The #1 Putin apologist’s apologists

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Stephen F. Cohen

We saw yesterday that the jig is just about up for NYU professor and Putin publicist Stephen F. Cohen. People who have Putin’s number are getting wise to Cohen’s campaign of propaganda – in response to which his fellow members of the Putin fan club have circled the wagons, defending Cohen and smearing his critics. Yesterday we took a look at Paul Craig Roberts, who, in an impressive low, slammed Radio Liberty – on whose website reporter Carl Schreck had examined the increasingly widespread concern about Cohen’s views – at the website of Pravda. 

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Robert Parry

Another Putin apologist whom we’ve mentioned before, Robert Parry, also tore into Schreck, accusing him of relying “on vitriol rather than reason.” This was just plain dishonest: Schreck’s article, to repeat, was a piece of straightforward reportage, which quoted amply from both Cohen and his critics. As for Radio Liberty, Parry sought to discredit it by recalling a thirty-year-old minor controversy over its airing of commentaries by Ukrainian exiles some of whom had “praised Ukrainian nationalists who sided with the Nazis in World War II.” Parry sought to use this historical footnote from the Reagan Era to smear last year’s democratic Maidan Revolution as a largely neo-Nazi project and to depict the current, Western-oriented Ukrainian government as “coz[ying] up to modern-day neo-Nazis.” In Parry’s account, Cohen is only telling the plain and simple truth about Russia and Putin; any criticisms of Cohen’s views on the subject, however consistent those criticisms may be with the actual facts of the matter, are “ad hominem attacks”; Cohen, insists Parry, is the chief victim of “a new McCarthyism” in America that questions “the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t get in line” as the U.S. pursues a “new Cold War with Russia.”

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James Kirchick

All these claims, of course, are part of the standard pro-Putin line, one of the sharpest observers of which is no-nonsense American journalist James Kirchick – who noted wryly, in a savvy article published by the Tablet on May 13, that Russia is moving “from having fought real Fascists 70 years ago in Germany to imaginary ones today in Ukraine.” The Kremlin’s resuscitation of wartime anti-fascist rhetoric, Kirchick points out, “provides Russians with an easy framework in which to understand their current political predicament,” even though “if there’s any regime in Europe today that resembles a ‘fascist’ one, it is Russia.” Kirchick elaborates:

Like the Nazis, Russia has invaded a neighbor based on the principle of ethnic comradeship, is targeting a vulnerable domestic minority (homosexuals) with state-sanctioned bigotry, and officially labels any and all dissenters “national traitors.” As Moscow relives its glorious past, monopolizing the heroism of World War II and slandering its contemporary adversaries as latter-day Nazis, it inches closer and closer toward becoming the sort of fascist regime its forebears once fought against.

Precisely. And useful stooges such as Stephen F. Cohen, Paul Craig Roberts, and Robert Parry are defending its reprehensible actions every inch of the way.

They’re getting wise to Stephen F. Cohen

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Stephen F. Cohen

It’s a pleasure to report that in recent weeks, awareness of Professor Stephen F. Cohen‘s role as an ardent Putin apologist seems to have risen, at least in certain circles. In an April 28 New York Times op-ed, Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski slammed Cohen’s view that Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence, pointing out that Cohen

overlooks the question of whether the countries that fall within [that sphere] are there by choice or coercion. Ukraine is willing to be in the Western sphere of influence because it receives support for civil society, the economy and national defense — and Russia does nothing of the kind.

Also, added Sierakowski, “Cohen and others don’t just defend Russia; they attack the pro-democracy activists in Ukraine.”

Vladimir Putin at a navy parade in Severomorsk
Vladimir Putin

A week later, at the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Carl Schreck weighed in, noting that “[e]ven respected Russia specialists who, like Cohen, advocate for a U.S.-Russian relationship based on realism say Cohen is essentially defending the Kremlin’s agenda in the West.” Schreck quoted Lynn Lubamersky, an associate professor of history at Boise State University, as calling Cohen “a mouthpiece for a mass murderer.”

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Anne Applebaum

Schreck also cited a recent debate with Garry Kasparov and Anne Applebaum – two of the sharpest and best-informed critics of Putin’s Russia alive today – at which Cohen had “accused the West of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin with NATO expansion, stoking potential war with Moscow, and failing to acknowledge its responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine in the last 15 months” – a line of argument, Schreck pointed out, that largely “dovetailed with a narrative pushed by the Kremlin, which portrays its seizure of Crimea as a response to Western meddling in Ukraine.” Denying in an interview with Schreck that he’s a fan of Putin, Cohen insisted that, on the contrary, he’s a “patriot of American national security,” while those who criticize him – including, apparently, Kasparov and Applebaum – are not.

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Paul Craig Roberts: such a loyal Putin defender that he deserves his own stamp

A key point about Schreck’s piece is that he didn’t attack Cohen – not in the slightest. He reported on the plain fact that many people, including a number of Cohen’s fellow Russia experts, consider the guy a Putin apologist; also, Schreck interviewed Cohen, got his side of the story, and presented it at considerable length – and with apparent fairness. This is called proper journalistic conduct. But it was too much for economist Paul Craig Roberts, who savaged Schreck – and Radio Liberty – at the website of Pravda, itself an institution not widely known for its fealty to proper journalistic conduct. 

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Roberts appears frequently on Russian TV

As we’ve discussed previously, Roberts, a former Wall Street Journal editor and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, has become “a hard-core propagandist” for Putin, “serving up breathtaking, bald-faced claims that are almost always the very antithesis of the truth.” At the Pravda site, Roberts rechristened Radio Liberty as “Radio Gestapo Amerika” and accused it of attacking “distinguished Americans who are known and respected for their allegiance to the truth.” In addition to calling Schreck a “propagandist” for “Washington’s agendas,” Roberts took on Lubamersky, denying her charge that Putin is a mass murderer and adding that “[t]he mass murderers of our time are George W. Bush and Obama, and clearly Cohen is not a mouthpiece for them.”

Another Putin apologist whom we’ve mentioned before, Robert Parry, also tore into Schreck. We’ll look at him tomorrow. 

Castro, Kushner, the Khmer Rouge: The Nation from the ’60s to 9/11

Professor Noam Chomsky of Linguistics and Philosophy. photo: Donna Coveney/MIT
Noam Chomsky

We’ve been taking a look at the history of The Nation during the Cold War, when it was, as the phrase went, “anti-anti-Communist.” Practically speaking, to be sure, there was little if any difference between The Nation‘s “anti-anti-Communism” and robust advocacy for (or, at the very least, defense of) Communism. Routinely, The Nation‘s editors and contributors wrote about the U.S. and USSR as if their people had, quite simply, chosen different systems, just as you might order a Coke and your best friend might order a Pepsi. And while The Nation tended to dance around the question of whether the Soviet system was inherently oppressive, it had no qualms about stridently denouncing the supposedly intrinsic evils of American capitalism – and supporting America’s enemies, the more tyrannical, it sometimes seemed, the better. In the 1970s, for example, it ran Noam Chomsky‘s defense of the Khmer Rouge from charges of genocide and supported the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini.

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Jesse Jackson with Fidel Castro

Among the other postwar-era low notes reprinted in The Nation ‘s special centennial issue: in a 1988 editorial, the Nation actually endorsed world-class shakedown artist and Castro crony Jesse Jackson for president of the United States – this, in the midst of Jackson’s public enthusiasm for Jew-baiting, gay-bashing Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (whom Malcolm X’s own relatives publicly accused of complicity in his assassination) and in the wake of Jackson’s own disgusting reference to New York City as “Hymietown.”

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Tony Kushner

Then there’s gay rights. The Nation presents itself today as having always been at the forefront of the struggle for gay equality; but for years, in fact, its contributors were consistently, fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage, gays in the military, and other forms of what they considered gay “assimilation” into bourgeois institutions. In their view, the proper socialist objective was not to achieve equal rights for gay people in mainstream capitalist society, but to marshal marginalized gay people as far-left storm troopers in the battle to overthrow mainstream capitalist society. The anniversary issue reprints part of a typically jejune 1994 article by Tony Kushner that sneeringly rejects gay marriage and calls for gay people to be true to utopian socialist ideals of “liberation. (It is instructive, by the way, to compare the complete original article – which can be found here – to the expurgated version served up in the anniversary issue.) The bottom line about The Nation and gay rights is that Kushner and other gay stalwarts at the magazine fought tooth and nail against the social changes that have enabled gay Americans to live and thrive openly with far less difficulty than they could a generation ago; yet now the magazine happily, and deceitfully, takes a big chunk of the credit for those very changes.

