Nick Hayes on Stephen F. Cohen

Stephen F. Cohen (November 25, 1938 – September 18, 2020)

In the fall of 1978, a young, unknown historian made a cold call from his office at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to Stephen F. Cohen, a professor of Politics and Russian Studies at Princeton University. At the time, Cohen was arguably the most influential and well-known scholar in the field of Soviet Studies. The young historian was undoubtedly the least known scholar in the field. I was the young historian. As I stumbled over a sentence or two of my clumsy introduction, Cohen interrupted me. He had read an article that I had just published. He lavished praise on my recent article, asked to read other examples of my work, and accepted my invitation to come to my university (UTEP) as a visiting scholar. My telephone call was the start of a friendship that lasted over decades until last Thursday, September 18, when Cohen died of lung cancer.

The story of great scholars always starts with a book. In 1973, Cohen had published “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888 – 1938.” Critics and reviewers called Cohen’s biography of the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin “revisionist.” It was an understatement.  Cohen’s study of Bukharin represented a complete re-thinking of the Russian revolution, its aftermath and the potential for meaningful reform within the Soviet Union and its post-Soviet successor, Russia. Cohen went on to publish nine more books that analyzed the struggle for reform in Russia, critiqued the field of “Sovietology” in American academic life, and placed the blame for the tensions in U.S./Russian relations on Washington, not Moscow.

His books sold. He packed the house when he spoke at scholarly conferences. He counted among his friends two presidents – George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. He was a consummate public intellectual as an editor and contributor to “The Nation,” a consultant to CBS News, and the Founding Director of the American Committee on East-West Accord.

In our latter years, we often joked that we had reached that age when men write memoirs. In my last conversations with Cohen, we discussed plans for conference on the memoirs of  our generation in Russian Studies and Sovietology.  He told me that due to health problems he would have to withdraw from the project.

A decade ago, I published an interview and profile of Cohen’s life and career. For more information on Cohen’s legacy and influence,  visit the interview at this link.

Nick Hayes is a Professor of History and holds the University Chair in Critical Thinking at the College of St. Benedict/Saint John’s University in Minnesota.  His second memoir – Looking for Leningrad: Memories of my Soviet Life will be published this spring by Nodin Press.

Nick Hayes on “Lara, Pasternak, and the Mystique of Doctor Zhivago”


By Lara Prescott
Knopf. 368  pp. $26.95

 She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call things by their real name.

                                                Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak in Peredelkino

I belong to a generation of men now of a certain age for whom hearing the slightest mention of  “Doctor Zhivago turns on an old LP in our heads and automatically we start to hum the opening  tune of “Lara’s Theme” while our imagination transports us across Siberia to join Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Varykino. We feel for Boris Pasternak’s novel a sense of ownership, not unlike what my neighbors in St. Paul feel toward F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”


We argue over the translation of every word. Controversies over new translations of the novel have broken up friendships. English readers of my generation know the story from the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Hayward and Harari would admit that theirs was a loose translation. They had staked out a higher ground– success in rendering into English the melodic beauty and lyricism of Pasternak’s text as if he had written Doctor Zhivago with a balalaika. I would agree. In 2010, a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky appeared. Pevear is a Professor Emeritus of the American University of Paris; Volokhonsky is from St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as the city was known in her day).  Together they have collaborated on new translations of Russian classics and have taken the liberty of trashing the translations of Constance Garnett and, of course, Max Hayward.

It’s an old quarrel among translators that pits the advocates of the literal against the advocates of the liberal interpretation. The vast majority of Pasternak’s readers on the English side with Hayward and Harari and their gift for capturing the lyricism of Pasternak’s writing. Pevear and Volokhonsky give us a literal translation that has about as much of the romantic beauty of Pasternak as does a Russian-English dictionary.

You can imagine that I took with skepticism the news of the publication of Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, her novel that depicts Pasternak’s life in the years when he struggled to publish Doctor Zhivago. Warily, I picked up Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept at Minneapolis’ Magers & Quinn bookstore. Writers whose agents do not return my phone calls can be intimidating. I, nevertheless, judged her book by its cover. It presents a clever variation of Nathan Alman’s iconic 1914 portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova. There was a time when virtually every student in the U.S. who studied Russian language, literature, or history had a print of Alman’s portrait of Akhmatova on their wall. I flipped through the front pages to Chapter 1, read the first three paragraphs and immediately signed up for the ride through the full 300 plus pages.

Prescott places her novel in the defining years of the Cold War, 1949 to 1961, and shifts the setting back and forth, between Washington, D.C. (“West”) and Moscow (“East”). Her eye for the details of the time and place tricks the reader into forgetting that The Secrets We Kept is fiction, not history. Numerous other authors of spy fiction, detective novels, and diplomat’s memoirs previously worked over this territory and theme. You would have thought that there was no room left on your favorite bookstore’s shelf marked “Cold War.” What sets Prescott’s novel apart from the rest is that The Secrets We Kept is unmistakably a women’s story exclusively told by women. Consider who and what is not in the novel. In Prescott’s account of the early years of the CIA, Allen Dulles has only a small part and no lines in the story. Just one more suit with a corner office and a womanizer with immunity, Dulles exists in the story only as a piece of gossip within the conversation of the “girls” in the CIA’s typist pool.

Pasternak called her his “Muse.” Olga  Ivinskaya met Pasternak in 1946 and remained his inspiration and lover until his death in 1958. She was the other woman in the Pasternak story who conveniently lived in a small “dacha,” or the “Little House,” near Pasternak’s house in Peredelkino where he lived with his wife, Zinaida, and son. Ivinskaya was an editor, poet, translator, literary agent, and in later year’s Pasternak’s secretary. In The Secrets We Kept, her character  tells the Pasternak story in sections labeled “East.”  Ivinskaya’s voice takes the reader into the brutal world of Russian literary politics. She describes Pasternak’s struggle with the Kremlin from its attempts to suppress  Doctor Zhivago to Pasternak’s triumph as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The award only intensified the Kremlin’s attacks on Pasternak. The Kremlin coerced him into refusing the award, broke his health through a relentless barrage of threats, and precipitated the writer’s fatal heart attack in 1958.

Ivinskaya paid a price for her loyalty to Pasternak. In 1949, the NKVD (a predecessor to the KGB) charged her as “an accomplice to a spy” and in 1950 sentenced her to the Gulag. She was released in 1953 after Stalin’s death. Her crime was her refusal to provide or fake evidence of anti-Soviet material in Pasternak’s writing. Ivinskaya unfolds the story of the brutalized life of a woman in the Gulag. After Pasternak’s death, the Soviet authorities in 1960 sentenced her a second time. This time, her children Mitya and Ira were sentenced with her. They were released in 1964.  Despite a few glitches in the relationship, Ivinskaya always spoke with deep affection and pride for her “Borya.” Yet, Pasternak emerges in The Secrets We Kept as a rather weak and vacillating character.  Prescott’s Pasternak was no Yury Zhivago. The opposite is true for Prescott’s Ivinskaya. As she declares in her last statement at the end of the novel, I have become Lara.

The sections of Prescott’s novel labeled “West” center on what the CIA calls “The Pasternak Affair.” In the mid-1950s, the CIA launched a plot to publish Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The CIA recognized that the Cold War was above all else an ideological battle of freedom versus totalitarianism. The circulation of Pasternak’s novel in Russia and Eastern Europe would bring the ideological struggle to the doorsteps of the Soviet Empire. Toward this goal, the CIA assembled an unusual cast of characters including Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an affluent Italian publisher and  Lamborghini communist, and the onetime American communist and CIA friendly publisher, Felix Morrow.  Both Feltrinelli and Morrow had a habit of going rogue.

The plot was simple: In Moscow, Feltrinelli obtained a copy of  Pasternak’s manuscript, translated it into Italian, and published it. After Feltrinelli’s publication, translations of Doctor Zhivago appeared in virtually every European language which made the novel an international bestseller. The Vatican allowed the CIA to place copies of the Russian version of Doctor Zhivago inside the Vatican’s Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair for Russian visitors to pick up. The copies moved quickly from Brussels to Moscow. Copies in English, Russian, and East European languages soon turned Doctor Zhivago into an international bestseller.

Since the publication of Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s The Pasternak Affair (Pantheon, 2016), the story of the CIA’s hand in the publishing of Doctor Zhivago is old news. Prescott appropriates the story as a stage to tell another, lesser-known tale. Her protagonist Sally Forrester unfolds the secrets the “girls” of the CIA’s typist pool kept. They had been heroes. In the Cold War, they were. . . 

Leftovers from the OSS. Where they’d been legends during the war, they’d become relics relegated to the typing pool or the records department or some desk in some corner with nothing to do.

Don’t take seriously Forrester’s official job as a part-time receptionist.  In the jargon of the CIA, she is a “swallow,” a seductive femme fatale. She takes pride in her ability to manipulate and draw information from men. “These men thought they were using me,” she tells us, “but it was always the reverse, my power was making them think it wasn’t.”  She plays a crucial role in “The Pasternak Affair.” The “swallow” exposes a double agent who would have preempted and upended the operation. Forrester’s co-worker in the typist pool, Irina Drozdova, a Russian immigrant, also plays a role in the Pasternak story. Dressed as a nun in the traditional habit, Irina piously welcomes Russian visitors into the Vatican Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair and graciously passes out over three hundred copies of the Russian version of Doctor Zhivago. Drozdova and Forrester comprise a love story within the story. The “Agency” banned homosexuals from its ranks. A mole exposed Drozdova and Forrester, triggering their abrupt termination at the CIA.  

