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Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belongerby Richard Pipes
Yale University Press, 2004. Illustrated. Notes. xiii+264 pages £19.95 HB ISBN 0 300 10165 1Review by Daniel Salbstein
This article is not so much a review as an attempt to present some of the thinking of Richard Pipes, and often in his own words.
In Jeane Kirkpatrick's encomium these recollections are "a brilliant, fascinating, wonderfully well-written memoir that takes us - with Richard Pipes - out of Poland to escape the Nazis, out of refugee status to Harvard and the White House. Pipes remains America's premier Soviet specialist".
The book is in three parts, the first detailing Pipe's early years in Poland, the second dealing with the author's life in the United States, his war time service in the Army Air Corps, where he learnt Russian and decided subsequently to become a fully fledged historian, the next nearly fifty years at Harvard, some 36 of them as full Professor of Russian History, teaching, researching and writing some twenty monumental works of scholarship, and the third devoted to his crucial influence both in the secret "Team B" of the CIA and on President Reagan's National Security Council as head of the East European and Soviet Desk, and therefore USA policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
Richard Edgar Pipes was born in 1923 in the town of Cieszyn (Teschen) in Polish Silesia on the Czech border. Bilingual in German and Polish by the age of three he grew up in the cultural crosscurrents in the geographical heart of Europe. "Cultures met on an equal footing. This environment gave one a keen sense for foreign ways of thinking". He was an assimilated Jewish youth in the depressed anti-semitic 1930s, in a country bordered by two powerful totalitarian neighbours, Hitler's Third Reich and Stalin's USSR. If Britain's appeasement of Hitler was to seal the fate of democratic Czechoslovakia then the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 (with its secret clauses carving up Poland between the Nazis and the Bolsheviks) spelled nemesis for Poland, independent for just twenty one years after 120 years under foreign domination.
Richard aged 16, with his Father and Mother, managed to escape from Poland as late as October 27th 1939. Fittingly this book is dedicated to his parents "in gratitude for giving me life and then saving me from certain death at the hands of the Nazis". They reached the USA on his seventeenth birthday, the land of opportunity and freedom to which he has remained ever since unswervingly grateful. He married happily in 1946, and he and his wife have two sons.
One of the reasons he cites for writing this book is "I am probably the only custodian of the memory of many people long dead; much of my family and nearly all my school friends who perished without trace in the Holocaust". 'Vixi' - I have survived.
This admirable book is not only moving, passionate, lucid, precise and penetrating. It is also a fount of profound wisdom by one of the world's most outstanding, albeit controversial and hard line historians of Russia and the Soviet Union. Powerful arguments of irrefutable logic stemming from detailed historical evidence are presented in language of classical clarity and beauty unencumbered by any academic affectation.
"The main effect of the Holocaust on my psyche was to make me delight in every day of life that had been granted to me. I felt and feel to this day that I have been spared not to waste my life on self indulgence or self aggrandisement but to spread a moral message, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences".
"People who have not lived under a totalitarian regime cannot conceive what a powerful hold it has on people and how it can drive even the more normal among them to commit monstrous crimes by instilling in them intense focused hatred…This evidence has persuaded me that one should never subordinate politics to ideology; for even if an ideology is morally sound, realising it usually requires resorting to violence because society at large may not share it".
Those two paragraphs epitomise Pipe's purpose and beliefs.
Two of his early interests in Poland were a passion for art "which immunised me against every kind of ideology" and for philosophy. Hegel's dialectic and Karl Marx's dialectical materialism were the motor for many Nazi and Soviet actions. Pipes understood this perfectly. Many of his relatives were exterminated by the Nazis, whilst other relatives who had lived in the USSR were liquidated in Stalin's purges of the 1930s. The Nazis and the Bolsheviks proclaimed different objectives but Richard Pipes experience proved that in practice they were obverse sides of the same coin - expansionist, totalitarian and murderously immoral.
Here again is Pipe's approach to history. "As far back as I remember I felt that the reality we perceive with our senses is merely a veneer behind which lies concealed ultimate reality - my studies were always driven by the compulsion to seek out the 'real' behind the apparent". Again "It is hard to convey the thrill that comes upon the historian when he feels he has succeeded in making the inchoate clear and the meaningless meaningful. For me it has always been an experience akin to the artistic".
