Stephen F. Cohen wrote his new book, The Victims Return, which tells the stories of survivors of Stalin's Terror, more than two decades after he first outlined it. He began research in the 1970s, while living in Russia and befriending former Gulag inmates, but then put the project aside. In 2007, the year his friend the historian Robert Conquest turned 90, Cohen picked up where he left off. In the opinion of Anna Larina, the widow of the prominent Stalin victim Nikolai Bukharin, recounting this history was Cohen's "fate."
"It was a duty unfulfilled, a debt unpaid," Cohen told HuffPost. "People had taken risks for me, and I hadn't done what I said I was going to do. And then I did it -- late, but I did it."
HP: The atrocities committed under Stalin, as you say in the book, have been called the "other Holocaust." Why does it have to be called the "other" anything?
SC: The point that I wanted to make was we know quite a bit about people who survived Hitler's Holocaust, but almost nothing is known about the people who survived Stalin's Terror. And there were millions of them. When they were released in the '50s and '60s, what happened to them? Did they go home? And what did they find?
In that sense, why not just say "Stalin's Terror"? But when you do, even educated people think it was only that intense three-year period in the late 1930s with the show trials. But in fact, for Russians and other Soviet citizens who lived through it, it lasted throughout Stalin's rule. And even today, we're not sure exactly about the total number of casualties. I use the figure 20 million.
HP: You say you're the first non-Russian to interview these Gulag survivors. Why do you think that is?
SC: A westerner who went to Russia and spoke Russian in the late '70s and hung out a while would probably run into one of these people somewhere -- or a child of them -- and maybe have a conversation. But in terms of making an effort to collect their memories, their first-hand testimonies, the only people I know who preceded me were the three Russian historians of the era.
So I show up, an American, speaking with a heavy southern or midwestern accent, or whatever I had, and it was kind of accidental. It happened because I had written a biography of [Nikolai] Bukharin, and his surviving widow [Anna Larina] and son embraced me, made me part of their family, and everywhere they went, I went. And everywhere they went there seemed to be survivors of the Gulag. And because Bukharin's widow was kind of the reigning surviving widow of all that horror, and widely respected -- that she had embraced me led others to embrace and trust me.
HP: I remember you mentioning also that you didn't choose the subject but it "chose" you.
SC: That's kind of going native Russian. If an American were to say to you -- how did a kid who grew up in Kentucky end up living among Stalin's victims in Moscow? -- an American would say it's just chance. And I suppose that's so. But Russians firmly believe that it was my fate to write about them, these Russian victims. They didn't think it would ever become known, they didn't see Gorbachev coming. And as the years went on, I could tell they were telling me their stories on the assumption that I was going to, when it became safe for them, write their stories. And I guess I felt at that point that this notion of fate, there might be something to it. But, I mean, how you get from Kentucky to this is clearly a few turns in the road.
HP: Was there any risk to your safety when you were collecting your material?
SC: The danger at that time was not to us. The worst that could happen to me or to Katrina [vanden Heuvel, now editor of The Nation, and Cohen's wife] was they'd kick us out of the country and not let us come back. And that's what they did in '82. I worried about my survivor victim friends, who were talking to us, and therefore we were extremely careful to protect them. And some gave us instructions -- do's and don't's. For example, we knew we could never leave any of the manuscripts we were being given to read -- the memoirs -- in our room in our apartment. We knew people were coming in the room. We could not discuss any of this on the telephone.
HP: What about risks to the integrity of the project itself? A lot of these people became your friends. Was there an objectivity problem?
SC: Let's back off and ask a different question: If you're a historian or a political scientist or a novelist, or whatever you're doing, and you're writing about a great atrocity, what's the degree of objectivity that you need? I mean, a professional historian is supposed to be objective. On the other hand, is the truth halfway between Thomas Jefferson and Adolf Hitler? It's not. At some point, objectivity means something else.
Here's what I thought objectivity meant, and here's where it became a problem for me. This book is not only about the people who were victims but the people who victimized them. And a lot of them were still alive. And the survivors who talked to me wanted me to be very, very indignant about people who had behaved badly, who had informed, who had slept their way through the camps to survive. I took the position that, having never lived through it myself, I cannot know what I would have done, and therefore I am not prepared to judge the behavior of people who did. That was my position. Some of my Russian friends accepted and admired that position. Others thought it was a cop-out and that I should be more partisan about it all.
HP: What about the victims' own processes of re-integrating into society? You talk about the awkwardness or terrors that can arise when they see the people who tormented them.
SC: It's easy to say these people, these five to 15 million people who went home, were miserable for the rest of their lives, their health broken, and it all was bad. That isn't true. Some actually found what Russians call a kind of happy end. They couldn't regain the years of their life, but either their families were still there or they created new families. Some of them lived into their 90s. Some went on to become successful, if they were young enough, in the professions they had left behind. Others began new professions. I mean, [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize. He's the most famous former Gulag inmate.
But there are also lots of miserable stories. There are stories of people who died on their way home from the camps, their health so broken they never made it out of the second train station. There are people who didn't go back home, they stayed in Siberia because they knew they no longer had a family. There were some who came home thinking families were there only to discover the wife had remarried. There were those whose children had been put in orphanages, their names changed, so they spent years and years looking for their children.
One of the things I say at the beginning of the third chapter is there are a lot of generalizations out there about these people, and none of them are valid. There used to be a T.V. show about crime in New York, and it would always end by saying there are 8 million stories in New York, and all of them are different. It was sort of like that.
HP: That reminds me of something I've often heard attributed to Stalin, that the death of one person is a tragedy and the death of millions is just a statistic.
SC: I've heard that too. My own mentor, Robert C. Tucker, who wrote a two-volume Stalin biography, I think tried to track that down and could never verify it. But it's widely believed Stalin said it -- the death of a million people is a statistic, the death of one person is a tragedy.
My own favorite Stalin saying, and I gave this on a plaque to my wife, who's a magazine editor: "No person, no problem." She keeps it in her office. When writers deeply aggrieve her, she points to this thing.