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Mikhail Gorbachev

When the Iron Curtain fell, millions of Eastern Europeans wept with joy and rushed to embrace capitalism and democracy. But the folks at The Nation – like other stateside comrades of the Kremlin – offered no mea culpas and exhibited no shame. Quietly, they more or less dropped their longtime enthusiasm for the Kremlin down the memory hole. But they didn’t revise their poisonously anti-American attitudes, revisit their fierce hostility to the NATO policy of containment, or rethink their resounding contempt for the unapologetic pro-freedom rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher, which they had repeatedly denounced as vulgar and dangerous. No, they just kept preaching their same old ideology, as if it had not been thoroughly discredited. They even allowed Mikhail Gorbachev, in a 2009 interview with Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and hubby Stephen F. Cohen, to cast himself as the hero of the end of the Cold War – and to depict the whole conflict, in the same old way, as a clash between two morally equivalent regimes. Entirely removed from the picture was the monstrous injustice and intrinsic evil of the Communist system, and the fact that that system ultimately came crashing down precisely because of its injustice and evil.

And what about 9/11 and its aftermath? We’ll move on to that disgraceful chapter of The Nation‘s history next time.

Whitewashing The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Not so long ago, we took a sidelong glance at Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the left’s flagship magazine, The Nation. Like her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a longtime Ivy League expert on Russia, vanden Heuvel was a big apologist for the Soviet Union and is, today, a big fan of Vladimir Putin. Not to beat a dead horse – or a cadaverous ideology – but it would be remiss of us not to revisit Katrina, and her storied publication, in commemoration of what is, in more than one sense, a red-letter day in the history of American political journalism: namely, the 150th anniversary of The Nation, which was founded on July 6, 1865.

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John Dos Passos

To celebrate this milestone, The Nation has published an extra-large special issue, a pdf of which is available for free online. It’s well worth perusing. Simply in terms of layout and design, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Among the dozens of articles drawn from the magazine’s immense archives are critiques of George Armstrong Custer’s attack at the Little Big Horn, the annexation of Hawaii, U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, and many other once-burning issues. There are also innumerable essays and reviews by such eminences as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Clement Greenberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Ray Bradbury, and poems by the likes of William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop – a salutary reminder that, for a long time, the back pages of The Nation were deservedly respected for introducing the public to major literary works and for publishing serious literary and cultural commentary, all of which was more or less effectively sealed off from the ideologically saturated claptrap up front.

But when it comes to the articles in this anniversary number that have been drawn from the front of the book, the two key words are caveat lector – let the reader beware. For this special issue is a masterpiece of cynicism and dishonesty. First, the editors have selected – and silently edited – vintage texts that show off the magazine at its best; second, they’ve supplemented those texts with new material that positions those articles in the magazine’s history – and presents the magazine’s role in the history of the modern world in a way that takes creative spinning, whitewashing, and airbrushing to new heights, presenting The Nation as a magazine that has always been right, even when everyone else was wrong, and that has always been good, even when everyone else was bad.

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Willa Cather

To be sure, in its early decades, The Nation was indeed a highly admirable mainstream journal. Its founders were Republican abolitionists who believed in liberty and democratic capitalism, and who argued for the equal rights of women and blacks. In the back of the book – the cultural pages – they published works by such luminaries as Henry James and Willa Cather.

Then…well, something happened. The Gilded Age came along – the era of the “robber barons”  and the capitalist abolitionists were succeeded by reflexively pro-labor, anti-capitalist “progressives.” They were (to put it mildly) soft on socialism, but they had valid points to make about the need for worker protections and safety nets.

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Freda Kirchwey

From there on, however, it just got worse. In A Better World,  a 1982 book about the relationship between Stalinism and the American intellectual left, William Oneill [sic] notes that after The Nation was purchased in 1937 by Freda Kirchwey, an outright Stalinist who’d been working at the magazine since 1918, she installed herself as editor-in-chief and turned the weekly, former an open forum of the liberal left,” into “an organ of the Popular Front” – meaning, essentially, a propaganda mouthpiece for Stalin. 

