By Bryce Hecht, Graduate student, Russian & East European Institute
On September 25, the Russian studies community at Indiana University (IU) gathered to listen to Alexander Rabinowitch, Professor Emeritus of History at IU, and Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at Princeton University and New York University, reflect on their over six decades of scholarly and personal engagement with Russia. Both leading scholars, Cohen and Rabinowitch have authored numerous articles and books on topics ranging from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin era. The conversation was moderated by Janet Rabinowitch, Director Emeritus of IU Press, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, a publisher and part-owner of The Nation.
Rabinowitch, the son of Russian emigres, has been engaged with Russia since birth. As a child, he spent time with the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov at his family’s cottage in Vermont. Cohen did not become interested in Russia until he travelled to the Soviet Union in 1959. Both studied under Robert C. Tucker at IU, one of the world’s leading scholars of Soviet politics at the time. In fall 1961, Cohen was fortunate enough to take Tucker’s class on Soviet politics while the 22nd Party Congress was taking place. Rabinowitch noted that by the late 1950s, IU was already regarded as one of the country’s top institutions for the study of Russia. As director of the Russian & East European Institute from 1975-1984, he worked to broaden the scope of Russian studies, which until then focused primarily on politics and history, to include fields such as folklore and ethnomusicology.
Rabinowitch first lived in the Soviet Union from 1963-1964. In addition to viewing firsthand how the Soviet Union had changed since Stalin’s death, he noted that he began to see Russians as people distinct from the state during this period. Cohen first lived in the Soviet Union for an extended period of time from 1976-1982. As a result, he developed friendships with several prominent Russian intellectuals, including dissidents Roy Medvedev and Tatyana Osipova. On May Day in 1989, Cohen, at the request of Mikhail Gorbachev, spoke about Nikolai Bukharin from Red Square. Cohen noted that living in the Soviet Union introduced him to the diversity of the Russian people.
The conversation ended on a sober note. When asked about the state of US-Russia relations, both Rabinowitch and Cohen noted that the situation is as dangerous today as it was at the height of the Cold War. They also highlighted the threat that nuclear weapons pose to the global order. Rabinowitch argued that study abroad programs, which promote cross-cultural understanding, are one way to ease tensions.
Cohen’s new book, War with Russia: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate, can be found here: