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.

Not long ago, the American Historical Review published an article by Kate Brown – which Pipes surely disliked, if he read it – with the arresting subtitle ‘Why Kazakhstan and Montana are Nearly the Same Place’. In the old days, it was Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that were ‘nearly the same place’, and the underpinning for the comparison was the theory of totalitarianism. Pipes, though never much of a theory man, accepted this paradigm, which was in the air in his early Harvard years; and he (like many others) attached to it a moral outrage sharpened by the war and the postwar Holocaust revelations. One may wonder why, if the criminal regime Pipes really wanted to denounce was Nazism, he opted instead for the Soviet surrogate. ‘Since scholars have written enough on the Holocaust,’ he writes, ‘I thought it my mission to demonstrate this truth using the example of Communism’: but in the 1950s, when Pipes made this choice, study of Nazi Germany was in its infancy and scholarship on the Holocaust scarcely existed. Elsewhere Pipes gives the more plausible explanation that the Holocaust struck too close to home for him to study it or the Nazi regime without pain. He reproaches himself for this instinctive desire to avoid dwelling on details of the Holocaust but ‘stuck to it for the sake of my sanity and positive approach to life’.

For his sanity, therefore, Pipes turned on the Soviet Union, whose evils he denounced harshly and vigorously, but with a certain emotional detachment, for most of his career. Only when writing The Russian Revolution in the 1980s – the scholarly book he values most and his colleagues value least – did this detachment fail and the process of writing become almost unbearably painful, evidently because he was again in ‘the same place’ as Nazi Germany: the Russian Communists’ behaviour ‘reminded me time and again of the Nazis’; in the murder of the Russian imperial family, he smelt ‘a whiff of the Holocaust’.

To be sure, close encounters with the Soviet Union soon provided Pipes with grounds for dislike. On his first short trip there in 1957 (en route to India, where he was to deliver lectures on his Soviet journey for the Congress on Cultural Freedom), his Intourist guide was ‘a heavily made-up woman in her thirties with the repulsive expression of a professional KGB agent’ and Leningrad seemed full of badly dressed people, ‘culturally and even physically the most backward elements of Russia’s rural population’, looking ‘like barbarian invaders who had conquered and taken over what had once been a flourishing centre of civilisation’. When Pipes visited relatives, he was followed, and this surveillance depressed him; he found ‘the pervasive lying’ and hypocrisy in the Soviet Union deeply offensive. Surprisingly, in light of his later policy positions, he expressed doubts to sceptical ‘high-level Nato officials’ – he was already moving in such circles – ‘that a country so poor and so backward presented a serious threat to us’.

We are now reaching the point in Pipes’s career where his experiences overlap with those of the 20 American historians of Russia who contributed their memories of life in the Soviet Union as official exchange scholars to Adventures in Russian Historical Research. As always, Pipes is a ‘non-belonger’ or at least an outrider in this group. On his first – and, for many years, his only – research trip to the Soviet Union in 1962, things started promisingly, with ‘the entire history department of Leningrad University’ at the station to greet him. His lectures on 19th-century Russian conservatism produced a gratifying sensation, and kind Soviet scholars got him black-market penicillin when he became ill. All this might have softened his view of Russia, had it not been for his irrepressible iconoclasm, directed on this occasion against a Soviet sacred cow: the regime’s historic ties with the working class. Pipes’s debunking book on this theme, Social Democracy and the St Petersburg Labour Movement 1885-97, published in 1963, quickly produced a campaign of vilification in the Soviet Union that included the publication of a book-length diatribe entitled Mr Pipes Falsifies History.

This was the beginning of Pipes’s career as a demon in anti-Western propaganda. His Soviet reputation grew even blacker in the 1970s when he became politically active as a member of the notorious Team B, which charged that the CIA had underestimated the Soviet threat, and then of the Committee on the Present Danger, arguing that Soviet Communism was inherently expansionist and an imminent danger to the United States. When he was appointed to the National Security Council after Reagan’s victory in 1980, Pravda greeted his appointment with a hostility that Pipes more than returned. ‘I felt nothing but pride at having aroused so much animosity – and, presumably, anxiety – among such vile people.’