 Not every CIA operation in the Cold War warrants our condemnation. “The Pasternak Affair” did some good. What is more, the story has a moral. Both the CIA and the KGB understood something that eludes today’s partisans of cultural wars – the power of literature. Our universities might reflect on this as they threaten to ax English Departments. What gave the poetry and prose of an aging Russian poet with a heart condition such power?  Pasternak put the answer in his portrait of Lara: She had the courage, he writes, “to call things by their real names.” Russians take poetry seriously. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” Pasternak’s contemporary, the poet Osip Mandelstam had said, “here it gets people killed.” The KGB took Pasternak’s poetry so seriously that it drove him to the grave.

Pasternak’s House in Peredelkino “Dommuzejpasternak”; Photo credit to the Pasternak Museum.

P.S. Here’s a sample of Pasternak’s poetry at its best. Pasternak’s “Zhivago” is ultimately a voice  of nostalgia for the end of what Russians call “byt’,” or a “way of life.”  Listen for this voice in one of Pasternak’s poems – “The Earth” from the “Poems of Yury Zhivago” at the end of the novel. The poem speaks to that moment between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. . .


Зачем же плачет дал и тумане,

Игорько пакнет перегной?

На то вед и моё приэванье,

Чтоб не скучали расстояния.

Чтобы за городскою гранью

Земле не тосковать одной.

Для этого весною ранней

Со мною сходятся друзья

И наши вечера-прощанье

Пирушки наши – завещания

Чтоб тайная струя страданья

Согрела холод бытия.

That is why the horizon weeps in the fog

And bitter is the scent of the land,

And I am called to see

that the distances do not feel lonely,

and beyond the edge of the towns,

the land does not mourn alone.

That is why in the early spring,

My friends and I gather,

and our evenings are farewells,

and our parties are testimonies

So that the secret stream of suffering

Warms the cold of life.

                        The translation is mine

Nick Hayes is a professor of history and holds the University Chair in Critical Thinking at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

Nick Hayes on: Brezhnev’s Winter

This year my preoccupation with finishing a book, “Looking for Leningrad,” has consumed my energy and time for writing.  Thus, I have held back from posting on my usual topics and themes. To take your mind off the “banality” of politics in the Trump era I am sending out this short excerpt from my “Looking for Leningrad.” Take it as a seasonal story set in Moscow’s coldest winter on record.  I apologize in advance that the excerpt contains some Soviet jargon that would not be familiar to you.  MGU, for example, refers to Moscow State University.  Ostankino refers to the State Committee on Radio and Television.    Both figure prominently in “Looking for Leningrad” from its first to last chapter.

Here are a few reminiscences on Moscow in the winter 1978-1979 . . .

Statue of Brezhnev; photo by author


Winter came early that year.  A cold front arrived in Moscow in mid-October about the same time historians remember it had arrived in 1812 to welcome Napoleon to Moscow. The unexpectedly cold temperatures prompted me to lower the ear flaps on my Russian fur cap, a shlapa.  A nosey babushka on the street focused a disapproving eye on me.  “Young man,” she chided, “it’s too early for that.   If you pull down your ear flaps now, what will you do in December and January.” By mid-December, I conceded she had a point. I had committed my defense against winter too early.

Temperatures plummeted that December.  The weather reporting on Ostankino television became increasingly vague and incomplete. The tongue-tied weather reporting on state television untethered tongues on the street.  Rumors spoke of an unprecedented cold wave sweeping westward from Siberia to Moscow cold enough to make even Siberians shiver.  New Year’s Day confirmed the rumors.  The temperature reached minus-40, a record low for the city of Moscow and the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures converge.

My immediate impulse was to embrace the coming of a legendary Russian winter’s cold wave.  I would play a latter day Zhivago at Varykino in his Siberian drama.   Besides, I had already taken cover.   The AP correspondent, Bart Reppert had graciously invited my family to apartment sit at his place. He and his wife were leaving Moscow for a holiday vacation at cross country ski resort in Finland. The setting was perfect.   Reppert lived in one of the “German” or “foreigner’s suburbs” in Moscow where the Kremlin quarantined western diplomats, businessmen, and journalists. His apartment was in a complex on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the indekc svyazi or zip code of Moscow’s elite.

Indoor playtime had exhausted its ability to entertain my sons.   The Soviet toys made of a hard and easily breakable plastic had never captured their fancy.   The hand-carved wooden folk toys appealed only to their father’s fantasies about re-creating the things of traditional Russia.  The wooden bear on a small handheld paddle had moving arms that a child could flap up and down but never received the call to play and joined a few matryoshka dolls on a shelf where they formed a sad colony of unwanted Christmas toys. My sons, a toddler and a three-year-old, did not suffer boredom lightly. I could not convert them into accepting my idea of a perfect Russian day reading Chekhov or jotting fragments of wisdom in a notebook. In years to come, I imagined there would be Ph.D. students who would rescue my notebook from the archives and weave its fragments into dissertations or monographs.