Pipes is emphatically not a team player. "I cannot conceive collaborating with someone on an article or book. I am always more interested in wisdom than knowledge". He never felt obligated to accommodate his own work to the consensus. He abhorred "group think". Hence he is a 'non belonger'.
Pipes bemoans the widespread lack of a sense of history "It is amazing how quickly the everyday overwhelms the 'historic'. The population at large plays only a marginal role in history or at least in political and military history, which is the preserve of small elites; people do not make history - they make a living".
Visiting the USSR for the first time in 1957 he was appalled by what he saw: the drabness, the decay, the poverty of the people and the Russian vranyo "a peculiar and pervasive form of lying because it need not serve any ulterior purpose: it is a feat of the imagination, an escape from reality which is why Russians rarely feel embarrassed when found out".
"A memorable incident illustrating this feature of Soviet life occurred on one of my subsequent trips". He had entered a streetcar in Leningrad. Mixed in with his Soviet coins was a Kennedy half dollar. The woman selling tickets had spotted it and asked "Are you American?" When Pipes confirmed that he was, she pointed out various landmarks, loudly extolling the beauties of her city, and urging Pipes as a Russian speaker to re-settle there with his family. When the streetcar stopped passengers poured in and out. Taking advantage of the temporary commotion, the woman, her facial expression suddenly transformed from falsely amiable to genuinely anxious asked Pipes in an urgent whisper "We live like dogs, don't we? Tell me, please". It was a shattering experience, a momentary falling of the mask that Soviet citizens habitually wore. The more Pipes learned about communism, whether from personal experience or reading, the more he came to despise it.
In his classic book "The Formation of the Soviet Union: Nationalism and Communism 1917-1924" Pipes claims that Russia was not a multinational state but an Empire. Lenin had argued before 1917 that economic interests overrode nationalism and would prevent the disintegration of the tsarist empire; or that in its updated version other empires would dissolve but not the Soviet empire. Pipes noting how the Bolsheviks eventually re-conquered the nations that had broken loose after 1917 knew that if ever central authority were to weaken again the empire would fall apart- which it did in 1991.
Of the Russians Pipes, often accused of Russophobia, writes: "Russians are an intensely personal people who have never succeeded in translating their warm human feelings into the impersonal relations required for the effective functioning of social and political institutions. Hence they require a 'strong hand' to regulate their public lives, vertical controls to substitute for the missing horizontal bonds, so well developed in western societies….I have no sympathy for Russian nationalism and anti-westernism which provide a convenient bond between authority and the uneducated masses….In the USA I have the highest respect for its public life but much less for its culture". Even at Harvard he found many of the students deracine.
Pipes, who in 1968 began a five year term as Director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard, admits that his histories of the Russian Revolution were too uncompromisingly hostile to the intellectual left in Russia and Western Europe.
"Russia under the Old Regime" (1974) describes Russia as "a patrimonial regime - under which the ruler is both sovereign and owner of the realm". The relationship between political power and property figures prominently in Pipe's writings.
Pipes stresses the similarities between pre and post revolutionary Russia. "In its (Soviet) domestic policies it was a rigidly conservative regime that had more in common with the absolutism of Nicholas I than with the utopian fantasies of nineteenth century radicals". This perception contradicted the consensus that saw Russia as a radical country and the USSR as the embodiment of Marx's Socialism.
Pipes translated and wrote a monograph of Nicholas Karamzin's "A memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia" written specifically for Alexander I on the eve of the Napoleonic invasion. Karamzin, a highly educated liberal conservative, not a dyed in the wool reactionary, had asserted on the basis of historical evidence that absolutism was Russia's "Palladium" or protective shield: its momentary disappearance or dilation invariably brought ruin. Did this memoir influence Alexander's abandonment of Speransky's reforms and his lurch towards reactionary Arakcheevshchina?
Unlike intellectual history of socialist and liberal currents, Pipes paid more attention to conservative movements that according to him far more accurately reflected Russian reality. Dismissive of the abstract sociological approach to a country with the history of five or six centuries of statehood, and a history very different from the western, Pipes was confident that past 'cultural' patterns would be replicated in the new regime.
"Culture is more important than ideology- the ideas accommodate to the cultural soil in which they fall. Thus Marxism in Scandinavia where traditions of property and law were relatively strong evolved first into social democracy and then into the democratic welfare state. In Russia it reinforced the autocratic patrimonial heritage - the patron-client relationship".
