Commentary Magazine

Failed Crusade by Stephen F. Cohen

Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia
by Stephen F. Cohen
Norton. 304 pp. $21.95

In 1991, after seven nightmarish decades, the peoples of Russia managed to free themselves from the Bolshevik yoke. For a considerable spell after the liberation, a wave of optimism, even euphoria, prevailed in Russia and abroad. “The Russian prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before in its history,” is how one longtime Russia-watcher, the journalist David Remnick, expressed the general mood back then.

Now, however, more than a decade later, there is an increasing sense that things have gone badly awry. A little more than a year ago, Boris Yeltsin staggered off the stage and handed power to Vladimir Putin, a man stamped from the mold of the KGB. Russia continues to wage a brutal on-again, off-again war within its own borders against the Chechens. The economy, we are told, is in a shambles, its only efficient sector being known as the mafiya. The masses are impoverished. Mortality is rising; life-expectancy declining. Nationalism is on the march.

The question increasingly before us is: what went wrong, and why? In this country, one answer that has gained currency in disparate quarters places a good part of the blame on the failed policies of the U.S. government. From the Right, a report issued this past fall by the Speaker’s Advisory Group on Russia—a Republican-party body in Congress—accused the Clinton administration of a panoply of sins, including the failure to help Russia build “a system of free enterprise.” But the Right is not alone in blaming the U.S.; the Left has its own, mirror-image form of the same indictment, whose outlines may be found in this new book.

A professor of history at New York University, Stephen F. Cohen is a columnist for the Nation and a consultant to CBS News. In Failed Crusade, he charges that what is at fault for Russia’s current troubles is the very effort to export “free enterprise” in the first place. Along with an essay laying out this argument in full, Cohen brings together a number of his earlier writings to demonstrate that he saw the current calamity coming all along.


In building his case, Cohen directs a fair amount of fire against the Western press, asserting that American correspondents in particular have done a woefully inadequate job of conveying the scale and scope of Russia’s downward spiral. Living for the most part in the relatively prosperous capital of Moscow, and seldom making forays into the heartland, journalists have tended to offer story after story on the novelties of post-Soviet life, like the capital’s huge McDonald’s—described by the New York Times as “[o]ne of the best seats for observing the new Russia”—while the old Russia, unobserved, crumbles all around them.

But if the press is one target of Cohen’s ire, by far the more important target is Washington. The U.S., Cohen contends, has been engaged in a campaign, utterly misconceived, to transform post-Communist Russia “into some facsimile of the American democratic and capitalist system.” By pushing such an instantaneous and radical transformation, and in particular by tearing down the functioning components of the old order, it has brought about a disaster of unprecedented scale and scope. In Failed Crusade he recounts some astonishing displays of hubris by ranking officials of the Clinton administration, whose grandiose plans for reform (see the loose talk of “reinventing” Russia emanating from the office of Vice President Al Gore) were formulated against a backdrop of obliviousness to conditions on the ground.


In all this, Cohen manages to score some points. But he falls far short of proving his broader case: namely, that America’s “reckless” policy of imposing “free enterprise” on Russia precipitated a “tragedy.” Indeed, for a critic of what he derides as biased and politicized scholarship, Cohen reveals some striking biases and highly politicized—and even bizarre—judgments of his own.

What appears to provoke Cohen especially in Failed Crusade is that Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, was never given an adequate chance to put Soviet socialism right. This chance, in Cohen’s view, was very much there for the taking, for in its final years the USSR was not the ossified oligarchy drawn in caricature by American Sovietologists clinging blindly to cold-war categories; rather, it “turned out to be remarkably reformable.” With Gorbachev at the helm, moreover, it was being guided by “the greatest reformer in Russian history.” Though he faced enormous obstacles in bringing about change—not least, the obstacles placed in his path by the bellicose policies of the Reagan administration—in the end, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s tenure did not so much “ ‘collapse’ as it was disassembled by a small group of ranking Soviet officials, Yeltsin among them.”

Then, Cohen’s analysis continues, these officials, with American encouragement, undertook a program of “shock therapy” that brought unprecedented hardship to the Russian people. Among other things, they dismantled some of the key building blocks of a healthy socialism: their policies “deprived workers of whatever rights and protection they had in the Soviet system”; they “decimated” the “large, highly educated, and potentially entrepreneurial Soviet middle classes”; and they eliminated “hard-won welfare entitlements” complete with “cradle-to-grave benefits.”

