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  • Stephen F. Cohen (1938–2020)
  • Alexander Rabinowitch

My decades-long friendship with the late Stephen F. (Steve) Cohen, eminent historian of 20th-century Russia and courageous public intellectual, began in the fall of 1961, when we were graduate students in Russian/Soviet studies at Indiana University, Bloomington (IU).1 Having recently received an MA in international relations and history at the University of Chicago, I was completing course requirements for the PhD in Russian history at IU. Steve, who originally came to IU on a partial golf scholarship, had received a BS in economics and public policy and was then completing requirements for an MA in government and Russian studies. Already at that time, the IU Russian and East European Institute (REEI) was one of the premier American centers for interdisciplinary study of Russia, with especially great strength in Soviet politics, culture, and history. The historically grounded approach to studying that part of the world practiced by my primary adviser, the noted diplomatic historian and innovative pedagogue John M. Thompson, and Steve's chief mentor, the distinguished political theorist and leading Sovietologist Robert C. Tucker, dovetailed. This was also the approach of a large cohort of advanced graduate students with Soviet and East European specializations in both the government and history departments at IU. We tended to take many of the same courses, frequently developed related scholarly interests, and formed close, sometimes lifelong, mutually supportive friendships—as was the case with Steve and me.

In the spring of 1962, Tucker accepted a permanent senior position at Princeton University and left IU. At about the same time, Steve received an MA in government and Soviet studies and transferred to Columbia University to begin work on a PhD in Russian studies. However, my close association with him continued during the 1962–63 academic year, when I was [End Page 430] conducting research in New York libraries and archives for my doctoral dissertation on the Bolsheviks and the July 1917 uprising in Petrograd. During that period, we met often, as both of us were living just four blocks apart on New York's Upper West Side, not far from the Columbia campus.

One of the last times I saw Steve was in September 2019, when we, together with our spouses and soul mates (Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editorial director and publisher of The Nation with extensive firsthand experience in Moscow; and Janet Rabinowitch, a historian of modern Russia and long-time senior editor and director of Indiana University Press), participated in an REEI-sponsored roundtable titled "Russian Odysseys." The "odysseys" were Steve's and mine. We were to reflect on the roots of our long engagement with Russia, the importance of our educational experience at IU, and our professional careers in the Russian studies field. In addition to both of us being IU alums, the university had been my home base for most of my professional life, while Steve and Katrina had been generous supporters of REEI's student financial aid program and were frequent, always well-received guest lecturers.

According to the roundtable format developed by Katrina and Janet, they were to take turns "deposing" us. The large, informal room where the event took place was packed for the occasion—Steve and Katrina could always be counted on to draw big crowds. The mood was friendly and relaxed, yet focused. This was due largely to Steve, whose pioneering research on the Soviet historical experience was well known and greatly admired, and who was as engaging, intellectually lively, and even entertaining in such congenial surroundings as he was crisp, quick, passionate, and often simply overwhelming in serious semiprivate or public debate. To give a few examples from our "odyssey" roundtable: I responded to an initial question from Janet about how and when my Russian odyssey began by describing my birth and upbringing in a prominent Russian émigré family. Responding to a follow-up question from Katrina about what had brought me to IU and the impact of my IU experience, I described the effect of my youthful interactions with prominent Russian refugees, military service, and the first Cold War on the formation of my early, thoroughly negative view of Soviet history and politics...


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