After Karamzin's memoir Pipes did ten years of research on a two volume definitive study of Peter Struve "Liberal on the Left" and "Liberal on the Right". Struve became a revisionist, and having been expelled from the Party joined the Liberal movement. He emigrated in 1919 and died in Paris in 1944.
Struve predicted that Communism could tolerate no political or economic freedom and hence that the system was unreformable; any reform would lead to collapse - a prediction fulfilled seventy years later. Pipes salutes Struve's uncompromising intellectual integrity and courage.
Subsequently Pipes was to turn his attention to the issue of private property and its bearing on political liberty - an idea close to Struve. Pipes notes that Western absolutism had always been constrained by the power of private property.
"Social Democracy and the St. Petersburg Labour Movement 1885-1897" written in 1963 challenged on the basis of detailed historical evidence the mandatory doctrine that the Bolshevik Party had always represented Russia's labouring masses. In "What is to be done" Lenin formulates the Blanquist doctrine of revolution from above which became the essence of Bolshevik theory and practice.
In 1970 at a historical conference in Moscow Pipes stressed that only liberalism which decentralised decision making was capable of coping with the complexities of modern life.
In 1975 Pipes visited Warsaw. Pre-war it had been compared to Paris. Now apart from the Old City it was ugly, drab, and dysfunctional. In 1977-78 as an uncompromising hard liner towards the USSR Pipes received an invitation from the Chinese Institute of International Affairs. Pipes was struck by the optimistic 'can do' attitude of the Chinese people.
In 1976 Pipes was invited to work on 'Team B' under the CIA, then headed by George Bush senior, to evaluate the implications of the Soviet nuclear build up of the 1970s.
Pipes had been a Democrat who, unwilling to support George McGovern in 1972, had voted for Nixon. But Pipes political hero was Henry 'Scoop' Jackson "one of the most perceptive as well as incorruptible politicians I have ever met" who took strong objection to détente and the whole drift of US policy toward Russia. Jackson's foreign policy adviser was Richard Perle.
Pipes was in no doubt that the USSR was making preparations both offensive and defensive to emerge from any future war with strategic weapons with the least possible losses and their political system intact. This hawkish view was corroborated nine years later during Glasnost by Vadim Zagladin, deputy Director of the Central Committee's Intelligence Department, writing in Izvestia, and admitting that the USSR had pursued a double policy.
In 1980 Pipes joined the National Security Council, founded by Truman in 1947 as an advisory body, convened by the President usually once a week. Pipes is critical of Sovietologists (political scientists) devising a foreign policy model calling for co-operation with the Russians where possible and resistance to them where necessary. "Quite unconsciously they minimised differences and emphasised similarities". Repeatedly Pipes criticises what he sees as American appeasement in the 1960s and 1970s, the culprit being always a mixture of "mirror imaging and wishful thinking".
In his journal of January 1st 1982 he wrote of Bush senior "I rather doubt he had much strength of character and self confidence… which Ronald Reagan possessed in abundance". Alexander Haig's principal concern was less with the substance of the country's foreign policy and more with his personal control of it.
Pipes writes of the Russians fielding teams of crafty propagandists like the "loathsome" Georgy Arbatov, head of the USA institute, and organ of the KGB. It was Arbatov who demonised Pipes as "worse by far than Brzezinski", and who characterized the Reagan administration as being run by trogladytes and Neanderthal men. In February 1981 there appeared a headline in Pravda "Attention Pipes!" describing Pipes as "a wretched anti-Sovietist" with pathological hatred of the USSR and dense ignorance. It was Pipes who drafted most of Reagan's letters to Brezhnev. The 'enemy' of the NSC was the State Department, "foggy bottom" that would obey presidential directions but would be quite capable of emasculating them. They refused to share with the NSC transcripts of meetings with Gromyko and Dobrynin.
On Nato "the Europeans (with the possible exception of the British) acted on the premise that the responsibility for countering communist aggression globally fell on America's shoulders. Whenever we felt the established order to be threatened outside Europe's geographical confines and took action, they either did nothing or gave us token support; on some occasions they publicly opposed us".
