Robert Service

  • The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 by Richard Pipes
    Harvill, 946 pp, £20.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 00 272086 8

The coalface of Soviet politics is collapsing; among the long-term miners, the professional Sovietologists, this has had a salutary effect. Two separate work-gangs had emerged over previous decades. One drove its picks into history; the other into politics, economics or sociology. This division of labour was caused both by pressure on researchers to choose a single discipline in the humanities and social sciences, and by the global increase in researchers – although the British Government in the Eighties shamefully diminished the national commitment to Soviet studies. The transformation of the Soviet political scene under Gorbachev has ended such bifurcation. A reversion to the traditions of the earliest Sovietology has occurred. Founding figures such as E.H. Carr and Leonard Schapiro were renowned for their ability to write as knowledgeably about 1917 as about the latest political developments. Once again it is thought absurd to hold the Soviet past – which is only seven decades old – and the Soviet present in separate analytical boxes.

Richard Pipes resisted the pressure to choose between historical and political specialisms. He matched his articles on Khrushchev and Brezhnev with works on the origins of Russian Marxism. His first book, on the foundation of the Soviet Union as a federation, published in 1954, remains the subject’s textbook. In the Seventies Solzhenitsyn attacked his writings on the Romanov autocracy, and their dispute was carried by Western external services radio stations to the USSR. Pipes was not unknown there. In 1966 his book on Russian Marxism so incensed the authorities that two official historians were deputed to write a denunciation: Mister Paips fal’ tsifitsiruyet istoriyu. If the variety and eminence of his critics are a criterion, Professor Pipes is in the front rank of Soviet studies.

This was recognised by President Reagan when he made Pipes Director of East European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council in 1981. He stayed in post for only a short time before resigning and returning to Harvard. In 1984 he published a notable article, ‘Can the Soviet Union reform?’, reflecting Ronald Reagan’s optimism that the Soviet political system could be pushed towards fundamental reforms if the West pummelled the Soviet economy by maintaining the international arms race. This was one of many standpoints in Sovietology at the time. Some on the political right declared adherence to it. On the left, too, there were those who felt that economic decline would compel a programme of reforms, arguing that, once Brezhnev’s gerontocrats had died off, a more sophisticated generation of party apparatchiki would volunteer as reformers. With hindsight, we can probably concur that both involuntary and voluntary factors were at work in the mid-Eighties. Mikhail Gorbachev was reacting to circumstances, but he also made circumstances. Yet Pipes’s article stands up pretty well as a prognosis of the early course of reforms in the USSR.

A central theme in his writing has always been the Revolution, and his latest book is intended as a summary of a lifetime’s work. It is as heavy as an average-size metal bust of Lenin (now, for the first time, allowed to be sold in second-hand bookshops in Russia); and the author, disposing of textual space as broad as the southern steppes, roams freely over the questions which interest him.

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