Stephen F. Cohen: Profile in Courage

In Berlin on Christmas Day in 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted Ode to Freedom Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Official Concert of the Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989. As Klaus Geitel, one of the Europe’s most respected music critics, wrote in his translated essay at

The Ode “To Freedom”—as Bernstein had the soloists and chorus sing in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—indeed symbolized for many Germans a depth of joy they had hitherto hardly known: freedom, a gift from the gods…

Not only the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was to participate, but musicians from the most important orchestras in the world as well: from Dresden and from Leningrad, which now again bears the old, venerable name of St Petersburg, from London, New York and Paris. All were to combine to achieve the common goal of ringing the bell of emotion, of joy at this great, historical moment which Leonard Bernstein had conceived. He was truly more than a conductor; he shook people awake from the rostrum, surrendering to Beethoven’s music and yet rendering it with all his heart and soul at the same time. Ode to Freedom - Beeth... Best Price: $9.98 Buy New $16.60 (as of 11:14 UTC - Details)

Hearing Bernstein is a poignant experience. And it is no less touching to see him at work, to follow his efforts, to perceive his alternation between reserve and extreme concentration, his welling gentleness, and cheerfulness, his re-creative energy.

I cannot help remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall and the exultation, seemingly of millions of people worldwide, at the prospects of peace and freedom, the end of the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Bernstein invoked something holy, creating art in the service of the noblest aspect of the human soul—the seeking of liberty and peace; such is the work of divinely inspired genius, both his and Beethoven’s.

Yet so many years later, the hope so many of us had seems unjustified. We are living in an altogether different world.

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Besides me is a book I’ve taken from my late mother’s nightstand, one of her favorite works of history, a book that deserves an entire essay of its own: Black Sea by Neal Ascherson. In her own hand on a single yellow Post-it® note, written in red ink on and placed on the first page of Chapter Ten are the words: “Here is the story of Abkhazia and Georgia.”

Chapter ten begins:

In August 1992, a small savage war broke out on the shores of the Black Sea between Abkhazia and Georgia. It ended, just over a year later, with the defeat of the Georgian forces led in person by President Edward Shevardnadze and the emergence of a precariously independent Republic of Abkhazia.

Ascherson explains the causes of the conflict and what we found to be the most tragic consequence of the war:

Abkhazia also lost its history. More accurately, it lost the material evidence of its own past, the relics and documents which any Black Sea Ascherson, Neal Best Price: $2.00 Buy New $9.50 (as of 12:25 UTC - Details) newly independent nation needs to re-invent and reappraise its own identity. This was not an accidental consequence of the fighting for Sukhum. It was, in part, a deliberate act of destruction.

The National Museum was not burned, but it was looted and devastated…The huge marble relief of a woman and her children, found on the sea-bed off the site of Dioscurias, was spared because the staff (several of whom were Georgians) hid it behind boards. But the Georgian soldiers took the coin collections and even replicas of gold and silver vessels whose originals were already in the museum at Tbilisi…Soldiers do this everywhere in occupied cities—it was no worse than the plundering of the Kerch museum in the Crimean War. But the fate of the State Archives was different.

…One day in the winter of 1992, a white Lada without number plates, containing four men from the Georgian National Guard drew up outside. The guardsmen shot the doors open and then flung incendiary grenades into the hall and stairwell. A vagrant boy, one of the many children who by then were living rough on the streets, was rounded up and made to help spread the flames, while a group of Sukhum citizens tried vainly to break through the cordon and enter the building to rescue burning books and papers. In those archives was most of the scanty, precious written records of Abkhazia’s past…the archives also contained the entire documentation of the Greek community…As a report compiled later in Athens remarked: ‘the history of the region became ashes.’

In 2008, there was another conflict in the region that not only involved Georgia and Abkhazia but Ossetia and Russia. And through the Internet (most likely finding him from a blog post on, listening to his commentary which was at odds with the narrative dispensed by the mainstream media, we discovered Professor Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Emeritus Professor of Politics at Princeton. His is a voice that to this day speaks to us with conviction, intelligence and passion to warn us of the dangers on the path that’s been taken by the elites. His is a voice singularly different from the angry and provocative voices we hear every day in the press. The difference now between events eight years ago and today is that a direct military confrontation between the United States with Russia appears possible. Should the West Engage... Stephen F. Cohen, Vla... Best Price: $1.99 Buy New $9.49 (as of 07:20 UTC - Details)

I don’t think I have to remind readers of the recent headlines, especially the allegations of Russian hacking of the DNC and the NSA or the conflicts even taking place between American and Russian athletes during the Olympic Games. To any thinking person, it is obvious that a new cold war is taking place.

