Katrina vanden Heuvel on the life and legacy of her late husband Stephen F. Cohen, the eminent historian who shaped the field of Russia studies and bravely challenged the New Cold War.
Stephen F. Cohen, the eminent historian who helped shape the field of Russia studies and bravely exposed the fallacies and dangers of Russiagate and the new Cold War, passed away on September 18, 2020 at the age of 81. Cohen’s wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, reflects on his life and legacy.
Guest: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, and wife of Stephen F. Cohen.
FOX 11 Los Angeles, May 2019
Interviewer: What is your secret to success for a marriage when two people disagree, especially politically in these days?
Stephen F. Cohen: Off-camera she turns to me and says, “You know, I know you’re right.”
Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Oh … I do not! [laughter]
Stephen F. Cohen: I forgive her for everything she said.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I do not. No, I think it’s a shared history. I think it’s a 27-year-old daughter who’s extraordinary, clerking for the Ninth Circuit, who is a shared bond—
Stephen F. Cohen: In San Diego, yeah.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel: —and we agree to disagree. And I’ve learned an enormous amount from Steve, and I think he respects that I have to run a publication, which is, you know, a big tent. There are many different points of view on th—
Stephen F. Cohen: The inherent conflict really is that I wouldn’t say she represents a community, but she’s responsible for a very large and important community—who complain to Katrina about me!
Now, in the new era of feminism we’re not supposed to be hyphenated politically. Steve’s supposed to have his views, but if I say something objectionable, they suddenly, “Katrina and Steve say this.” It’s not true.
I mean, I think ultimately the fact is we’ve loved each other for 35 or 40 years, we sleep together, and in the end, we know there are more important things. But we do feel differently and very strongly about what I think is an unprecedented situation, and it’s Trump. I mean, Trump’s coming to everybody’s household.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Trump has thrown everyone and upended… you know, how many friendships, marriages have been tormented and upended. We’re keeping ours together. We’re not going to give in to Trump.
Stephen F. Cohen: Well, I don’t feel that way. I mean, I grew up in the Jim Crow South and I’ve seen stranger politicians than Trump. But let me just say that if he pursues…to give him credit, if he pursues—and by the way his North Korean venture is absolutely good and necessary; who could think otherwise?—but if he wants to cooperate with Russia, if he wants to find a way to stop this new nuclear arms control…arms race with Russia, if he wants to cooperate with Russia in Syria against international terrorism, the Russians have resources that could help make us safe. Why would you be against Trump on this just because you don’t like him for other reasons? You’ve got no priorities, that’s my view. This is the argument we have at home.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel: We have, yeah.
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté.
Stephen F. Cohen, the historian, scholar and author passed away on September 18, 2020, at the age of 81. Steve had a massive influence on the field of Russia studies and on the thinking of people around the world who sought to better understand Russia and US-Russia relations, from the Soviet Union to the present. I was fortunate enough to interview Steve many times over these last few years, and he impacted me in incalculable ways.
Well, today we’re going to remember Steve with his wife, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine. Katrina, welcome to Pushback.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: So, there’s a lot to say about Steve. It’s hard to know where to start. But let me first ask you about how you met and how Russia came to play such a big role in your lives. You both lived there for a while, you traveled there frequently, you became good friends with Mikhail Gorbachev. Talk to us about how Russia came to play such a central role in your and Steve’s partnership.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Aaron. And Steve always valued your work and valued coming on to talk to you. And talking to you on the phone and hearing your insights and sharing what he could. And your writing for The Nation was always important to him as it is to me.
I wrote a piece of remembrance, “My Steve,” just a few days after Steve died, because I wanted to share with people our lives in Russia over these last many years. Steve first went to Russia the year I was born, 1959, with a Columbia language group, an Indiana University language group. But we met because I went to Russia in…the Soviet Union in 1978 on a kind of a Princeton Alumni tour. I didn’t speak a word of Russian at that time; it was all strange. But because a graduate student taught in Steve’s course, he said, “There’s someone who I think has a diplomatic passport who could bring out some samizdat”—smuggled documents. And we’re talking here dangerous documents like Roy Medvedev, the great socialist dissident [who] had received Mrs. Solzhenitsyn—the first Mrs. Solzhenitsyn’s—manuscript memoir, and could I get that and bring it out? It turned out I did not have a diplomatic passport, but we talked when I came back from Moscow, Saint Petersburg. And Steve and I got to know each other, and the next thing I know we both said we don’t like cold weather, and the next thing I know I’m in Moscow in January, I think, 1980.
