fact: In February 2014, the radicalized Maidan protests, strongly influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces, turned violent. Hoping for a peaceful resolution, European foreign ministers brokered a compromise between Maidan’s parliamentary representatives and Yanukovych. It would have left him as president, with less power, of a coalition reconciliation government until new elections this December. Within hours, violent street fighters aborted the agreement. Europe’s leaders and Washington did not defend their own diplomatic accord. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Minority parliamentary parties representing Maidan and, predominantly, western Ukraine—among them Svoboda, an ultranationalist movement previously anathematized by the European Parliament as incompatible with European values—formed a new government. They also revised the existing Constitution in their favor. Washington and Brussels endorsed the coup and have supported the outcome ever since. Everything that followed, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the spread of rebellion in southeastern Ukraine to the civil war and Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation,” was triggered by the February coup. Putin’s actions have been mostly reactive.

I actually agree with you – and have written elsewhere to that effect – that Putin’s actions have been reactive (though in my view also opportunistic in a dangerously naïve way). But this presentation of February events is, as you well know, shockingly incomplete. Unwary readers would be justified in thinking that “semi-fascist” Ukrainians committed all the violence on Maidan in February. They might not know that most of the protestors were not “semi-fascist” and that many feared the presence of those extremists among them. Of course, not all protestors on Maidan were peaceful, but is there really no space to mention that police fired into the crowds, killing many, and that these killings made Yanukovych’s further tenure as president deeply problematic, perhaps even impossible? And calling it a “coup” endorsed by Washington and Brussels? It gives me flashbacks to the old discourse surrounding 1917, and not in a good way.

I don’t want to go point by point through all of this. Many others are better qualified to do so than I am, but I can’t resist one more complaint. You refer to the downing of Malaysian Airlines 17 in July as a manifestation of “miscalculations, mishaps, and provocations,” which seems accurate. But you also refer to it as “mysterious.” I’m not mystified at all. Strelkov’s men did it, not because they were ordered to by the Kremlin, but because they are, you know, a hastily trained paramilitary force of the type that often makes “miscalculations, mishaps, and provocations” that result in senseless and destabilizing bloodshed. They first announced it on social media and then hastily tried to scrub it away, but not before their digital footprints had been archived, due in part to the wisdom of the very fine Russian historian and archivist Anatol Shmelev.

Still, one of your broader points deserves recognition. Just as it would be a terrible mistake for Putin to hitch his fortunes to the decisions made on the ground by commanders in Donetsk, so too should the US think carefully before siding completely with any one party, faction or “solution” in Ukraine. Notes of caution are welcome and necessary, even patriotic, as you point out. But for me, those notes are sounded with more richness, complexity, and believability by scholars like Anatol Lieven. I’m hoping you start moving in that direction in your comments on the crisis, but if not, bonne chance. I’ll read your pieces with gritted teeth, but my respect for your career will remain.


By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

7 replies on “Dear Stephen Cohen: I Love You; I’m Sorry; You’re Wrong”

Dear Joshua – thank you! This speaks for me, too, almost word for word. I grew up on Tucker/read the Bukharin book, too. Feel the same way about the prize and the organization’s reactions. Also not a specialist, but as a frequent visitor to Kazakhstan, after what happened to Politkovskaya, in Chechnya, this summer in Ukraine, the utterly horrifying crash of MH17 and coldness and cynicism with which it was waved off by Russian authorities, after seeing Cohen put the word Ukrainians in quotation marks, I’ve been gritting my teeth, too. He may have quite a bit of moral authority among non-Russianists, via the Nation, so your piece is really helpful. Molodets!

Josh, fine piece! I was one of Cohen’s unruly students at Princeton; his lectures drew huge crowds, and the rediscovery of Bukharin gave us some hope that the socialist dream still had meaning. Oh well….In this little piece I believe you have struck exactly the right note, and having had some contact with Steve in recent years (he is, after all, an IU graduate, and also a close friend of Alex and Janet Rabinowitch), I like to believe that his response would be to look at you pointedly, say that “you are all wrong, my friend” and then engage in a no holds barred, and probably unruly discussion. You would surely part friends.
Writing from the Volga region,
Ben Eklof

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