Stalin had left Moscow with a unique heating system.  From a central heating plant, the system pumped hot water through a vast subterranean matrix of generators, boilers, massive pipes and relay stations that pumped steam heat into the city’s buildings. Inefficiency plagued the system. Occasionally, the pipelines showed themselves.  Like a whale coming up for air, the pipelines would rise from the ground for a short stretch and then dive back to their underground world.  Even in the coldest winter months you could easily track the routes of the pipelines.  Heat lost from the cause of heating Moscow warmed the ground above the pipeline and enabled grass to grow.  A meter or two wide, linear green zones marked the trail of the heating pipes throughout the city.

Stalin’s system dated from the 1930s and had avoided any major breakdowns until this winter.  As temperatures descended and stayed at record lows pipes burst and left large sections of Moscow without heat.   A chaotic internal migration within the city ensued as Muscovites fled frozen apartment complexes in search of a friend’s warm couch in an as yet unaffected district of the city.  Our temporary quarters on Kutuzovskii Prospekt held out. However, Reppert’s return from Finland forced us to take shelter elsewhere.  MGU and its environs had succumbed to the collapse of the heating system throughout its section of the city.  Finally, the U.S. Embassy’s resident Lutheran minister showed some pity and invited us to stay at his apartment in another of Moscow’s “foreigner’s suburbs.”

The celebration for that New Year’s Eve might have led you to believe that the new year, 1979 would be the year of Brezhnev.  Anticipation was building.  In the fall, Brezhnev published a three-volume set of memoirs.  Known as the Brezhnev Trilogy, the memoirs consisted of three volumes – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands.  The three books chronicle the life of Brezhnev from a humble childhood in Ukraine, to his alleged military leadership in “The Great Patriotic War,” and the Soviet development agriculture in Central Asia.

Of all the attempts at creating leader cults in Russian history, the promotion of Brezhnev stands out as the most ludicrous and cruel. By 1978, Russians knew that the Soviet leader showed signs of senility. His slurred speech struggled to deliver the simplest public pronouncements. On his best days, he still looked like an old guy with a hangover.

None of this dissuaded the Kremlin.  The press proclaimed Brezhnev a literary genius.  Within a week of the publication of his memoirs, he received the Soviet Union’s highest award for literature, the Lenin Prize.  On New Year’s Eve, the media could not contain itself.   Soviet Television devoted the entirety of its popular music and variety show, The Little Blue Light, to a homage to Leonid Ilych.  Celebrities from popular culture gushed with praise for the leader.  Representing Moscow’s American comrades, the American singer, Dean Reed, the “Red Elvis,” appeared in a TV message from East Berlin.   Brezhnev’s favorite actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov put in a cameo appearance and made a special announcement. There would be an adaptation of the trilogy for the stage, Tikhonov announced, and he would play the lead.  The hosts interviewed literary critics and professors who elucidated the finer points of Brezhnev’s masterpiece. The program built up to its highlight moments before midnight. Brezhnev appeared in a televised message giving his best wishes to the Soviet people for the year ahead.

Soviet TV did not have to worry about anything like the Nielson’s Ratings.  Just in case, Ostankino tried a trick to guarantee something of an audience.   Soviet TV preceded the broadcast of the Brezhnev special with the broadcast of what truly is a Soviet era masterpiece – the film by Eldar Ryazonnov, The Irony of Fate (1976).  Its popularity survived the Soviet Union and remains a classic of Russian cinema.

As it turned out, 1979 was not the year of Brezhnev. Soviet troops had launched their invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1978.  Rumors and leaks from within the Kremlin inner circle describe an inebriated Brezhnev at the time of the decision to invade Afghanistan.

An overstock of unsold copies of the Brezhnev Trilogy remained unsold and untouched in Moscow’s shops for another decade.  In 1988, the Soviet authorities rounded up all the remaining copies and turned the winner of the Lenin Prize – The Little Land, Resurrection, and The Virgin Lands – into waste pulp. An irony of fate, the Russians would say.

Looking for Leningrad My Russian Life

nick-hayesFor the past eight years, the task of turning a lifetime of memories, boxes of notebooks, and recollected conversations into a memoir of my life and times in the onetime Soviet Union and Russia has preoccupied my thoughts and writing.  This fall this labor of the mind and heart will finally see publication under the title “Looking for Leningrad My Russian Life (Nodin Press).

