The Rise and Fall of the Baggy-Trousered Barbarians

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger by Richard Pipes
    Yale, 264 pp, £19.95, January 2004, ISBN 0 300 10165 1
  • Adventures in Russian Historical Research: Reminiscences of American Scholars from the Cold War to the Present edited by Samuel Baron and Cathy Frierson
    Sharpe, 272 pp, £18.50, June 2003, ISBN 0 7656 1197 X

Richard Pipes, Russian historian at Harvard and sometime member of President Reagan’s National Security Council, is famous for his hatred of Communism. He doesn’t like Russia much, either. Nor does he particularly care for most Russia and Soviet experts, regarding them as given to romanticising and whitewashing their subject. Worst of all are ‘revisionist’ Soviet historians in the United States and Britain, whose effort to write ‘history from below’, starting in the 1970s, he has denounced as wrongheaded and politically suspect. As I am one whom he has often chastised (most recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education), I approached his book warily. But against my will I enjoyed most of it. Pipes has not acquired the plastic veneer of most public men in America. He tells things as he sees them – which isn’t to say he necessarily sees them right – and does not touch up his self-portrait. And he’s an iconoclast, a trait I have always found attractive. To be sure, it’s baffling that he managed to find so much Soviet-loving, ‘soft-on-Communism’ conventional wisdom in the United States to challenge; my own experiences in that regard were diametrically opposite. Still, he got there first by some thirty years. And things may be different at Harvard.

Those who know Pipes only as a hardliner during the Cold War heyday of the Reagan years may doubt his credentials as an iconoclast. But what else is one to call someone who invokes Lytton Strachey (twice!) as an exemplar in the writing of history and quotes with approval Samuel Butler’s ‘I never write on any subject unless I believe the opinion of those who have the ear of the public to be mistaken’? Moreover, Pipes’s historical work has challenged a variety of received opinions: that 1917 was a social revolution; that Marxist ideology rather than Russian tradition is the key to understanding the Soviet Union, and so on.

The prickly independence of spirit that made Pipes a congenital ‘non-belonger’, though a very well-connected and influential one, was directed not only at other Russian and Soviet historians but at most intellectual communities he encountered. American political correctness, Harvard complacency and, especially, the pressure to conform within the American historical profession are soundly criticised: ‘I could never abide "group think".’ Nor could he abide cultivating the goodwill of colleagues by citing their work, attending their conferences, contributing to their symposia, or following other unwritten rules of behaviour. ‘Those who do not play by the rules or significantly depart from the consensus risk ostracism,’ he writes, obviously with reference to himself: ‘such behaviour, observed also in animal communities, strengthens group cohesion and enhances the sense of security of its individual members, but inhibits creativity.’

Growing up in prewar Warsaw as the pampered only child of comfortably-off parents (the family business was chocolate-making), Pipes wasn’t interested in politics; art, music and philosophy were more his thing. His parents, Jewish but non-observant, spoke German and Polish. The Soviet Union did not loom large in their son’s consciousness. In the late 1930s, when Pipes was a teenager, he heard ‘muffled sounds of appalling events taking place in the Soviet Union, but I had no idea what these were and I was not terribly interested in finding out’. It was only after the family’s move to the US in 1940 and the beginning of a new life for Pipes as a student at Muskingum College in Ohio that the Soviet Union finally caught his attention, and even then it was largely for pragmatic reasons: ‘In fall 1942 it dawned on me that given the closeness between the Polish and Russian languages, I could easily learn Russian . . . I think what I had vaguely in mind was that upon being inducted into military service, as seemed inevitable, I could put the knowledge of Russian to good use.’ This is what happened; and, when he started graduate studies at Harvard after demobilisation, he decided – almost accidentally, as he describes it – to specialise in Russian intellectual history.

The explanation for Pipes’s perceived anti-Russianness that one often hears from his detractors is simply that he is a Pole. Pipes concedes that ‘coming from Poland, a country which had bordered Russia for a thousand years and lived under its occupation for over a century’, he may have ‘unconsciously shared Polish attitudes towards Russia’, but adds with a note of bewilderment: ‘I must have absorbed them from the air because . . . while in Poland I had no interest in our eastern neighbour.’ This uncharacteristic admission of prejudice may be misplaced; it certainly fails to account for the intensity of Pipes’s moral outrage against the Soviet Union. In fact, on my reading of the data Pipes gives us, he didn’t start out anti-Russian, and it was not even Communism that first provoked the feelings of outrage. What he felt on his own skin was the German occupation of Poland in 1939; to a Germanophile family like Pipes’s this surely felt like a betrayal. But the real outrage came with the realisation in 1945 of the magnitude of the Holocaust and news of the deaths of friends and members of his family left behind in Europe. It was the Holocaust that made Pipes feel he had a mission ‘to spread a moral message by showing, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences’. In short, the original target, for which the Soviet Union was to become a surrogate, was Nazi Germany.

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