Another cause to which he devoted much space was trying to prove that the Soviet refusenik and leading dissident Anatoly Sharansky was indeed a spy for the United States, just as the Communists had claimed. In a 1986 column, he posited a conspiracy of L.A. Times reporter Robert Toth and Sharansky to publish Soviet defense secrets as supposedly innocent news stories. One of his efforts, Cockburn claimed, was to work for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and get a catalogue of Soviet military installations.
And perhaps I should end by citing one of his most infamous columns, which a good Samaritan has put on the internet for those without access to The Nation archives. Here Cockburn attempted to refute the claims of the Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, who had concluded that 20 million Russians had died as a result of Stalin’s policies. He quoted favorably the historian Jerry Hough, who was one of the most fierce apologists for Stalin and who had argued that only hundreds of thousands had died in the purges, not a number in excess of one million.
What was behind this obscene number crunching was Cockburn’s desire to denigrate those who dared compare Stalin to Hitler, especially Robert Conquest, whom Cockburn went out of his way to attack. As he put it, to place high numbers on those killed by Stalin had a “regulatory ideological function,” so as to put down anyone who says fewer people were killed by Stalin were therefore “soft” on him. So Cockburn wrote: “The symmetry that calculations such as Medvedev’s seeks to establish between Stalin and Hitler performs, in its service to ideology, similar injury to history.”
One might say, to use those very words, that Cockburn’s service to ideology was meant, just as it was by his father, to paint a portrait meant to explain the Soviet policy in the Stalin years as one that sought to minimize death, and hence to reveal Josef Stalin as a humane and practical leader who did his best to save as many lives as he could. Speaking of doing injury to history, indeed.
Finally, read this article by John Paul-Pagano, who calls Cockburn out for no-holds-barred, old-style antisemitism, including the use of the blood libel charge against Jews, which he terms Cockburn’s “most wicked accomplishment.” Israel was guilty of organ harvesting of Palestinians they killed for just that purpose. As Pagano writes, Cockburn wanted “you to believe a broader, darker narrative that Israel maintains the occupation of the Palestinians in part to shore up its reserves of organs for Jews in need of donations.”
The defender of Stalin turns out to have been a crazed low-level antisemite as well. No wonder he got along so well with Pat Buchanan. Those who celebrate Alex Cockburn’s life have a lot of explaining to do.