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


As 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.
Nonetheless, it was not immediately rewarding. Characteristically, the army couldn’t figure out exactly what to do with Pipes, so it shuttled its newly minted Russia expert from one mundane assignment to another. Happily, this gave Pipes time to read, and what he read would prove just as significant to his newfound career path as his formal education: Franחois Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe. It is possible that Pipes felt a certain kinship with the nineteenth-century French historian. Like Pipes, Guizot had suffered the murderous rage of fanatical ideologies. Young Guizot’s father was executed by French revolutionaries, just as the young Pipes’ relatives had fallen victim to the lethal policies of the communist and Nazi regimes. Guizot and Pipes understood, in a way that many who have not undergone the same traumas cannot, that ideas can be deadly.
There is no doubt, however, that the kind of history Guizot penned fired Pipes’ imagination. Guizot wrote what modern historians disparagingly call “speculative history.” In Guizot’s time it was called “philosophical history.” It was based on the assumption that historical entities were organic in nature, that is, evolving and growing like organisms, each unique to its origins and conditions. The methods of philosophical history were sympathetic: The historian’s primary tool was believed to be an emotive identification with his subject. The ultimate goal of this method was spiritual understanding. The philosophical historian sought not merely to chronicle events but to uncover the geist, or spirit, of a time and place. In Guizot and his method, Pipes found an intellectual model. Indeed, the question central to all of Pipes’ future scholarship—what is the spirit of Russian civilization?—and the method by which he sought to answer it (the historical analysis of Russia’s organic development over time) were quintessentially philosophical.
Pipes’ philosophical history of Russia would yield rich results and inform American understanding of the USSR at the highest levels of government. But Pipes would pay a price for his adherence to the principles of philosophical history. To many modern historians—including his fellow Russia experts—Pipes’ dogged faithfulness to “speculative history,” as they called it, was incomprehensible. Nations, it was asserted, are not organisms, sympathy is not a method, and national character is a pernicious myth. These criticisms only grew louder as American historiography became increasingly positivist and empiricist in its orientation. Pipes, however, was no “social scientist,” concentrating on statistical minutiae and collating data, and this fact would always place him on the fringes of his profession. He has never seemed to mind it there.
But this was all in the future. Demobilized in 1946, Pipes entered graduate school at Harvard University, then one of the few places in the United States where one could study Russian history. Harvard’s Russian program was expanding in response to the new international political situation, and his fellow graduate students—Leopold Haimson, Martin Malia, Marc Raeff, Nicholas Riasonovsky, and Donald Treadgold—would go on to train a good portion of the Russian studies establishment during the cold war. As his dissertation topic, Pipes selected Bolshevik nationalities theory. The choice reflected his desire to look beyond appearances and discover the essential spirit of his subject. Pipes knew that Marxists believed nationalism was a bourgeois ideology designed to impede class struggle and oppress the proletariat. How was it, then, that the USSR was composed of national republics, and Russian nationalism in particular was all the rage under Stalin? The Bolsheviks were supposed to be transcending nations, but instead they were creating and championing them. What, Pipes wanted to know, was really going on?
The answer he proposed in his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 was this: The current state of the USSR was the result not of Bolshevik ideology, but of forces deeply rooted in Russian history. Over the course of five hundred years the Russians had created a massive, multi-national empire, largely by force of arms. The Russo-centric Bolsheviks, despite their anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist rhetoric, had recreated that empire after the Revolution of 1917, again through the use of state violence. As a result, the USSR remained what the Russian empire had always been, the “prison house of nations,” despite existing in an era dominated by the idea of national sovereignty. The implication of Pipes’ analysis was clear: The Soviet Union, as an empire in a world of nation-states, was a house of cards. Things had fallen apart once, and they would again. Pipes would repeat this prediction many times in the coming decades, and in the end he would be vindicated.

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