‘Saved from certain death’ to change the course of history

He believed Russia was on the right track before World War I, and he waxed optimistic about the transition to democracy in the early 1990s.

AN ICE floe drifts past the Kremlin in Moscow in winter. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ICE floe drifts past the Kremlin in Moscow in winter.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Richard Pipes, who died on May 17, 2018, was the most versatile, prolific and influential historian of Russia in the English-speaking world. He was also a prominent Sovietologist – a rare combination. His sweeping interpretation of Russia shaped worldwide perceptions and helped bring about the collapse of the USSR.
Born Ryszard Edgar Pipes in 1923 in Polish Silesia, he grew up in Warsaw and fled with his parents amid the Nazi occupation in late October 1939. Thanks to his father’s connections, fluent German, and audacity, they made it to safety, through Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Pipes commenced university studies in 1940 at Muskingum College in Ohio. Drafted in early 1943, he received Russian language training at Cornell University. After the war, he joined a brilliant cohort of future Russian historians at Harvard University, studying with the Russian émigré Michael Karpovich.
Pipes’s dissertation and resultant first book, The Formation of the Soviet Union (1954), laid the foundation for the now burgeoning field of nationalities studies of Russia and the former Soviet Union. His second book, which came out five years later, was a critical edition with extensive commentary on the defense of Russian autocracy by Nicholas Karamzin (1766–1826), a poet, the country’s first major historian and a founder of the modern Russian literary language. Here Pipes adumbrated his understanding of an underlying Russian political culture that tends toward political absolutism. Both volumes remain in print and are considered classics.
Pipes went on to write 20 more books and scores of scholarly articles, but these two works set the parameters of his approach: meticulous attention to historical detail, to concrete circumstances and to individual human agency, combined with an emphasis on fundamental issues and an overarching interpretation.
Pipes spent his career working through mountains of primary sources and, as an early practitioner of oral history, conducting hundreds of interviews. No historical determinist, he nevertheless believed it essential for historians to gain a deep understanding of a given people’s geography, climate, religious experience and ethnic composition. The fact, for example, that Russia had a short growing season and was comprised of dozens of disparate nationalities were features not to be overlooked.
For Pipes, “classes” and “social forces” do not make history; people do, and in particular political and military leaders. Although Pipes recognized that “one can become engrossed in the history of grain prices in medieval Hungary,” he devoted his life almost exclusively to “big questions” of Russian history, including the intelligentsia, liberal and conservative ideas, the overweening power of the state, Soviet expansionism, and the Russian Revolution.
Taken together, the elements of his approach enabled Pipes to articulate a broad interpretation of Russian history in his sweeping Russia under the Old Regime (1974), another classic no historian of Russia can ignore. In Pipes’s view, Russia tends toward unfettered political power, disregard for individual rights, and a “patrimonial” attitude of the rulers toward property and resources. In the era of Russian President Vladimir Putin, this feature of the interpretation, even to skeptics, now seems especially prescient.
From the 1950s, Pipes had commented on Soviet society, government and geopolitics. He viewed the USSR as an illegitimate state with an oppressed citizenry and a privileged elite, beset by demographic challenges, committed to expansionism and lacking conceptions of international stability and rightful spheres of national influence. In 1970, Senator Henry Jackson, a “Cold War liberal,” took notice and engaged Pipes as a consultant. In 1976, Pipes led the Team B analysis of the CIA’s Soviet strategic estimates.
His resultant Commentary article, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War” (1977), brought Pipes notoriety and a position as Soviet and East European expert in Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council. Here Pipes drafted (and Reagan signed in 1983) National Security Decision Directive 75. It articulated a “grand strategy” to challenge the USSR politically, economically, militarily, diplomatically and culturally and thereby to nudge the Kremlin toward reform. It is hard not to see the rise of Gorbachev and the implementation of his reforms as, in part, consequences of this strategy.
After Washington, Pipes completed his monumental two-volume study of the Russian Revolution and early Bolshevik rule (1990, 1994), the continuation of Russia under the Old Regime. With some 1,500 pages and over 4,000 scholarly references, it is a tour de force of factual detail, brilliant writing, intellectual sophistication and moral depth. Colleagues berated him for ignoring mass participation in the revolution, for “prosecuting the Russian Revolution,” for arguing that Lenin’s indiscriminate violence against specific social categories prefigured Nazi atrocities, and for suggesting that the institutions and political culture of early Bolshevism laid the necessary foundations of Stalinism.
Decades after the collapse of the USSR, it is hard to understand the ferocity of those debates or why many “revisionists” despised Pipes. In reality, the October Revolution can be rightly interpreted as a coup d’état with little popular support and as a human catastrophe of colossal proportions. It seems now incontestable that dismantling prerevolutionary restraints on government, like the independent judiciary and property rights, and deploying dehumanizing rhetoric and repression paved the way toward Stalinism. Nor does Stalin’s targeting for exile of millions of peasants and for execution of hundreds of thousands of “socially undesirables” now seem less than at least a foretaste of the Holocaust.
His service in Washington and his history of the Russian Revolution made Pipes a public intellectual with speaking engagements, interviews and newspaper commentary across the globe. Property and Freedom (1999), which presents strong property rights as a bulwark of political liberty, won the prestigious Bruno Leoni Prize in 2015. Communism: A History (2001) was translated into 14 languages. Pipes gained worldwide fame.
Pipes’s reputation as a “Russophobe” is unjustified. He disliked the Russian government (in all its phases) but loved Russian culture, both the warmth of its people and the profundity of its arts. Chekhov was his favorite author in world literature. He had close, supportive relations with many Russians (and non-Russian citizens of the USSR and Russia – he was named honorary consul of Georgia in 1997) both within the country and abroad. Before the Soviet collapse, many dissidents revered him, and for decades thereafter Pipes was viewed as a sage commentator on Russian affairs, probably more than any other foreign scholar.
He believed Russia was on the right track before World War I, and he waxed optimistic about the transition to democracy in the early 1990s. He cared deeply about Russia’s future and devoted much of his scholarship to seeking a “usable past” for its present guidance. Pipes’s two-volume biography of the liberal activist and thinker Peter Struve (1970, 1980), a labor of love, was meant to provide a future role model for freedom-seeking Russians. He was thrilled when the book was published in Russia in 2001 and he was invited to take part in a conference on Struve’s life in Russia in 2003. He hoped his last book, Alexander Yakovlev: The Man Whose Ideas Delivered Russia from Communism (2015), would inspire reform-minded Russians.
Some Russian historians have published as much or have investigated such varied periods and themes or have conceived robust and multifaceted interpretations of Russia’s history, but no other has achieved all these things in one lifetime.
The author is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.