Steve had enormous connections among the dissident class, but also those who are sort of quasi-dissidents within the system but also dissident-minded. Because of his great book of 1973 about Nikolai Bukharin [Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938], and if…you know, there’s no reason viewers should know that book, but it is more than just about the Soviet Union.
It is a paradigm-shifting book about how there was an alternative to Stalin and Stalinism inside the system. And as a result of that book, 1973, through Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, the family of Bukharin found out there was this young biographer, and they met. And the widow, 25 years younger than Bukharin, her name was Anna Larina, Steve became a member of that family. She was his second mother, the matriarch, and so as a result he met many people in this extraordinary society of, again, people who’d returned from the Gulag, which Steve later wrote a book about, called The Victims Return [The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin].
And I have to say, I was there as his partner, co-conspirator, Sputnik fellow traveler, his later wife, but, you know, his partner, and I participated in all of this. This was ’80, ’81, ’82. In ’82 we could not receive a visa, separately. We were not married. Partly because the Soviet leadership knew Steve was smuggling literature, and they were scared about some of this. But in any case, in ’85 when Gorbachev came to power, we got visas a week after he came to power. Gorbachev had read Bukharin, underground. I mean, he had a special copy. Bukharin wasn’t published in Russia until 1989, but Gorbachev was seeking an alternative—a word very important to Steve—inside the Soviet system that could be legitimate, and he found in Bukharin an alternative to Stalin’s Gulag system, state industrial. The new economic policy was essentially like a social democratic/socialist program of small businesses being permitted and the commanding heights state-controlled, and that has been a model in many ways around this world in these last years.
So, we had some great times—misadventures, adventures. 1985 was very important. And Steve met Gorbachev in the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1987 at a reception—I was not invited—for progressives. Steve thought this was funny because he always was a maverick. He liked to think of himself as a maverick, not this or that, but he went. And Gorbachev asked to meet him. He was surprised Steve was so young, thought Steve’s father had written the biography which had so influenced him, and that began a relationship which was very important to both of us. Gorbachev…we became closer after he was pushed out after the coup in August ’91, but we certainly knew him before.
And he asked Steve to stand on Red Square. There were other people who spoke that day to the camera, but Steve spoke about alternatives—and alternatives he had seen growing up in Owensboro, Kentucky and alternatives he had written about of the Soviet experience. And he didn’t think he should do it—Steve didn’t—because it seemed intrusive that an American would speak at May Day. But his Russian friend said it was his fate and he should do it. And, of course, he said what he wanted, and it was quite something.
Anyway, that’s a long answer. I’m sorry. But we lived there off and on. We lived there for four or five months a year from ’87 to ’92, and then I became acting editor in ’94 of The Nation. But those were extraordinary years. I mean, for us, 1989, the people’s parliament—people don’t remember this sort of quasi-democratically elected parliament [Congress of People’s Deputies]; the beginnings of Memorial [Мемориа́л], which became a human rights group; glasnost, the opening of the media. I worked at a glasnost newspaper for three months covering the parliamentary elections, and I learned how the editor would cross the street every week—it was a weekly newspaper—to tussle with the censor, Misha, to get articles through. Every week, there was a new breakthrough, largely about Stalin, about Stalinism, about the system. So, it was a very heady period. The economics of the period were not that great, but then…
I’ll stop, because there is an idealization of the Yeltsin era, the ’90s, which kind of has tarnished Gorbachev’s reputation inside Russia, because people link him with Yeltsin. So, there’s an idealization of the Yeltsin era in this country [USA], but not in Russia.
AARON MATÉ: Well, before I ask you about that, let me ask you about Bukharin because, is it true that Steve actually found some documents in the Soviet archives about him and then—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Oh, yes.
AARON MATÉ: And then smuggled them to his widow?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes. He gave Anna Mikhailovna [Larina] Bukharin’s love letter, which he had written in prison.
But, Aaron, I was going through Steve’s notes—which I’ve been doing, his files—which gives solace and comfort. But he made notes. He always had a legal pad and red pen, but he made bullet points. In 2013 he was preparing to do an archive-enriched version of Bukharin. We had arguments about this because he wanted to go into the book and open it up, and I said, “It’s a classic. Write a 50-page introduction.” He had so much new material. Every trip to Moscow he would go to the archive like a scholar and find it, and personal items, because when he wrote the book in ’73 he had no access to any of that; it was a very different period. So, he could have, and I somehow will find a way to do a new introduction. I would never touch the classic.
But he gave Anna Mikhailovna the love letter; he found Bukharin’s prison diaries which were published in Russia and in the United States; he helped publish Anna Mikhailovna’s memoirs.
So, there were a lot of very personal materials that Steve found, and he was a great archive rat. He loved working in the archives. He would set off in the morning when we were in Moscow and spend four or five hours, often just sipping tea and chatting with the archivist, who loved him and which shared dog pictures with him while he was trying to find notes of Bukharin and Lubyanka, the prison.
But he had a whole…that was a side of Steve that he put aside, Aaron, as he writes in these notes. Because of Ukraine, because of the outbreak of a Cold War, he, as you know, thought was more perilous, more dangerous than the first, second Cold War, and he felt obliged. And then he began to do John Batchelor radio every Tuesday, and just began to fall into this habit of writing up a dispatch late into the night after he’d done the radio. And then I would edit it the next morning. It was difficult sometimes because he didn’t wake up till quite late, so I’d be sitting with it and waiting to call him and say, “You cannot say that.” [laughter] No, I didn’t do that. You have to find a way; you have to engage people. But he then published a book of the dispatches, called War with Russia?, a question. That’s how he fell into it. He was going to really turn back to this, to Bukharin. But those stories are right, the personal angle.
AARON MATÉ: Well, you know, it’s interesting to note the shift in how Steve was treated publicly. So, during the end of the Cold War he’s an analyst on CBS News, he’s appearing with Dan Rather, he’s covering summits between the leaders of the US and Russia, or the Soviet Union. But things change in the 1990s when the US props up Yeltsin. They send in these economic advisors who help impose the shock therapy on Russia that helped create the oligarch class and plunders the Russian economy.
Steve was there during this period, and he began to speak out against this. He warned about this. What was it like—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think, first of all, his media career is interesting, began because there was a former student who became a senior person at NBC, and they were covering all the funerals. Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko all died in about three years. So, she said, “I had this great professor. He’d be great for overnight funeral commentary.” So, he did it with Edwin Newman, a name that may not mean much to anyone, but he was this big [news] figure. And then he went and did the Today show and then Dan Rather.
I think what happened, Aaron, is in the Gorbachev years there was a kind of alignment of purpose and there was the beginning… Listen, Reagan plundered this country in many ways, [but] he did do some good work with Gorbachev. I mean, they abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons. So that was hopeful. But the coup of August ’91 led to—and Steve wrote a two-page…it’s a brilliant, just ten points raising all the questions about how the Soviet Union ended.
The Soviet Union didn’t collapse. The Soviet Union ended in a forest in Belarus, Belovezha Forest with Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus signing a treaty [the Belovezha Accords] to abolish, end the Soviet Union. But it’s on the internet, Steve’s ten points. He just raises—he doesn’t weigh in firmly—but he raises analytical questions.
Yeltsin. Yeltsin was viewed—and you can look at the literature, Strobe Talbot, others who are in the Clinton administration—as someone who would do the US’s bidding to a large extent. And you had at that time, I think, some central mistakes, foreign policy-wise, expansion of NATO. George Kennan, the diplomat, once said the most grievous mistake of the post-Cold War era will fuel a new Cold War.
But Yeltsin, what he did to his country is what you’ve said: he looted the country because he was so eager to be elected. And I just found— we lived there so we collected all of this. This is the election poster from 1996, Yeltsin running against the leader of the Russian Communist Party. The oligarchs in the United States poured money into Yeltsin’s campaign. Worse than that, Yeltsin did something called ‘loans for shares’—he sold off the commanding heights’ oil and gas and other minerals to the oligarchs who supported his campaign.
