Richard Pipes, who died today, was one of the most pre-eminent and controversial English-speaking historians of Russia. To his admirers, he was a trenchant and original historian with a broad vision. To his detractors, he was a Russophobe who propagated a distorted view of Russia’s past and who ignored the work of other historians which didn’t fit his prejudices. There is an element of truth to both points of view. What made Pipes a poor historian in some respects was also what made him a great one in others, and vice versa. For all his deficiencies, he was one of those who inspired me to take up Russian history professionally.
In Pipes’ opinion, Russia wasn’t like the West. Perhaps the crucial text for understanding him is his history of pre-communist Russia titled ‘Russia Under the Old Regime.’ In this Pipes articulated the argument that from its very beginnings in Kiev, Russia developed in a way different from Western Europe. It never experienced feudalism with its system of reciprocal obligations. The rulers of Russia regarded the entirety of the country as their own personal property, with obligations flowing only upwards not downwards. The result was what Pipes called the ‘patrimonial state’, an autocratic system in which the rulers were not bound by any law. The consequent lack of understanding of property rights, law, and reciprocal responsibilities led, in Pipes’ view, to the absolutist ideology of communism, and in due course explained the Soviet regime’s brutality.
In some respects, Pipes’ version of Russian history was rather similar to that of 19th Russian nationalist historians like Mikhail Pogodin, except whereas Pogodin saw Russia’s distinctiveness as a good thing, Pipes saw it as thoroughly bad. According to Pipes’s theory, Russia was innately authoritarian. It was pointless, therefore, to imagine that one could reform it. This led Pipes to be a fierce critic of the policy of détente in the 1970s. During the presidency of Gerald Ford, he was put in charge of ‘Team B’, a group charged with re-evaluating intelligence estimates of Soviet military capabilities. The team concluded that the Soviet Union was much more powerful than had previously been believed. Team B’s conclusions helped to end détente by convincing American leaders that they had to rearm. Unfortunately, the conclusions were completely wrong – the Soviet Union didn’t have a military lead over the USA, as Team B claimed, quite the contrary. Team B, led by Pipes, can be seen as something of a precursor of the misuse of intelligence prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both cases facts were twisted to fit preconceptions about the enemy’s nature.
In any case, Pipes’ theory of Russia’s development had obvious flaws. It was essentialist and deterministic, making it seem that Russia was essentially unchanging and could be fully explained by reference to its long distant past. It also rather exaggerated Russia’s uniqueness as well as the variety of forms of development in the West. And it ignored many of the restraints on autocratic power which did in fact exist in pre-revolutionary Russia, including moral ones such as Orthodoxy. This was apparent in a later book which Pipes wrote about Russian conservatism. This focused very narrowly on autocracy as a form of unrestrained power, and portrayed the Russian Orthodox Church as entirely subordinate to state power (a thesis later thoroughly debunked by Gregory Freeze, among others). Pipes’ explanation of Russia’s development was altogether too simplistic. That said, it has its value, if only as a starting point for discussion. For that very reason, when I teach Russian history and politics I assign the first two chapters of ‘Russia under the Old Regime’ to my students, in order to spark a discussion about whether Russia really is fundamentally different from the West. One doesn’t have to swallow the thesis wholesale to recognize that there is a grain of truth there which is worth exploring.
Pipes’ tour de force was probably his two volumes about the origins and aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution: The Russian Revolution and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, published in 1990 and 1993 respectively. I have to confess that I loved these. To Pipes, the October Revolution wasn’t a revolution but a coup d’état. The Bolsheviks seized power largely because they were more organized and more ruthless than their opponents, not because they were more popular. Stalinism, according to Pipes, was an inevitable continuation of Leninism, the callous violence of the former being merely an expansion of the callous violence of the latter. Pipes argued his case forcefully. His dislike of communism shone clearly through the pages. Being at the time of reading a fully signed-up Cold Warrior (and an officer in the British Army), I found it all thoroughly convincing.
Professional historians were less complimentary, criticizing Pipes’ top-down approach to history which ignored, they complained, all the recent scholarship which had shown the bottom-up revolutionary processes which had driven events in Russia in 1917. Looking back at it now, I can see that they had a point. But part of me still likes Pipes just for the clarity of his moral purpose. It makes for gripping reading, and if you want an exciting history of the Russian Revolution, Pipes is probably still the guy to read. It reminds me of Sellar and Yeatman’s description of Roundheads and Cavaliers in 1066 and All That. Pipes’ critics are like the Roundheads – ‘right but repulsive’ – whereas Pipes is like the Cavaliers – ‘wrong but wromantic’.
As I have become older and more knowledgeable, I have become aware of the many flaws in the works which inspired me to take up Russian history as a profession. The likes of Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest got an awful lot wrong. But no doubt my own generation of historians is getting a lot of things wrong too. Pipes was perhaps more flawed than most, but having published some 25 books, he left an indelible mark on Russian history in the West. I for one am glad for having had the opportunity to read what he wrote.