For Kirchwey and The Nation, solidarity with Stalin necessitated the denunciation and smearing of all critics of the Soviet Union, whether conservative or liberal, and the fierce, unequivocal rejection of any hint that the USSR might, in fact, be – like Hitler’s Germany, and even moreso than Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain – a cruel and evil totalitarian state. Kirchwey’s logic? As she put it herself, Communists, for all their imperfections, had “also fought for decent conditions for workers and the unemployed, for equality of rights for Negroes, for relief and aid to the victims of the civil war in Spain.” Yes, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. The current editors of The Nation – who tastefully omit to mention Kirchwey’s Stalinism in the anniversary issue – offer this outrageously lame explanation for her systematic refusal to so much as hint at the monstrous truth about life in the USSR: “Kirchwey and [her successor as editor-in-chief] Carey McWilliams felt that to couple a critique of McCarthyism with accounts of the situation in the Soviet Union would deflect attention from the threat to freedom at home.” Right. Just as The Nation of 2015 denounces Western counterjihadiststoday while acting as if jihadists themselves are a creature from some bestiary of the imagination, so did The Nation of yore pillory anti-Communists while all but pretending that Western Communism – a very real threat – was a fantasy.

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Front cover of S.J. Taylor’s book about Walter Duranty

August 1939 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which Stalin fans capable of being honest with themselves recognized as a mammoth betrayal, an alliance of their greatest hero with their most despised enemy. Many of them felt driven, as Oneill puts it, to try “to explain what had gone wrong, and sometimes even where they had gone wrong personally.” Yet some on the American left “resisted this temptation.” Oneill identifies this resistance primarily with The Nation, “whose capacity for introspection,” he states, “was nonexistent.” Quite simply, the magazine “did not apologize for past errors,” and “[e]xcept when nursing grudges it had almost no memory, the world being born anew in its pages every week.”

The Nazi-Soviet Pact, in any event, was soon forgotten; a few weeks later Europe was at war, and the USSR was allied with Britain and France, and Stalin was once again a hero – in, above all, the pages of The Nation. And after the war was won, The Nation reliably provided its readers with (in Oneill’s words) sheer “fantasy” and “naked propaganda” about the victorious Uncle Joe and his workers’ paradise. In The Nation during these years, Oneill points out, Russia was depicted as alternately revolutionary and liberal – or sometimes both at once – as the need of the moment required.” Writing in The Nation in 1946, Walter Duranty described a purge by Stalin as “a general cleaning out of the cobwebs and mess.” (As one observer later put it, “The Nation excused mass murder so long as it was red mass murder.”) When the USSR brutally turned the countries of Eastern Europe into Communist satellites, Kirchwey, far from protesting this savage act, supported it as a “process of revolution.”

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Uncle Joe

As for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic republics, Oneill cites a suggestion by Reuters correspondent Alexander Werth that this, too, was just fine, because, after all, those republics had been run by fascists (or so the Kremlin said) – and besides, they weren’t “really countries” anyway.

Readers of the current incarnation of The Nation will find these two arguments very familiar: they’re precisely the same ones that vanden Heuvel and her husband employ today to justify Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: (1) it’s (according to them) a fascist state, and (2) Ukraine is (to quote vanden Heuvel) “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.”

Then as now, you see, the countries “on Russia’s border” don’t matter to The Nation; all that matters is Mother Russia itself, which in 1917 became the beacon of hope for utopian ideologues and enemies of individual liberty around the world, and which, even all these years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, continues to serve the America-haters at The Nation as a counterbalance to American power and American values.

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James Agee

We’ve mentioned that The Nation‘s cultural pages were generally free of control by the editors who ran the front of the book. Sometimes this had results that might fairly be described as schizophrenic. Consider James Agee’s 1947 review of the now-classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which is reprinted in the anniversary issue. The review is a total slam – and what’s interesting about it is that what Agee is criticizing in the movie is precisely what’s wrong with the magazine for which he happens to be reviewing it. “I mistrust any work,” he writes, “which tries to persuade me—or rather, which assumes that I assume—that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage.” One could hardly pen a more stinging indictment of the dangerously credulous view of the world – trusting in the power and virtue of social engineering, and rejecting the importance and value of individual liberty and individual character – that informed the political pages of Kirchwey’s magazine.

What about The Nation during the Cold War? We’ll move on to that next time.