Here’s a sample.  The unseemly relationship of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has aroused considerable interest in the operations of the Russian intelligence services.  Americans have added a Russian word to their vocabulary, “kompromat’.  You might enjoy this story of my first encounter with “kompromat’.”  The excerpt comes from chapter three of “Looking for Leningrad.”  The story takes place in Moscow in the fall 1978. . .


Architecture plays politics.  On the campus grounds of Moscow State University, the architecture was still fighting the 1950s and 1960s battles between Stalinism and reform.  Stalin’s proxy in this war was the jewel in the crown of his seven “wedding cake” sky-scrapers, Moscow State University.

Moscow State University grey

Moscow State University in its Glory Days

It towered over the grounds dwarfing and intimidating the new buildings that had rolled out in the 1960s and 1970s.

The “Humanitarian Faculty Building No. 1,” or, as it was known by its acronym, “GUMFAK,” embodied in glass and concrete the glum modernism of the Soviet 1960s in architecture.


Humanitarian Faculty Building No. 1 or GUMFAK


It rose sluggishly in a rectangular twelve stories with an extension on its mezzanine, a horizontal counter-point to the singularly vertical design of the main building. The critics and savants of Soviet architecture ignored GUMFAK until quite recently when two scholars of Soviet modernism saw in the building   “the spirit of the period during which the first human spaceflight and the 1980 Olympics took place.” They saw GUMFAK as “a modern building whose appearance and atmosphere were deigned to fight cultural and pedagogical inertia.” Stalinist architecture delighted in a certain socialist baroque and overly indulged in ornamentation.  GUMFAK made a virtue out of its barren interior or so its scholars claimed: “Bare interiors allowed students to appreciate the thoughts of their generation’s intellectual idols more clearly, while recreation areas facilitated productive discussions with teachers.”   During my year there, an under-stocked “buffet” with an expresso machine that never worked passed for GUMFAK’s recreational space.  I never saw a student in a discussion there with anyone.

My program for the year began with an intensive course in Russian in GUMFAK. The lessons succeeded in moving my Russian from the unintelligible to the merely ungrammatical. There I also picked up my monthly stipend.  The first time a generous apparatchik over-paid me.  I had a day or two to enjoy the self-esteem of a stipend of twice that distributed to my American colleagues.  However, a very nervous Russian clerk accosted me after my Russian class and somewhat frantically explained the error.  He seemed both relieved and surprised when I pulled out my wallet and handed him the rubles. Of course, the resolution of the problem would not be that easy.  I spent another hour or two filling out forms.

My first professional contact came in a telephone call to my dormitory blok.  My advisor and host, Dr. Sergei Kokushkin, requested that I meet with him the following day at his office in GUMFAK.  I arrived early. The waiting room featured a cheerless hospitality. A few unwelcoming chairs, like gloomy waiters in a Soviet restaurant, hinted that I should look elsewhere if I wanted to be comfortable.  A blonde, attractive receptionist had not raised her head and eyes from her desk when I entered the office. She reluctantly acknowledged my presence and tersely asked, “Chto Vy?” or “What’s with you?”  “Dr. Kokushkin is expecting you,” she said in reply to my awkward introduction.  Gesturing toward a chair, she continued, “Please sit down.  Sergei Sergeivich will see you in a minute.”  She had exhausted her interest in me. The promised minute turned into five, ten and more.  I had not even rated the customary offer of tea.

The entrance door opened.  A young man, about my age, entered, politely greeted the receptionist by her name and patronymic and turned toward me. “Are you American?” he asked.   He spoke a seamless American English. My reply, “Da, ya Amerikanits” brought out a touch of excitement to him.  “Ah, that is good,” he said, “Perhaps, you could help me.”  He continued, “I am writing a dissertation on the Puritans in American history.”  My reply was disingenuous.  “Unfortunately, you have met the wrong type of American,” I injected.  “I am a Catholic and know very little about the Puritans.”  “Catholic!” he said. His eyes widened.  “I, too, am Catholic.”  His name was Andrei.  He joked that my name, Nick would make me popular in Russia.

Russian Catholics are a rarity. I showed off a bit of my knowledge of nationalities in the Soviet Union.  I asked if he was Polish, Lithuanian or one of those Uniate Ukrainians for whom we prayed in my parochial school during Captive Nations Week.  No, he was very much a Russian.   There was a small community of Russian Catholics in Moscow. Perhaps I would like to meet them?

I took the bait like a crappie on the Minnesota fishing opener.  My imagination was already showing images of my Moscow bylines on the front page of the New York Times.  We agreed to meet again.  Only a week or two into my year in Russia, I made what would be the first of a long line of meetings with Russians at an agreed upon time on the platform of a metro station.  Metro Universitet.

