Richard Pipes, the Historian as Essentialist

For Richard Pipes, the anticommunist ideologue and historian, Soviet tyranny was rooted not in communism, but in the Russian soul.

Richard Pipes in his study at Widener Library on Harvard campus, 1991. Levan Ramishvili / Flickr

Richard Pipes, who died on May 18 at the age of ninety-four, was a proud, ardent anticommunist. But this was the least interesting thing about him.

His anticommunist books represented his most banal work. More provocative was how Pipes’s understanding of Russia’s historical development colored his analysis of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. For Pipes, the problem of the Soviet Union lay not simply in 1917, Lenin, Stalin, or even Marxism-Leninism. As he wrote in Survival is Not Enough, “the decisive factors [for Soviet authoritarianism] are not the ideas but the soil on which they happen to fall.”

Pipes’s historical broadsides, his attacks on détente, and his advocacy for American nuclear dominance all flowed from his archaeology of that soil. Russia’s true “original sin” was not its adoption of communism in 1917. Rather, it was its failure to develop private property in the fifteenth century: a sin that caused its historical path to diverge from the West’s and, for Pipes, a determinism that made the problem of Russia not so much about communism, but Russia itself.

A Belonging Non-Belonger

The world was almost deprived of Richard Pipes. Born in interwar Poland, Pipes grew up in a modest but comfortable assimilated and secular Jewish family in the town of Cieszyn on the border of present day Czech Republic. His happy childhood ended abruptly when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, compelling his family to flee; miraculously, they survived to immigrate to the US. In his memoir Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, Pipes recounts how a Gestapo officer almost prevented his family from boarding a train leaving Innsbruck for Rome. “You can proceed on one condition,” Pipes recalls the Gestapo agent saying. “What condition?” Pipes’s father asked. “That you not come back to Germany.” “But no!” his father all but shouted, to make it clear that he had no desire ever to return. “The German handed us the passport and withdrew. Mother burst into tears; father offered me a cigarette, the first ever . … We were saved.”

In later years, this experience gave Pipes his moral mission to expose “how evil ideas lead to evil consequences.” But it wasn’t Nazism that drove his moral compass. Though he had no personal experience with the USSR, Pipes would nonetheless propagate this “truth” using the “example of communism.” While the evils of communism would be a constant pulpit Pipes banged on, it was Russia’s history that enabled this evil to metastasize.

Pipes was one of the most noted and notorious historians of Russia. Yet, he considered himself an outsider, a non-belonger. His smugness strengthened this self-perception. He delighted in being the contrarian. He often wrote letters to newspapers and journals to quibble over facts and minutia. His prose style, especially when aimed at those he saw as soft on communism, was invective. He frequently chided colleagues for weakness in the face of consensus, derided opponents with scare quotes, and wore detractors’ derogatory labels as medallions. Shrew arrogance flowed from his pen.

Unlike many on today’s right, Pipes was no intellectual dilettante. He knew Russian history and its cultural heritage inside and out and was unapologetic about the moral lens through which he viewed it. In a review, Pipes blasted a classic book on Soviet politics as a “very unrealistic, sugar-coated view of the Soviet Union.” Social history, he scolded in a review of a study of labor under tsarism, amounted to a focus on the “lower orders … the faceless mob which appeared periodically to mess things up (1789, 1830, 1848, etc.) then to withdraw and leave the management of history in charge of its betters.” These studies took “a romantic view of the working man. … He is virtuous because he suffers, and he suffers all the time.” Pipes railed against the history of the Soviet system “from below,” advanced by social historians. Historical agency was reserved for elites and their “lust for power,” while Soviet citizens were merely “the helpless victims of a totalitarian regime.”

This elitism was integral to Pipes’s worldview. When student protests erupted at Harvard in 1969, Pipes told the New York Times that they resulted from the “dissolution of family and community life.” Much of his animus, however, was directed at the “cowardice” of liberal professors with “a guilty conscious.” He recalled dialogues with student radicals as causing “a sensation akin to nausea,” recollecting:

I had a hard time believing how many of the frightened faculty were prepared to give up all that made our university great in order to pacify the mob and how dishonestly they rationalized their fears. It was in this mood that the faculty voted to establish a black studies program and to allow black students to participate in faculty appointments to it, although hardly anyone believed that this program made for a legitimate field of concentration.