Given current events, I follow the work of Professor Cohen with even greater interest.

In Should the West Engage Putin’s Russia?: The Munk Debates (Kindle edition here), which took place on April 10th, 2015, Professor Cohen, begins his talk by making the core of his arguments on the perils of the new Cold War:

Unlike Ms. Applebaum, I come here, my first trip to Canada, as a patriot of American and Canadian security, on behalf of my family, and yours. I believe that we need a partner in the Kremlin if we are going to have global security—not a friend, but a partner who shares our fundamental security interest. To achieve that, we must not merely engage Russia; we must pursue full co-operation on security and other matters. National security, for both Canada and the U.S., still runs through Moscow. This is an existential truth.

I want you to consider something I’m going to share over the course of this debate. Remember what the former United States senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts.” It’s profound.

Here are the facts: The world today is much more dangerous, far less stable and ordered than it was twenty-five years ago when the Soviet Union existed. There are more nuclear states but less control over the sale of nuclear weapons, over nuclear know-how, and over nuclear material. There are more regional conflicts, more open ethnic and religious hatreds, and there is more political extremism and intolerance. As a result, there is more terrorism in more places.

And to make matters worse, there is more economic and social deprivation and resentment. And as we all know, there are more environmental dangers and foreseeable shortages of the earth’s resources.

Here’s the other fact: not one of these existential dangers can be dealt with effectively without Russia’s co-operation, no matter who sits in the Kremlin. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia remains the world’s largest territorial country, and one that straddles the fateful frontline between Western and Islamic civilization. Russia still has, proportionately, more of the world’s natural resources, from energy to freshwater, than any other nation. Fascism versus Capitalism Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. Best Price: $3.39 Buy New $7.45 (as of 05:45 UTC - Details)

And, of course, Russia has its arsenals and stockpiles of every conceivable weapon of mass destruction. Whether we like it or not, Russia still has sympathizers, partners, and allies around the world, even in Europe and the Western hemisphere. These are facts. Not opinions.

What is the alternative? Our opponents say it is to isolate Russia. They want to weaken, destabilize, and carry out regime change—as if it were that easy—in Russia.

I think it is important to read both sides of the arguments presented, to decide for yourself which argument has the greater merit: the one for isolation of Putin’s Russia and military escalation or the one, which Professor Cohen presents, of the benefits of a new détente instead of a new Cold War.

In addition to his published writings, Professor Cohen makes weekly appearances on The John Batchelor Show, which is also carried with a summary on Professor’s Cohen’s page at The Nation. The two most recent ones are Cold-War Casualties From Ukraine and Syria to the New York Times’s ‘Standards’ and Neo-McCarthyite Kremlin-Baiting of Trump Continues to Prevent Urgent Policy Debates.

In earlier broadcasts with John Batchelor, Professor Cohen described perhaps Obama’s finest hour as President: when he chose to work with President Putin, removing the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and preventing direct American military intervention and attendant massive loss of life. However, the spirit behind that decision evidently no longer exists. As Cohen questions in his June 22nd podcast, “Is Washington waging an undeclared war against Russia”?

Cohen raises three “hypothetical” and heretical questions for discussion. Does the recent escalation of anti-Russian behavior by Washington, from its growing NATO military buildup on Russia’s western borders and refusal to cooperate with Moscow against the Islamic State in Syria to the Obama administration’s refusal to compel its government in Kiev to implement a negotiated settlement of the Ukrainian civil war, reflect an undeclared US war against Russia already underway? Given that CTRL ALT Revolt! Nick Cole Best Price: $10.00 Buy New $17.99 (as of 08:30 UTC - Details) many US allies are unhappy with these developments, has Washington gone “rogue”? And does the recent spate of warfare media “information” reflect these new realities?