The depression of Russia, of the Soviet Union in those years before the collapse and after, was greater by any measure than the United States depression. People fell into poverty. People felt plundered. And he was, as I said, he was idolized in the United States. But the ’90s were a very traumatic period for many, many Russians. And so, when Putin…I always like to tell, maybe you probably know this, Aaron, but they looked around the Yeltsin family, the team [did], for someone who could step in and protect Yeltsin and his family. And I think they went to [Sergei] Stepashin, who’d been, like, KGB. They found Putin, who had worked with the mayor of Moscow [Saint Petersburg], Anatoly Sobchak, who was alleged to be very corrupt. And Putin protected him and got him out of the country at one point, thereby allowing him to avoid arrest—Sobchak. So, they brought in Putin, Yeltsin and the team [did], and in 1999-2000 he becomes appointed, and the first act as president was to give immunity to Yeltsin and his family—give immunity. And so, Putin comes into a country that’s ravaged and he begins to restore, quote, “order.”
Now, Steve gave a lecture on The Nation cruise many years ago, and he knew perfectly well that Putin had overstayed his welcome, that the so-called vertical had become calcified. But you also needed to understand how Putin came to power.
“Rethinking Putin”, December 2017
Stephen F. Cohen: So, who he was and is was an extremely young, not very experienced, leader who was thrust into power at the head of a Russian state that had collapsed two times. Think about this: the state had collapsed, the whole state’s system, twice in the 20th century, in the Russian Revolution in 1917 and with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Russian this is called ‘smoota,’ s-m-u-t-a. If you’ve seen Boris Godunov, the opera or any version, that’s the subject. It’s called Time of Troubles, and it means great misery for Russia: foreign threats, the people fall into misery, poverty, warfare, civil war. That happened twice in the 20th century.
So, Putin inherits this situation, a state that’s still disintegrating and collapsing in the year 2000, badly; could come apart at the seams with all its weapons of mass destruction. So, his first mission—and he continues to talk about it today—was therefore to rebuild, stabilize and modernize Russia as a political economic system, in a way that it would never collapse again. This, for Russians, is the worst thing that can happen. So that was his historical mission and his political mission, as he came to understand it.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The Nation, when he came to power, worried about his authoritarian instincts. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times thought he would be a more sober Yeltsin who would restore order—that then shifted in important ways, we know. But that’s the background, in many ways, for Putin. And he [was] always accused, rightly, of de-democratization in his own country. But Yeltsin began de-democratization. He fired on his own parliament in 1993; he shut down newspapers; the killings of journalists began under Yeltsin for reasons of corruption and crime. So, Yeltsin gets a real pass. And if you don’t understand the Yeltsin era and don’t understand the difference between the democratization Gorbachev opened the doors for and Yeltsin, then you don’t understand the Putin era, in my view.
AARON MATÉ: And this gets to a point that Steve would make tirelessly, which his critics, I think, never quite understood, probably intentionally, which is that if you want to understand Putin you have to understand him in the context of Russian history, not American history or any other country, but in Russian history. And he comes from this background that you describe of a decimation of Russia in the 1990s.
So, this brings us to Ukraine, where I have to relate my own personal experience. I consider myself a skeptical person, a progressive, but the media narrative in this country is so strong that when Ukraine happened in 2014, this coup that overthrows Yanukovych, a proxy war breaks out between the US and Russia, I really went along with the mainstream narrative until I heard Professor Cohen, until I heard Steve speak on Democracy Now!, where I was working at the time.
Democracy Now!, February 2015
Aaron Maté: On this issue of Russian involvement in Ukraine, and NATO’s expansion, I presume you acknowledge that Putin is destabilizing Ukraine. He sent in weapons, he sent in tanks, he sent in some troops in some form. Is the point, then, that he’s acting not to revive the Soviet Empire but to stop NATO encroachment? Is that your point?
Stephen F. Cohen: That’s my short point. But let me ask you a question: five million people approximately live in this area of eastern Ukraine; they’ve lived there for centuries. Their grandfathers, their parents are buried there, their children go to school there. That is their home. Do they have no humanity or agency?
