Stephen F. Cohen on Russia’s democratization and how US meddling undermines it

Pushback rounds out 2020 by airing an unpublished interview with Stephen F. Cohen, the eminent Russia historian and scholar who passed away in September at the age of 81.

In an interview recorded one year before his death, Stephen F. Cohen discusses local elections and protests in Russia; opposition leader Alexei Navalny; as well as the state of Russia’s post-Soviet democratization and how US meddling undermines it.

Guest: Stephen F. Cohen. Professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton University, contributing editor at The Nation, and author of books including “War with Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.” This interview was recorded in September 2019, one year before his death.


AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback, I’m Aaron Maté. Today we are airing something special. It’s an unpublished interview that I did with the late Stephen F. Cohen in September 2019, just a year before his death. Stephen passed away in September of this year at the age of 81.

And as anyone who watches The Grayzone knows, Steve was a legend. He shaped the field of Russian studies. He wrote a number of really important books about Russian and Soviet history. And in the last few years, as this new Cold War emerged, and anti-Russia chauvinism and militarism became just predominant across both political parties, starting especially with the Maidan coup in Ukraine in 2014. And that coinciding with the US and Russia being on opposite sides of the Syrian proxy war. And then, of course, in 2016, when Russiagate began.

During all this time, Stephen F. Cohen was almost a lonely figure inside the academy, from his esteemed perch. He was professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and NYU, world-renowned, appeared often on CNN and other major outlets. And he was virtually alone in pushing back on all this, and calling out the hypocrisy, and calling out the fallacies of the narratives that were used to justify what he called a New Cold War on Russia.

And he was infallible. He faced a whole bunch of smear campaigns and childish attacks, but it didn’t faze him. He handled it. He handled everything with so much grace and courage, and a mastery of the facts. And that’s why we all loved him and looked up to him. And that’s why his loss has just been so incalculable, because there’s no one like him.

And that’s why now with a story like Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in the news, the first person I want to hear from on this is Stephen Cohen, and he’s not here anymore. But what we can do today, though, is play this interview that I did with him a year ago, that we have never released before. I don’t remember why we exactly didn’t release it. Sometimes we just record a lot of segments, and then something gets lost, and you don’t come back to it. But in this case, I’m glad that we haven’t published it yet because it gives us a way to honor Steve, as we close the year, the year in which we lost him.

But it’s also actually relevant to this Navalny story that is a top story right now in the world. Because we discuss Alexei Navalny in this interview. It was recorded a year ago, right after the United Russia Party, which backs Vladimir Putin had suffered some losses in some local elections across Russia, including in Moscow. But in this interview, Steve talks about that. He also talks about Nalalny. And he talks about how Western meddling in Russia — including by propping up figures like Navalny as opposition leaders, when really the picture is more nuanced inside Russia — that Navalny is actually more of an anti-corruption activist. And there are opposition figures with more popularity than he has.

But because for whatever reason he is deemed to serve Western interests, he is propped up inside the West as this major opposition figure. And the analogy that people sometimes make is that it would be like if Russia propped up Gary Johnson, as a major opposition figure in the US. That’s the analogy that some people make.

So Professor Cohen talks about that, in this interview, what Navalny really does in Russia and how he’s really seen. And he also talks about how years of Western intervention in Russia, and things like propping up people like Navalny actually serve to undermine the goal of democratizing Russia. And that Russia has to be seen in its own history, not in the context of anybody else’s. And that’s the lesson that Steve often preached for judging any country: to judge it within its own history. Not anybody else’s, including our own.

And that is the background to this interview we are now going to play with Stephen F. Cohen, which again, was conducted a year ago in September 2019. And the occasion was some elections in Russia, where the United Russia party, which backs Vladimir Putin, had suffered some losses. And so Professor Cohen talks about that. He talks about Navalny. And he talks about how Western meddling in Russia — in the name of so-called “democracy promotion,” actually, in his view, impedes the cause of democratization inside Russia. Here is Stephen Cohen from September 2019.

AARON MATÉ: My guest is Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton and NYU, author of many books, including his latest “War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.”

Welcome, Professor Cohen. Let’s talk about what’s happening inside of Russia. We recently had elections in Moscow, where the party of Putin suffered some setbacks. This was a culmination of weeks of protests, by the opposition that saw some of Russia’s biggest opposition protests in years. Many arrests, anger over the exclusion of some candidates from the ballot. Your take on what has transpired recently, when it comes to these protests and the election results?

STEPHEN F. COHEN: Well, I come from it in a kind of autobiographical way, which gives me a perspective. Maybe it’s not the correct perspective, but it’s more historical. I start living for long periods of time in Soviet Russia in 1976. And it was about that time that the dissident movement was making decisions about what they would do publicly, and what they would not risk doing publicly. And by chance, purely by chance, I ended up living among many of these dissidents.