He added one last request. He complained about the difficulty of obtaining any books in Russia on the Puritans.  Would it be possible, he wondered, that I could obtain for him some of the writings of Cotton Mather?  It didn’t cross my mind to wonder why my new Russian friend would be interested in the man behind the Salem Witch Trials.  A bit too eager to play my new role as the American voice of the Soviet underground, I assured him that I would be able to easily pick up a book or two of Mather’s writing.  I dismissed a pesky warning in my head that reminded me of my orientation meeting with the U.S. Consulate staff.  Soviet law strictly forbade the distribution of foreign religious materials.

The receptionist interrupted this fraternization between Catholics:  “Dr. Kokushkin will meet you now.” She opened the door and ceremoniously waved her hand in the direction of a well-dressed and rather handsome Kokushkin.  He rose from his chair at the apex of an apparatchik’s typical “T” shaped table.  The motion of his hand said that I should pick my place at the table.  A new protocol faced me.  Do I sit directly across from my distinguished host or somewhere more appropriate to my status at the lower end of the “T?” I split the difference and sat at a chair a place or two removed from Kokushkin.  His welcome included a few references to my family, my work and home in Texas and so liberated me from the always awkward task of explaining myself to a stranger.  Kokushkin then pointed toward a colleague who was joining us for our meeting.  The colleague politely said hello.  This would be his only contribution to the conversation.  It was my first encounter with this Soviet custom.  Any professional appointment or conversation usually included an extraneous colleague who offered a perfunctory greeting and thereafter tended to smile inanely and volunteered nothing to the conversation.

I side-stepped through a few sentences on my research project.  The blank expression on Kokushkin’s face remained unmoved as I dropped the banned names of the philosophers of “national bolshevism” from the 1920s and nervously said the name, “Stalin” once.  Sergei Sergeivich may have been honestly ignorant of my topic or wanted to conceal his discomfort. Our silent colleague at the meeting jotted down something in a pocket notebook.

Our meeting was brief, courteous and unproductive.   I had better things to do.  I pulled my diary out of my pocket.  Years later, when I learned that Kokushkin specialized in the history of the Constitution of the USSR, I wondered why would anyone actually study that?

A few days later, Andrei was waiting for me on the metro station platform at the appointed time. The station lacked the heroic murals of the older metro stations that that decorated the walls with scenes from the glorious history of the USSR. The walls of Kiev station, for example glistened with mosaics offering images of the bonds of friendship between the Russians and Ukrainians.  By contrast, Metro Universitet offered a refreshing lack of hyperbole and embellishment. The pink granite walls kept their silence and left you alone as you bustled through the station.

In Moscow, you do not start up a conversation just anywhere. At Andrei’s suggestion, we left the metro station for one of Moscow’s “ice cream cafes.”  This one stood on nearby Lomonosovskii Prospect.  The eighteenth century scientist, Lomonosov was the namesake of Moscow State University. His name on the street offered the only evidence that this was a university neighborhood. If you were looking for a bookstore, forget this neighborhood and go to “Dom Knigi” (The House of Books) in the center of Moscow.  On a good day, the cafe offered ice cream, cookies, tea, and brandy.  Andrei and I had happened upon on a not-so-good day.  This was a tea only conversation.  Andrei had a “vocation.”  He was determined to become a Catholic priest.   He dreamed of enrolling in the newly re-opened Catholic seminary in Lithuania. After ordination, he would return to Moscow and minister to Russian Catholics. He belonged to a “secret circle” of Catholics who met on Sunday evenings at the Catholic Cathedral.

The next Sunday evening, I followed his directions to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary.  Erected in 1911, the neo-Gothic Cathedral occupied a piece of prime real estate in Moscow on the Garden Ring Road. The neo-gothic Cathedral was collapsing due to a near century of neglect, vandalism, and structural collapse.  This island of Catholicism in Orthodox Russia had enjoyed only a few years of peace until the 1917 Revolution unleashed two decades of harassment and persecution. Stalin’s regime closed the church in 1938, stripped it of its sacred art, and converted into a warehouse and offices. The church’s altar and organ had not too mysteriously disappeared in 1938.  During the war, Soviet authorities viewed the Cathedral as a collaborator with the Germans.   They demolished two of the church’s four towers on the grounds that the spires served as markers directing the Luftwaffe to targets in Moscow’s center.  The main tower collapsed in the 1950s.  A fire scorched the walls and brought down a few of its buttresses. The official re-opening and re-consecration of the church would have to wait until Gorbachev’s time.  In the 1970s, an unofficial re-opening had proceeded in discretely defiant increments.  By the time Andrei drew me to the scene in 1978, survivors and descendants of the parish had reclaimed a corner of the church with a few pews, a make-shift altar and a crucifix rescued from the rubble.  The metaphor of the resurrection of the crucifix was not lost on the congregation.

