The Scrapbook was thumbing through the pages of the Nation last week and stumbled upon the sort of essay in which the Nation has specialized since October 1917: defending the peace-loving Russians against a bellicose United States (“Demonizing Putin Endangers America’s Security”). In this instance, the point was to deplore “influential segments of the American political-media establishment . . . bent on discrediting” Vladimir Putin, and the author’s complaint—really a cri de coeur, given the circumstances—was that “purportedly liberal and progressive voices are playing a full-throated role in this mindless denigration of Putin.”
At first The Scrapbook was inclined to smile indulgently and turn the page. We had thought, in our naïve way, that the near-universal suspicion in America of Putin’s role in the Syria crisis was a rare moment of bipartisanship. But then we noticed that the author is a professor from whom we hadn’t heard very much since the collapse of the Soviet Union: Stephen F. Cohen of New York University. And The Scrapbook was suddenly awash in nostalgia.
For in the 1980s, and especially during the first Reagan administration, if there was one steady, reliable voice, whether in print in the New York Times or on television (especially CBS, where he was a regular commentator), in defense of the peace-loving Soviet government against a bellicose United States, it was Stephen F. Cohen, then of Princeton.
Those were heady days for anti--anti-Communists, and Professor Cohen was always extolling the benign intentions and infinite patience of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in marked contrast to the cowboy rhetoric and dangerous belligerence of the United States of America. Indeed, last week’s Nation essay made exactly the same point; if you substituted “Chairman Brezhnev” for “President Putin,” it could have appeared on the op-ed page of the Times in, say, 1982. And probably did.
We point this out not to criticize Cohen’s consistency, which is impressive in its way, but to remind readers that much left-wing criticism of American policy is grounded not so much in admiration for dubious regimes—Iran, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, take your pick—as in contempt for the United States. For as Stephen F. Cohen demonstrates in the pages of the Nation (edited by Mrs. Cohen, by the way), it takes genuine intellectual dexterity to evolve from a Soviet apologist into a Russian nationalist, all the while maintaining hostility to the land of your birth.