The Dissident

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger and Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture
by Richard Pipes

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s World War II came to a bloody close, Americans suddenly realized that they knew remarkably little about the Soviet Union, their erstwhile ally and soon-to-be adversary in the approaching Cold War. Other than the fact that the USSR had a very large and robust army which had devastated Nazi Germany at enormous human and material cost, American perceptions of the Soviet Union were limited to clichés about long-suffering, mystical Slavs and hot-headed, communist fanatics. So, in typical American fashion, the United States began to train experts whose job would be to tell “us” about “them.”
One of the first products of this effort to understand the Russians was Richard Pipes. Academic, historian, and public servant, Pipes has stood at the center of the Russian studies establishment in the United States since the very beginning of the cold war. For fifty years, as a Harvard University historian in the post-World War II years, as a critic of détente in the 1970s, as a member of the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and as a conservative intellectual in the 1990s, Pipes has shaped American opinion of and policy toward Russia. His half-century-long attempt to come to grips with Russia, its people, its culture, and especially its politics reflects America’s collective attempt to do the same. The appearance of his memoir Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, and a new history, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, offers us a long-overdue opportunity to review and assess Pipes’ remarkable career.
Though Pipes has enjoyed a long and enviable life, his beginnings were far from propitious. He had the singular misfortune of being born into exactly the wrong tradition in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. To begin one’s life as a Polish Jew in 1923 usually meant dying twenty years later at the hands of the Nazis. Pipes avoided this fate thanks to a father who was blessed with both foresight and resourcefulness. Pipes tells the tale of his family’s flight from Poland to the United States with characteristic understatement in Vixi. It is, nonetheless, a breathtaking tale. Alas, many of Pipes’ kin did not survive the ideologically-inspired mass murder of the late 1930s and early 1940s. By the time his family fled in 1940, Pipes’ maternal uncle, Herman, a resident of Leningrad, had already been killed by Stalin’s henchmen. During the few short years that followed, many more of Pipes’ relatives would be slaughtered by the Nazi extermination machine. For the young Pipes, these traumatic experiences taught him a clear and unambiguous lesson: Whether communist or fascist, ideological fanaticism is uniformly murderous. This view would influence all of his later scholarship.
Upon arriving in the United States, Pipes, who had already shown bookish inclinations, promptly availed himself of that great American engine of immigrant advancement—higher education. The story of how he came to be accepted into college is a testament to both the virtues of the American educational system and Pipes’ own—apparently inherited—moxie. With not a little daring, Pipes simply wrote postcards to a number of American colleges asking if they might find a way for him to attend, though his English was imperfect and he had no money. Amazingly, four of the addressed institutions accepted him. He chose Muskingum College in Ohio. It was a fortunate selection, because it was there, in the trusting embrace of a small, Midwestern campus, that he was gently eased into American life and letters. He would never really leave.
The speed with which Pipes “Americanized” is suggested by the fact that, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he attempted to enlist in the army, only to be told that as a foreigner he could not do so. He did not, however, have to wait too long to serve his new country, and in January 1942 he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. Pipes’ career in the military was short and undistinguished, but it turned out to be crucial to his later work. For it was in the military, oddly enough, that he embarked on his lifelong study of Russian history.
Realizing that he could best serve the war effort with his intellect rather than by carrying a gun, Pipes was accepted to a Cornell University program which taught Russian to army personnel. It was the humble beginning of the American drive to produce experts capable of dealing directly with the USSR. Being a native Polish speaker, Pipes learned Russian quickly. It was his first encounter with Russia and the Russians, and the relationship would prove to be a lasting one.


Marshall Poe is an American writer and historian. He is a member of the department of history at the University of Iowa.

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