Pipes deplores the spirit of moral capitulation. "Moral resistance to a superior power is a powerful weapon in itself". The Pope, Lech Walesa and Richard Pipes, all Poles by birth, are three such heroes. "The trouble with appeasement is that sooner or later it does reach a limit beyond which the appeaser is unwilling to go, and then he is forced to act under less favourable conditions". Pipes worried that Europe was becoming too dependent on the USSR for natural gas. "After the Communist threat had vanished the European governments began openly to resist our efforts to cope with the new global threat, Islamic terrorism".
Pipes insists that when he declared that détente was dead, that was a perception not a prescription. Helmut Schmidt wanted Reagan's rhetoric toned down and détente revived. According to Pipes Hans Genscher lacked the gumption to stand up to Moscow. Kissinger had snubbed Pipes for years, blaming him for the Jackson-Vanick amendment, that countries wanting most favoured nation status and other commercial advantages had to open their borders to unrestricted emigration. To Kissinger this had dealt a fatal blow to détente. Pipes had always criticised Kissinger's foreign policy as misguided and opportunistic, overly harsh criticism possibly because pace R.A.Butler 'politics is the art of the possible'.
Pipes saw Reagan "possessed to a high degree of the imponderable quality of political judgement… to details of implementation he was indifferent, on matters of principle he was immovable". Here is a note that Pipes had jotted down at some conference in the 1970s. "To deal with (Soviet) Russia you must have a simple mind". "I meant by this that the USSR was a crude system, based on force and the exploitation of fear yet camouflaged with noble ideals: these confused subtle intelligences but not the people living in the rough and tumble of the real, physical world".
Towards the end of 1981 Pipes was considering resigning from the NSC, but changed his mind with the outbreak of the crisis in Poland. "Reagan understood the big issues intuitively rather than intellectually. His fury at the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 derived from the sense that it shattered the hope that communism could evolve peacefully into democracy. Reagan assisted the Polish underground in 1982, which allowed Solidarity to survive, and which compelled the Communists to yield power to it". Pipes has praise for Caspar Weinberger and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Even Haig was disgusted with Genscher who had declared publicly that the US had no right to interfere in internal Polish affairs. On December 17th Reagan read a statement written by Pipes that martial law and mass arrests were "a gross violation of the Helsinki pact". In December 1981 the USA imposed sanctions against the USSR. The additional burden that Moscow had to bear in supporting the economies of its dependencies drained its own economy. Pipe's argument was that there were two levers, economic and military. If the economic is abandoned that leaves only the military.
In June 1982 there was an economic summit at versailles. Reagan was especially furious with the French (a nation he keenly disliked). On June 25th Haig resigned and was succeeded by George Schultz, a steadier personality – more reasonable and tactful.
Pipes approvingly cites George Kennan "they (the Russians) were hostile to us not for what we did but for what we were…aggressiveness was embedded in their system. Kennan had the uncommon ability to grasp the essential features of communism without any of the illusions of American liberals, as well as the complex relationship between Communism, the Russian people and Russian history. Churchill had grasped the nature of Communism almost from the moment it came to power in Russia, as he did 15 years later that of National Socialism. "Like Reagan's his was virtually the only voice of courage in a chorus clamouring for accommodation. The swift collapse of the USSR proved, contrary to the conventional views of the State Department and the intellectual community, that it was neither stable nor popular".
In a paper for the National Security Council Pipes advanced four central propositions:
(1) Communism is inherently expansionist. That expansion will subside only when
the system collapses or is thoroughly reformed.
(2) The Stalinist model is in profound crisis caused by economic failures and
difficulties brought about by over expansion.
(3) The successors of Brezhnev were likely in time to split into 'conservative' and
(4) It is in the interests of the USA to promote the reformist tendencies in the USSR
by a double pronged strategy: encouraging pro-reform forces inside the USSR
and raising for the Soviet Union the costs of its imperialism.
After 1949 when China was taken over by the Communists "containment" had lost its relevance. Moscow was to jump over the barriers setting up proxy regimes in Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, North Korea, North Vietnam, in Cuba, Chile and in Nicaragua.
A fundamental Pipes principle was that "the nature of the Soviet system affects its foreign policy". It was the talented speech writer Tony Dolan who, working with Richard Pipes, coined the phrase "the evil empire". Reagan said "What we see here (in the USSR) is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones" (London June 8th 1982).
Pipes disliked Solzhenitsyn - an anti communist in the Soviet Union (something Pipes admired). In the West Solzhenitsyn turned into an anti-Western Russian nationalist. For Andrei Sakharov, Pipes was full of praise.
