Richard Pipes, 1923-2018

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.

20 thoughts on “Richard Pipes, 1923-2018”

  1. “But part of me still likes Pipes just for the clarity of his moral purpose.”

    Okay, then, let’s have some indication of what you think his moral purpose might have been.


      1. Western liberal order is a priori a-moral. Try again, professor – or cut the “moral” part.


      2. Wrong. He was also thoroughly anti-Putin, who absolutely is no Communist.

        Pipes was anti- any Russia that takes any action to defend her interests and resists permanent abject submission to Poland.

        The only Russian leader he ever praised was Yeltsin, whose policy had deaths in Russia exceeding births by over 900k/year for most of his term. Sounds like a Russophobe, compounding his hatred by his crocodile tears about the suffering of Russians under gvts he opposed, while ignoring their dying under a gvt he approved.

        (Hapless fool Kerensky was no leader)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My Russian history teacher gave me the exact opposite impression: the much maligned “autocracy” was a result of westernizing czars emulating Western enlightened absolutism. And anyway, as Anatoly Karlin has shown, ancient regime Russia was much more liberal than the popular image. The revolutionaries had no case other than lust for power, as Lenin’s actions showed.


    1. “And anyway, as Anatoly Karlin has shown, ancient regime Russia was much more liberal than the popular image. “

      Karlin now is some kind of guru of history? Whom did he show what?

      “The revolutionaries had no case other than lust for power, as Lenin’s actions showed.”

      Like electrefication of the country?


      1. “Karlin now is some kind of guru of history? Whom did he show what?”
        Political repression in the empire was non-existent compared to the USSR. Lenin, Stalin, etc. repeatedly “escaped” from their Siberian exile (more like a vacation). OTOH the red terrorists assassinated 4500 government officials between 1905-07 (see “The Terrorist’s Dillema,” J. Shapiro).
        “Like electrefication of the country?”
        Like starting a civil war because Lenin refused to share power, even with other radical leftists, hanging peasants to instill terror in the countryside, crushing the church, establishing secret police (dominated by non-Russians) to torture and destroy opposition, etc. BTW Russia was the fastest-growing economy in Europe before the war, so electrification and all the other things the Bolsheviks bragged about could’ve easily been achieved without the democide they infliced via famine and repression


      2. “Political repression in the empire was non-existent compared to the USSR.”

        Political repression in the entire world was non-existent till 20th c,, when the role of ideology and the activity of the masses all across the world increased. It’s like saying “in ancient Egypt there were no car accidents – therefore slavery as practiced back then is superior!”. Try again. The question was “How the ancient regime Russia was much more liberal?”. Do you know the meaning of the word “liberal”, Marcus? Do you know what is soslovije?

        “Lenin, Stalin, etc. repeatedly “escaped” from their Siberian exile (more like a vacation). “

        I see scary quotes. Go ahead and prove that they did not escape. Go ahead and prove, that katorga in the Russian Emprie was “like a vacation”.

        “OTOH the red terrorists assassinated 4500 government officials between 1905-07”

        “Red”? You are deluded. Either you or Karlin. Or both. Since when did the members of the eSeR party became “Red”? The same “Reds” that will help form the Provisional Government. The same “Reds”, whose very own Boris Savinkov (terrorist #2 of the Russian Empire) will become one of the most active member of the White Movement (Churchill approved). Try again, kid.

        “Like starting a civil war because Lenin refused to share power”

        You are lying – again. Depending on your personal tastes, the Civil War began either with the uprising on Don in the late 1917 (and was suppressed by the end of the winter 1918) or with the Czechoslovakian revolt. If you’d really know the history, then you’d be aware that the Civil War anytime anywhere is initiated by the rebel side acting against central government.

        “hanging peasants to instill terror in the countrysid”

        Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawn! All too vague wild flailing instead of factology. The Whites did it more – which is why they lost. Try again.

        “crushing the church”

        Which in 1918 elected itself a Patriach… Hmmm… Define “crash”.

        “establishing secret police (dominated by non-Russians)”

        Do you even know what is the “secret police”? Or you thin non-Russians are yucky? Ah – okay! Poor Benkendorf, head of the Gendarmes under Nicholas I…

        “BTW Russia was the fastest-growing economy in Europe before the war, so electrification and all the other things the Bolsheviks bragged about could’ve easily been achieved without the democide they infliced via famine and repression”

        “Could have easily” is the chief argument of the French bread crunchers unsupported by the facts – only their fantasies. Btw – what “democide” you are talking about?

        Anyway – see, professor! Your blog had such vibrant diversity amongst the commenters! Even schoolchildren come and comment, crying all the way about Россiю которую онѣ потерѣли.


      3. The spectacle of ‘race realists’ a-la Karlin defending czarism on account of it being “more liberal” than Soviet socialism is entirely surrealistic.


  3. “It never experienced feudalism with its system of reciprocal obligations.”

    Yes, it did. If Pipes argued otherwise he was [CENSORED; LYTT, SHOW SOME RESPECT TO THE DECEASED!]

    “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.”

    Yaaaaaawn! It’s getting really, really tiresome.

    “Pipes’ critics are like the Roundheads – ‘right but repulsive’ – whereas Pipes is like the Cavaliers – ‘wrong but wromantic’.”

    So you side with the Lost Cause ™ adorables, professor?


  4. Pipes is a fascinating character, indeed. He taught dozens of scholars at Harvard, and according to evil tongues (?), few liked him by the time of their defence. My own supervisor, Valentin Boss (1932-2015) who defended at Harvard with Pipes as his supervisor, was one of the few who did, although Boss was a russophile in many ways. Boss apparently was one of the few former students of Pipes who continued to visit his mentor long after (Boss did not live too far away from Pipes’s summer abode, apparently).
    Paul is right (as Boss often said in his lectures) in suggesting that Pipes was a russophobe, but that does not mean that his work is not still thought-provoking. Besides the two revolutionary books, the edition of Karamzin’s memo is also worthwhile reading still (and one wonders how much Karamzin’s support for the autocracy in 1812 influenced Pipes), as is his dissertation on nationalities in the early Soviet Union, and the double biography of Struve. In writing about Struve, one gets the impression that Pipes almost convinced himself to have finally found one worthwhile Russian intelligent, whose ideas might have led Russia on to the path of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.


  5. When I was a graduate student in Soviet studies at Harvard in the late 1960’s Pipes was joined by other “cold warriors” like Adam Ulam. The only real dissident was Barrington Moore (who remembers him?) For my tastes the experts on China at Harvard were a better source of insight on their chosen subject. Main reason: they had a more empathetic approach.


  6. Isn’t Pipes’s “moral purpose”, consistent through all periods of his career, to justify both fear of the Russian state and foreign domination of it?

    And if so, why that choice? Really?


  7. A critical point is that Pipes and his acolytes did not simply have a fantastically exaggerated view of Soviet military power. In his celebrated 1977 article ‘Why the Soviet Union thinks it could fight and win a nuclear war’ he painted a picture of iron-hard Russian savages, deceiving gullible Westerners with quite bogus expressions of interest in nuclear arms control.

    The influence of this mindset, which was actually totally delusional, was a major reason why people in the West totally misunderstood the Gorbachev-era ‘new thinking’, resulting in policy choices the potentially catastrophic implications of which are becoming increasingly apparent.

    It may be apposite to hark back to a letter I wrote to the ‘Financial Times’ back in January 2003. At that former Communists like David Aaronovitch and John Lloyd, both of whom I knew slightly in the days before they exchanged one set of fantasies for another, were leading cheer-leaders for our disastrous invasion of Iraq.

    The latter, who had been the Moscow Correspondent of the ‘Financial Times’, wrote a piece portraying Pipes as a prophet vindicated about the Cold War, using this as grounds for thinking that his views about the merits of toppling dictatorial régimes provided an appropriate basis for policy towards the Middle East – as indeed his son William argued.

