Remembering Dr. Stephen F. Cohen

Even as tensions rose, accomplished historian and political scientist, Stephen Cohen, held steadfast to his commitment to stronger relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Accomplished professor of Soviet and Russian history and politics, Dr. Stephen F. Cohen was a champion for U.S.-Russia cooperation. While Cohen passed away on September 18, 2020, his commitment and passion to improve U.S-Russia relations lives on to this day.

Dr. Cohen showed an admirable and steadfast commitment to the normalization of relations between Russia and the United States and a key proponent of cooperation between them. Even in times when, to many, it looked as though the United States was heading towards conflict with Russia, Cohen remained to be a true advocate for the improvement of bilateral relations between the two countries.

Cohen’s interest in the history and culture of Russia and its people blossomed after a month-long side trip to the Soviet Union during a study abroad program held in England, as a part of his undergraduate education at Indiana University. As a result, Cohen elected to complete his Ph. D. in Russian studies and government at Columbia University. His academic career quickly took off, becoming a professor of politics at Princeton University in 1968, where he remained a member of its faculty until 1998. After his time at Princeton, Cohen then moved to New York University, becoming the Professor Emeritus of Russian and Slavic Studies. He remained at NYU until his retirement in 2011.

Dr. Cohen first came to prominence on the international stage with his 1973 book, “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution”, a biography of Nikolai Bukharin, a close associate of Vladimir Lenin who was a champion of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s. As one of the first large-scale works to be published on Bukharin, this landmark solidified Cohen’s status as an innovative thinker in the field of Russian Studies.

As Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union, his radical reversal of decades of Cold War attitudes through his reforms of perestroika, or restructuring, and glasnost, or openness, was of great interest to Cohen. This interest was reciprocated – Cohen’s innovative and fresh scholarship on both Soviet history and predictions for its future attracted the interest of Gorbachev. Cohen and Gorbachev forged a close relationship built on mutual understanding on views for Russia’s future. Mr. Gorbachev placed Cohen on his guest list for the landmark 1897 summit between American President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev in Washington.

However, Cohen might have been the most well-known by the American public for his commentary on the 2014-2015 events in Ukraine and the so-called ‘Russiagate’, the title given for the allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency in 2016.

While most were advocating for the U.S. to provoke conflict with Russia in response for its role in the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, Cohen was one of the few Americans speaking the truth about Ukraine and the role of the United States and Russia in the conflict. Cohen humanized the conflict by speaking to Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine who distrusted the government in Kiev and feared U.S.-backed groups that acted against civilians.

At the same time, Cohen called close attention to what he noted were signs that Russia and the United States were heading scarily close to a conflict. Particularly worrying to Cohen was the opinion rising in prominence that the risks of an East-West confrontation over Ukraine would be negligible to the United States.

Noting these troubling developments, Cohen looked back towards the Committee for East-West Accord, which was founded in 1974 during the years of the Nixon administration to counter the growing dissent towards the administration’s policy of détente. Cohen served on this along with other notable leaders in academia, business, and diplomacy. In 2014, Cohen spearheaded the mission to re-establish the committee – a courageous move in a time when anti-Russia sentiments were at a relatively high point in Western circles.

Cohen devotedly argued against what he saw to be the baseless and reckless demonization of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially during the drawn-out investigation into whether President Trump’s campaign “colluded” with the Kremlin in order to secure victory in the 2016 election. Cohen took a courageous stance, usually challenging the hysteria that characterized mainstream viewpoints alone.

While Cohen was no stranger to expressing intellectual opinions that sometimes made him a controversial public figure with respect to his previous historical work on the Soviet Union and Bolshevism, he was consistently barraged with sustained attacks from many for his writing on Russiagate. Article after article brandished him as a “Russian asset” and “Putin’s apologist”.

Despite his views being not accepted into the scope of the mainstream media, he came to

Cohen was not shaken by this hysteria in the media and political landscape, remaining hopeful in his beliefs that Russia and the United States could successfully find common ground for various issues. He was one of the few prominent American intellectuals at the time who refused to look at Russia and its leaders through a one-dimensional view.

Cohen reflected on this media hysteria and the Cold War sentiments that remained in coverage of Russia from the ‘90s to the 2014 conflict in Ukraine and the Russiagate allegations, in “War With Russia?”, his final book published in 2019 before his passing. Pushing back against the ad hominem attacks and name-calling, Cohen himself stated that he was an “American patriot”, reiterating his beliefs that a sound relationship and a future of cooperation between Russia and the United States is in the best interest of the U.S.

Even in the wake of his passing, Cohen’s legacy of advocating for improved relations between Russia and the United States lives on. Led by his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and former Obama administration adviser to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Commission, James Carden, the Committee for East-West Accord was relaunched as the American Committee for US-Russia Accord (ACURA) in January 2021.

Alana Cross is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).