For Pipes, this was the beginning of the end of Harvard’s prestige. It lost its devotion to merit and creativity in pursuit of “sexual and racial diversity.” Elitism was “frowned upon.” He dismissed student demands as mere “antics,” and efforts to increase diversity on campus simply reminded Pipes of “early Soviet educational experiments” that disastrously mobilized institutes of higher learning as vehicles of social reform. Later in the “Afterword” to Europe Since 1500, Pipes railed that student protestors had a “child’s view of the world,” that they would drag the world down to “the status of near-animals,” and were likely to “return to the life of perpetual irresponsibility and self-indulgence of the childhood nursery.” In Property and Freedom, he stated that social equality was only attainable “by coercion, that is, at the expense of liberty.” Affirmative action programs in employment and education represented “the most egregious form of government interference” and “inevitably entail ‘reverse discrimination.’” Busing to address school segregation was unparalleled in its “destruction of freedom.”

“I could never abide ‘group think,'” Pipes wrote in his memoir. This inability to toe the line, he believed, “estranged” him from the scholarly community. “Those who do not play by the rules or significantly depart from the consensus risk ostracism.” Isolation was the price one had to pay, he reasoned, for creativity.

This is a strange self-diagnosis coming from a man who enjoyed both popular recognition — his Russian Revolution is one of the most widely read books on the subject — and influence in the highest offices of American political power. His harrowing escape from occupied Poland was likely the last time his “non-belonging” had personal consequences. Pipes might have felt shunned by the historical profession, but throughout much of his career, he belonged particularly to elite circles: a tenured professor at Harvard, unofficial adviser to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, head of the CIA commissioned Team B, a former Director of East European and Soviet Affairs on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, and member of the Committee on the Present Danger and Council of Foreign Relations, along with numerous prestigious honors and awards. Few professional historians of Russia could claim such establishment credentials.

Russia’s Original Sin

Richard Pipes had an impressive oeuvre that covered the breath of Russia’s history, its politics, intellectual culture, and foreign policy. However, a more political project informed his narrative of Russia’s historical development: how the absence of private property explained the persistence of Russian authoritarian rule.

In many ways, Pipes’s Russia was a test case for reaffirming the historical teleology of liberal capitalism. The lack of a firm tradition of private property accounted for “some of the greatest differences” between Russia and the West, he stated in Survival Is Not Enough. “The absence of private property in land,” Pipes wrote in Property and Freedom, “deprived Russians of all those levers by means of which the English succeeded in limiting the power of their kings.” History, he claimed, showed that property has been “the single most effective device for ensuring” civil rights and liberties. In Russia Under the Old Regime, Pipes argued that in contrast to Western Europe, a lack of private property left Russia in a primitive state where “the authority over people and over objects is combined.” As a result, patrimonialism persisted as the main form of Russian governance throughout much of its history.

Pipes defined patrimonialism as “political authority … conceived and exercised as an extension of the rights of ownership, the ruler (or rulers) being both sovereigns of the realm and its proprietors.” The sovereign had unlimited political and proprietary power over his subjects, who, regardless of class or kinship, were his slaves. Patrimonialism presaged modern forms of authoritarianism since “no clear distinction between state and society” existed. Soviet “totalitarianism” originated not from Marxism-Leninism, but from the Russian state swallowing society “bit by bit” beginning in the fifteenth century.

Russia’s sonderweg was born of geography, Pipes explained. Russian geography — a continental empire without natural barriers — created both the urge to expand and a sense of insecurity. The lack of landed property left no incentive for the population to improve cultivation. Peasants simply moved to new land after exhausting its fertility, leaving no reason to “devise ways of resolving peacefully conflicts,” i.e., the rule of law and civil state institutions. As a result, labor not capital determined ownership of things in the Russian mind, an outlook Pipes labeled as “quite typical of primitive societies.”

At the same time, Russian colonization facilitated the creation of a centralized fiscal-military state to protect its ever-expanding borders and subjugate its new, non-Russian subjects. Imperial expansion required the Muscovite Grand Princes to bind their people to a centralized state to extract resources to protect the realm. When territorial insecurity was coupled with “oriental despotism” and the conservatism and xenophobia of Russian Orthodoxy, patrimonialism was difficult to shake, regardless of Russia’s ideological, economic, or social system. Russia’s road to authoritarianism was paved by the rise of Moscow in the fifteenth century, hardened under the tsars, and perfected in the form of totalitarianism under the Soviets. And it continues to the present. In 2005, Pipes wrote that he was “impressed how quickly” Russians have “sought safety in submission to [Putin’s] ‘strong hand.’”

Cold War Incompatibility

Interestingly, it was Pipes’s application of this analysis to Soviet foreign policy, not simply his anticommunism, that garnered political notice.

In a paper delivered in London in 1969, “Russia’s Mission, America’s Destiny,” Pipes outlined the roots of American and Russian difference to argue against “convergence theory.” This was the idea that despite their differences, the Soviet Union and the United States were becoming more similar as their societies advanced, ushering in a mutually recognized need for lasting peace. Convergence reinforced support for détente in the 1960s and 1970s.