There was anxiety, too, among Pipes’s students and colleagues. When he became a member of the National Security Council, the editors of Adventures in Russian Historical Research write, ‘our identity as US historians of Russia, funded by the US government, became acutely suspect.’ One of the editors, Cathy Frierson, who was a student of Pipes’s at Harvard, made the mistake of admitting this connection in her application and as a result became a ‘target for Soviet anger’, and was denied access to key archives. For the exchange scholars – a couple of dozen each year from the United States, mainly graduate students in history and literature, with a comparable contingent from Britain under the auspices of the British Council – the Soviet Union was enough of a hardship post already. (I was there myself, thanks to the British Council, for 18 months in 1966-70.) Living conditions were spartan, basic goods including food in short supply, spy mania in the air and suspicion of foreigners endemic. In my time, at least, one or two exchange scholars each year got into trouble with the Soviets and were sent home, ending any prospects of future research in the Soviet Union. Western scholarship on the Soviet Union – not just Pipes’s work – was regularly assailed as ‘bourgeois falsification’, though when this happened to Laura Engelstein, one of the contributors to Adventures in Russian Historical Research, with her book on the 1905 revolution in Moscow, she was judged guilty only of an ‘excess of liberal naivety, not ideological malice like a certain Mr Richard Pipes’. My first scholarly article was denounced in a Soviet newspaper in 1968 under the heading ‘He Who Is Obliged to Hide the Truth’. Such ‘ideological saboteurs’ were ‘not that different from bourgeois spies’, the reviewer noted ominously: fortunately Soviet incompetence was such that nobody noticed that the man who was the next thing to a spy was actually a woman currently in the Soviet Union on the British Council exchange.

For all Pipes’s suspicions of the Russophiliac and Soviet-appeasing tendencies of American scholars, the Adventures group doesn’t come across that way. Frederick Starr remembers his cohort in the late 1960s as convinced that culture was more important than politics, and proud of the ‘irrelevance’ of their research. For some exchangees, interest in studying Russian history had something to do with having parents or grandparents who had come from Russia and/or admired the ‘Soviet experiment’. But feelings about roots can be ambivalent, as with Engelstein’s Yiddish-speaking Russian-Jewish family, whose hopes of, and later disappointment with, the Russian Revolution coexisted with memories of Russian anti-semitism: ‘Of course I feel some kind of (complicated) pull,’ Engelstein writes; yet when asked if she had a Russian background, she would always say no. The stories told here are notably lacking in the respectful affection for the place of study and its cultural traditions (as distinct from affection for individuals) that is common currency in many ‘exotic’ fields such as Sinology or (in the US) British studies.

The great passion of the historians on the exchanges was archives. These were difficult for anyone to get into, even Petrine scholars, but particularly so for those studying the Soviet period, whose numbers increased exponentially in the 1970s and 1980s. It may have seemed to Pipes in one of his relatively few Soviet archival forays that he alone was the subject of ‘stinginess’ and discrimination, receiving only one folder a day while ‘by contrast, one of my American colleagues known for his friendly attitude toward the regime, sitting at a nearby desk, all but drowned in documents.’ But ‘stinginess’ was the norm and outright refusal to grant access to archives not uncommon. That was why the game was so engrossing, so unlike the normal grind of archival research: as Don Raleigh writes, one ‘experienced not only great personal satisfaction but also a strange sensation of doing something risqué and forbidden’ when one worked in a Soviet archive.

It was in the nature of this game that exchange scholars should collectively have seen Soviet officialdom as the opponent, if not the enemy. ‘The guardians of Soviet orthodoxy were not wrong about me,’ Engelstein writes. ‘I was bound and determined to say something that went against the grain.’ Beating the system was a universal preoccupation among exchangees. Or, perhaps more accurately, beating both systems, since the constraints often came from the US/UK side as well as the Soviet. Finding Russian friends and lovers was one of the main system-beating activities, since neither side looked on this with favour. But how could the exchangees have resisted? Not only were they young, they were the only resident foreigners who lived side by side with Russians, making them the envy of diplomats and journalists holed up in foreigners’ compounds.

