L’affaire Stephen F. Cohen – and Academic Dissent and Division on Ukraine

Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (New York Historical Society)

Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (New York Historical Society)

In recent weeks, renowned veteran Russia scholar, Professor Stephen F. Cohen, and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, have been at the center of a controversy involving the Association of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).

Much has already been written about this matter. For some background, see the article published in The New York Times on 28 January here and a listing of articles related to the situation, compiled by Sean Guillory, here.

However, within the context of this controversy, I would like to focus on one specific issue, i.e. that of Ukrainian academics, their reaction to Cohen’s work, and their suspected role in the ASEEES affair.

It is true that Cohen is not a specialist on Ukraine, though he does have some background on the country.  Overall, though, within Russian and Soviet studies, his primary focus has been, and continues to be, Russia itself rather than the other ex-Soviet republics.

Nevertheless, some Ukrainian academics in North America have used this perceived “weakness” as a means of discrediting Cohen’s views on Ukraine. One observer cited two Ukrainian-American scholars in this regard, Alexander Motyl and Serhii Plokhii, both of whom are known for their more nationalistic views. The observer alleges that such “aggrieved” Ukrainian-American academics have likely been at the forefront of the ASEEES’ considerations regarding Cohen. This may be correct, but it is important to clarify some significant aspects of this issue.

The narrative of Cohen being a Russianist who is “disconnected” from Ukrainian affairs and the post-Soviet republics is exceedingly problematic and over-simplistic. In fact, to criticize Cohen on his views on Ukraine simply on the basis that he does not specialize on the country is misleading and unfair.

Knowing Cohen personally, I can say that during this entire crisis, he has carefully and scrupulously consulted Ukrainian sources and made contact with specialists on the post-Soviet republics for his writings.  As someone who studies the former Soviet republics and the history of the Soviet nationalities policy with a tangential interest in Ukraine, I can confirm that what he has written on domestic developments in Ukraine is indeed factually sound.

Volodymyr Ishchenko

Volodymyr Ishchenko, lecturer of Sociology in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Further, the narrative of the “disconnected” Cohen also excludes dissenting views on the dominant narrative within Ukrainian studies. In fact, at least two Ukrainian academics, Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa and Volodymyr Ishchenko of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, would agree with many of Cohen’s viewpoints on Ukraine’s domestic politics.

Indeed, while many Ukrainian academics have hailed the Maidan as a “liberationist” movement, the more skeptical Ishchenko has instead characterized it as a “pro-neoliberal [and] pro-nationalist” movement led by elites who do not necessarily represent the interests of the people.  Both Katchanovski and Ishchenko, like Cohen, have also been highly critical of the presence of the far-right in the Maidan Revolution.

They are not alone. There are other Ukrainian academics who have dissented from the prevailing narrative as well. In their search for an objective reality of events, they often contradict nationalist viewpoints which have found a warm reception among influential anti-Russian hawks and members of the war party in the US political establishment. Indeed, the works of Motyl and the Canada-based, OUN-affiliated Taras Kuzio are prominently featured in Foreign Affairs, the main publication of the US foreign policy establishment. By contrast, dissenters, like Katchanovski and Ishchenko, have not received such privilege, despite the more objective and factual nature of their research.

Given their views, dissenting Ukrainian academics have often found themselves in difficult positions. Not only do they face difficulties with their more nationalistic and ideological colleagues in Ukrainian Studies in North America and Europe. They also face repercussions in post-Maidan Ukraine as well.

Ivan Katchanovski

Ivan Katchanovski, professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa

For instance, the over 100-year-old Czech-built family home of Ivan Katchanovski in Lutsk, the center of historic Volhynia in northwestern Ukraine, has been unlawfully appropriated by the Kiev government. The beleaguered professor believes that his research on Ukraine’s far-right and on the Odessa and Maidan Snipers’ massacres was most likely the reason for this action. The aim, he believes, is to prevent and intimidate him from conducting further research on these subjects in Ukraine. His thorough investigation into the Maidan Snipers’ massacre is especially significant. It found that the snipers who shot and killed both protestors and police on the Maidan were most likely far-right activists. This inconvenient truth contradicts the official Kiev line which blames the massacre on former President Yanukovych.  On 11 February, a report by the BBC World Service seemed to corroborate Katchanovski’s investigation.