We’ve taken, not I, but the main press in this country is referring to them as Putin’s thugs. Where’s the humanity of these people who are dying now, nearly 6,000 of them? A million have been turned into refugees. These are people there. Who’s doing the fighting? Primarily, the folks, the adults of these people. Have they had Russian assistance? Absolutely. Has Kiev had Western assistance? Billions of dollars. General Hodges, I don’t know exactly what he does but he’s an American NATO officer, publicly announces he’s in Ukraine to train the National Guard. Both sides are involved militarily. But make no mistake: if there was not an indigenous rebellion in eastern Ukraine, there would not be a Ukrainian civil war. Is Putin abetting the east? Yes. Are we abetting the west in Kiev? Yes.
AARON MATÉ: And that’s when I noticed that Steve really began to be vilified.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, I would say he began to be vilified, I can remember it almost just, I think it was…we talked about it sometimes. I think it was in The New Republic, which has changed hands, but it was after he wrote a few articles about Ukraine. Ukraine was a turning point, and I didn’t fully absorb it either.
But I do think you, again, need to step back and remember. I think Khrushchev gave Ukraine—
AARON MATÉ: That’s right, Crimea, yeah.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: —who gave Crimea to Ukraine. But it’s also about the expansion of NATO.
In the so-called articles, you had the Russian agreement and then you had an EU agreement on offer. The EU agreement, by the way, was very tricky for…and Yanukovych, no brief here for, but it would have forced him to end subsidies on fuel and on food. And there was an attempt to allow, not allow, but Ukraine to have both the Russian and the European Union to be a bridge between east and west, and not polarized. Because for Russia, you can argue about this sort of Metternichian, you know, balance of power, and whether countries should have spheres of influence. I mean, there’s something old-fashioned about it, but there’s something realistic about it. And Ukraine was always the closest [to Russia], even closer than Belarus. So much intermarriage, you know. I think Raisa Gorbacheva was Ukrainian. Many of the leaders. Gavlinski was half-Ukrainian. I mean, so there was inner ties.
But the reaction in the West was overly militarized, was put in the context of NATO, and that, by the way, did turn out to be a great error, because you have Georgia and Ukraine. I would raise a fundamental issue which Gorbachev always did. The hope was when the Soviet Union ended, you no longer had the Warsaw Pact. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were like twins, right, on each side. The hope was you could have something called a ‘Common European Home,’ which would stretch from Vladivostok to Lisbon and not be militarized. And instead, NATO. What is NATO? I mean, NATO’s not a…Steve used to say NATO’s not a tea party, which no longer worked because of the Tea Party, but it’s a military alliance.
And so, yeah, Steve began to get assaulted. ‘Apologist,’ ‘Toady,’ all the names. And I think there was a younger [group in media], and they weren’t specialists by any measure but they wanted to make a name, and it became a thing to do, to attack Steve, and it was a trend. And they didn’t know much about Ukraine; they were parroting a narrative.
And Steve also understood the history of Ukraine. I mean, someone once totally misstated him, saying he didn’t believe Ukraine was a country. He never, ever, ever said that. And he had visited Ukraine. He forgot to reply to Anne Applebaum in a debate because she was talking over him. But he meant that it was a very divided country. You had eastern Ukraine, the Donbass, with ties to Russia—workers tied to Russia—and he always thought of the human impact of what was happening in eastern Ukraine. So, he began to be attacked for that; then it spread.
There were other things that arose, as you know. There was the Olympics, and then we moved into where Russia—Russiagate—became a domestic issue. Or, as James Carden, who was also someone Steve worked with—he helps run the American Committee for East-West Accord, which is designed to promote dialogue and debate about US-Russian relations—it sort of Russiagate, without Russia. I mean, it’s its own phenomenon.