The Cathedral had never made it into the age of electricity. Soviet era campaigns for “electrification” had passed it by. A few candles now provided a bit of light.   Andrei’s group comprised a handful of elderly women, a few dislocated Poles and Lithuanians, some lost exiles from France and a small flock of unbaptized crows perched on a pile of rubble. The priest, a Lithuanian did not risk a confrontation with the Soviet authorities by saying a Mass. He began with an obvious and somewhat theatrical Sign of the Cross using two fingers in the Catholic style. The priest kept his homily to a whisper mentioning the woeful state of the Cathedral, a few references to the New Testament, and an abbreviated selection of prayers from the Ordinary of the Mass. Playing on a metaphor from John 10:1-21, the priest described the Catholic Church as the Good Shepherd that had come back to Russia in search of its lost sheep.  The Church risked great peril as it sought its lost sheep not only in Russia but in the Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania.  The priest called on his Faithful to pray for Russian vocations to the priesthood and for the restoration of the Cathedral. He then led this humble gathering of the Faithful in reciting the Nicene Creed with stress added to its profession of belief in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The priest gave the congregation his blessing and sent us off to go in peace.

The parishioners approached the altar, crossed themselves before the crucifix and hastily disappeared into the darkness beyond the candles’ light.   Andrei, however, approached the priest, pointed to me and led the priest over to meet me.  He spoke English.  He had relatives in Chicago.  We exchanged pleasantries. I accepted his invitation to come again next Sunday evening.

I remembered that I had heard something about the Cathedral before. In the late 1970s, the Cathedral gained some recognition by association.  The poet, actor and singer, Vladimir Vysotsky lived across the street from the Cathedral and had lent his name to the cause of its restoration.  His sympathy for the humbled Catholic Cathedral was his wife’s cause, the French actress, Marina Vlady.  Vysotsky was not the type of guy to venerate the purity of the Blessed Virgin.  Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church did not subscribe to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  A healthy skepticism and irreverence for the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” in one of his poems circulated in samizdat and magnitizat at the time.  Under the title “A Poem about the Carpenter Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Immaculate Conception,” Vysotsky wrote . . .

I came home from work,

Put my awl on the wall,

Suddenly someone flits out the window

From my wife, from the bed!

I, of course, ask, “Who is it?”

And she answered, “It is the Holy Spirit!”

. . .

He will be born, but I know

That he ain’t no Jesus Christ.”

Vysotsky’s cynicism is infectious.  As I left the cathedral, Muscovites sped in their Ladas along the Garden Ring Road, busily pursuing the promised wonder of a Soviet future and disinterested in the old story on the side of the road of a violated and abused cathedral.  I looked back. Now empty, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception receded into the shadows of the Moscow night like an apparition from a distinctively Soviet form of hell.  The Soviet gulag took on many forms and shapes.  The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was a prisoner in the one reserved for suspect churches, monasteries, and sacred architecture.  My new friend, Andrei, was far, far closer to the Kremlin, than to Rome.

Nick Hayes on “All the President’s Clowns”

Conversational Russian speech draws upon a trove of folksy proverbs to make a point or simply add a bit of color commentary when conversation nods.  Long ago, in my first Russian language class, a talented teacher required us to memorize Russian proverbs. They added some levity to the drudgery of Russian grammar lessons day after day and allowed us to fake at a better command of the language than we actually possessed.  I forgot all of the proverbs except one. Over the past few weeks, as I have followed the news from the Trump-Putin Show at the G20 Summit to the fiasco of “I love it!” Donald Trump. Jr., this proverb flashed back to my memory. Like an old TV advertising jingle, the old Russian adage keeps ringing in my head.  It goes, “If you invite a pig to the table, he is sure to put his feet on it.”

I would not be the first to suggest that Trump’s behavior is beyond embarrassmentRe-visit the Christopher Steele Dossier and especially its description of Trump’s 2013 night at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  In this story, “golden showers” does not refer to Trump’s taste for gold-plated interior design fixtures. For more recent examples, check out his remarks to the Irish journalist, Caitriona Perry of RTE News. She was covering his telephone conversation from the White House to Leo Varadkav, the Prime Minister of Ireland. Trump gave the journalist a leering smile and motioned for her to come to his desk in the Oval Office. Speaking on the phone with the Irish Prime Minister and simultaneously eying Perry, Trump said, “She has a nice smile on her face . . . so I know she treats you well.”  On Trump’s Bastille Day visit to Paris, he was not in France very long but he did manage to embarrass the French First Lady, Madame Brigitte Macron. “You’re in such good shape,” Trump blurted.  “Beautiful.”  The video shows her awkwardly and hesitantly taking Trump’s offered hand. A few days later, Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister of Australia commented on the American president’s inappropriate remark and added, “I wonder if she (Madame Macron) could say same of him.”