Pipes rejected convergence. He saw détente as merely a temporary stalemate that would eventually be broken by the inherent incompatibility between Russia and the United States. Drawing on his historical work, Pipes pointed to the patrimonial aquifers that irrigated Soviet Russia — Russian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, Muscovite culture, internal colonization, and absence of private property — to argue that any lasting détente with the Soviet Union would be foolhardy. Because of Russia’s history, its foreign policy was “essentially colonial” and “not predisposed to think in terms of ‘a stable international community’ or ‘the balance of power.’” Russia’s “instincts are to exert the maximum force and to regard absorption as the only way of settling conflicts.”

The United States, in contrast, was founded on traditions of individualism, rationality, science, and commerce. The US was devoted to “stability,” “equilibrium,” and “balance-of-power politics.” American interventionism, say in Vietnam, merely sought to achieve “equilibrium” in geopolitical relations. America’s “business ethos” made it conducive to compromise and peace.

The US was peaceful and Russia aggressive, Pipes argued, making any notion of “convergence” between the two powers specious. The two sides’ visions of “the good” and their “self-interest” were “not the same.” America had to be ready for the coming showdown.

Dorothy Fosdick, a close advisor to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democratic anti-Soviet hawk, was in the London audience and reported Pipes’s analysis to Jackson and his foreign policy advisor Richard Perle, the future neoconservative helmsman. Jackson recruited Pipes as his informal advisor on Russia and invited him to testify before the Senate in 1970 against the proposed SALT arms reduction treaty.

In his Senate testimony, later published as the article “Why Russians Act Like Russians,” Pipes further ruminated on Russians’ “national character,” which offered a window into the Muscovite roots of Soviet aggression. In a telling passage, Pipes explained that the Revolution of 1917 and Civil War had wiped out the “thoroughly Westernized” tsarist elite leaving the Soviet state in the hands of lumpen who had “no other culture to fall back on than the xenophobic, anti-Western culture of old Moscow.” This, again, was why the Soviet Union didn’t regard itself as part of the “international community” and didn’t think in terms of a “stable world order,” a conception that was “widespread in communities with a Protestant and a commercial culture.”

The 1917 revolution had installed the “power of the muzhik, the Russian peasant,” Pipes stated in a 1976 interview. Coercion and cunning were its forte, reared in an environment “surrounded by force” where the Russian “expected to bully or be bullied.” This resulted in Russians being “immensely responsive to power.” “We can only make a strong impression on the Russians at both the personal and national levels provided that we let it be known that we carry a sizeable stick.” Because of détente, Pipes sneered, “we have allowed ourselves to be hypnotized into lacking will … And for this we must not blame [the Soviets] — it is entirely our fault.”

Such assumptions govern diagnoses and remedies to Russia today.

A Sizeable Stick

Pipes would get his chance to reinvigorate American will in 1976 as the leader of “Team B,” a CIA-commissioned experiment in competitive analysis to evaluate the annual National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) on Soviet capabilities. Team B personnel were drawn exclusively from among hardliners: Pipes, USC professor William Van Cleave, Lt. Gen. Danial Graham, RAND Corporation official Thomas Wolfe, and General John Vogt. Team B’s advisory board also included hawks like former Deputy of Defense Secretary Paul Nitze and Paul Wolfowitz.

Team B’s report, of which Pipes wrote key sections, is an extension of his historical analysis of Russia: Russians were inherently different from Americans — so different that the Soviet leadership rejected the notion of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and believed they could win a nuclear war. Previous NIEs were blind to this and had underestimated Soviet intent, the Team B report argued, because it focused too much on “hard” data — the capacity of the Soviet Union to wage war — rather than on the “soft” data—ideology, grand strategy, and military doctrine — that spelled out their intentions. Pipes particularly faulted the CIA for “mirror imaging” — i.e., attributing American forms of behavior to the Soviets. For Pipes, mirror imaging was “the single gravest cause of misunderstanding” and the “persistent flaw” in evaluating Soviet objectives.

Pipes’s discourse of Russian difference was no empathic call to understand the Russian Other. Russia’s differences from America were absolute, and that is what made the former dangerous. Reiterating Pipes’s past historical work, the Team B report stated that the “US commercial tradition and the business culture” saw that “peace and pursuit of profit are ‘normal’ whereas war is always an aberration;” and regarded “social equality as ‘natural’ and elitism of any sort as aberrant.” These qualities

have imbued the United States with a unique outlook on the world, an outlook that is shared by no other nation, least of all by the Russians whose historic background is vastly different [emphasis added].