AARON MATÉ: Well, this is where Steve coined the term ‘Intelgate,’ and it’s very, very poignant, because Steve’s point was that, for all this talk about Russia, when you look at the actual evidence, there’s actually not much Russia there when it comes to Russiagate. There’s no collusion. We’ve already established that. Allegations of sweeping Russian interference, you can look at it case-by-case and point out the holes as Steve did, and I did as well. And so Steve’s point was that, really, we should call this ‘Intelgate’ because this really was the driving force of intelligence officials, and a lot of them anonymous, who, for their own reasons, wanted to undermine US-Russia relations and criminalize diplomacy. And this was Steve’s point, a lot, that diplomacy should not be criminalized.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: No, he was working at the end, Aaron. He wanted to do an op-ed on the criminalization of diplomacy, of détente. He used that term in a pretty spirited debate with Max Boot, a nemesis of his on CNN. I remember it was July, and he went off, I think he was supposed to debate Fareed Zakaria, and then they said Max Boot, and I groaned. But it was a good debate, and criminalizing diplomacy or détente, an old-fashioned word, is at the root of a lot of this.
I do think John Brennan will emerge to have played an even greater role than we’re beginning to see. I do think that this, the foundational documents…I mean, I do think there was meddling. But, you know, there is meddling in different elections. The United States meddled in a serious way in 1996, very serious, and in other ways—and they were proud of it.
But I think the foundational documents of Russiagate have been debunked, have collapsed. The Steele Dossier, you’ve done a lot of work on it, collapsed. Collapsed. I mean, the hacking stuff is beginning, with the CrowdStrike allegations which were just unearthed, and then the FISA, which is related, the application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Sally Yates has basically confessed that there were errors, and she shouldn’t have pushed through. But the problem is, it’s so polarized and it’s become such…it’s Putin-Trump, Trump-Putin.
There’s a book out, one of Steve’s graduate students recommended it, former graduate student. I think it’s called Keep Kitsch, Putin Kitsch [Putin Kitsch in America] and it’s all Putin-Trump. And so that, I think, until it’s de-linked—and maybe it will be if Trump is defeated—will be an opening to reclaim US-Russian relations. I hope to reclaim for debate and dialogue, because, you know, Aaron, Steve was not about ‘my way or the highway.’ I mean, he could be a combative personality; that was a strength of his [indecipherable] informed. But I give you that. But he wanted debate and dialogue. In his debate with Michael McFaul, I believe it was a year or two years ago at the Harriman Institute, was a model. I mean, Michael McFaul, I think, even tweeted it the day after Steve died.
AARON MATÉ: He did.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He did say civility because that’s what’s missing. I mean, there’s just one hand clapping, and then you get Fox News, or you get the other.
I think what you do at Real Clear Investigations is factual, is bullet—, and I was reading them to Steve in the last weeks, trying to rile him up.
AARON MATÉ: You mentioned that debate with Max Boot, and that’s an example where you have Steve, who was so civil, trying to keep the issue to the facts and the issues which he had a command of, and I don’t think Max Boot did at all, which is why he called Steve names.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, he defamed him, didn’t he?
AARON MATÉ: He did.
CNN, July 2018
Max Boot: He never threatens Russia, and that’s why a lot of intelligence officials think that there is something highly suspect in the relationship between Putin and Trump.
Stephen F. Cohen: I have no idea what Mr. Boot is talking about. He wants Trump to threaten Russia. Why would we threaten Russia? You’ve got two nuclear superpowers—
Max Boot: Because they’re attacking us! Russia is attacking us, Professor Cohen. Russia is attacking us right now, according to Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence.
Stephen F. Cohen: I’ve been studying Russia for 45 years. I’ve lived in Russia and I’ve lived here.
Max Boot: And you’ve been consistently an apologist for Russia in those 45 years.
Stephen F. Cohen: Russia hasn’t att— Excuse me? What did you say to me?
Max Boot: I said you’ve been consistently an apologist for Russia in those last 45 years.
Stephen F. Cohen: All right, I don’t do defamation of people. I do serious analysis of serious national security problems. When people like you call people like me, and not only me but people more imminently, ‘apologist’ for Russia because we don’t agree with your analysis, you are criminalizing diplomacy and détente, and you are the threat to American national security. End of story.
Why do you have to defame somebody you don’t agree with? They used to do that in the old Soviet Union. We don’t do that here. Well, we used to, but we need to stop it.
