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

At the time Russia Under the Old Regime appeared, early Russian history was in a sorry state. Soviet historians cynically repeated the same Marxist talking points about the feudal crisis in Muscovy, dutifully citing Lenin throughout. Most American historians of Russia simply ignored the country’s early history, favoring micro-studies of rebellious factories and impossibly elaborate biographies of obscure participants in the October Revolution. The professional Sovietologists also ignored early Russia—their specialty was macro-studies of the Soviet social system. In truth, from the 1950s to the 1970s, very little good history on the subject of early Russia was written anywhere, with the exceptions only proving the rule.
Pipes, however, was undaunted. He knew that the basic mechanics of Russian historical evolution from the earliest times to the present had already been worked out by a remarkable group of nineteenth-century Russian scholars: the Russian state-school historians—Konstantin Kavalin, Sergei Soloviev, Boris Chicherin, and the greatest Russian historian of his generation, Vasilii Kliuchevskii. They were little read in the 1970s, the Soviets officially repudiated them as instruments of bourgeois rule, and most American historians of Russia saw them as “background” for their studies of the all-important revolution. The Sovietologists, of course, did not know they existed. But Pipes read them, and he realized that their work held the key to understanding the rise of autocracy in Russia and, ultimately, its four-hundred-year reign over the country.
That key, he argued, was private property, or rather its absence. The state-school historians pointed out that the early Russian state evolved out of a prior institution: the patrimonial estate (votchina), controlled by a despotic prince. On these estates there was no distinction between private and public rights: the prince owned the land and the people on it, and he had the right to administer both as he saw fit. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Muscovite principality—the kernel of the Russian and Soviet Empires—expanded its patrimony to include all of Russia. In other words, the Muscovite Czar quite literally owned the Russian Empire—every piece of land, every subject, and every aspect of political power. Although Muscovite patrimonial rule would be tempered by Western reforms during the imperial era, the essence of Russian autocracy would remain the same. The Czar was the despotic owner of an estate that had become an empire.
To the state-school historians, and Pipes with them, the difference between European and Russian historical development could not have been clearer. In the Europe that took shape after the fall of the Roman Empire, various forces—the crown, the nobility, churches, municipalities—competed for power in a legal system that clearly distinguished between private and public rights. The ultimate result was a tradition of limited monarchy and the rule of law. In Russia, by contrast, despotic princes had fought one another for the rule of all Russia in a system that recognized little distinction between private and public rights. The result was unlimited monarchy and rule by caprice. Once this system had been imposed over a huge Eurasian landmass, autocracy proved almost impossible to moderate, because it systematically removed or subjugated all potential agents of change and thus any threat to the Czar’s absolute ownership of the state. The Russian nobility was bound to Czarist service, the Russian church became an instrument of the state, Russian towns were sources of royal revenue, and the bulk of the population was held in a state of semi-slavery, bound to the nobility, which in turn was bound, ultimately, to the Czar himself.
Pipes’ conclusions were of enormous importance to our understanding of conservative thought in Russia, namely, that it rested—and rests today—on a self-serving conceit. Russian conservatives taught that autocracy was “natural” for Russia, and that it was the only form of government that could rule an empire of such enormity, but this was, and is, false. Certainly Russia’s size, diversity, and tendency toward internal conflict made it naturally difficult to govern, but any number of regimes could potentially have managed the task. Even as Karamzin was formulating his theories in the nineteenth century, the United States—another large, diverse, and conflicted country—was managing rather well under republican rule. The truth was that autocracy did not magically emerge out of the Russian soil as the only possible form of Russian rule. Rather, it was imposed on Russia by a group of Muscovite princes whose successors and their confederates did almost everything they could to ensure that their autocratic power would remain undiminished. After they had eliminated all potential “intermediary bodies,” their job was not difficult, because they alone held the commanding heights of political, economic, and cultural power. By Karamzin’s time, autocracy probably did seem “natural” to Russia, but, as Pipes shows, this was an illusion. Autocracy was, in fact, a historical artifact, an nvention become tradition, a contingent creation become a necessary fact.
After Pipes completed Russia Under the Old Regime, his long-promised history of Russian conservatism was again postponed as he returned to his biography of Struve, the second volume of which appeared in 1980. It was then postponed once again as Pipes—already well known as an outspoken critic of détente—was asked by the Reagan administration to join the National Security Administration (NSA) as an advisor on Soviet and Eastern European affairs.
