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

This interpretation, however, resting as it did on the assumption of historical continuity between the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, was out of step with the mainstream of American Sovietology. In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of “systems” dominated American academic discourse. Envying the sciences and trusting the principles of quantification, American scholars took for granted that all social phenomena could be reduced to a set of laws similar to those of physics or chemistry. Taken together, these laws constituted internally consistent social systems which were comprehensible and predictable. The aim of Sovietology, therefore, was to discover the specific laws governing the Soviet social system. Needless to say, Pipes did not share this worldview. In his mind, nations were not systems, but weather-beaten, time-worn, sui generis historical communities. Nations were governed not by logical rules but by profoundly idiosyncratic, often unconscious, and immensely powerful traditions of thought and behavior. This being so, he argued, the only way to understand a nation’s present condition—especially a centuries-old nation like Russia—was to study its organic historical development.
This is precisely what Pipes decided to do after finishing The Formation of the Soviet Union. He began with the observation that the Soviet Union was not nearly as revolutionary as many pundits, politicians, and political scientists thought. To be sure, the men who ruled the Russian empire were communists. They wanted to build socialism and spread communism around the world—by repression and force of arms, if necessary. But these communists were also Russian (or Russianized) and behaved accordingly. Pipes believed that, behind the veneer of ideological bluster, the parallels between Russia’s ancien régime and the new communist order were obvious. The Czar ruled alone, with absolute power, and so did the party. The Czar owned all the nation’s property, and so did the party. The Czar controlled public discourse and suppressed dissent, and so did the party. The Czar ruled a multi-national empire, and now, so did the party. Other Sovietologists ignored these parallels because they were committed to the idea—which originated in the Soviet government’s own propaganda—that the Bolsheviks were constructing a brand new social system based on the abstract principles of Marxism. The Sovietologists believed that communism was transforming Russia, while Pipes sensed that Russia was transforming communism.
Searching for the historical foundations of modern, “communist” Russia, Pipes began to study earlier periods in Russian history. Today such a shift in research agendas would constitute career suicide for an untenured lecturer on early Soviet history, but the historical profession of the mid-1950s had yet to be divided into today’s hyper-specialized and vigilantly defended fiefdoms. As a result, Pipes was permitted to follow his instincts into the neglected fields of medieval, early modern, and Imperial Russian history. We can be grateful that he did, because the results of his investigations into the distant Russian past immeasurably deepened American understanding of the Soviet Union. Pipes’ work on the evolution of Russian political culture proves that sometimes it takes an outsider to see what the specialists cannot.
Pipes’ research was driven by a question he formulated in a memorandum dated 1956: “How and for what reasons (real or alleged) has Russia retained its autocratic system of government even after this system had been abolished in Europe?” Westernizing reformers had come to Russia one after another over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Alexander II, Nicholas II, the Provisional Government, and finally the Bolsheviks themselves. Yet none of them had been able to curb the rise of autocracy and move Russia onto the path toward limited government. Pipes saw that autocracy enjoyed a mysterious hold over Russia. Why?
He initiated his investigation with a study of Nikolai Karamzin, perhaps the most sophisticated apologist for autocracy Russia has ever produced. Karamzin was the greatest Russian historian of the early nineteenth century and a counselor to the reform-minded Czar Alexander I. Against his own mildly republican tendencies, the Westernized Karamzin had concluded, on the basis of his historical research, that autocracy was the only form of government fit for Russia. Others might be “better” in some abstract sense, but they were unsuited to Russian conditions. Karamzin made his case to Alexander in a brief which Pipes translated and published in 1957 as Memoirs on Ancient and Modern Russia. Karamzin held that:
Autocracy has founded and resuscitated Russia. Any change in her political constitution has led in the past and must lead in the future to her perdition, for she consists of very many diverse parts, each of which has its own civic needs; what save unlimited monarchy can produce in such a machine the required unity of action? If Alexander… should lift a pen and prescribe himself laws other than those of God and of his conscience, then the true, virtuous citizen of Russia would presume to stop his hand, and to say: “Sire! You have exceeded the limits of your authority.”
This is a classic statement of the “natural” argument for the maintenance of autocracy, appealing to such impersonal forces as geography and demographics. The theory behind it is simple: Russia is enormous, diverse, and conflicted; such countries by their nature require a concentrated, uniform, and united government in order to prosper. Russia, therefore, requires autocracy. To this general theory, Karamzin added historical proofs. He pointed out that when autocratic power collapsed, as in the early-seventeenth-century “Time of Troubles,” the Russian people suffered social instability, invasion, revolt, and war. Similarly, when Western-minded rulers attempted to import European-style political institutions to Russia, as Catherine the Great did in the eighteenth century, they always failed. In short, without autocracy, there was no Russia.
As Pipes demonstrates in his most recent book, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, Karamzin did not invent the natural argument for autocracy. Russian conservatives borrowed it from early modern European political philosophers. Iuri Krizhanich and Feofan Prokopovich, both intimately familiar with Western political theory, outlined the natural argument during the seventeenth century. Vasilii Tatishchev and Catherine the Great herself, also versed in European thought, elaborated on it in the eighteenth century. By the time Karamzin had presented it to Alexander I in the early nineteenth century, the natural argument had become old hat, or what we might more charitably call “tradition.” Pipes points out that later conservative thinkers—Count Sergei Uvarov, the Slavophiles, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Mikhail Katkov, Konstantin Leontiev, Sergei Witte, and Petr Stolypin, among others—would advance additional arguments in favor of autocracy: that it was an engine of progress, that it was ethically superior to “European” government, that it could stave off the ravages of a potential revolution. None of these positions, however, had the strength or endurance of the natural argument, because none was as empirically satisfying. Sometimes autocracy was the engine of progress, ethically superior to Western regimes, and a bulwark against revolution. Sometimes it wasn’t. But Russia was, is, and—so long as it remained Russia—always would be enormous, diverse, and conflicted, and as such it needed the strong hand of the autocrat in order to remain intact. Supporters of the current Russian regime make much the same argument today.
After completing his translation of Karamzin, Pipes’ intention was to write a complete history of Russian conservative thought, but he found himself drawn to the life of Petr Struve, a brilliant radical turned conservative critic of the Russian revolutionary left. Having received tenure at Harvard in 1957, Pipes was free to pursue whatever project he liked. He put his history of Russian conservatism aside and decided to write Struve’s biography. He believed the project would take two years. It took twenty.
While working on his study of Struve, Pipes was still thinking about the deeper roots of the Russian autocratic tradition. The natural argument for the preservation of autocracy was clear enough, but it raised another question: If autocracy fit Russia “naturally,” as the conservatives said, how had it come to do so? While it was true, in theory, that “natural” factors—size, diversity, internal tension—might condition a state to a certain kind of rule, Russia had not always been large, mixed, and conflicted. In fact, the Russian state began as a small, homogeneous, and harmonious country. Somehow, it had become very large, heterogeneous, and troublesome. How had this happened, and what did it mean for the evolution of autocracy itself? Having completed the first volume of his Struve biography in 1970, Pipes took a break from it to address this question. His answer came in the form of a contribution to the book series calledà la Guizot, History of Civilization. The result was perhaps Pipes’ most significant contribution to Russian studies, Russia Under the Old Regime, published in 1974.

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