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In Memoriam. Stephen F. Cohen (1938-2020)
September 20, 2020

Stephen F. Cohen, eminent historian, distinguished alumnus of the Russian Institute (’69), and member of the Harriman Institute’s National Advisory Council, died at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, on September 18, 2020. He was 81.

Professor Emeritus of Politics at Princeton University and Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and History at New York University, Cohen was the author or editor of ten influential books, frequent contributor to The Nation, and CBS-TV commentator. His first book, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, the first full-scale biography of the Soviet leader, had its beginnings as Cohen’s Columbia dissertation. The book was published by Knopf in 1973 and named a finalist for the National Book Award. Published in Russian translation in Michigan in 1980, the book ended up in President Mikhail Gorbachev’s hands during glasnost. Gorbachev quickly befriended Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel, his wife and intellectual partner, now currently editorial director of The Nation.

Other important books include Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917 (Oxford University Press, 1985); Sovieticus: American Perceptions and Soviet Realities (Norton, 1985); Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev’s Reformers, written together with vanden Heuvel (Norton, 1989); and Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (Norton, 2000). His most recent book, War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate, was published last year.

Cohen received his bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy at Indiana University, where he went on to earn his master’s in Russian Studies in 1962. He came to Columbia University and the Russian Institute for his Ph.D. Reflecting on his time at the Russian Institute for the Institute’s 50th anniversary, Cohen writes: “I recall, above all, and value even more as the years pass, the wonderfully eclectic collection of senior scholars gathered at the Institute in the 60s—all of them devoted in their own ways to understanding and teaching about Russia, none of them instilling any orthodoxy in the students, and few of them afflicted by the cold-war passions of the time. I know of no academic institution that could have been a better place to study, then or now.”

Cohen was the recipient of numerous fellowships and honors: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (two); ACLS Grant (three); Rockefeller Foundation Humanitarian Fellowship; NEH Fellowship; Newspaper Guild Page One Award for Column Writing; Olive Branch Award for Magazine Writing; Indiana University Annual Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Harriman Institute Alumnus of the Year Award.

To say that Cohen’s impact on the field was “significant” would be an understatement—he was an extraordinarily influential Russian/Soviet historian, a thoughtful and enthusiastic mentor to graduate students, and a generous supporter of the Russian Studies field across the academy. His passion for improving U.S.-Russian understanding and striving to improve the quality of debate and analysis in the United States inspired countless observers.

In addition to his obituary in the New York Times, here are links to his remarkable interview for the Harriman Institute Oral History project, as well as “The New U.S.-Russian Cold War,” Cohen’s debate with Ambassador Michael McFaul for our speaker series in 2018.

Of particular interest is Katrina vanden Heuvel’s personal recollection “Мой Стив (My Steve),” published on The Nation website.

In the coming weeks, the Institute will announce plans to honor Stephen Cohen’s memory.