Katchanovski suspects direct involvement from officials in Kiev in the seizure of his property due to the fact that the original decision came from higher-ups.  Further, according to Katchanovski, Mykola Sorokopud, the head of the lawyers’ association of the Volyn Oblast, was directly involved in falsifying evidence against him in order to confiscate his property. Sorokopud is affiliated with the far-right group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) as well as Ihor Palytsia, the current governor of the Odessa Oblast. Another Lutsk native, Playtsia is also connected with Right Sector. He runs the foundation “New Lutsk”, headed by Sorokopud’s wife, that finances members of Right Sector fighting in the Donbas in the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.

As these facts demonstrate, the ASEEES-Cohen affair is not strictly about issues relating to free speech, censorship, and much-needed funding for a much-needed but neglected discipline. Ironically, this debate is also indicative of how the Ukraine crisis has divided the Slavic, Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian academic communities, much like in Ukraine itself. These divisions exist on multiple levels, whether they are between those willing or unwilling to take into account Moscow’s point of view, or between those who are pro-Kiev or anti-Kiev.

Indeed, in their official correspondences, the ASEEES has expressed concern regarding “splits within the organization.” One hopes that these “splits” are not so profound as to affect the objective judgment of the ASEEES, an organization that professes to encourage discussion and debate among its members.  Unfortunately, this seems to be the case.  Evidently, the crisis in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over a respected academic association that should know better.

Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the ASEEES and a MA graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, focusing on the history of the Caucasus (especially Armenia and Georgia) in the Soviet era. My academic advisor is Ronald Grigor Suny, one of the signatories of the ASEEES letter in defense of Cohen and of the reply to the ASEEES. Like Cohen, he is a fellow scholar in the revisionist school of Soviet and Russian historiography.

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11 thoughts on “L’affaire Stephen F. Cohen – and Academic Dissent and Division on Ukraine

  1. There are good reasons for criticising the actions of NATO, the EU and the US before and during the crisis, as there are for condemning the post-Yanukovych government and the role of the far right in Ukrainian politics. However, too often such critiques, as is true of those by Stephen Cohen, come with a poor understanding of Ukrainian history and politics, questionable methodologies and an uncritical stance on Russian national myths.

    “As someone who studies the former Soviet republics and the history of the Soviet nationalities policy with a tangential interest in Ukraine, I can confirm that what he has written on domestic developments in Ukraine is indeed factually sound.”

    So, as a non-specialist you are confirming that another non-specialist is correct. Not a ringing endorsement.

    “Alexander Motyl and Serhii Plokhii, both of whom are known for their more nationalistic views”.

    Motyl yes, but Plokhii? He certainly doesn’t sign up to many of the nationalist views of Ukrainian history, for example not seeing the 1932-33 famine as a genocide.

    “[Katachonovskis’s] thorough investigation into the Maidan Snipers’ massacre is especially significant. It found that the snipers who shot and killed both protestors and police on the Maidan were most likely far-right activists. This inconvenient truth contradicts the official Kiev line which blames the massacre on former President Yanukovych”.

    I find it a tad methodologically naive to believe in “truth”. Katchanovski raises some interesting questions, but his version is full of gaps too. For example, he acknowledges that the police were shooting live ammunition at the protesters at a point when many died, yet says there is no evidence that that they killed anyone.

    This overview of Cohen’s views is much better: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2014-09-05-koposov-en.html

    • These are valid and welcome critiques.

      As for Plokhii, yes, I do concede that many of his views do not correspond to those held by traditional nationalist Ukrainian historiography. Yet, at the same time, some do, such as his immediate judgement that the Donbas war constituted a “Russian invasion” (in fact, evidence indicates that Russia did not intervene to support the rebels until August). He may not be as nationalist as, say, Motyl or Kuzio, but there are some aspects of his work that led me to my conclusion.

      As for Katchanovski’s study on the Maidan Snipers’ massacre, he has written a response to critics of his study and he is also working on a revised edition of his work, which should be out soon.

      • Regarding Plokhii, I think a premature judgement on the nature of Russia’s involvement in the Donbas, so shortly after Russia had just invaded and annexed the Crimea, hardly makes him a nationalist (unless you think that summary of what happened on the penninsula makes me a nationalist?). He is, after all, Ukrainian; perhaps we can allow him to have some emotional attachment to his country of birth, which might cloud his judgement when he feels that it is under attack.

        I found Katchanovski’s reply barely answered any of the criticisms of him; instead it only opened up new questions: for example, he claims that the Russian government had evidence backing up his version of events, yet sat on it (despite the fact that this had long been their position); he does not provide any answer as to why they would take such a contradictory position.

        You are correct to say that the Cohen affair reveals how the Ukrainian crisis has split academia. However, Cohen is reaping the rewards of a polarisation to which he has himself contributed through decidedly unscholarly public interventions. I admit that Motyl and Kuzio are no better, and Snyder has not covered himself in glory. Still, I can muster little sympathy for Cohen.

