Book Review: Pillars of the Profession

Historians Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff were born within a few days of each other in 1923, Pipes in Poland, and Raeff in the Soviet Union. After they left the lands of their birth (Pipes in 1939, and Raeff, aged only 3, in 1926), they found their way to America, where in due course they enrolled as PhD students together at Harvard University. Subsequently, Pipes wrote 20 books and 85 scholarly articles and book chapters; Raeff 7 books and 86 scholarly articles and book chapters. The University of Illinois’s Jonathan Daly remarks that they ‘must be counted among the most prolific scholars in the English language ever to focus on Russian history.’ For 58 years, from 1950 to Raeff’s death in 2008, they were also regular correspondents (minus a 14 year hiatus from 1959 to 1973 following what appears to have been a serious personal rift). Now, Jonathan Daly has collected and edited the Pipes-Raeff letters in a volume entitled Pillars of the Profession: The Correspondence of Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff, which is to be published by Brill next month. Given that I was rather a fan of Pipes in my youth (especially his two volumes on the Russian revolution), and that Raeff’s book Russia Abroad is one of the key works in the history of the Russian emigration, which was also the topic of my doctoral thesis, I snapped up the opportunity to get a copy of Daly’s book. I’m glad I did.

pillars
Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff together at a conference in Italy in the 1950s – third row from the front.

To make sense of the Pipes-Raeff correspondence, Daly provides helpful footnotes throughout, giving details of all the people and publications mentioned in the letters. Daly also provides a 70-page introduction, including necessary background on the two men’s lives, personal relationship, and scholarly output. Most of the letters which follow date from the 1950s, a time when the professional future of both men was decidedly uncertain. Academics worrying about the shaky nature of the current job market might take note that this is nothing new. Pipes didn’t get a tenured position till the end of 1958; Raeff not until 1961, after a more than a decade in part-time posts. The two men were obviously close and used each other as sounding boards for their research ideas. But things began to go downhill after Raeff admitted in 1956 that he didn’t like Pipes’s first book The Formation of the Soviet Union and hadn’t even bothered finishing it. Later Pipes took serious offence at some of Raeff’s more critical remarks and denounced him for his ‘nastiness’, while Raeff seems to have been under a strong impression that Pipes didn’t consider his work any good. With the exception of a single letter in 1966, their correspondence entirely ceased between 1959 and 1973, when the two began communicating again, on what seems like friendly terms.

What their communications make obvious is that both Raeff and Pipes were extremely erudite scholars, with a vast knowledge of their subject. In the late-1950s, both were in their mid-30s, but they strike me as knowing far more about Russian history than I do in my 50s (though, to be fair to me, I have had another career and study other things as well!). They were also very much intellectuals, coming across as people whose idea of relaxation was to sit down with some German philosophy or nineteenth century Russian literature (whereas I’m more likely to sit down to play Tomb Raider, watch TV, or read some trashy sci-fi novel.) In intellectual terms one can’t help feeling perhaps a little inferior.

To me, the most interesting part of the book comes in the letters from the mid- to late-1950s, when both men were engaged primarily in studies of intellectual history, perhaps, as Daly points out in his introduction, because it didn’t require archival research in the Soviet Union. Reading the letters, I found myself nodding in agreement with Raeff more often than Pipes, and feeling that probably I should read some more of the former. In their discussions of conservatism, for instance, I found Raeff raising a number of points that emerged in my own research on the topic, and which I have discussed in my forthcoming book. For instance, Raeff writes to Pipes that, ‘It is hard to say where “reformism” and “conservatism” meet or where one ends and the other begins,’ and that, ‘most conservatives … believed in a dynamic society, in social transformation. … I cannot get over the feeling that as a group, the conservatives too rejected the social status quo’. I’ve pencilled in some big ticks in my copy of the book there. It would have been good to have had the chance to read this a few months ago while still writing my own volume.

Pipes and Raeff are often portrayed as occupying very different political positions – Pipes being the  Russophobic, Soviet-hating, right-winger, and Raeff, the son of a Menshevik activist, occupying a more liberal, centrist, political space. Daly argues, however, that the two men’s attitudes to Russia weren’t very different. Raeff, he says, ‘was every bit as anti-communist, anti-Soviet, and doubtful about Russia’s chances for a happy transition toward a full embodiment of Enlightenment ideals in the political sphere as was Pipes.’ What is clear from their letters is that neither scholar particularly liked the subject of their studies. On hearing in 1957 that Pipes was to visit the Soviet Union for the first time (Raeff didn’t go until the following year), Raeff wrote to him that, ‘I am somewhat ambivalent about going to Russia, even if I were in a position to do so. In a sense of course, I would very much like to see it … On the other hand, I am frankly quite uninterested (to say the least) in the Rus’ Sovietskaia.’ Pipes was more interested in the present state of Russia than his friend, but didn’t like what he saw. On leaving the Soviet Union, he replied to Raeff, ‘Russia depressed me enormously, and I couldn’t wait to get out: the poverty, the conformity, the absence of true communal spirit, tradition – all this reminded me of a badly run-down army compound.’

I sympathize – trying to study in the Soviet Union must have been difficult.  The exasperations of dealing even with modern Russia must have led many scholars to wonder like Raeff, in one letter to Pipes, whether it would be not be better to study some other country. But what is interesting is that the two men’s low view of Russia extended beyond the Soviet Union to include Russian history and culture more generally. For much of the period covered in their correspondence, Pipes was busy translating, and writing a study on, early nineteenth century Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, which is generally considered one of the classic texts of Russian conservative thought. Yet Pipes admits in one letter to Raeff that ‘Karamzin is not an original political thinker’. Raeff in turn wrote to Pipes:

Sure, intellectual history, political theory can be done. But in the case of Russia they are not very interesting and somewhat sterile subjects in the long run. No one would be more vociferous in maintaining the importance of ideas in history and the interest in studying them – and yet. They must either be interesting per se (which Russia ideas rarely were) or else (perhaps both) be put into a living, real social and institutional framework.

The market for Pillars of the Profession will no doubt be quite small, in that it’s unlikely to be of interest to anybody who doesn’t study Russian history and doesn’t already know the works of both Pipes and Raeff. Those who do, however, will find much to stimulate them, including insights into what made both men tick, thoughtful discussions of (mainly nineteenth century) Russian history, and various snippets of gossip about Pipes’s and Raeff’s contemporaries. I must thank Jonathan Daly and Brill for bringing the two men’s correspondence to light. Pillars of the Profession is very much a book about scholars for scholars, but at the same time it raises in my mind some broader questions about the nature of the profession of Russian history. Pipes and Raeff devoted their lives to studying a country they don’t seem to have liked very much, and also spent a considerable part of their careers examining a body of intellectual thought which they found unoriginal and ‘not very interesting’. It’s somewhat curious, and it makes me wonder how widespread such attitudes are among others in the profession. I suspect they might be rather common, and that perhaps explains a lot.

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: Pillars of the Profession”

      1. Thus the bitter Russian joke:

        “What is the difference between a Western China expert and a Western Russian expert?”

        “The China expert loves China”

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This is actually very sad.

    Two Russophobes being praised for writing about a country, people, culture they really dislike. And they are respected academics ?
    Don’t you see anything wrong with that?
    That they would have been subject to confirmation bias in their research and writings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Pipes being the Russophobic, Soviet-hating, right-winger, and Raeff, the son of a Menshevik activist, occupying a more liberal, centrist, political space. Daly argues, however, that the two men’s attitudes to Russia weren’t very different. ”

    In general, ‘liberal’ and ‘neocon/right-wing’ describe exactly the same thing, if you discard the rhetoric. No daylight between them. Seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tl;dr version in two quote:

    “What is clear from their letters is that neither scholar particularly liked the subject of their studies.”

    and:

    “But what is interesting is that the two men’s low view of Russia extended beyond the Soviet Union to include Russian history and culture more generally. “

    “Antisovetchik is always a Russophobe” (c)

    “[B]ut at the same time it raises in my mind some broader questions about the nature of the profession of Russian history.”

    Indeed. Like – can non-Russophobes engage in it and still be considered handshakable?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree that the correspondence of Pipes and Raeff will be a fascinating read. If the collection is able to reconstruct a conversation between the two scholars, there will likely be much of value in it for those of us with an interest in Russian history … and not just of the Soviet era.

    I suppose some of the dislike that attaches to the work of historians like the two being discussed here is a profound disappointment with the country’s place in history. I am always troubled by the sense that, despite the enormous contribution the Russian people has given to civilisation, it has been accompanied by an equally enormous level of human suffering. I often have to check my feeling that Russia could accomplish so much more if only … but what is the added ingredient that is needed? I know that a student of history is not supposed to examine one’s subject this way, but perhaps the letters of Pipes and Raeff will nonetheless provide some relevant insights.

    It is just too bad the book is to be published by Brill. It will likely be rather costly.

    Like

    1. “I agree that the correspondence of Pipes and Raeff will be a fascinating read.”

      What, their partocular version of bufo rapta vipera? Naaah!

      “I suppose some of the dislike that attaches to the work of historians like the two being discussed here is a profound disappointment with the country’s place in history. “

      “Place in history” – what’s that suppose to mean?

      “I am always troubled by the sense that, despite the enormous contribution the Russian people has given to civilisation, it has been accompanied by an equally enormous level of human suffering. I often have to check my feeling that Russia could accomplish so much more if only … but what is the added ingredient that is needed? I”

      If you want to – worry about Irish and thier enormous level of human suffering coupled with lack of accomplishments due to fookin’ sassenachs. Russians will surely survive without your amateurish arragont patronising.

      Like

      1. I do not normally respond to other people’s comments, but after months of reading your input to this otherwise excellent blog, one grows really tired of your ravings. You are an example of what is often wrong with blogs. My advice to you, given that you feel free to offer your half-baked and generally insulting comments to other people, is to go home, take a pill and have a good sleep. Perhaps when you sober up or mature (whichever comes first), you will realise that people will pay more attention to the substance of your comments when you demonstrate respect for the opinions of others. Sweet dreams !

        Liked by 3 people

      2. “I do not normally respond to other people’s comments…”

        Well – newsflash! Comment section is not your personal pulpit from which you can preach to the captivated audience. It’s a place to exchange opinions. Your “principled” opinion not to engage with other comments is commendable and befitting of a pigeon, who flies high above, craps on everything below, and never bothers its tiny bird brains with the consequences.

        “…but after months of reading your input…”

        Ehww! I can live without your creepy obsessive-compulsive stalker crush, Ben!

        “You are an example of what is often wrong with blogs.”

        Yup – only mass lustrations, censorship and re-education camps of freedom could improve that, making blogs “right”, turning them into isles of ideologically correct thought.

        Also – how about showing your sobriety and maturity by answering my questions?

        Like

  5. I think one should take into consideration that the Raeff who shared his views with Pipes (known for his loathing of Russia) is not necessarily Raeff as such. We are all (well, most of us) influenced in what we say by what we already know about our interlocutor.

    The Raeff I remember did have a skepticism about Russia, and once, in a private conversation, wondered out loud whether and when Russia would develop a ‘civil society’ independent from the state. He obviously thought civil society a ‘good thing.’ (Not that I don’t, but I think the U.S. understanding of it is pretty dumbed down, compared to what Hegel meant.)

    At the same time, I have very strong memories of the weeks in which we discussed and compared J.S. Mills’ Utilitarianism as a system of ethics vs. Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good. Those were some of the most exciting weeks of my entire academic career. Raeff was maddeningly insistent on keeping a poker face, and did his best to not let on his own preferences. But my gut feeling is that he had a definite preference for Solovyov. (I believe Raeff was a Catholic, incidentally.) I don’t think an erudite man like Raeff could have found Mill more convincing than Soloyvov. The chapter in Justification of the Good devoted to utlitarianism (and to Mill specifically) completely demolishes it.