What fascinated the contributors to Adventures in Russian Historical Research was how different Soviet life as they experienced it was from its ideologically charged Western representation; how much informal practices and official structures diverged; and how Soviet citizens managed to negotiate these contradictions and find themselves more or less comfortable niches. Starr describes very well his discovery that for the people he met the ‘greatest pleasure in life derived not from participation in the Soviet system but from the micro-worlds they . . . had laboriously constructed in the invisible crannies of that system’. With this discovery, he writes, it became ‘increasingly difficult for me to take seriously most of the pompous generalisations about the nature of the Soviet Union that had been concocted by political scientists in the West’ relying ” on abstract theories and sanitised information from official Soviet sources. ‘Is it any wonder that they missed most of what was going on?’ Starr came to see the Soviet system as resembling ‘a broken and uneven old sidewalk, with no few hard spots but with fresh green grass sprouting up everywhere between the constantly expanding and multiplying cracks’.

For historians, this worm’s-eye view accorded perfectly with the new social-history interests of the profession in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Soviet field, the turn to ‘history from below’ was almost synonymous with what became known pejoratively as ‘revisionism’, meaning the abandonment by historians and political scientists of ‘top down’ totalitarianism as a basic conceptual framework; and the ‘from below’ methodology was often coupled with criticism of the value-loaded ‘Cold War’ premises of the totalitarian model. As it happens, the Adventures contingent includes only a few who could be categorised as revisionists. All the same, most of them share the interest in history from below, as their studies of the provinces, the weakness of central bureaucracy, rural life and attitudes, marginal social groups, and popular revolution indicate.

To Pipes, this approach was anathema. In the first place, he believes that popular experience is not what matters in human history. Observing the quick return to normality in occupied Poland in 1939-40, he was amazed to see ‘how quickly the everyday overwhelms the historic’, and acquired a lasting conviction that ‘the population at large plays only a marginal role in history, or at any rate in political and military history, which is the preserve of small elites: people do not make history – they make a living.’ Did the masses clamour for the world wars in which they were to be slaughtered? he asks rhetorically. This question might have a different answer, of course, if one substituted ‘revolution and civil war’ for ‘world wars’. For Pipes, however, the occupation analogy would probably still hold good, with the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 ‘nearly the same’ as the Germans in Poland in 1939.

Pipes’s second and more familiar objection to history from below is that in its revisionist application it occluded the crimes of rulers and undermined the only morally acceptable approach to Soviet history – which is from a stance of explicit condemnation. This occlusion, he has always assumed, was ideologically motivated: it was the revisionists’ aim to ‘justify’ and ‘whitewash’ the Soviet regime. And not just the revisionists. As I said, Pipes has been singularly, almost bizarrely, unfortunate in the strata of American public opinion with which he has come in contact. According to his observations, ‘the entire [American] intelligentsia, especially those who engaged in academic work, in varying degrees sympathised with the Communist experiment.’ In addition, American political scientists studying the Soviet Union (to other eyes an almost uniformly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet community) ‘had a considerable stake in depicting the Soviet Union as a powerful yet reasonable rival in order both to encourage the flow of scholarly subsidies from the government and foundations and to secure Soviet co-operation in their researches’.

Revisionists were the biggest villains, however, especially when their conspiracy ‘to impose control on the teaching of modern Russian history’ triumphed in American academia. ‘In a manner which I believe was new to American academic life though familiar from the history of Bolshevism, they strove and largely succeeded in monopolising the profession, ensuring that university chairs in that field across the country went to their adherents. This entailed ostracising scholars known to hold different views.’ Extraordinary behaviour, indeed – but didn’t Pipes tell us that in American academia, ‘those who do not play by the rules or significantly depart from the consensus’ always ‘risk ostracism’? Be that as it may, Pipes is indignant at the unfairness of it all: instead of the revisionists losing, as they deserved to, it looks as if they won.

In an age of postmodern relativism, there is something touching in Pipes’s view of intellectual debate as a matter of winning or losing and absolute truth versus absolute falsehood. In rebuttal, one could invoke Kuhnian notions of paradigm shift, pointing out that each new scholarly generation is revisionist of its predecessors, and it’s therefore in the nature of the thing for revisionists to ‘win’ – at least until the next generation comes along. But Pipes wants, perhaps even deserves, a real answer to his critique of revisionism. Let me try to give it. In his version, Cold Warriors like himself said that the Soviet Union was dangerous and evil and, because of its evilness, unpopular with its own people, and, because of its unpopularity, inherently unstable. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved them right. The revisionists (again in Pipes’s rendition) insisted that the Soviet regime had popular support and thus could never be overthrown: 1991 proved them wrong and their work (along with most American Sovietology, but that is another question) worthless.

