Academic and author Stephen F. Cohen speaks with Mark Guiducci of Vanity Fair about his new book on the survivors of Russia’s gulags. Apart from describing his fascinating encounters with his KGB handlers during the research for this book back under the Soviet Union, Cohen also sticks to his line (as last emphasized in his interview published in the SIPA journal) to disambiguate the poor coverage of Russia in Western media over Vladimir Putin’s handling of the Stalinist revival from any substance of official policy in this area. That aside, we loved his last book and we are looking forward to publishing a review of this one in the near future.
Q: Unlike your friend Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin has been known to publicly praise Stalin’s accomplishments with little regard for his horrific legacy, contributing to what you have called a “Stalinist Renaissance.” How do you think Putin has affected the status of Stalin’s victims in Russia?
A: American media coverage of Russia is very poor and one symptom of that situation is the belief that everything bad in Russia is because of Putin. This is really a poor analysis and by bashing Putin, the American media is misinterpreting the underlying causes of Russia’s problems. The Stalinist Renaissance, for instance, did not start with Putin; it began almost 20 years ago, in the 1990s. At this point, Russian public opinion is split 50-50 about whether Stalin was a genocidal murderer or a wise, benevolent leader. This division extends all the way to the Kremlin and has become part of policy disputes. With the country at the crossroads of a new modernization campaign, one wing of the political class is supporting a Stalinist approach, while the other side is saying, “We must never repeat what Stalin did.” And when The Victims Return is published in Russia next March, I think the reactions will be along those lines.