“Yes, but”

Vladimir Putin at a navy parade in Severomorsk
Vladimir Putin

We’ve been looking at some of the leading Putin apologists – from Pat Buchanan and Christopher Caldwell on the right to Stephen F. Cohen and John J. Mearsheimer on the left. These guys are among Vlad’s most reliable defenders, and most of them rarely interrupt their justifications long enough to acknowledge that, well, the fella does have one or two unpleasant items on his résumé.

But it’s also worth checking in on what we might call the “yes, but” brigade. These folks profess to deplore many of Putin’s actions – but they’re also quick to find excuses for them. Plus, they’re top-notch at engaging in Cold War-style moral equivalence, pointing out actions by the West that they consider comparable to Putin’s own more nefarious deeds.

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Peter Beinart

Take Peter Beinart, the anti-Zionist Jewish author of The Crisis of Zionism (2012), who in March 2014 took time out from demonizing Israel to urge his readers to put themselves in Putin’s shoes. Not only, he noted, do NATO members now border Russia on the west; the former Soviet republics along Russia’s southern border are all linked to NATO through the “Partnership for Peace” program or “provide NATO countries with some basing, transit, refueling, or overflight rights for use in the Afghan war.” In short, “the West’s frontier has moved further east than almost anyone could have imagined a couple of decades ago” – and we should therefore try to be understanding about the fact that Putin finally pushed back in Georgia and Ukraine, and should recognize that if those two countries are now in a “terribly vulnerable” position, we’re the ones who put them there by taking NATO right up to their boundaries.

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Anatol Lieven

Another member of the “yes, but” club is Anatol Lieven, a British writer at the left-wing New America Foundation. In a March 2014 piece, Lieven all but accused Ukrainians of inviting Putin’s invasion with their geopolitically ill-advised enthusiasm for freedom. Until recently, wrote Lieven, Ukraine’s saving grace was that “a certain middle ground of Ukrainians” were drawn both to the West and to Russia. No more, alas: their increasing tilt toward the Free World, in Lieven’s eyes, spells nothing but trouble.

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Peter Hitchens

Lieven’s far from the only Brit in the “yes, but” squad. On the right, there’s Peter Hitchens, who back in February 2012 offered up a big dose of “buts,” admitting that Putin “is without doubt a sinister tyrant at the head of a corrupt government,” that his “personality cult…is creepy,” that he was unquestionably responsible for the “lawless jailing of the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” the “hideous death in custody of the courageous lawyer Sergei Magnitsky,” the “murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko,” and so on. But still, declared Hitchens, “I like Vladimir Putin.”

putin20Why? Because Putin “stands – as no other major leader does in the world today – for the rights of nations to decide their own business inside their own borders.” Also, he’s good for retirees: think of “the millions of older people who have – under Putin – received their pensions regularly, and been able to save without fear of inflation, thanks to the Moscow government’s prudent and astute use of oil revenues”! (And Mussolini made the trains run on time.) Hitchens actually cited a friend’s mother “who lived most of her life in conditions of unbelievable Soviet drabness” but who now, presumably thanks to Vlad, “looks forward to regular holidays on Turkish Mediterranean beaches.”

What about Ukraine? Hitchens had an easy answer to that one: “Who now cares about squalid Ukraine….?” Besides, if Putin is nervous these days, it’s only because he’s president of a country that “not unreasonably…feels itself constantly vulnerable to invasion.” And therefore he invades his far smaller neighbors? Now there’s a unique line of argument.

Yes, Russia has indeed been invaded in the past – by Napoleon in 1812 and by Nazi Germany in 1941. But in the last century it’s far more often been the invader than the invadee: the USSR went into Finland in 1939, Poland in 1920 and 1939, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (after having engineered a Communist coup in that country in 1948). In recent times, then, there have been many more east-to-west than west-to-east invasions across Russia’s western border. But while the likes of Peter Hitchens expect us to take Putin’s supposed, and utterly unrealistic, fear of Western invasion seriously, they want us to ignore the profoundly legitimate fears of small countries that still remember being terrorized by Soviet totalitarianism.

Man and wife, part deux

Every year for the past several decades, an event called the World Russia Forum has taken place in Washington D.C. This confab – which back in the days of the Cold War was a reasonably respectable affair – has in recent times degenerated into “a gathering of Kremlin apologists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted nut jobs.”

