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Russia's Rocky Road to DemocracyBy Anne Kibbler
Stephen Cohen's grandfather emigrated from Russia in 1906, but it was mere happenstance, says the College's 1998 Distinguished Alumni Award winner, that the country came to play such an important role in his own life. As an IU junior, during a year abroad in England, he wanted to take a trip to Europe and chose a cheap tour of the Soviet Union. The experience changed his life. Upon his return to IU, he took as many courses as he could from the campus's extraordinary cadre of Soviet experts. Now a professor of Russian studies and history at New York University, Cohen is considered one of the top U.S. experts on Russian history and policy. He frequently appears on television as a commentator and is CBS News's consultant on Russian affairs.
Stephen Cohen is playing devil's advocate. At a seminar for students and faculty in Woodburn Hall, the noted historian and political scientist is laying out his theories about economic and political developments in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union and the ousting of President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1991.
Alternately kicking back in his chair and leaning low over the table to emphasize a point, Cohen, in blue jeans and rolled-up shirtsleeves, is at once laid-back, forthright, humorous, and passionate.
His thesis goes something like this: Conventional wisdom would have it that Gorbachev's attempts to reform the Soviet Union failed because the Communist system was essentially unreformable and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. Along came Boris Yeltsin, who initiated a series of painful but necessary reforms to build a new democracy.
The truth, says Cohen, is that Gorbachev was a European-style social democrat who introduced workable reforms in an astonishingly rapid way, and that the Soviet Union did not fall apart but was abolished by Yeltsin, who in seven years managed to destroy much that he could have used as building blocks for a new beginning.
The result is the devastation of an economy and the impoverishment of most of the Russian people.
"This is about a regression, not a transition forward," Cohen says. "So great has been the economic depression that we must speak of something unprecedented in modern history - the literal demodernization of 20th-century Russia."
For centuries, Russian governments have initiated change from above for the sake of modernization. The irony, says Cohen, is that never did past policies and changes result in such a loss of modernity as have the reforms instituted by the Yeltsin government.
"The core of the problem is that if capital investment is the lifeblood of an economy, Russia's economy has been dying for seven years," Cohen says.
As a result of changes instituted by Yeltsin, the economy has shrunk by at least 50 percent since 1991 and is still contracting. Last August, Yeltsin's government devalued the ruble and froze bank accounts, resulting in the loss of many Russians' life savings. Millions of workers are owed months of back wages, and it is estimated that more than half of the country's business transactions are conducted in barter.
Until recently, Cohen says, the U.S. government and the media and even many of his colleagues in Russian studies glossed over these economic changes, interpreting them merely as necessary evils on a bumpy road to capitalism and democracy.
While many government and media reports put a bright spin on Russia's problems, Cohen cites example after example of the ramifications of economic depression:
"You've ended up with a population that is impoverished, that has had its hard-earned wages and welfare benefits destroyed," Cohen says. "As far as I know, the word 'reform' has always meant things got better. So why call it reform?"
Cohen has spent 40 years witnessing first hand the evolution and demise of the Soviet system. After his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1959, he shifted the focus of his schooling - an undergraduate degree in economics and public policy and a master's in political science - to the study of the Soviet Union.
IU history Professor Alexander Rabin-owitch, a specialist in Russian history, was a contemporary of Cohen's at IU, and the two have remained close friends. Rabinowitch is not surprised that Cohen would present a provocative view of events in the former Soviet Union.
"He was always extraordinarily articulate, bright, engaging, and irreverent," Rabinowitch recalls of Cohen the student. "He loved to look at things in new ways and to challenge traditionally accepted wisdom. He hasn't changed much. There were times we would disagree, and sometimes we still do. But more often than not I find his arguments compelling because they are based on an understanding of Russian history and political culture. Steve tracks Russian politics from the inside and has great intellectual breadth."
During his academic career, Cohen has often spent as much as three to four months of each year in Russia. Not only does he conduct research there, he also has developed lasting friendships among the Russians he has met, including the surviving relatives of Nikolai Bukharin, a partner of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the 1917 revolution. Cohen is an expert on Bukharin and has just completed a public television documentary about Bukharin's widow, Anna Larina.
Russia has become, in effect, Cohen's second life, the object of his intellectual fascination. Why Russia "can't get its
act together," why it has never had a democracy, he says, "it's the most enthralling political story of our time."
Ask Cohen what the future might hold for Russia and he won't commit to firm answers. But he does believe Russia should be the United States' No. 1 foreign policy concern. He also believes that the country needs both a strong leader and a strong parliament, which it has historically lacked.
"Russia is, in a way, looking for its Franklin Delano Roosevelt,"he says. "It needs a leader who knows how to bring it out of the worst depression of the 20th century.
"This country has enormous skills and lots of resources. It needs to get back on its feet economically and socially. And Russia won't remain a beggar. It will get up off its knees. We just don't know how and when." More »