AARON MATÉ: What was it like for Steve? I know he was very tough, but I also—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He was tough. You know what it led to, Aaron, it led to…he didn’t mind being called names. He has a file he saved, and I’ve been going through them. But what he hated was, he did feel despair that you would ever move the dial, that you could ever move toward a more sane opening for a US-Russian relationship that would bring security, that would avert war, that would end this increasingly dangerous Cold War, and that’s what he despaired about in the last months. How would you ever open this up? And I think he really did believe, as he did in the ’80s when there was a fight about détente, ’70s, ’80s, at least you had people, for example, in the NATO expansion fight, you had Bill Bradley, you had senators. Today you raise it, Aaron, like, what is NATO’s role? And on MSNBC they have a general saying it’s a gift to Putin to raise questions about troops in Germany and taking some out.
So, it’s essentially as you said. It’s much more than Max Boot. Steve, also he hated the…not about himself but a younger generation of scholars, of thinkers, who would feel, you know…he felt generous toward them in understanding, he had had tenure and all, but that they’d be smeared and they’d be pushed out and become outliers in a negative way, when in fact it just was antithetical to the culture he understood to be one that made this country a powerful one, what is to be able to debate and to dissent. And it’s been so shut down because…so quick.
And we come into this debate, this election now, and I really believe if Hillary Clinton had been elected, we might have been spared a lot of this Russiagate. I know you do think that, and I think it became a pretext to justify a traumatic loss on the part of not just the Clinton people, but where I sat, Aaron, you know, good people, but they too bought into Trump-Putin Putin-Trump. And it was not all, by any measure, but it was hard for me. And I think Steve also, he felt he was strong but he worried about me in many instances, because it was very hard to be at The Nation, liberal-progressive left, and it’d become ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for just…not everyone, but it’d become, you know, just hard to raise fundamental questions without tumbling into the Trump-Putin vertigo.
AARON MATÉ: Well, you’ve put a lot of energy into making sure that The Nation is a place for genuine debate, that it’s not a monolith. So, it’s not just your point of view or Steve Cohen’s point of view, but a wide point of view that represents the broad spectrum of the liberal left.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I felt proud of that because I think so many of the liberal-progressive magazines have not opened a debate, have not had a dialogue, and that’s what I think is important. I really do. And it’s so one-sided. Even that’s an issue. But to keep that debate alive.
And it’ll be very interesting—we talked before we began taping—where we head, if it is Biden, with the foundational pillars of Russiagate collapsing. With, god knows, Trump. You do have in Biden—and Steve collected a lot of Biden’s writings; he had a pretty difficult piece in Foreign Affairs about a year or so ago—he’s a very traditional cold warrior. He is someone who’s going to probably do arms control, and we talk on a day where I think we will be saved from the collapse of the pillars of arms control if we extend…the two countries—Russia and the United States—extend START, because the deadline is coming up, as you know. So, I think he’ll be traditional, but I think there’ll be a toxicity, and so much of it is this…
I’ll tell you someone who’s been very good is Ambassador Jack Matlock. Jack Matlock never believed ending the Cold War should be a triumphalist issue for the United States. But triumphalism has so afflicted the United States’ policy toward Russia that that is also at the root of some of what we will face.
AARON MATÉ: Well, this is why, if there’s any so-called Russian meddling right now, I believe that it’s on Biden’s behalf. Vladimir Putin recently said that Joe Biden supports renewal of New START, unconditionally, which is not the position of the Trump administration
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Oh, it’s true.
AARON MATÉ: And now it looks as if Russia will agree to a limited renewal of New START, but just in time so they can renegotiate a longer renewal, which is the position of the Biden camp. So, I think—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think that’s right. I was on a call the other day, the Harriman Institute and NYU, and even people—she wasn’t on, but even people like Fiona Hill—but Tom Graham, who was on the call, [say] that it’s gone—the relationship is off balance.
Now, the nuclear issue is one where you can get, I think, more people. They understand that even in worse times, though maybe not worse times, but [even with] US-Russian relations at very low points, you can still try and do nuclear arms control, and the importance of that. So, I think we’ll see that.