The quote is from James Kirchick, who reported on this year’s Forum in March. Among the creeps who turned up: our old pal Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (who, as we’ve seen, arm-wrestled Putin one night at a D.C. bar and fell in love). Also present were – surprise! – that most lovable of American couples since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: left-wing Putin apologists Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel.

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Stephen F. Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel

At the Forum, Cohen gave a speech in which he repeated his usual plaint: that back in the good old days, both the US and USSR had their “legitimate spheres of influence,” aka “zones of national security.” But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, this “parity” disappeared and Russia was treated “as a defeated nation.”

For Cohen, these developments are profoundly lamentable. But why? In what way was Moscow’s subjugation of the Baltic and Eastern European countries ever “legitimate? What would make such subjugation “legitimate” now? Why should a dozen smaller countries suffer subordination and oppression – and perennial insecurity – in the name of Russian “security”? Why, for that matter, should anyone in the West buy into the notion that Russia needs a “security zone” in the first place? Does anyone seriously believe that the US would ever decide to invade Russia? Or that, even if it wanted to, it could get its NATO partners to play along?

After Cohen’s talk, Kirchick challenged him directly. How, he asked, could Cohen equate NATO, a voluntary defense alliance, with Russia’s so-called “zone of national security” – which, like the earlier Soviet “zone,” “consists of countries that are cajoled, blackmailed, threatened, and then – if those tactics don’t work – invaded by Russian occupation troops”? Cohen offered an incoherent, “meandering” reply, maintaining that NATO’s “original intent” was lost with the dissolution of the USSR and that the Ukraine crisis is a result of “reckless NATO expansion,” which has caused unnecessary tensions and insecurity.

Kirchick’s take on that nonsensical claim was right on the money:

On the contrary; had the Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact members not joined NATO, the security situation in Europe would be much more tenuous than it already is today. Before their membership, these nations’ status vis a vis Russia was ambiguous, constituting a security gray area. Today, they all have—at least in theory—a rock-solid security guarantee as members of the world’s strongest military alliance.

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But of course Cohen has rarely if ever expressed any concern about the security status of these little countries. For him they’re peripheral – bit players; pieces on Washington and Moscow’s chessboard. What matters for him, first and last, is Russia; he sees all these issues from the perspective of the Kremlin; his take on all of this stuff is effectively indistinguishable from that of Vladimir Putin himself.

And why is that? Because Putin challenges American power. And for the likes of Stephen Cohen, nothing could be more important than the “balance” the USSR provided to American international “hegemony.”

Never mind the Gulag, the Holodomor, Stalin’s reign of terror: for Cohen and his ilk, the Soviet Union was, take it for all in all, a good thing, if only because it represented a counterweight to Uncle Sam. Hence Putin, however much of a monster, must be defended, precisely because he’s pushing back against the US. And if this pushback means crushing freedom in a few small countries on Russia’s fringes – well, that’s a small price to pay for keeping America in check.

Such is the thinking of NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen. And of course Mrs. Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel, longtime editor and publisher of the perennially Kremlin-friendly Nation, feels exactly the same way. At the World Russia Forum, vanden Heuvel congratulated herself for putting out a bravely “heretical” publication that rejects received opinions on Russia only to be subject to vitriol (“as opposed,” Kirchick wryly observed, “to those who express ‘heretical’ ideas in Russia, who—if they’re not shot in the back four times like opposition leader Boris Nemtsov—are thrown in jail”).

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Martin Sieff

At the Forum, vanden Heuvel joined her hubby in condemning the “demonization” of Putin. She also chaired a panel consisting of three former US journalists – Robert Parry, Martin Sieff, and Patrick Smith – and a former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern. The whole gang, apparently, echoed Cohen’s Orwellian rhetoric – talking about Russian aggression as if it were purely defensive, while depicting US and NATO defensive moves as the real acts of aggression.

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Ray McGovern

Who are these guys? Sieff, a former national security correspondent for UPI, has been a frequent contributor to Pat Buchanan’s far-right American Conservative magazine. (In a fine example of the cozy Ribbentrop-Molotov camaraderie between today’s far right and far left, Sieff penned a glowing review, in 2007, of a book about Donald Rumsfeld by Alexander Cockburn, late editor of the loony left’s flagship rag, Counterpunch.) Smith is a frequent Nation contributor; Parry writes regularly for the left-wing site Alternet, where, in a February piece that summed up his take on US-Russia tensions, he put the words “free market” in scare quotes, defended the cruelly “demonized” Putin by demonizing billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky – whom Putin put in prison – and slung mud at the democratic leaders of Ukraine, a country that Parry has previously smeared as a nest of neo-Nazis. (Parry has also made something of a specialty of “exposing” the darker side of American history, as if Howard Zinn hadn’t made it there long before him.) And, last but not least, McGovern is a guy who, since leaving the CIA in 1990, has become a fanatical anti-Israel activist and 9/11 Truther.

