In appreciation of Professor Richard Pipes

May 23, 2018

Professor Richard Pipes, who died on 14 May at the age of 94, was one of a small number of historians who influenced the character of his era as well as the perception of it. His life defies as many stereotypes as his writing. Although the family into which he was born in 1923 was Polish-Jewish, it was also a secular, Germanophile and materially comfortable, which might explain young Ryszard Edgar Pipes’s lack of interest in politics and history until his family’s miraculous escape to the United States via Italy in 1940. It was thanks to the US Army Air Corps, who conscripted him in 1942, that he was sent to study the Russian language in Cornell University, where he graduated in 1946 before receiving in 1950 a PhD. from Harvard, which institution he effectively never left.

Although he already had some solid writing to his credit, the publication of Russia Under the Old Regime in 1974 catapulted Pipes to academic prominence and controversy in equal measure. To the charge of harbouring a Polish anti-Russian bias (a charge that was bigoted as well as inaccurate) he could only profess bemusement in as much as it was only the magnitude of the Holocaust that persuaded him that the other, very much extant totalitarian power deserved deep and critical study. Yet the charge of being a Cold Warrior he readily accepted. Then in the midst of the Cold War, the charge was a much milder fatwah than it is now, but it still drew a clear line between those who hoped that East-West détente would gradually ameliorate hostility and more traditional observers like Pipes who believed that until Russia overcame Marxism-Leninism such a course was impossible.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Pipes accepted then President Ford’s invitation in 1976 to lead a ‘Team B’ group of analysts established to scrutinise the more lenient and mainstream assumptions that by then had taken root even in the CIA itself. This effort led in fairly short order to membership of the Committee on the Present Danger and, by 1981, to appointment as Director for Eastern European and Soviet Affairs on President Reagan’s National Security Council. To these prominent and articulate circles, Pipes brought an unsparingly rigorous intellect enriched by a high order of historical scholarship.

But Washington politics has a rigour and savagery of its own.  It breeds dogmas, and it sharpens them. Pipes’s time in the Reagan administration acuminated views he had long harboured: that the Soviet regime was not a ‘responsible actor’ but an entity schooled by instinct and interest to exploit every weakness that the West presented to it. Mounting economic evidence also fortified his disdain of those who viewed the USSR as a durable and abiding element of the global constellation of power. Like the administration he served, he contested root and branch the orthodoxy that the West’s challenge was to ‘manage relations’ rather than develop ‘positions of strength’ and utilise them.

Thus, by the time he returned to Harvard in 1983, he had acquired a reputation as an ideologue. Yet this reputation was far from just. Although Pipes had become a mainstay of the Neo-Conservative movement, he was by experience and temperament a traditional conservative with a tragic view of history and the human condition.  If there is any determinism in his historical writings, it is cultural rather than ideological, an exposition of how mentalities outlast the institutional arrangements and political rationales that engender them.

The underlying reality of Tsarism was patrimonialism: a dispensation combining autocratic rule with autocratic ownership of the country and the people who lived in it. This notion of patrimony, reinvigorated and bureaucratised by the Soviet regime, has never been overcome in Russia or most of the Soviet successor states, where to this day property rights are based on power rather than law. Yet at the time Pipes wrote Russia Under the Old Regime and its sequels (The Russian Revolution – 1990; and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime – 1994), many historians regarded this emphasis as misplaced.

The iconoclasm of Pipes and the evidence deployed to support it got under the skin of many contemporaries. Towards the notion that Tsarism collapsed because of ‘misery’ and ‘oppression’, he showed ill-concealed contempt. In Russia legitimacy derived not from ‘righteous conduct’ but ‘forceful conduct’, from an aura of ‘invincibility’ that suffered one reverse after another between the Crimean War and 1917. Still, the monarchy could have staved off revolution by ‘sharing power with conservative elements of society’, but it did not, and despite Alexander II’s Great Reforms, the Empire remained a ‘fragile, artificial structure’ held together by ‘bureaucracy, police and army’.

In other respects too, Pipes challenged taboos and orthodoxies that continue to hold sway: that the ‘Marxist plague’ was alien to Russian culture (a favourite charge of nationalist writers), that Communism represented a clear break from Tsarism, that whereas the Bolshevik revolution was ‘inevitable’, Stalinism was an ‘aberration’.

Even more than his monumental foil, Henry Kissinger, Richard Pipes combined what the guardians of the contemporary academy insist cannot be combined: scholarship and advocacy. For Pipes, the notion that scholars should acquire ‘the scientists’ habit of moral and emotional detachment’ is a delusion.

The assembly of the relevant facts must certainly be carried out dispassionately… But this is only the beginning of the historian’s task, because the sorting of these facts… requires judgment, and judgment rests on values’.

Russia’s legacy of autocratic rule not only influences the political system that is now synonymous with Vladimir Putin. It has become part of that system’s legitimacy. To the centuries old pillars of bureaucracy, police and army (reinforced once again by the Orthodox Church), Putin has added business – but business fused with power on a neo-patrimonial basis. Will this fusion prove to be a vindication of Pipes’s analysis or its refutation? Pipes always argued that in the absence of ‘strong lateral ties’ and an ‘explicit mandate of its citizens’, even the most ‘enduring’ authoritarian regime can collapse in a matter of days. Will this be the fate of Putin’s Russia? It is our loss that Richard Pipes can no longer take part in this discussion.

Join our mailing list