“I love it!” Donald, Jr. has now made it to the cover of TIME.  Google Trump, Jr.’s key liaison to Russia, Rob Goldstone.  Be sure to check the “images” link.   “I love it!” Donald, Jr. trusted this Fleet Street huckster to set up the now infamous meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower.  Goldstone dangled the promise of “krompromat,” or personal dirt, on Hilary Clinton to lure Donald, Jr., his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort to a meeting with a sorry cast of characters from the B-team of Russian insiders.

Manafort came into the story with some highly suspect baggage.  He had received $17 million as a political consultant to the erstwhile Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. He was Putin’s man in Kiev. The 2014 anti-government protestors toppled his government, came close to killing him, and sent him fleeing to Russia. His four years in office had displayed a level of corruption that would make a Russian oligarch blush.  Investigations have revealed that he paid $2 billion in bribes to election officials.  Was this part of Manafort’s advice? On the grounds of his private mansion outside of Kiev, Yanukovych created an artificial lake.  A replica of a Spanish galleon large enough to accommodate a restaurant inside floated around the lake to the amusement of Yanukovych and friends.  The restaurant’s chef, by the way, was also his mistress. Perhaps Manafort’s testimony for the Special Prosecutor will reveal that he had partied on Yanukovych’s galleon.

Another participant in the meeting, Soviet born and emigrant to the US, Ike Kaveladze allegedly laundered approximately $1.4 billion on behalf of Russian “friends.”   He had set up over 2000 bank accounts and 200 checking accounts for his Russian clients.

Did Putin deliberately choose a pack of clowns for this mission?  Perhaps.  Other attempts to compromise members of the Trump organization may have convinced Putin that there was no need to risk valuable “assets” in the temptation of Trump’s men.  Moreover, the exposure of such sub-prime assets would lend credibility to the Kremlin’s predictable denials of any connection to these novices.  They tarnish the FSB (the successor to the KGB) brand.

And so, the Russian story goes.   The Kremlin denies any involvement and characterizes the story as ludicrous.  Keep in mind that the story can be both ludicrous and true.  The Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller’s investigation widens its reach and aims closer and closer to Trump and his men.  New leaks from inside the White House drip by drip come out every day.  Morning after morning, Trump tweets his innocence and anger in vain.

Meanwhile, Putin gloats.

Things have gone well for Putin this year.   He realized his strategic goals in Syria.  A stalemate in Ukraine amounts to a victory for Putin.  As I write, Trump is now tweeting accusations against the Ukrainian government in Kiev and claiming it interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Hilary Clinton. Was this another one of Manafort’s ideas? Trump is still fighting the 2016 election. Putin is consolidating his victories from the G20 Summit to the Crimea and building his base for a landslide victory in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Putin is signaling to his base that at last the Kremlin has tamed an American president.

One sideshow from the media hype of the G20 Summit expressed Putin’s mood. A week before the G20 Summit, an Italian crop artist had used his tractor to create a portrait of Putin in an agricultural field.  A Russian television newscaster, Dmitry Kiselyov declared that the 452 by 328 foot image was visible from space. “The portrait even reflects the president’s light-blue eyes,” he added.  As you look at the photo, you can almost see a smile on Putin’s face.

Trump’s attention has now turned to examining his power to issue pardons to his family, his inner circle, and himself. His staff is hiring lawyers, “Character is destiny,” Heraclitus wrote.  We know where this story is going. “If you invite a . . . .”

Nick Hayes on “Trump’s Kompromat”

nick-4-cropped-2016We often say more by saying less. In a January  interview,  MPR’s Gary Eichten raised the question, “Do you think he (Trump) is being blackmailed?” Eichten asked. “Yes,” I answered.  My one-word answer attracted more interest and comments from listeners than all my long-winded commentaries over the years on MPR combined.

Last week, MPR’s Tom Weber read the quote back to me from a transcript of the interview and asked if I still thought Putin was blackmailing Trump. My answer was and still is, “yes.”  Allow me to expand a bit on my answer and address two questions: What might the Russians have on Trump? Why does Putin want or need anything on Trump?  Continue reading

Nick Hayes on MPR “Friday Roundtable: Foreign Policy.”

nick-hayesIn the aftermath of the first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, I found myself with two colleagues, Barbara Frey of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, and Hicham Bou Nassif, Political Science, Carleton College on MPR in a special “in depth” edition of Kerry Miller’s “International Roundtable.”  We had a problem with our assigned task:  Commentary and analysis of the role of foreign policy in the debate.  The reason was simple and obvious.  There was little discussion of foreign policy in the first one-to-one exchange between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. She took a predictable swipe at Trump’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump had an opportunity to change the image that he has no competence in foreign affairs.  Well, let us say, he instead showed his propensity for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Our conversation with Kerri Miller thus had to shift gears from what did not happen in the debate to what international challenges could happen to test the next president and shape his or her administration and place in history.  Here’s the link to the conversation.  Continue reading