In short, a gathering of eagles.

Man and wife

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Katrina vanden Heuvel, Stephen F. Cohen

We’ve been talking about NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen, Russia “expert” and Putin apologist extraordinaire. But so far we’ve failed to mention his #1 ally in his pro-Putin crusade – namely, world-class limousine lefty Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation, the Bible of America’s far left. In private life, vanden Heuvel is Mrs. Stephen F. Cohen; in public life, she shares her husband’s breathtakingly unequivocal support for Putin.

Famously, vanden Heuvel and her crew at The Nation don’t hesitate to lecture the U.S. and certain foreign countries – notably Israel – about what they’ve done or haven’t done, should or shouldn’t do. But when the subject is Putin’s Russia, vanden Heuvel’s line is the same as her husband’s: what Putin does is none of our business.

Cohen and vanden Heuvel characterize this position as one of “realism” and “common sense.”

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It’s all quite fascinating, really. Neither the professor-husband nor his publisher-wife ever saw a U.S. military action that they liked; but when Putin sent tanks rolling into Ukraine, both rushed to his defense. Vanden Heuvel sneered at Americans who were concerned about Ukraine, calling them “armchair interventionists” and “rightwing rodeo warmongers” – as if it were they, not Putin, who’d just mounted an invasion.

Writing in the Washington Post in March 2014, vanden Heuvel dismissed Ukraine as “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.” Her point apparently being that because Ukraine hasn’t been around for very long, and because it’s a pretty vulnerable entity, its well-being and territorial integrity aren’t worth a great deal of consideration.

Could this argument be any more grotesque and odious? The reason why Ukraine didn’t have an “independent existence” before 1991 was that it was part of the Kremlin’s totalitarian empire; the reason why its independence since then has been “fragile” can be spelled in one six-letter word: Russia. Despite Putin’s dearest wishes, Ukraine is now a free and democratic country – a development he’d clearly like to reverse. Which is precisely why Ukraine has looked to the U.S. and NATO to help defend its freedoms.

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Freedoms that vanden Heuvel – make no mistake – plainly views as an affront to Mother Russia. She actually complained in her Post article that “the post-Cold War settlement…looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods.” Translation: just as the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany in part because it handed over German territory to France, Denmark, and other neighboring countries, the “post-Cold War settlement” was unfair to Russia because it liberated the captive nations of Eastern Europe from the Communist dictatorship that had been imposed on them and gave them freedom.

As we’ve noted earlier in connection with similar statements by Cohen, the only way to make any kind of sense of vanden Heuvel’s obnoxious line of thinking is to consider the source: like her hubby, she’s an old, dyed-in-the-wool leftist admirer of the Soviet Union and, as such, retains an intense affection for the idea of autocratic Kremlin power – and, especially, for the notion of the Kremlin as a crucial counterforce to the hegemonic power of the United States.

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Russia has legitimate security concerns in its near-neighbor,” wrote vanden Heuvel in the Post about Putin’s moves on Ukraine. “The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the European Union…than about the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the U.S. fleet and provide a home to NATO bases.” Got that? In vanden Heuvel’s view, Putin fears – legitimately – an invasion of Russia from across the Ukrainian border.

Outrageous. Then again, such outrageousness is part and parcel of The Nation‘s heritage. Throughout the Stalin era, The Nation was staunchly pro-Stalin, finding ways to apologize for every monstrous crime against humanity that good old Uncle Joe committed – from the Ukrainian famine to the Moscow show trials, from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the postwar subjugation of Eastern Europe. Finding excuses for Putin, by comparison, is child’s play.

Stephen F. Cohen, Putin apologist

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Stephen F. Cohen

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.

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Vladimir Putin

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.

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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.)

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky

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?

(FILES) A file picture taken on July 20,
Pussy Riot

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?