Update on the Case of Professor Stephen F. Cohen

On January 30, I posted an item to this blog under the title “The Troubling Case of Professor Stephen Cohen and the American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.”  The post recounted the background to a decision by the Association’s Board to reject an offer by Professor Stephen F. Cohen, his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and the KAT Foundation to fund a dissertation research fellowship program named for Cohen and his late mentor, Robert C. Tucker.  While in a subsequent “detailed clarification” the ASEEES Board defended its decision largely on procedural grounds, they also acknowledged that some board members “considered that we should not proceed so rapidly at an exceptionally tense time in our region with a named gift that could potentially generate divisions in our Association.”

What might be the source of such potential divisions?  As I put it in my original post:

Cohen is not only a well-known scholar, he is a prominent public intellectual and commentator on U.S.-Russian relations.  Recently he has criticized in print and on television U.S. and European policy in Ukraine.  This has led some journalists and “pundits” (but few, if any, scholars) to claim that he is “Putin’s American toady,” as The New Republic put it.  He has also been branded an “apologist,” a “useful idiot,” and a “dupe.”

The ASEEES board’s clarification offered Association members the opportunity to comment on the issue via the group’s website.  A vehicle was established for that to happen and several of the important documents involving the case, including a letter of protest signed by nearly 150 scholars in the field, were posted.  Comments were received until April 24.

According to the Association, 77 comments were submitted, of which 51 gave permission for their remarks to be posted publicly on the website.  These may be read here.  Reading over these comments I find that just six respondents supported the action of the board, while 44 opposed the action, most of them calling on the board to apologize to Cohen and vanden Heuvel and invite them to resubmit their generous offer.  I was one of the 44 who made such a call and here is what I wrote:

As a signatory of the letter, I fully endorse its contents and — in the strongest possible terms — urge the ASEEES board to reverse its previous stance on this issue, to apologize to Stephen Cohen and Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and to invite them to resubmit their generous offer, with a promise that if they do it shall be accepted. As the Chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I am deeply concerned that while the Association’s response has not technically violated any AAUP policies, its spirit runs counter to the principles that AAUP — and ASEEES — have endorsed. While I can certainly think of donations that might come with unacceptable conditions (surely the Association would reject a Stalin-Molotov award, even if there were no other conditions attached to it), but as a general principle so long as donors do not seek to impose ideological or political conditions on the use of their donations, they should be permitted to attach whatever name they wish to any awards they seek to fund. Stephen Cohen and his wife have generously offered to fund a vital program. Cohen himself is a distinguished scholar in our field and long-time member of our association. If members of the board or others disagree with some of his views, they are, as always, free to do so in print, at our conventions, or anywhere they see fit. But such disagreements cannot justify the kind of stance the board has taken. If this shameful decision is not reversed and an apology made to Cohen and Vanden Heuvel, I will need to seriously reconsider whether ASEEES is still the sort of neutral scholarly organization that I wish to participate in.

Normally, the ASEEES board meets but once a year, at the annual convention in November, but a special meeting to discuss and hopefully reconsider the issue was called for May 11.  At this writing the results of that meeting have not been made public, but I am told that a statement will be released soon, hopefully next week.

In the meantime, two scholars in the field — Tarik Cyril Amar, Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Columbia University, and Per Rudling, ​A​ssociate ​P​rofessor of ​History at Lund University, Sweden — on April 5 published an essay on the History News Network (HNN) that asked “What Standards Should Be Applied When Deciding to Accept Funds?”  They wrote: “Given that the tension in ASEEES has been linked to Professor Cohen’s public positions on Ukraine, what is really striking is the silence around other endowments also touching on the representation of Ukraine and its history.”  The article went on to expose how five endowments in Ukrainian studies at the University of Alberta honor the memory of prominent Ukrainian Waffen-SS veterans in Canada.

The largest endowment is the Volodymyr and Daria Kubijovyč Memorial Endowment Fund, matched two-to-one by the government of Alberta. Currently amounting to 436,848 Canadian dollars, it has helped fund the Encyclopedia of Ukraine and other projects.  According to Amar and Rudling,

Kubijovyč (1900-1985) was the most senior Ukrainian collaborator with Nazi Germany. An abundance of sources shows a committed and persistent liaison between Adolf Hitler’s chief representative in the Generalgouvernement, Hans Frank, and Kubijovyč. In 1940, he suggested to the Germans to consolidate the “autochtonous [bodenständige] Ukrainian element by breaking the influence” of Poles and Jews, while he thanked Adolf Hitler for the “victorious onslaught” that “annihilated the Polish state and thus did away with the Polish yoke.” Kubijovyč was not acting merely under duress. He was also not merely afraid of the Soviet Union. The archival record shows him as a committed ethno-nationalist, eager to make the most out of German occupation for his own agenda. He welcomed and sought opportunities for Ukrainians to take over Polish and Jewish property. Following the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 Kubijovyč proposed that Ukraine be set up as an “authoritarian, nationalist one-party state.” He complained that the private trade in the cities of “the Ukrainian ethno-area [Volkstumsgebiet] of former Poland was almost exclusively in Jewish hands” and advocated establishing a Ukrainian Army, to help fight an enemy which he defined as a combination of Communism, Russian imperialism, and Jewishness.