As evidence, Cohen points to some recent examples: the emerging permanence of NATO’s “exercises” on Russia’s borders on land, sea, and in the air; the Obama administration’s refusal to separate physically its “moderate oppositionists” in Syria from anti-Assad fighters recognized as terrorist groups, despite having promised to do so; the demand by 51 State Department “diplomats” that Obama launch air strikes against Assad’s Syrian army, which is allied with Moscow, even if it might mean “military confrontation with Russia”; the questionable allegation that Russia had hacked files of the Democratic National Committee coupled with a NATO statement that hacking a member state might now be regarded as war against the entire military alliance; and the EU’s renewal of economic sanctions against Russia without any meaningful pretext.

As evidence that many US allies are unhappy with these developments, even opposed them, Cohen cites the German Foreign Minister’s denunciation of NATO’s buildup as “war-mongering”; the stated desire of several major European countries, which (not the United States) pay the economic costs to end the sanctions; the growing political and security relationship between Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and Putin; and the relative success of the international economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, hosted by Putin, whom the Obama administration continues to try to “isolate.”

Whether or not Washington’s behavior constitutes undeclared war, Putin, at the conference, warned that if it continues it will mean “war,” reinforcing Cohen’s impression that Moscow is preparing for the worst, bringing the two nuclear superpowers to their worst confrontation since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

In the summary of the August Seventeenth podcast (link above), which is the most recent at the time of my writing, Professor Cohen raises the following questions concerning the attack on Crimea allegedly by Ukrainian Agents:

Last week’s still somewhat mysterious episode in Crimea was an important example. Russian President Putin announced that Kiev had sent agents with terrorist intent to (now) Russia’s Crimean peninsula. They were captured and one or more Russian security agents were killed. Putin said the episode showed that Kiev had no real interest in the Minsk peace talks and that he would no longer participate in them, the other participants being the leaders of Germany, France, and Ukraine. Kiev said the episode was a Russian provocation signaling Putin’s intent to launch a large-scale “invasion” of Ukraine.

Cohen asks, as is always asked when a crime is committed, who had a motive? So far as he can judge, Putin had none. Kiev, on the other hand, is in a deepening economic-social political crisis and losing its Western support, especially in Europe. Cohen thinks it fully possible that Kiev staged the episode to rally that flagging support by (yet again) pointing to Putin’s impending “aggression.” Washington seemed to support Kiev’s version—leading Cohen to wonder whether a faction in the administration was also involved—while Europe, certainly Germany, openly doubted Kiev’s version. If Putin is serious about quitting the Minsk negotiations, Cohen adds, it means war is now the only way to end the Ukrainian civil and proxy war, a way certainly favored by some factions in Washington and Kiev.

Factional politics were even clearer regarding Syria, where Obama had proposed military cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State—in effect, finally accepting Putin’s longstanding proposal—along with important agreements that would reduce the danger of nuclear war. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post had reported strong factional opposition to both of Obama’s initiatives—in effect, a kind of détente with Russia—and both have been halted, though whether temporarily or permanently is unclear. Cohen thinks we will soon know, because Putin needs a decision by Obama now as the crucial battle for Aleppo intensifies. Under his own pressure at home, Putin seems resolved to end the Islamic State’s occupation of Syria, Aleppo being a strategic site, without or with US cooperation, which he would prefer to have…

The degradation of The New York Times (announced on its front page last week in a declaration that it would suspend its own standards in covering Trump and his presidential campaign) is, according to Cohen, especially lamentable. Once the Times set high journalistic standards for young journalists elsewhere in the media. Judging by the growing number of young “journalists” who assail critics of US policy toward Russia as Kremlin “apologists,” “stooges,” and “useful idiots,” rather than actually study the issues and debate the critics, the Times is no longer an exemplar. Unprofessional, unbalanced journalism is another reason Cohen thinks this Cold War is more dangerous than was the preceding one—as well as a mainstream media disgrace.

In reading his words, I am reminded of what Lew Rockwell wrote about Murray Rothbard in his book, Fascism versus Capitalism:

When Rothbard would take on a subject, his very first stop was not to sit in the easy chair and think of the top of his head; instead, he went to the literature and sought to master it. He read everything he could from all points of view. He sought to be as much an expert in the topic as other experts in the field. Son of Thunder: The Sp... Lorenzo, Yvonne Buy New $2.99 (as of 02:55 UTC - Details)

In other words, Rothbard’s first step toward writing was to learn as much as possible…If you follow his model, you will not regard this as an arduous task but as a thrilling journey…

There is another respect in which we can all emulate Murray. He was fearless in speaking the truth. He never let fear of colleagues, fear of the profession, fear of editors or political cultures, stand in the way of his desire to say what was true.