        By the way, you can hardly point to Kuzio as typical of “pro-Kyiv” scholars, as a quite vehement hate seems to exist between them and him.

      • Again, I appreciate these comments.

        In academia, you must view situations dispassionately and make conclusions based on objective evidence. If, as you say, Plokhii is making conclusions based on emotions connected with national feelings, then this becomes problematic. Further, if he is making emotional conclusions, then they are indeed based more on national feeling than place of birth because Plokhii was not born in Ukraine at all, but rather in Nizhny Novgorod in Russia. Certainly, other Ukrainian scholars, who were born in Ukraine, such as Ishchenko and Katchanovski who I cited, have been able to assess the situation dispassionately.

        As for Kuzio, yes, there is conflict between him and other Ukrainian studies scholars. This is a well-established fact. For example, Anton Shekhovtsov, a very pro-Kiev scholar, has been openly in conflict with him. But this is entirely beside the point I was trying to make. I was not saying that Kuzio is a “typical pro-Kiev scholar.” Rather, I was highlighting the bias of Foreign Affairs in selecting a writer who is overtly nationalist and overtly pro-Kiev in covering events.

        In any case, as gentlemen, we can agree to disagree. Once, again, I appreciate the feedback.

      • In fact, I’m not sure Ishchenko would agree with Cohen; certainly his analysis of the role of the far-right on the Maidan is considerably more nunanced than that of Cohen. Here an extract from your own link:

        “[…] Naturally, it would have been insane to claim that several hundred thousand neo-Nazis had come onto the streets of Kiev. In reality, only a tiny minority of the protesters at the rallies were from the far right. But in the tent camp on Independence Square they were not such a small group, when you consider that only a few thousand people were staying there permanently. More importantly, they had the force of an organized minority: they had a clear ideology, they operated efficiently, established their own ‘hundreds’ within the self-defence structures. They also succeeded in mainstreaming their slogans: ‘Glory to Ukraine’, ‘Glory to the Heroes’, ‘Death to the Enemies’, ‘Ukraine Above Everything’ […].

        Of course, not everyone chanting ‘Glory to the Heroes!’ was a far-right sympathizer—far from it. The majority chose to interpret the slogans a certain way, as referring not to the heroes of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, but to the heroes of Maidan. Still, this was a real success for the far right, something neither the liberals nor the small numbers of leftists who took part were able to achieve. […] “.

      • Mr. Henriques, regarding Ishchenko, you are mistaken. The truth of the matter is that both he and Cohen have conceded that the far-right in Ukraine are an electoral minority. At the same time, both have also concluded that despite this, the far-right still wield significant influence on the streets. So, in fact, their analysis on the far-right in Ukraine is exactly the same.

        Once again, I do appreciate the feedback, but please, as I said before, as gentlemen, let us agree to disagree.

    • You claim there is a gap in the narrative if Katchanovski “acknowledges that the police were shooting live ammunition at the protesters at a point when many died, yet says there is no evidence that that they killed anyone.” There is no gap as there are a number of explanations for this. One is that the police simply missed their targets. Another is that the police were not shooting live ammunition. The most likely one (corroborated by intercepted radio communications) is that the police were shooting at the snipers, who were firing from behind the protesters (in the Trade Union) up the hill (both toward police and toward protesters). This scenario makes a lot of sense because if you planned this Hollywood-style, you would plant cameras perfectly so that you would see the police firing in one set of shots (but not at what), and the victims being hit in another angle (but not by whom). You then release both videos and let people connect the dots – just like you did. Indeed I am certain not only the snipers but the video team was part of the black op. By the way one of the videos I have showing police firing from the top of ulitsa Institutskaya shows them clearly shooting straight or even slightly up (even though, having walked and jogged up that steep hill quite often, I know that the protesters were significantly lower in elevation than the police).

      • I should mention there is another video that clearly shows this – there are protesters only a short distance down the hill from some police who are mostly up but not at the top of the hill. The protesters are being regularly hit (it appears sometimes from behind, sometimes from side,perhaps from Hotel Ukraine where the opposition was holed up and lots of videos exist of people saying snipers were firing from there, including a BBC video) and the police are firing, but clearly not at the protesters (fairly close) who are being hit. Those police also seem to be firing at whoever is firing at the protesters. I think the police were firing to protect themselves (they were also being fired at – the “third force” hits both sides to try to get an actual fight between them started) and the protesters.

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