During Pipes’ tenure in government, his anti-communist stance made him a controversial figure, particularly in academic circles. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet studies establishment was in the grips of the theory of “convergence.” This concept held that after the “break” in 1917 and the distortions of “good” Leninism by “bad” Stalinism, the USSR was now modernizing and becoming progressively more like the European country it had been all along. Capitalism and communism were, so it was said, converging. Pipes didn’t buy any of it and said so publicly. To him, the entire convergence argument rested on a demonstrably false premise, because Russia was not really a European country in any important sense. True, its elite had adopted the patina of European civilization, but its patrimonial mode of evolution was sui generis. There was, said Pipes, no “break” in 1917. The continuity of Russian autocracy was clear to anyone who cared to look. Leninism and Stalinism—heirs to the Czarist tradition—were new only in that they were both exercises in totalitarian social engineering quite like Nazism in their means if not in their final goals. Capitalism and communism were not converging. The two systems were antithetical to one another, one being based on private property and limited government, and the other on collective ownership and absolute, unlimited rule. This led Pipes to his most daring thesis: Capitalism, he claimed, was destined to prosper, while communism, particularly in the Soviet case, was fated to collapse under the weight of its own political hypocrisy, economic stagnation, and policies of national oppression.
To the politically liberal American academic establishment, such views were plainly “Russophobic,” a charge Pipes fought throughout the latter part of his career. While it is true that Pipes had, and has, some rather direct, critical things to say about various aspects of Russian and Soviet history, the accusation is unfounded. Pipes holds no deep-seated, irrational hostility toward the Russians, but he is keenly aware of the difference between Russian and, later, Soviet propaganda and reality. Russian elites in particular—the beneficiaries of autocratic power—have a long history of willful, self-serving, carefully crafted disinformation. Since reality was not as they wanted it to be, they created an alternative one intended for foreigners and for their own subjects, not dissimilar to the famous Potemkin villages. Over time, they had presented Russia to the West as the True Christian Empire, the True Enlightened Monarchy, and the True Workers’ Paradise. Ultimately, however, there was little truth in any of these. Pipes’ sin, in the eyes of America’s academic establishment, was to continually, forcefully, and publicly point out this uncomfortable fact. One can argue that Pipes’ blunt approach was ill-considered given the delicate and dangerous international situation in the 1980s, but to call him a bigot made and makes no sense. Sometimes the truth is hard.
As a result of these controversies, Pipes fought the Russian studies and Sovietological establishment throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The battlefield was the history of the Russian Revolution itself. On one side stood Pipes, who insisted that the revolution was no revolution at all, but a coup d'état; that the Bolsheviks were violent fanatics, and that the Soviet Union was essentially a criminal enterprise. On the other side stood the “revisionists”—American scholars who, ironically, Pipes and his colleagues had trained—who held that the revolution was a popular uprising, that the Bolsheviks (with the exception, of course, of Stalin) were socialist reformers, and that the Soviet Union was an experiment in modernization. In reality, Pipes’ battle with the revisionists was more of a perpetual stalemate than an actual war. Pipes ignored revisionist scholarship, saying (unfairly) that if he wanted the Soviet view of things he could read it in Soviet journals. In turn, the revisionists ignored Pipes, which was not difficult, since he had published little on the revolutionary era after The Formation of the Soviet Union in 1954.
Once he left the NSA in 1983, Pipes set about changing that. His answer to the revisionists would be his own revisionist project, a comprehensive history of the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Putting off, once again, his history of Russian conservatism, Pipes worked feverishly on what would become The Russian Revolution (1990) and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (1994). In these books, Pipes passionately and sometimes angrily made the case that the Bolsheviks—and Lenin in particular—were power-hungry, bloody-minded utopians who hijacked the Russian autocratic state and used its awesome power to forge a totalitarian system that slaughtered millions of its own subjects. To Pipes, the late imperial regime was bad, but the Bolshevik regime was infinitely worse. It was, he concluded, nothing short of a catastrophic disaster for the Russian people.
Needless to say, Pipes’ Burkean reflection on the Russian Revolution was not favorably received by the academy, particularly by the revisionists themselves. The major American journal in the field refused to review either volume. But the popular reception was very positive, largely, one suspects, because of Pipes’ impeccable timing: The Soviet Union had fallen. The revisionists, who had argued that the Bolsheviks were legitimate modernizers, and the Sovietologists, who had argued that the Soviet Union was a bastion of stability, had been suddenly silenced by history. Convergence had proved to be a myth, and Richard Pipes had just published two books that explained, by implication, everything that had just happened. The Soviet Union, he had claimed, began as an exercise in tyranny and, like all tyrannies, it would collapse. And it did. Having set out to explain the rise of the Soviet Empire, Pipes had inadvertently written its epitaph.
Perhaps satisfied with his vindication, and disenchanted with the current state of academia, Pipes retired from Harvard in 1996. As he notes in Vixi, the world of scholarship and higher education had changed radically since he first entered the historical profession. History departments had grown very large and yet extremely narrow. Every scholar had his or her particular bailiwick upon which others were not to trespass. Slim monographs on obscure subjects were the order of the day. Pipes’ beloved “philosophical history” was practiced no more. And though he could take some solace in his apparent victory over the revisionists, it proved—at least in the academy—to be temporary. In May 1995 Harvard refused to grant tenure to Vladimir Brovkin, a well-published and outspoken scholar of early Soviet Russia whom Pipes viewed as his successor. With the revisionists firmly established at the top of the historical hierarchy in all the major universities, and Harvard worried about its reputation, it was not to be. Brovkin was out, and so was Pipes.
