Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger
by Richard Pipes
Yale. 255 pp. $30.00
Readers of COMMENTARY will immediately identify Richard Pipes as the distinguished historian of Russia and a prominent public intellectual. Few, however, are likely to know much about his background or the details of his extraordinary life, here recounted with energy and candor. From the very first chapter, with its enthralling account of the circumstances surrounding his family’s escape from the Nazi authorities in Poland on the eve of World War II, through the subsequent narrative of his military service, his education in the Midwest and at Harvard, and his rise to eminence as a major force in Russian studies and as a critic and sometime participant in the making of U.S. foreign policy, the story of Pipes’s career offers a powerful reminder that truth is as curious as fiction. The Latin title is apt: Vixi, “I have lived.”
Richard Pipes was born in Polish Silesia in 1921, the son of an assimilated, upper-middle-class Jewish family with international business connections. His father had spent his youth in Vienna, and in the Pipes home Polish and German were spoken interchangeably. More significantly, the elder Pipes had fought in the Polish Legion during World War I, establishing friendships with many who would assume the leadership of the postwar Polish republic. These contacts would prove essential to the survival of his family later on.
In the Poland in which Richard Pipes grew up, Polishness was inseparably linked to Roman Catholicism, thereby effectively excluding Jews and Orthodox Christians from membership in the national community. Nevertheless, he recalls no overt discrimination against Jews (except in the military and diplomatic service) and no persecution. “The majority of Orthodox Jews lived, of their own choice, in compact communities,” he writes. As for assimilated Jews, “such as we were,” these lived “in an in-between world, but I must say that I felt more in common with educated Poles than with Orthodox Jews who treated the likes of us as apostates.”
This relatively benign arrangement came to an abrupt end with the death in 1935 of Marshal Pilsudski, founder of the modern Polish state. After that, the position of Jews became increasingly precarious, and positively life-threatening with the German invasion in 1939. How the Pipes family managed to escape is a story too complicated to relate here, but it involved the intervention of Polish diplomats, friends of his father, who facilitated their transit through Germany and then Italy, where the family obtained visas to the United States. They left Europe in the nick of time; the day after their departure, the Italian police came to apprehend them. The family docked in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 11, 1940—Richard’s seventeenth birthday.
There followed a brief student period at Muskingum College in Ohio, interrupted by Pearl Harbor and Pipes’s entry into the Army Air Corps. Because of his language skills, he was selected for a special program to learn Russian and spent much of the rest of the war at Cornell, whose campus had been taken over for the preparation of intelligence and interrogation personnel. His studies were followed by a series of Army assignments that had nothing to do with his new skills; by the time he would have been deployed overseas, the war was over.
Shortly thereafter, now married, Pipes entered Harvard, where he eventually took a Ph.D. in Russian history and where, with interruptions, he would spend the remainder of his academic career. His reflections on this long immersion in the precincts of American academe are without illusion. “The university,” he writes, “turned out to be a microcosm of the society at large, and the quest for knowledge by its faculty was closely tied to personal advancement and the craving for fame.” No less trenchant are his comments on academic self-regard at a rarefied place like Harvard. After he received tenure, one colleague privy to the review proceedings remarked to him, without a trace of irony, “You have no idea how close it was; on the knife’s edge: on one side Harvard, on the other utter darkness.”
Pipes’s rather detached view hardly prevented him from participating in and excelling at the academic game. His zest for it, however, seems to have ebbed decisively after the self-imposed “reforms” introduced by the student uprisings of the late 1960’s. He puts it this way:
[After the 1960’s] Harvard . . . began to view itself as an agent of social change and increasingly devoted itself to solving society’s problems: instead of acquiring knowledge, no matter how esoteric, and teaching it to its students, it emphasized outreach. Rather than select its faculty and students solely by criteria of talent and creativity, it pursued sexual and racial diversity. Elitism, even when it involved exclusively intellectual excellence, was frowned upon. Much of what Harvard now did reminded me of the early Soviet educational experiments which aimed at breaking down the isolation of institutions of higher learning and harnessing them to the cause of social reform.