It is entirely possible that Professor Cohen has never read the work of Murray Rothbard but from listening to him, from reading his writings, I have no doubt he uses a comparable methodology. Yet I do suspect that he is facing the same professional disdain that the courageous Rothbard did, and is all too often being accused of being an “apologist” when it is all too obvious to clear thinking, rational minds that Cohen is a scholar and a historian who asks questions of the utmost importance and urgency. As Cohen himself has said about Putin, “Personally, I don’t care much about Putin. I wish I were going to live long enough to see how my fellow historians evaluate Putin’s role as a leader of Russia. And I think it is going to be a big debate, the positives and the negatives.”

In the Cyberpunk novel CTRL ALT REVOLT by Nick Cole I found an unexpected gem, this statement by a principal character, perhaps the true motive for HarperCollins corporate contempt for the work, meaning the abortion issue was only clever misdirection:

…the truth is the most valuable thing in the world. It’s, in fact, the only thing that has value and provides value for everything else. Everything that’s false can’t be relied on and is therefore actually worthless. Therefore, there’s no sense in having it. But if you have the truth, well then, you’ve really got something there, don’tcha? See, with the truth, you can really do anything. The truth makes you very powerful.

I think that Should the West Engage Putin’s Russia?: The Munk Debates is well worth reading for those interested in seeking and finding the truth, not to mention who the three thousand attendees chose as the winner: the side for engagement with Russia or the side for containment. I am eagerly looking forward not only to Professor Cohen’s weekly conversations with John Batchelor but to his soon to be published book, Why Cold War Again?: How America Lost Post-Soviet Russia.

It is obvious that the tension between Russia and the United States is greater than it has been in decades, that we may face another Cuban missile crisis yet without the mechanisms that existed decades ago to defuse it, as Cohen has warned.

I quoted from Ascherson’s book because of the deliberate destruction of Abkhazia’s cultural and historical heritage presaged the destruction of Syria’s at Palmyra, perhaps for the same motives even if the vandals were not of same culture and faith.

After Palmyra was liberated, a concert was performed, Praying for Palmyra: Russian orchestra performs concert honoring victims of Syria war, conducted by Valery Gergiev, an Ossetian. As the blogger The Saker noted:

I find it most significant that the concert did not begin with a piece by a Russian composer. Instead, the Russians chose to begin with a poignant piece by Johann Sebastian Bach: this famous “Chaconne”, Partita for solo violin Nº 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists,” and Violinist Joshua Bell has said the Chaconne is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” (source).

Perhaps providentially, 2016 is the centennial year of Yehudi Menuhin, who was not only a great artist but a man of peace, the winner of the prestigious The Wolf Prize. I would like to think the man who, in my opinion, was the greatest performer of Bach’s Chaconne, was there in spirit.

In recalling that concert at Palmyra of perhaps equal historical significance to Bernstein’s, perhaps Americans and Russians can find common ground in their universal cultural heritage, in the battle for civilization that rages upon us, a battle against the darkness that exists in the hearts of men of both nations. Check Amazon for Pricing.

I am not as young as when Bernstein performed Beethoven’s Ninth and the Berlin Wall fell. Death is stalking and has claimed friends, some whom I’ve never met, such as divinely inspired geniuses like Bernstein and Menuhin, whose magisterial performance of Bach I listen to as I write these words. Yet I would like to think that the best aspect of man’s spirit is the strongest, the spirit that motivated both concerts. I would like to think that there are millions who will thoughtfully consider and debate Professor Cohen’s perspective. I would like to have hope that those who made their voices heard and our political leaders listened to, forestalling direct military intervention in Syria—if only briefly—can be raised and heard once again.

If Gamers can have a hashtag against injustice, #GAMERGATE, if there are already hashtags Stop World War III and #liberty, I have faith there can be a hashtag #STOPTHENEWCOLDWAR. After all, post nuclear war environments are great for gaming but not for living in. Perhaps a self-organizing, leaderless global movement will form. I’d like to think the human love of life and liberty, of beauty and hope, on display on Christmas Day 1989, still lives on in the hearts of millions around the world, including Americans and Russians. Professor Cohen has made us aware of alternatives, now and in the past.

I think we have to try.