It’s in other areas, you know, if we can find. I think the Quincy Institute, not doing much on Russia yet, but the idea of realism and restraint, I think, is a powerful one, and it shouldn’t be termed ‘isolationism.’ Because ‘internationalism’ has become a code word, I think, for sort of moralizing, preaching. And there’s [an] important role for human rights, but I often think we’d do better—considering the UN had to send monitors to monitor our voting in this last period—[to] get our own house in order before we go out and preach to others. And I know Steve felt that way about Russia, and it’s coming out of its own history. You don’t fail to criticize or analyze, but you do it from a position where you’re not a moralist.
AARON MATÉ: Well, in the scholarship and work of Stephen Cohen, there’s a whole legacy for all of us to follow, and I hope for the sake of humanity, I hope we do.
Let me ask you just, finally, about Steve’s softer side. He had a reputation for a tough guy.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, yeah.
AARON MATÉ: But really, you know, as I got to know him better these last few years, I saw up close his kindness, his generosity, and also, you know, things like his devotion to your cat. He was a very devoted cat owner.
And, also, people don’t know this, but he actually was a sponsor and coach for young kids in basketball. Sy Hersh told me that Steve was a really good basketball player.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He loved it. He’s from Kentucky and he was born in Indiana. Basketball is the second religion, or the first, in those states. Played in college, high school, and he loved basketball. Then he was great friends with Bill Bradley, so he followed college in high school.
But he also, I will say, Aaron, he really did value working with a younger generation. I’ve seen in the files, there’s such generosity of spirit in so much of the correspondence, when he didn’t need to go out of his way. But he really valued people.
Our cat was really our daughter’s cat, named Socks, because she was upset when the Clintons gave away their cat. But Socks died Labor Day, and that was very hard. But the last sort of trip we took was around the corner to the vet, and we got the urn back.
And he played. He loved the tournaments in the neighborhood. We still support; we’re going to support them. And our daughter played b-ball. And he did have a softer side. He could have been a vet or plant person.
Anyway, but he just cared about people and he wanted to hear their story. And he loved Jerry Lee Lewis. I remember him sitting in Moscow listening to Jerry Lee, and I think everything had come together.
So, he could be intimidating, no question about it. He could be gruff, and if he didn’t quite get you. Anyway, but he was very generous and caring, and he really enjoyed talking and being with people, and especially talking about what he cared so deeply about. And he did Russia from a perspective of having lived there also, and he cared about it. So many people who study, I think, US-Russian relations have never really cared in that way, so there’s an aridity or sterile quality to some of what passes for discussion, policy, etc.
But yeah, he was…I miss him. His files. And he has his great anecdote lecture I told you about. He did it every year, and people would come from far and wide, and it’s like a comedy class. People are laughing, but these are anecdotes rooted in Russian life that explain an important part of Russian society and life, and he really loved that part of it, too.
AARON MATÉ: Well, I can’t wait to hear those, and to—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you for having me on, Aaron, and I value…I remember the summer of 2017. It was a tough summer, and you, I think you had just been, you were leaving Democracy Now!, or you were there and you had written a piece, and it was a very important connection.
AARON MATÉ: Well, I’m forever indebted to you and Steve. You let me write at The Nation. I think we did invaluable work, and I won an award for it, and—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You did, you won an I.F. Stone award [Izzy Award]. That was exciting, and I think it showed the respect for your reporting. The new editor [of The Nation], Don [Guttenplan], I know you’ve worked with him, and he wrote a brilliant biography of I.F. Stone, if your viewers [are interested]; he was a Nation Washington correspondent for five or six years in New Deal Washington.
AARON MATÉ: And he spoke out against the McCarthyism of his time, and was—
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, we haven’t even used that word. It’s interesting. I mean, I did all my work in college on the McCarthy period—not Eugene. Joe. But there are definitely overtones. People resist them, resist drawing that parallel, but when you’re smeared for saying something because you’re a Russian-Putin ‘apologist,’ it shuts down possibilities. Anyway, may we [move] onward and may we continue to try and bring some light and sanity to US foreign policy, US-Russia relations. I will. It’s part of my life, through Steve. And I want to, on Steve’s behalf, in honoring his work
AARON MATÉ: Hear, hear. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation, the wife of the late Stephen F. Cohen, thank you very much.