    I got the sense of Raeff being critical of Russia and the Soviet Union, but of having a healthy respect and even love for aspects of it. How else could he have been such an inspiration to so many of his students, who came to love the subject after studying it under his guidance?

    It is sad that America so often turns to people who hate the country for learning about it or for formulating policy (Pipes, Brzezinksi, Anne Applebaum and Radoslav Sikorski… ) as if hatred is the sine qua non for insight. So much for the myth of value-neutral social science! And the funny thing is (picking up on the above pattern), I personally have enormous affection for Poland. I just wish we would occasionally pick as America’s advisers some of those other Poles, who genuinely exist, the ones who don’t have a visceral hatred for Russia. But maybe that is the whole point: our foreign policy apparatus may for some reason weed out, for its own reasons, those who are reluctant to attack. In fact, it is quite obvious that it does so. Why is it that this seems so natural and normal to us?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Excellent points as usual, Paul. You raise s possibility I had not considered.

      According to Daly, Raeff was Jewish by birth but atheist by persuasion. His wife was a devout Catholic. One thing about him which I found admirable was his apparent refusal to create a ‘school of Raeff’, insisting that students find their own direction and not trying to indoctrinate them with his own point of view. And from what you say, it seems that whatever his own opinion of Russia, he managed to inspire a love of it into many of his students. As I said, this book made me feel I should read some more of him.

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      1. How interesting! Raeff an atheist? Wow. None of us got that impression. If so, then of some sort of Leo Strauss variety, I would have to assume, in the sense of at least admiring much of the Christian tradition. Or like the Politician in chapter two of Solovyov’s Three Conversations (on War, Progress and the End of History), another work I learned about and came to love, thanks to Raeff. Thanks for letting us know about this book, Paul.

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  6. Before someone jumps down my throat about it, I am not trying to say that all those who hate Russia are from Poland. Obviously not! I am not making a statistical point. My point is simply that it is easier to make a career for yourself in US policy circles if you can be seen as a reliable liberal or a reliable disliker (to coin a word) of Russia. Thus, a McFaul may see himself as a Russophile, and no doubt he sincerely likes Russian lit. and Russian people. But he wants to see a Russia re-made in a liberal America-friendly image. Which happens to align nicely with US policy. Genuine difference is something we have a hard time with.

    Like

    1. “Thus, a McFaul may see himself as a Russophile, and no doubt he sincerely likes Russian lit. and Russian people. “

      Not the Russian *people*.:

      “Of course, I understood that Putin needed an enemy in order to rally his base before the March presidential election. The less educated, less urban and less wealthy you were, the more likely you were to support Putin. That segment of the electorate could be scared into fearing us. Upon arriving in Russia, I immediately became part of this campaign. I was the perfect poster boy for America; some even criticized my blond hair and smile as subversive.”
      – From WaPo’s “Putin needed an American enemy. He picked me”, by Michael McFaul May 11, 2018

      5% of handshakables always ready to welcome the 6th Fleet secretely privately hoping to become the local Schutzmannschaft (and he chosen few “leaders of the opposition” dream of becoming gauleiters!) afterwards does not make the *people* of Russia. People like McFaul (and the rest of the so-called intelectual elite) hate with deep passion the deplorables, no matter from whence they come – their own country or from Russia. It’s just not quite safe to hate (so openly) fellow Americans. But they do. When they express any xenophilic “love” to the foreigners, it’s to things imaginary or long past.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Paul Grenier, if I may, what chapters are you alluding to in your exchange with Paul Robinson above? I should be able to find out if I go back and reread PR’s “review”?

      I am aware I am way out of the discussion league here.

      I did appreciate PR’s much more precise description, time wise, how both Raeff and Pipes, the elder, wound up on American ground. That must have necessarily shaped their percepttion somehow.

      As usual, way too much I would like to know, I didn’t get much further then looking into Daly and got the impression that the correspondence, discussed maybe only a step on the way to ultimate ?eulogy? on Pipes, the elder.

      That said, I understand that maybe I should add one of Raeff’s books to my reading list. Ideally reading it before I read PR’s that is on that list for longer now.

      Like

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