Putting to one side the red herring of ‘stability’ (a claim of political scientists, not even specifically revisionist, in the 1980s to which historians paid little attention), and resisting the urge to argue that 1991 actually tends to disprove Pipes’s assertion that the Soviet Union constituted a ‘present danger’ to the rest of the world, I will focus on the issue of social support. It was a basic premise of the Western Soviet historians who turned to social history in the 1970s that high politics and terror couldn’t explain everything: something had to be happening in the society. They looked first to see what social support the regime had, starting with the Revolution of 1917 and Russian workers. What they found was that the Bolsheviks had substantial working-class support in 1917, but that things got dicey once the Party was in power. Possibly some revisionists initially expected another outcome, perhaps even something like the mystical marriage uniting workers and Bolsheviks that is enshrined in the official Soviet version of Soviet history. If so, they must have been disappointed and reframed their questions, as social scientists are supposed to do if data and hypotheses are out of sync, for revisionist scholarship contains no extravagant claims about working-class support for the Soviet regime in the 1920s and 1930s.

The second revisionist line on social support was the idea (for which I am responsible) that the new elite formed in the Stalin period consisted in large part of individuals who had moved rapidly upwards from the lower classes in Soviet times, felt themselves to be beneficiaries and favoured sons of the regime, and were appropriately grateful and loyal. Soviet propagandists could claim this as a glorious vindication of the Revolution’s promise that ‘workers should become masters,’ but any Marxist – and that included some of my fellow revisionists – could see that in terms of serious Marxist theory of revolution it was a mockery. (For this reason, my idea was for a while almost as unpopular with revisionists as with Pipes.) Another way of looking at this particular process of elite formation is that it was the prehistory of those ‘vile people’ whose loyalty to the Soviet regime Pipes himself has never questioned: the baggy-trousered barbarians, parvenus full of their own power and privilege, whom he and the rest of us encountered in their capacity as officials in the post-Stalin period.

Revisionists might have pushed their ‘social support’ arguments further but for two circumstances. One was that peasants – among whom much support for the Soviet regime was neither expected nor found – came to occupy much of the attention of social historians. The paradigm here was resistance (the opposite of support); and by the 1990s, the resistance paradigm was being applied beyond peasants to the whole terrain of the everyday. Survival strategies, exclusion practices, patronage, petitioning, denunciation, and the whole informal side of life – the grass sprouting up between the cracks – became central social-historical concerns. In the light of the testimony offered by Adventures, this can be seen as a belated application to scholarship of our own earlier everyday experiences in the Soviet Union, but it was also to some degree provoked by the remarkable spectacle of a Soviet everyday surviving the collapse of the old political structures, behind the incongruous new façade of McDonald’s and pizza parlours.

The other circumstance was the tremendous bullying revisionists got from the old guard (qv Pipes on ostracism) in the 1970s and early 1980s. In terms of ‘keeping a positive outlook on life’, it was a whole lot easier to study resistance (I did it myself) than social support, and surely at some level this was part of the dynamics. But now comes the irony. As time passed, a new cohort of historians came along, interested in cultural and intellectual rather than social history, self-consciously post and often anti-revisionist. They resisted the resistance paradigm, objecting to its implication that the social history of the Stalin period was all about estrangement and opting out. On the contrary, they argued, Stalinism – ‘Stalinist civilisation’, in Stephen Kotkin’s phrase – was the creation of Soviet citizens, not an alien value system forced on them by the regime: it was the worldview they grew up with, the only one they knew. In effect, this was a culturalist equivalent of the broadest possible ‘social support’ claim, magically depoliticised and legitimised by reference to Foucault. The revisionists could scarce forbear to cheer, if a little wistfully. They were singing our song.

Pipes might say (but let him say it to Kotkin) that ‘Stalinist civilisation’ was a mere blip, perhaps even a mirage, on the 73-year journey towards systemic collapse that was inexorably set in motion in 1917. And that might provoke others to marvel that a historian should be so deeply uninterested in change over time, and that an inveterate anti-Marxist should be left holding the banner of historical inevitability dropped by Soviet Marxist-Leninists. But it is churlish for a revisionist to insist on these polemical points. After all, we have Pipes’s (if not Kotkin’s) word for it: we won.