So I’ve heard these conversations. When I see what’s unfolding in Russia, today: street protests, the way the authorities react or do not react, the way — the importance that elections, particularly regional and local elections –that’s for the mayors of big cities, and the governors of large provinces — the way these elections take place. I see a lot of good in this because I look at it historically.

If we say that the history of the attempt to democratize Russia began roughly in 1988-89, with Gorbachev and the first free elections to a national parliament, I would date it from then. 1989.

So Aaron, is 30 years, if we date, again, the beginning of democratization from the late 1980s, under Gorbachev to the present, just about exactly 30 years is that in the history of, of the democratization, particularly of a very large country, one with weak democratic practices and experiences and traditions, but acquiring them is 30 years, a long time or a short time?

So you answer the question comparatively: how long did it take England, Great Britain — which is considered to be the kind of home of our modern democracy — to acquire democracy? How many decades passed before people who didn’t own property were allowed to vote? Before women were allowed to vote? And you can ask the same question about the United States. How long it took for women to get the vote. And I, having grown up in the Jim Crow South, as myself, as I remember back, how long did it take Black folk, to get the right to vote down where I grew up? Decades.

So we got to see this in perspective, what’s going on in Russia. Thirty years is not a long time. But Russia has come a long way. Elections are now accepted. Unfair practices are protested. They’re covered and reported on television. More and more officeholders — the most important being governors and mayors — are elected. Some are appointed. But more and more they’re contested by opposition forces. The opposition is just learning how to be an electoral opposition in Russia. This is semi-new for Russia.

Most opposition wasn’t electoral in Russia — before it was of a different kind. So I think what we’re seeing unfolding in Russia, I mean, there are pluses and minuses, but it’s kind of encouraging. It’s encouraging that the elections went ahead, that the opposition to the party of the Kremlin did well in several regions and several towns, that people protested, that the degree of repression was relatively low, certainly for Russia, and that the process of democratization continues in Russia.

AARON MATÉ: And the takes that we’re getting in the US from US pundits that this signifies a major threat to Vladimir Putin — the setbacks he faced in Moscow, for example, I believe his party lost about a third of its seats. That this could mean that Putin himself is next out the door. Do you think that that is a fair assessment? Is Putin facing a serious challenge here?

STEPHEN F. COHEN: No, because first of all, there’s the reality that very few of the oppositionists ran against Putin. They may run against the party that people associate with Putin. But Putin himself doesn’t associate with that party. He’s not a member of the party. He’s not head of the party. He takes its support at electoral moments, but Putin is apart. So the degree to which oppositionists ran against Putin, and won, was low.

There were a lot of local issues. If you look at where oppositionists won and lost, a lot of the issues are what we would expect them to be. The garbage isn’t being picked up. Hot water is not reliable. The air is being polluted. Construction projects are being built near parks. The schools are failing. Health care system is overloaded. There’s a lot of local issues. I mean, it’s not true that all politics are local — all politics is local. But a lot of politics is local. And the kind of local politics you find in Russia, are the kinds we would identify with.

So I don’t think this was in any significant way, a referendum on Putin’s governance in any way. It might have been a referendum on the party that wants to be Putin’s party. And yet a lot of people who are members of the party, accepted party support, ran as independents, because they thought the party was not a benefit. But look, I mean, the important thing is these elections continue with their flaws, with their achievements. And this is a process. And I return to it: 30 years is not a long time in the history of a country’s democratization.

AARON MATÉ: How should we understand Alexei Navalny, do you think. We often hear about Navalny being the most popular opposition politician in Russia. He’s made corruption a central issue. Corruption is by all accounts extremely rampant in Russia. On the other hand, the criticism of him is that he has been xenophobic, and that the faction he represents is simply just a different faction of the corrupt elite. Just he happens to be just outside of the current one.

STEPHEN F. COHEN: Well, that’s probably unfair to Navalny, and I mean, he’s played a positive role to some degree in Russia. What matters, I think, is not what I think about Navalny, or you think about Navalny, or the New York Times thinks about Novotny, but what other Russian oppositionists is think about Navalny. And there are very mixed views in Russia. Some people don’t trust his nationalism, his willingness to appeal to — I wouldn’t call them quasi-fascist, but ultra-nationalist Forces — because he had that background. And some people worry about a leader-centered dissident opposition movement, because the kind of democratic argument in Russia is, “We’ve had too much leader-centric politics in our country, and not enough that’s institutionalized.”

So they’re not real happy with the way the Navalny kind of usurps opposition politics. But you know, other leaders will emerge. One of the things about Russia that makes it difficult, is the country is so big — again, the biggest in the world — that you and I can’t see what local electoral politics are going on in other cities where Navalny is not important at all, but other leaders have emerged. A number of them women, by the way.