These and other policies, Cohen concludes, brought about a “degradation of agriculture and livestock herds even worse in some respects than occurred during Stalin’s catastrophic collectivization of the peasantry in the 1930’s.” They also produced “more new orphans than resulted from Russia’s almost 30 million casualties in World War II.” In short, Russia’s post-Communist leaders—again at the active urging and with the collaboration of the United States—inflicted greater harm in various realms than even the Soviet system at its most brutal.


Does any of this correspond with reality? In assessing Cohen’s current views, it may be worth remembering that he has a long track record as a Soviet analyst and prognostdcator. It is not altogether a pretty one.

Cohen first made an impression with his 1975 biography of Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), the Soviet politburo member who championed Lenin’s market-based New Economic Policy in the 1920’s. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, though a substantial and generally well-received work, offered more than a few clues about the direction in which Cohen was to head over the course of his career. For a basic premise of the biography was that the Stalinist tyranny of the 1930’s was an aberration. If Bukharin had come to power in place of Stalin, a very different brand of Communist government would have emerged: instead of despotism and terror, Russia would have been able to enjoy the fruits of the more humane brand of socialism represented by Lenin and Leninism, of which Bukharin was (in Cohen’s telling) the legitimate continuator.

To believe this, of course, is to believe much about Lenin himself that is, to say the least, debatable. In fact, a far more persuasive case can be made that Stalinism itself was the logical extension of Leninist rule and not a perversion of it. Bukharin, in any case, died in a Stalinist purge, and whatever possibility he held out was never put to the historical test. His biographer, however, never gave up on that possibility, or on the thought that, somehow, under the right leader, Soviet Communism could yet escape from its “deformations” and return to the true path of Leninist-style socialism.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Nikita Khrushchev offered such a hope: this Soviet leader, according to Cohen (writing in the Nation), initiated a revival of “long-dormant socialist commitments in Soviet ideology: equality, abundance, efficiency, and justice.” And when, after another brutal interlude of two decades, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the “alternative historical model of socialism initiated by Lenin and elaborated by Bukharin” seemed to have found a champion once again.

Cohen’s affinity for Gorbachev was put on regular display in the 1980’s. As Soviet politics suddenly became turbulent, he began to appear often on television and in print explaining internal Russian developments and frequently castigating the Reagan administration for its unaccommodating stance toward Moscow. Though he occasionally exhibited a keen insight into the machinations of high Soviet politics, he also revealed a disturbing tendency to echo Kremlin propaganda themes—sometimes almost verbatim. Thus, in one of his many columns in the Nation, Cohen went so far as to attribute Reagan’s hardline policies not only to the pressures brought to bear by the American “military-industrial complex” and “legions of professional cold-warriors” but also to “certain Jewish organizations.” For each of these groups, explained Cohen in quasi-Marxist terms, “[a]ny acknowledged improvement in the Soviet system threatens their political, economic, and ideological well-being.”

Cohen’s assessment of the long-term health of the Soviet system of rule during its final years was exceedingly upbeat. The Reagan administration’s efforts to compel change were “doomed,” he wrote in another column, “because they are predicated on wildly exaggerated conceptions of Soviet domestic problems. In reality, the Soviet Union is not in economic crisis; nor is it politically unstable.” Though, in Failed Crusade, Cohen reprints a good many of his earlier writings, this noteworthy piece of analysis is unaccountably not among them.


Speaking of “wildly exaggerated conceptions,” however, we may now return to Cohen’s current apocalypticism. Conditions in Russia these days are assuredly bad, and in some respects getting worse—although there have also been areas of remarkable progress that should not be downplayed or ignored. But however one assesses Russia’s current troubles, little in them justifies the catalog of horrors presented in Failed Crusade—as fantastical in its way as Cohen’s listing of such glorious accomplishments of Soviet Communism as its “hard-won welfare entitlements.”

The “cradle-to-grave benefits” that Cohen rates so highly were, as everybody but he now acknowledges, almost entirely of the “grave” variety, extending from mass murder under Lenin and Stalin to the systematic underinvestment in health care that left a stamp on Russian mortality rates still in evidence today. If post-Communist Russia has descended into a woeful condition, it is thanks less to the very real flaws of U.S. policy, or even to the very real shortcomings of Boris Yeltsin, than to the enormous and near-insuperable difficulty of recovering from the massive trauma inflicted by seven decades of Bolshevik rule. No amount of dreaming about the belligerent Reagan and the wonderful Gorbachev will alter that simple reality.


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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