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.
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.