Nuclear parity and arms-reduction treaties were a ruse of the crafty Russian, whose historical experience taught him that “cunning and coercion alone ensured survival.” In a later defense of Team B, Pipes even went so far as to claim that American scientists were dupes of their Soviet counterparts. The source for this zero-sum view of geopolitics wasn’t simply Marxist-Leninism. As Pipes elaborated in “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Win a Nuclear War,” “Marxism … has merely served to reinforce these ingrained convictions. The result is an extreme Social-Darwinist outlook on life which today permeates the Russian elite as well as the Russian masses.”

At first glance, the CIA experiment at competitive analysis came at an inopportune time for hawks. President Gerald Ford was seeking reelection with the promise to continue the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente with the Soviets. Détente was publicly popular. A Harris Poll in 1974 showed that 77 percent of Americans favored nuclear arms reductions. The general belief among Americans was that détente allowed the US government to focus inward, and pressing domestic issues ranked higher among the electorate than relations with Moscow.

Ford, however, was facing an electoral assault from his right. Ronald Reagan emerged in the 1976 election as a real challenger after winning a string of Southern primaries. Reagan’s effective rhetorical blows on détente forced Ford to drop “détente” from his campaign speeches. Fearing to appear “soft” on the Soviets as Reagan gained steam, Ford acquiesced to the competitive analysis experiment.

Though Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 prevented the Team B report from having immediate widespread influence, American hawks, Pipes included, persisted. A group of them formed the Committee on the Present Danger to publicly press the idea that the US was falling behind the Soviets in nuclear weapons. As Bernard Feld, then editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, wrote of the Committee in 1978, “The country is being blanketed by one of the most insidious campaigns in recent history; an attempt to turn back the clock to the worst days of the Cold War.”

Indeed, Team B’s claims about Soviet intentions were vastly overestimated and littered with mistakes. The report was more an attack on CIA methodologies, based on Pipes’s assumptions about Russia, than a clear examination of classified data. In fact, as Paul Nitze wrote in his memoir, “We relied on material that was already in the public domain” rather than the classified data provided by the American security services. Indeed, the Team B report, along with numerous leaks to the press, was more about politics than objective analysis. As one Team B member remarked to the New York Times, “Sometimes we left them speechless. We had men of great prestige, some of them with memories going back 25 years, or more. and they made devastating critiques of the agency estimates.” Richard Lehman, a national intelligence officer present at the presentation on Team B’s findings acknowledged that Pipes was a gifted speaker, but that he said “things which were full of nonsense but which sounded good.” As Stephen Rosenfeld observed in the Washington Post in 1981, “Intellectually, that argument [about whether Team B was a healthy competitive review or a kangaroo court] was not resolved. Politically, it was. Team B won.”

Only with Reagan’s election in 1980 would the hawks gain power. As a critical intellectual architect and pundit for a harder line, Pipes would be plucked from Harvard to serve as Reagan’s Director of East European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council and a strong advocate for ratcheting up the $1 trillion American military buildup in the 1980s.

For all of Pipes’s anticommunism, his analysis of post-Soviet, capitalist Russia remained consistent with his diagnosis of the Soviet Union. He attributed Russia’s inability to properly embrace democracy, develop a robust civil society, sanctify private property and capitalism, and accept Westernization to the persistence of Muscovite political culture and the xenophobia of Russian Orthodoxy. Nor did the collapse of communism right Russia’s course. The wake of its history left an insurmountable tide. It was a determinism that Pipes himself couldn’t shake. Even though he acknowledged in 2008 that the “West has indeed been oblivious of Russian sensitivities and has broken promises made when Moscow dissolved the Warsaw Pact,” notably in expanding NATO, this was “not the decisive” reason for the growing tension between the “West” and Russia. “The roots of this tension,” Pipes explained, “lie deeper,” in Russia’s sonderweg. Conflict with the West, sublimated in the 1990s, had returned to its proper place. It was the natural state of things as long as the Russians remained, well, Russian.

Negative Mirror

How then should Richard Pipes really be remembered? He certainly was an anticommunist and unapologetically so. He was a scholarly master of Russia’s ten centuries, a right-wing rhetorical swashbuckler, and steely cold warrior. But his positions on the Soviet Union were rooted in a deeper ideology — namely, that property “guarantee[s] liberty.” But how to maintain this faith? The answer lay in constructing a binary of extremes. The “West” had property, and Russia did not, their historical divergences vectored from there. In many respects, then, Pipes was a historian of Russia by negation. Like many before and after him, Pipes engaged in “mirror imaging” of his own, where the casting of Russia’s perennial darkness made the “West’s” eternal light shine that much brighter.