If Pat Buchanan is probably Vladimir Putin’s most prominent fan on the American right, the Russian strongman’s leading admirer on the American left may well be a gentleman named Stephen F. Cohen.
If you’re of a certain age and are in the habit of watching the Sunday morning political shows and perusing the op-ed page of the New York Times, you’ve likely been encountering Cohen for decades. He’s almost surely America’s most high-profile “Russia expert.” A professor at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, he’s now at NYU.
Back when there was a Soviet Union, of course, the proper label for a guy like Cohen was “Sovietologist.” In those days, like many other members of the breed, he was also more than a bit of a Sovietophile, meaning that he (a) had a soft spot – to put it mildly – for Bolshevism and (b) regarded the Cold War as being at least as much America’s fault as the USSR’s.
Yes, Cohen openly acknowledged the (shall we say) unfortunate aspects of Soviet rule; but instead of viewing them as inevitable consequences of Communist ideology, he blamed them on Stalin – the idea being that after Lenin got the Soviet experiment off to a promising start, Stalin made a wrong turn and wrecked everything. If not for him, who knows what utopia might have been achieved?
(Case in point: Cohen’s 1998 Times review of Gulag Archipelago. While accepting Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms of the Gulag, Cohen drew the line at his “indictment of the whole Bolshevik tradition,” which he called “one-sided.” Yes, Aleksandr, we’re all sorry you had to spend all those years in the Gulag as punishment for writing a letter, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to let you go around smearing Communism.)
Today, Cohen’s a fan of Vladimir Putin. In the last couple of years, in a blizzard of writings, talks, panel discussions, and the like – most notably a February 2014 Nation essay, “Distorting Russia,” and a lengthy March 2014 interview with Newsweek – Cohen has absolved Putin of blame for pretty much everything the guy has done.
The conflict in the Ukraine? “Putin didn’t bring this on,” Cohen insists. “He didn’t want it. It was the last thing he wanted.” The tanking Russian economy? Cohen actually puts a positive spin on it, claiming that “some of its indicators are better than US ones.” The 2006 murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in London? Cohen says there’s not “a shred of evidence” to tie Putin to the killings, and calls the charges “exceptionally vilifying.” Pro-democracy Russian activists? Repeatedly, Cohen has sought to discredit them, saying that their “policies are rarely examined.” And he’s consistently pointed to Putin’s sky-high popularity, omitting to note that when a population is force-fed pro-regime propaganda and opposition voices are systematically silenced, poll numbers are hardly a fair measure of anything.
Ah, there’s nothing like a true believer.
Not only has Cohen roundly dismissed concerns about Putin’s saber-rattling, his imprisonment of critics, his demonization of gays, etc., etc.; he’s slandered those who do express concern about any of this stuff, calling them “shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory” and accusing them of lacking his own “expertise” and of failing to provide the “multifaceted analysis” that he presumably proffers. Putin’s critics, Cohen charges, refuse to give the Russian president credit for his good deeds: for example, just before the Sochi Olympics, he freed over a thousand prisoners, “including mothers of young children.” Cohen neglects to mention that many of those prisoners – mothers of young children included – had been jailed in the first place for criticizing Putin’s regime.
Among them, incidentally, was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who was punished for his disapproval of Putin by being stripped of his billions and tossed into the slammer. Khodorkovsky’s jailhouse memoir, My Fellow Prisoners (2014), is an eloquent portrait of life inside a Putin prison. Has Cohen read the book? One strongly doubts it. For Cohen, Putin’s incarceration, torture, and (yes) murder of his opponents is a veritable non-issue. (You can’t make an omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs.)
Also a non-issue for Cohen are Putin’s harsh new antigay laws. Indeed, instead of denouncing those laws, Cohen has assailed Western gays for going to Russia and making a fuss about them. Presumably Cohen, good lefty that he is, thinks that the Freedom Riders who traveled to the American South in the 1960s to fight for civil rights were courageous heroes; but Western gays fighting for the rights of gays in Russia? Mind your own business, he instructs them. “I don’t remember any Russians coming over here and telling American gays how to fight for their rights.” Reminded by a Newsweek interviewer that “things are dire for gay people in Russia,” Cohen shot back: “how is that our concern?…Why is it America’s job to go over there and sort out the gay problem when 85 percent of Russians think they should have no rights?”
Did Cohen feel this way about the rights of blacks in apartheid South Africa? Does he feel this way about Palestinians? One suspects not.
As for Pussy Riot, the pro-democracy punk protest group, Cohen actually told Newsweek that “[i]n 82 countries they would have been executed for what they did.” Later, confronted with facts that contradicted this statement, Cohen revised his remarks, saying that “Pussy Riot would have faced criminal charges in many countries and the death penalty in several of them.” The point, in any case, being what? That Putin is somehow less of a bad guy for murdering his critics because his counterparts in places like North Korea and Iran do the same thing?
Is it any surprise that an NYU professor who’s willing to imply that the brave young women of Pussy Riot deserve execution has been welcomed as a frequent guest on the Kremlin-owned “news” network, RT, and as a regular blogger at the Kremlin’s Voice of Russia website?