They then conclude:

Clearly, ASEEES has no influence on the endowment decisions made by other organizations. Yet the current controversy over the treatment it has meted out to Stephen Cohen does raise larger issues. Are we really content with the prospect of an overall academic environment that won’t accept his name but raises no concerns over that of Volodymyr Kubijovyč? Is it desirable to contribute to a cumulative outcome where future graduate students and researchers will find no problem in financing their work with funds named after the latter but might – if they remember – recall that Stephen Cohen’s name would not be acceptable? In our view, it is time to face the fact that this is an absurd and sad prospect.

HNN published with the article responses to Amar and Rudling from ASEEES officers and from the Director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies as well as a counter response from the authors.  I will let those who are interested in learning more read these for yourselves.

In the meantime, we await the ASEEES Board’s decision.

2 thoughts on “Update on the Case of Professor Stephen F. Cohen

  1. What Mr. Cohen and every supporter of his whose commentary I have read miss (or perhaps simply prefer to ignore) is that there is a difference between:

    1) Supporting, opposing, and/or critiquing U.S. foreign policy and actions in the context of Ukraine, Europe, & Russia;

    2) Supporting, opposing, and/or critiquing Russia’s foreign policy and actions in the context of Ukraine, Europe, & Russia; and,

    3) Respecting the human rights of Ukrainians, the sovereign rights of the nation of Ukraine, and international law.

    Cohen and his apologists have undertaken a persistent effort to frame the discussion about the evaluation of Cohen’s views on #1 & #2 in the context of ‘free speech rights’ and ‘unfettered academic freedom’; however, like an effective Soviet Russian maskirovka, that discussion regardless of its outcome is merely a diversionary tactic to draw focus away from all that is important and universal in #3.

    Further, Cohen’s maskirovka in his Orwellian claims of persecution represent the height of irony in that it purely mirrors Putin’s maskirovka in invading Ukraine, annexing Ukrainian Crimea, killing thousands of civilians, and displacing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians – all in the name of protecting the “human rights of Russian speakers around the world”.

    I certainly don’t mean to leave out the fact that Putin’s imperialistic invasion of Ukraine has also been the direct cause of the murder of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel (every single one dying on the territory of Ukraine), the Russian theft of billions of dollars worth of Ukrainian industrial equipment, commodities, and currency, as well as a crippling of the Ukrainian economy and all of the human suffering that invariably and directly accompanies such a blow.

    Cohen and his cronies or useful idiots can set up straw men arguments faster than any sane and honest person can knock them down, and that is the propagandistic denial-of-service tactic that philosophical trolls prefer these days – particularly through social media. If anyone wants to have an honest and relevant debate about Ukraine or Mr. Cohen, they must first accept that:

    1) Cohen has no entitlement to an explicit seal of approval from ASEEES at any price; and,

    2) Until Cohen fully and clearly communicates that the highest priority in Ukraine is the defense of civil rights and physical security of Ukrainians, his opinions are clearly and simply pro-Kremlin propaganda in support of past, current, and future atrocities committed by the Russian Government against the citizens of Ukraine.

    The fact that Cohen continues to purposefully an unabashedly contribute to the fog of war in Ukraine as Putin continues to try to cover-up the atrocities and mass theft that he and his oligarchs have perpetrated on Ukraine over the previous decade(s) will ultimately be his most memorable legacy. If he continues on this path, he will be remembered…along side the worst propagandists of the Third Reich.

    • Thomas K.: Sir, I am a dyed in the wool conservative and hardly a Putin apologist. I do not always agree with Dr. Cohen’s conclusions or, at times, even the factual predicate for his arguments. However, your assertion that Dr. Cohen is insincere in his opinions is misplaced; your suggestion that he should be compared to Nazi propagandists is disgusting and plainly ignorant. Regardless of one’s political bent, anyone who listens to Dr. Cohen’s weekly discussion on the John Batchelor Show on WABC Radio (NY) is immediately impressed with the depth and breadth of his knowledge and the logic and historical grounding of his opinions. And, anyone who follows John Batchelor knows that he presents the most intelligent show in any media form and certainly would not allow his show to be used as a platform for some shill for Vladimir Putin or anyone else on his program. Meanwhile, contrary opinions like those of Dr. Cohen must be celebrated, not shouted down or condemned to the background. Indeed, on a personal level, without his insight I would only be able to see Russia from a black and white, good versus evil perspective. Instead, thanks to Dr. Cohen I am reminded that there are shades of gray in every relationship – geopolitical as well as personal – and if you want to be informed the world today is too complicated to ignore the thoughts and opinion of a brilliant academic like Stephen Cohen.

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