Still, however far American universities would stray from their fundamental purpose, Pipes’s own scholarship proceeded unimpeded. In the decades to come, he would publish volume after towering volume on Russian history. The most notable are Russia Under the Old Regime (1974); a two-volume biography of the anti-Bolshevik reformer Peter Struve (1970, 1980); and, above all, The Russian Revolution (1990) and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (1994).
In these works, Pipes emphasizes the persistently weak hold of liberal Western ideas on Russian political culture, and the continuing appeal of authoritarian notions and practices. Specifically, he rejects the notion, beloved of Russian nationalists, that Communism was an exotic import that somehow seized control of an innocent and unwary civilization, and that the atrocities committed under Lenin and Stalin were whole-cloth exceptions to long-established political traditions.
Needless to say, these views provoked considerable ire, including most famously on the part of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I once heard a Russian émigré refer scornfully to Pipes’s work as “the Polish version of Russian history.” Pipes is forthright here in defending himself against such implied accusations of antipathy toward his subject. To be sure, he writes, he feels “no sympathy for Russian nationalism and anti-Westernism, which provide a convenient bond between authority and the uneducated masses.” But, in general, “I draw sharp distinctions between Russian governments and Russian people, and further, between educated Russians and the population at large.” And when it comes to a passion for Russian literature, “I almost feel Russian.”
If sometimes attacked by the Russian nationalist Right, Pipes has been much more conspicuously a major target of the American academic Left. It is easy enough to see why. Not only is he incorrigibly outspoken about the evils of Communism, but he is no less critical of the fruitless academic search for a “moderate” version of Communism that, but for the machinations of a Stalin or a Lenin, might miraculously have brought socialism to Russia without the Gulag and all the rest.
The collapse of the brief-lived Provisional Government of 1917, for example, is attributed by some historians wholly to the anti-democratic maneuverings of Lenin. Pipes will have none of it, pointing instead to Premier Alexander Kerensky’s spineless pandering to the Bolsheviks and their allies. By separating the Provisional Government from other truly moderate and democratic forces, Kerensky exposed it ineluctably to the tender mercies of the Reds, for whom no concession would ever suffice. When the October putsch came, Kerensky’s regime was naked and defenseless.
In his role as a public intellectual, Pipes further enraged the academic Left by courageously taking on the entire school of Soviet studies that emerged in the United States in the early 1970’s. The principal emphases of this school were on the supposed similarities between the U.S. and Soviet systems of government, the essentially benevolent or defensive goals of successive Soviet regimes, and the need for the United States (and the West in general) to come to terms with Moscow regardless of its actions at home or abroad. These beliefs were proof against all evidence to the contrary. “Nothing,” Pipes writes caustically, “not even travel to the Soviet Union or the appearance in the West of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees with their own tales to tale, could sway the Sovietological profession in its opinions, because here science coincided with self-interest.”
Perhaps as a corollary to his battle with the Sovietologists, Pipes was asked in the mid-1970’s to join the so-called Team B. This was a group of experts appointed by the Ford administration to study and offer an alternative to the (often deeply flawed) assessments of Soviet capability produced by the CIA. His conclusions from that experience were summarized in two influential articles in COMMENTARY: “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War” (July 1977) and “Team B: The Reality Behind the Myth” (October 1986).
Under Ronald Reagan, Pipes deepened his acquaintance with government by joining the White House as a member of the National Security Council. Even here, however, where he was supposedly surrounded by other committed cold warriors, all was not well. Like many academics who temporarily enter government service, Pipes was shocked by what he found. Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s principal concern, he writes, “was not with the substance of the country’s foreign policy but with his personal control of it.” As for the State Department itself, “whenever I visited [there] on business I had the feeling I was entering a gigantic law firm that abhorred confrontation with any foreign government and firmly believed that all international disagreements could be resolved by skillful and patient negotiation.” One result of this tour of government duty was Survival Is Not Enough—a polemical volume that, appearing in 1984, served as a salutary antidote to the current of appeasement then at its peak in American universities, churches, and media.
Now in his eightieth year, Richard Pipes can look back upon a life rich in achievement and adventure, both personal and intellectual. Although he owes much to the United States for rescuing him and his family from certain death in World War II, he has repaid that debt in more than equal measure. Vixi is the fascinating story of that mutual enrichment—a story, one feels sure, that is far from over.