Pipes found many academics to be totally impractical. About politicians he wrote that they prefer sweeping historical explanations if they are educated, and conspiratorial ones if they are not. However, personalities play an enormous role in high politics.
In 1984 in his book "Survival is not enough" he asserted that "the foreign policies of all countries are a function of their domestic policies. A regime that does not respect legal norms inside its borders is not likely to show respect for them abroad. If it wages war against its own people it can hardly be expected to live at peace with the rest of the world".
Gorbachev was a committed communist, intending to reinvigorate the system rather than abolish or substantially change it. Under Gorbachev the population, silenced for seventy years, took advantage of the newly gained freedom of speech and modest political rights, not to reinforce the communist system but to tear loose from it. "Gorbachev relaxed the reins of Communist authority and the coach soon careered out of control".
Pipes saw a decline in academic standards at Harvard during the 1960s as it veered from meritocratic excellence to "outreach". He voices his displeasure with what has befallen the historical profession with its growing trendiness and preoccupation with the trivial. Pipes deplores the excessive emphasis on history from below. One has to attempt "grand history" as it used to be written before it was reduced to social minutiae and trivia.
The one historian savaged as a determinist by Pipes is Edward Hallett Carr. According to E.H.Carr with his anti democratic bias, whatever happens is inevitable and hence beyond moral judgement - an attitude that in the 1930s had led him to write editorials in the London Times urging the appeasement of Nazi Germany. Carr's reputation in any event has suffered a sharp decline, his fourteen volume history of the Bolshevik Revolution used more now as a reference source for official documents than for its interpretation. In fourteen volumes Carr does not even mention the Red Terror!
Pipes own historical methodology is deliberately eclectic. Various events are propelled by diverse forces, sometimes by accident, or by individual behaviour, or by economic factors or ideology. He favours a combination of narrative with synthetic analysis. He avoids a an elaborate 'rich' writing style because it suggests the writer is more interested in displaying his eloquence than communicating substance.
His view on Sovietologists is that growing up in a Society where laws are observed and property respected they cannot conceive of one where neither was the case. "Nobody understands what he does not feel", Aldous Huxley observed. Pipes sees the common man - the proverbial New York taxi driver- as having a better understanding of Communism than most University Professors.
His books "The Russian Revolution" (1990) and "Russia under the Bolshevik Regime" (1994) stress the roots of communism in Russian history. He demolished the myth, sedulously cultivated by Khrushchev after his secret speech on Stalin in March 1956, seeking to distinguish between the 'good' Lenin and the 'bad' Stalin.
"In Tsarist Russia the true religion was fatalism. Nothing changed under Communism. Both climate and government were harsh and capricious. The great strength of the Russians is their ability to survive it. If they can no longer take it they drink themselves into a stupor". Of the intelligentsia he writes that Russian history has accustomed them to define themselves by resistance rather than by involvement.
"For all my reputation as a 'cold warrior' I had underestimated the damage that seven decades of communist rule had inflicted on the country and the psyche of its people". By February 1993 the rouble had declined to 800 to the dollar. Eventually it was 6000 roubles to the dollar!
Summing up Pipes writes "There are certain aspects of human behaviour that can be found everywhere and at all times, among them the belief in the supernatural and the desire to acquire property, to speak one's mind, and to live in families, all of which the Bolsheviks determined to uproot. Convinced there was no such thing as human nature but only externally conditioned human behaviour they set themselves to transform radically the entire social environment in order to create 'a new man'. They failed as they were bound to fail because their very premise was faulty".
On July 1996 Richard Edgar Pipes became Baird Professor of History Emeritus after nearly fifty years at Harvard. In 1997-98 he wrote a book on "Property and Freedom". He is now writing "An Intellectual History of Russia".
And in one of his parting shots he proclaims "I cherish my independence, the uncompromising right to be my self in word and deed".
Richard Pipes has lived a life of remarkable achievement. Pipes was the man who advised Reagan, and "Reagan was a very successful President who contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of its empire, events of world historical importance". Pipes, whose stance has been vindicated by events, has exerted more influence on world politics than possibly any other historian since Robert William Seton-Watson at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I.
This book is a real gem. Whatever you do, make sure that you read it. It is sans pareil!
"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it
And – what’s more - you'll be a Man, my son!"
Pipes is that man.
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