    In my letter, I tried to draw out some of the dangers of this pattern of thinking:

    ‘Sir – Not everyone is as convinced as your correspondent John Lloyd appears to be that Richard Pipes is a prophet vindicated on the question of Soviet nuclear strategy (FT Weekend January 11-12).

    ‘Noting that President Ronald Reagan’s adviser on negotiation with the Soviets took Mikhail Gorbachev’s statement that “a nuclear war could never be won and must never be fought” as a significant reversal of policy, the liberal Russian historian Vladislav Zubok comments that the irony was that “principled agreement” on this point “had become an undisputed consensus in the Politburo” back in the 1970s.

    ‘In 1983, the Brookings Institution scholar Michael MccGwire, using a methodology rooted in his earlier work as the head of the Soviet naval section of British Defence Intelligence, identified a big change away from strategies of nuclear pre-emption on the part of the Soviets in the late 1960s and concluded that as a result they would eschew first use of nuclear weapons.

    ‘The accuracy of this prediction was demonstrated when in 1988 MccGwire’s colleague Raymond Garthoff identified a reference in the confidential Soviet journal Military Thought to a secret directive of the Central Committee in 1973-74 instructing that military planning should be based on the assumption that “the Soviet Union shall not be the first to employ nuclear weapons”.

    ‘On this basis, both MccGwire and Garthoff argued that, as Gorbachev’s “new thinking” developed existing lines of thought, the chances of a reversal of policy were greatly overestimated; and also that the arguments of the “new thinkers” against strategies of “deterrence” deserved a serious hearing.

    ‘In the event, the questionable assumption that the outcome of the cold war constitutes a vindication of western security strategies continues to dominate debate. The bizarre outcome is that our security experts hymn the virtues of employing apocalyptic threats to use weapons of mass destruction to counter an adversary superior in conventional power, at a time when the US is the natural target of such strategies.

    ‘If one treats nuclear weapons as a panacea for oneself, which one must deny to others, obviously the only real basis for a non-proliferation strategy is willingness to resort to preventive war. Some may think that such a strategy will lead to what your correspondent terms “the restoration of democracy” in at least parts of the Middle East. Others will fear it is liable to lead to a full-scale “clash of civilisations” – the only conceivable means by which Islamic radicals could realise their dreams of destroying western liberal society.’

    (See .)

    One relevant update: In 2009, a study commissioned from the BDM Corporation by the Office of Net Assessments in the Pentagon, and completed in 1995, was finally declassified. It was published on the invaluable ‘National Security Archive’ website, under the title ‘Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades.’

    This confirmed that Garthoff and MccGwire had been right. From the summary:

    ‘Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Soviets followed a “no-first-use” policy; according to the interviews, “the Soviet Union never intended to initiate the employment of nuclear weapons.”’

    Another paragraph that brings out quite how delusional Pipes was:

    ‘The Soviet military high command “understood the devastating consequences of nuclear war” and believed that nuclear weapons use had to be avoided at “all costs.” In 1968, a Defense Ministry study showed that Moscow could not win a nuclear war, even if it launched a first strike. Although Soviet ideology had insisted that survival was possible, no one in the leadership believed it. In 1981, the General Staff concluded that “nuclear use would be catastrophic.” This does not support arguments made by Richard Pipes in the late 1970s that the Soviets did not believe that a nuclear war would result in “mutual suicide” and that the “country better prepared for it and in possession of a superior strategy could win and emerge a viable society”.

    (See .)

    Unfortunately, thirty years after Garthoff and MccGwire refuted Pipes, almost ten after the publication of the BDM study, his influence continues as baneful as ever. In another obituary piece, entitled ‘The Importance of Richard Pipes’, published yesterday on the ‘National Interest’ site, Jacob Heilbrunn describes the role of its subject as an advisor to Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, who was responsible for bringing Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle to Washington.