So suddenly, there’s a story I think recently, for example, about a woman, maybe in [inaudible], I don’t remember but very far from Moscow, who turns out to be a very popular oppositionist figure, I’d never heard of her. And she only came to the attention of the Western media, because she was mistreated. But there are probably scores of people like this around Russia.

And this is a good thing. I mean, again, I keep coming back as a historian to bearing in mind that when Gorbachev began, and Gorbachev is still alive. And he watches this. And when I see him as I do when I go to Russia, he’s torn. Because he understands that he’s the father of whatever democracy is going to emerge in Russia. And as a father, he’s worried about his offspring and its health and its behavior. But it’s a very messy, protracted process. But how could it be otherwise?

One of the things that American politicians I think — Senators, who speak about things of which they know nothing, and the New York Times and the Washington Post, who are always choosing sides, and editorializing — is we do Russian democrats, no good with this kind of interventionism. Or with the kind of stunt that then-Vice President Biden pulled by going to Russia and telling Putin, he shouldn’t return to the presidency. We undermine authentic democratization in Russia with this kind of interventionism. And we should feel a little shame-faced, considering the fact that we’re very busy accusing Russia of intervention, meddling in our election.

AARON MATÉ: So finally, Professor Cohen, a lot being made, particularly about the results in Moscow, where in the Moscow vote for the Moscow assembly, Putin’s United Russia party lost about a third of his votes. This is, of course, where all these protests are being held. What do you make of that result in Moscow and its importance to Russia overall?

STEPHEN F. COHEN: Well you can’t exaggerate the importance of Moscow. I’m not sure the figure is right, but I read recently that roughly 75% of all of Russia’s invested capital is controlled through Moscow, banks, or invested in Moscow itself. Politically, it’s more than the capital. It’s the Kremlin city, if you know what I mean. So they, the mayor of Moscow, [Sergei] Sobyanin, has a kind of interesting reputation in Moscow. Among non-conformists, let’s not call them dissidents. But people who think for themselves.

A lot of people think he’s been a very, very good mayor, that if you go to Moscow today, and you walk around the city, particularly the inner city, compared to the way it was 10 years ago, the city has become beautiful, clean, wonderful, restored, he gets a lot of credit for that. He’s also thought to be — and I know this from a couple of friends who have operated quasi-dissident institutions, like museums or exhibits — he’s been a fairly liberal mayor, in that his people have issued permits that are needed. Like they’re needed in any place.

But this then brings us to another question that people in my generation will remember. If you want to protest something that you think is really bad — in my case, it would have been the Vietnam War. And I thought about this when I thought about people in Moscow, seeking permits to march, and then marching in places where they didn’t have permits, because they wanted confrontation with the police.

During the protest against the war in Vietnam — though, I was in living in New York and come here from Kentucky and Indiana, was a student at Columbia — I recall vividly these discussions before these large protests; the organizers hoping to gather 100-200-300,000 people — maybe less — but in Central Park or various places. And the question about, whether to do it with or without a permit? And so there was a negotiation with the city.

And sometimes the city gave you a permit. Sometimes it didn’t. Then the organizers had to make a fundamental decision: do we do we go ahead without a permit, in which case we’re going to be confronted by police. And what do we do then when we’re confronted by police? Are we passive? Or do we provoke the police? Some of the organizers — I talk now about the opposition against the war in Vietnam — wanted arrest, because they wanted to be shown on television, thinking it would show a repressive state and win adherents. Almost exactly the same conversation has gone on in Moscow, ever since protests began under Gorbachev.

By the way, when we talk about protest in Moscow: I may have the year slightly off in the number. But I believe — and we’re talking about protest now, of maybe 20-30-40,000 people today. In 1990, I believe it was, 1990. Yeah. In 1990, there was a protest march of 600,000 people in Moscow — 600,000. And what were they protesting? There was a clause in the then-Soviet constitution, that named the Communist Party as the only party permitted in the country. They wanted that clause removed from the constitution. That was 1990. But imagine: 600,000 people.

So if we look at the history of democratization of Russia, going back to the Gorbachev years, and we take the view that protests are part of democratization — as they were in England, as they were in the United States — then we see the history of Russia during the last 30 years. And it doesn’t look all that bad. But there were 600,000 people in 1990.

Recently, far less, because partly, it’s become routinized. It was sensation in 1990 to go into the streets and protest. Today, you know, if it’s a weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Mom says to Dad, it’s a nice sunny day, let’s go down to the protests. Dad says I’m going bowling. I mean, some people go to the dacha. I mean, so many people go to the dacha, they’re away. Do they come back in time for the protest? It’s become a kind of routine experience. And this is a good thing, I think.

AARON MATÉ: All right, Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and NYU, author of many books, including his latest “War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate.” Thanks very much.

STEPHEN F. COHEN: Thank you Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: That was Stephen F. Cohen, speaking to me in September 2019. I can’t think of a better way to end this year than with his words. His wisdom was always so important to me, and I know it was to many people who watch the Grayzone.