Expert Stephen Cohen Is One Network's Eye on the Soviet Storm

updated 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Stephen Cohen, the recent political and ethnic upheavals in the Soviet Union have yielded a strange sort of semi-celebrity. "I notice people on the street stopping and looking at me," says Cohen, a professor of Soviet politics at Princeton. "Then they ask if I'm in a soap opera." He chuckles at the thought. "I feel like saying, 'Yeah, I'm on the Gorbachev soap opera.' "

Would you believe The Young and the Redless? Last Monday, when President Mikhail Gorbachev issued his historic call for the Communist Party to give up its monopoly on power in the Soviet Union, Cohen once again found himself in the limelight, busily analyzing developments as a consultant for CBS News. In recent months, Cohen, 51, already one of the foremost American authorities on the Soviet Union, has also emerged as one of the most conspicuous. In addition to his television work, he and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, 30, have written a new book, Voices of Glasnost, a collection of interviews with Soviet reformers. Cohen's reputation extends even to the Soviet Union, where last year he was the subject of a half-hour news program.

But if Cohen finds life complicated these days—what with classes, research and getting up at 5:30 A.M. for CBS This Morning—it is nothing compared to the rush of events that has swept the Soviet Union. Though Gorbachev's eventual victory on the issue of political pluralism was obviously significant, Cohen cautions against too much euphoria. "Conservative party bosses still rule the provinces, and they have the support of millions of ordinary citizens," he says. "And anyway, you don't create a democracy overnight; it takes at least a generation."

All the same, Cohen believes this is a golden opportunity for Moscow and the United States to achieve a breakthrough in relations. As one of four Kremlin experts invited to brief President Bush before the December Malta summit, Cohen urged drastic reductions in U.S. military expenditures. Such cuts, he argued, would not only help the U.S. economy, but would also stimulate economic reforms in the Soviet Union that are in the best interest of the United States. "Gorbachev would meet us more than halfway," says Cohen. "And military cutbacks would give him a freer hand by allowing him to shift funds to the production of consumer goods."

His liberal views have made Cohen something of a maverick among professional Sovietologists—including Harvard history professor Richard Pipes, who served on the staff of the National Security Council under President Reagan. "He has a very romantic notion of the Soviet Union," says Pipes. "There's really very, very little we can do to help Gorbachev."

To keep up with the headlong changes in Moscow, Cohen has visited the Soviet Union some 15 times since Gorbachev's accession to power in 1985. The mood in the country is one of exhilaration, says Vanden Heuvel, a Nation editor whose father, William, is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. "For someone like me who missed the '60s in this country," she says, "it's like rediscovering intense political life."

In what little spare time he has, Cohen, who was raised in the small town of Owensboro, Ky., graduated from Indiana University and earned his doctorate from Columbia, pursues his other passion: playing pickup basketball games in the school yards of Manhattan's Upper West Side. When assessing Gorbachev's prospects for success—or even survival—he reaches naturally for a sporting metaphor. "It's a very tight ball game," he says. Cohen believes that Gorbachev's boldness and political acumen may yet enable him to carry out his plans for a national political and economic overhaul. Even so, Cohen sees testing days ahead for the Soviet leader. "There will never be a consolidation of power for Gorbachev," he says. "He will always be an embattled and endangered leader so long as he is a reformer in a profoundly conservative country."

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