    They may no longer be significant players, but their simplistic view of the Cold War as simply a good fight won, which provides a basis for how the post-Cold War order should be managed, continues to dominate policy-making in Washington – as was evident in the appointment of John Bolton as ‘National Security Advisor’.

    Behind this is the fact that, as Heilbrunn notes, ‘After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pipes claimed vindication for the Reagan administration’s views.’ An honest scholar would have changed his mind, as in their day both Garthoff and MccGwire had done over the years.

    But Pipes believed what he wanted to believe, and as others also wanted to believe it, his simplistic view of the end of the Cold War as a vindication, in essence, of a tradition of thinking which went back to the key NSC 68 paper masterminded by Paul Nitze in April 1950 has remained the conventional wisdom. The extent to which this is so is clearly evident in the fact that Heilbrun, writing for what is supposed to be a major ‘realist’ journal, appears unaware of the actual state of the evidence.

    (See .)

    The way that the pattern of interpretation championed by Pipes has continued to be pervasive in élite opinion in Britain, is evident in the fact that we have a highly influential organisation called ‘The Henry Jackson Society’, founded in 2005, largely by a group centred around Peterhouse College, made up of acolytes of another questionable figure, Maurice Cowling.

    Among the signatories of its ‘Statement of Principles’ was Sir Richard Dearlove, who as head of MI6 had played a disastrous role in the intelligence failures which paved the way for the invasion of Iraq, and appears to remain an influential presence in the ‘intelligence community.’

    It is, unfortunately, quite impossible to have a rational view of post-Soviet Russia, and indeed the whole post-Soviet space, without making some attempt to wrestle with the complexities of the history of the Communist period. (I say this, I should stress, as someone with no record whatsoever of sympathy for Marxism-Leninism – in relation to arguments in late Tsarist Russia, my instinctive political identifications are far more with the writers of the ‘Vekhi’ group, or indeed Peter Durnovo, than they are with either radicals or liberals.)

    But we now have a ludicrous situation, with leading figures in the American and British ‘intelligence communities’ treating Putin’s Russia as a continuation of the Communist Soviet Union, when their understandings of the crucial security policy dimension of the history of that power are demonstrable bunkum.

    Frankly, to have a head of MI6 signing the ‘Statement of Principles’ of a ‘Henry Jackson Society’ is a bit like having the head of Counter Terrorism Command sign a similar statement for a ‘Jacques Clouseau Society’: it indicates a total unfitness for the job. A direct result of the prevalence of such delusional views on both sides of the Atlantic is the nonsense we see now with ‘Russiagate.’

    For this, both the inadequacies of the original research by Pipes, and his failure to have an honest confrontation with the evidence which emerged following the Soviet Union’s collapse, have to bear a major share of responsibility. So, to my mind, he combines the worst of ‘Cavaliers’ and ‘Roundheads’, as described in ‘1066 and All That’: both wrong, and repulsive.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “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.”

    This makes it sound as if Pipes and Conquest weren’t superseded until the next generation. In fact even in their own generation there was RW Davies who got things much more right, but did not receive the adulation bestowed upon the former two because what he was saying wasn’t as politically expedient.

    Pipes and Conquest may have given comfort to a generation of Cold Warriors but that doesn’t make them great or even good historians.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Here is what I wrote to a mailing list of former Pipes students (of which I am one):

    As one of Professor Pipes’s students who has never engaged Russia professionally in any capacity since receiving my degree (though I have tried to keep abreast of both current affairs and the historical profession as best I can), I naturally lost touch with him after I left Harvard.

    During my time there he asked me to help him rearrange the books in his study in Widener, which I found a very interesting and rewarding task.

    Although he did not find the thesis of my dissertation convincing (a paraphrase of his words), he was always very gracious and kind to me.

    There have been numerous published comments about his time in the government and about his role in perpetuating or exacerbating the American response to the Soviet Union in the late 70s and 80s, as well as, of course, what his academic “adversaries” have had to say.

    There is no reason that all of these things cannot be true and no reason that he could not be decent to the students he taught.

    I for one value the time spent with Professor Pipes under his guidance.


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