Freed by retirement from the politics of academia, Pipes turned, at last, to his long-neglected history of Russian conservatism. The result, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, is something of a summation of his life’s work on Russian political culture. It begins with a sketch of the patrimonial theory of Russian historical evolution, which Pipes laid out at length in Russia Under the Old Regime. To my mind, these brief pages are the best in the book, for they teach Pipes’ essential lesson: Russian historical development can be understood only in contrast to European historical development. The early Russian Empire (the princedoms of Kievan Rus’ and Muscovy) took shape in distant northern Eurasia, a region with poor soil, indefensible borders, and no access to the sea. In contrast, the European states evolved in a well-traveled area blessed with fertile land, good natural defenses, and extensive coastlines. Proto-Imperial Russia was born into an equally difficult cultural climate, for no classical civilization had ever inhabited the Rus’ region of northern Eurasia. In contrast, early European states were constructed on the firm foundations of Greco-Roman culture. As a result, classical legal concepts such as limited rule and private property were largely absent in early Russia, whereas they were common currency in medieval and early modern Europe. To be sure, early Russia absorbed a measure of classical culture from Constantinople, but the legacy of the Byzantine Empire was neither very rich outside the liturgical realm nor—from a political point of view—very challenging. The Muscovites read the few Byzantine political texts they received through the lens of their own patrimonial theory of rulership. And, of course, there were the nomads of the Eurasian steppes. The Mongols had ruled Russia for two centuries, and their descendants were a thorn in her side for long after that. Outside of the eastern and southern marches, most European states were safe from nomadic predation. To Pipes, these early differences—geographic, cultural, and military—explain the separate political cultures they created: autocracy in Russia and limited government in Europe.
Having set the historical stage, Pipes then introduces his actors—the major Russian conservative thinkers of the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries. The chapter on political thought in early Muscovy is not terribly satisfying, but the Muscovites did not write much about politics, so Pipes doesn’t have much to work with in the first place. Indeed, one might argue that the very absence of Muscovite political texts tells us something about early Russian political thinking, namely, that patrimonial ideology was already firmly established at a very early stage.
The real story begins with Peter the Great. Peter was the first Czar who consciously attempted a program of Westernization. He knew that—from the European political perspective, at least—there was something slightly embarrassing about Russian governance. The Czar was too powerful, and his subjects too servile. So Peter—and after him Catherine II, Alexander I, Alexander II, and Nicholas II, inter alia—tried to reform the Russian system along Western lines. They all failed. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but the one emphasized by Pipes in Russian Conservatism is ideological: Russian reformers could not succeed because most Russians—and certainly the conservative thinkers Pipes discusses—did not want reform. As hard as it may be for Westerners to imagine, Russians truly believed in autocracy. Prokopovich, Tatishchev, Karamzin, Uvarov, Pobedonosev, Katkov, and other conservative figures sincerely felt that autocracy was the best form of government for Russia, and that without it Russia would perish. Autocracy and simple Russian patriotism were, to them, indistinguishable. Although Pipes does not venture into the realm of popular political opinion, it is not outrageous to suggest that the beliefs of the literate Russian conservatives were by and large shared by the great mass of Russian subjects. For them, the Czar’s rule was a natural and necessary fact of life: natural because the Czar was ordained by God, and therefore, without a Czar, Russia would fall into sin and depravity. They could imagine no other possibility.
The question, of course, is whether Russians today can imagine another possibility. Alas, Pipes does not address this question directly, and his book ends with the Revolution of 1917. But Pipes is, ultimately, a firm believer in the power of culture. Political movements, parties, and even entire regimes may come and go, but cultures stay. Looking at Pipes’ life’s work, we can conclude, sadly, that autocracy will remain an important element of Russian culture, just as it has been for centuries. At every historical moment in which Russia appeared to be charting a new course—1613, 1730, 1767, 1809, 1825, 1861, 1905, 1917, and so forth—she returned to autocracy. Given the current popularity of the Putin regime and its continuing policy of concentrating more and more power in the hands of the head of state, Russia appears to be doing the same today.
Richard Pipes calls himself a “non-belonger.” It is an apt description. Over the course of his rich career, he has refused to join the many fashionable and transient academic cliques of the moment, and, it must be said, he has been rejected by as many more. Such isolation can be painful, and though Pipes stoically refuses to acknowledge it, I have no doubt that it was hurtful on occasion. Yet he has persevered. Despite it all, Pipes has never stopped trying to explain “them” to “us”—even when we wouldn’t listen, even when we rejected what he had to say, and even when we called him a paranoid, war-mongering bigot. Having experienced tyranny firsthand, he knew that we needed to hear his message and that, eventually, we would. We should thank him for his determination. Whether he likes it or not, he is no longer alone—today we are all non-belongers.

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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