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Richard Pipes, Prosecutor of the Russian Revolution

Relentless anticommunism defined the late Richard Pipes as more propagandist than historian.

Richard Pipes (far right) with (from right) Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, US president Ronald Reagan, and Secretary of State George Shultz, November 1985.

Richard Pipes, the most prolific of a generation of anticommunist cold warriors, has died. Author of twenty-seven books, Pipes was also a nuclear weapons consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency and a National Security Council advisor to Ronald Reagan.

In Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, Pipes attempted to portray himself as a nonconformist outsider. But the reality of his career was quite different. Harvard, where he was a graduate student and then professor, was the preeminent anticommunist Cold War think tank with a level of ideological conformity that mirrored its state-sponsored Soviet counterpart. Cold warriors moved easily between intelligence jobs and academic posts. The head of Harvard Russian Research Center, Abram Bergson, worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) and the center supported the FBI’s hunt for subversives.

The Cold War “enlists everyone and calls upon everyone to assume his part” and “the historian is no freer from this obligation than the physicist,” implored the head of the American Historical Association. Pipes was more than willing to do his part. In one of his first books, Social Democracy and the St. Petersburg Labor Movement, 18851897, Pipes made the astonishing summation that workers were so uninterested in socialism that a frustrated Lenin later developed the “un-Marxist” and “Blanquist” theory of “revolution from above” by intellectuals that would later guide Bolshevik practice.

Relentless anticommunism defined Pipes as a propagandist rather than historian. More talented cold warriors would occasionally admit the obvious, such as Robert Conquest, who conceded that the Bolsheviks won “the bulk of the working classes in the cities.” Pipes, however, wrote only for the ideologically converted and rarely made factual concessions that undermined his political mission. Nor did Pipes engage with his critics such as the social historians of the 1970s and ‘80s who displaced the anticommunists. The new social history by scholars such as Alexander Rabinowitch, Ronald Suny, and David Mandel had replaced the simplistic Cold War narrative by placing the actions and sentiments of ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers at the center of the revolutionary process.

But because they had paid little attention to his work, Pipes wrote in his memoirs, he decided to turn the “tables on them and largely ignored their work as well.”

Having published five monographs by the mid-1970s, Pipes was recognized as the foremost conservative authority on the Soviet Union. In 1976, Pipes led a group of military and foreign policy experts, known as Team B, to counter the CIA’s own Team A, in an analysis of the Soviet Union’s military strategy and the supposed “strike first” threats they posed to the United States. His principal adversary was none other than Henry Kissinger, advisor to John F. Kennedy during the 1960 election campaign, as proponent of a fictional “missile gap” with Soviet Union that would help propel Kennedy to victory.

Kissinger had been famously spoofed in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb replete with references to a “doomsday gap” and a “mine-shaft gap” for the chosen potential survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Pipes falsely claimed that the Soviet Union by 1970 had already achieved “parity” and were adding to their arsenal, while Kissinger by 1976 had softened his stance, supporting detente and admitting that the US had a six-fold nuclear advantage. Rather than appeasement or nuclear annihilation, Pipes proposed “a sensible middle road between these extremes: it was a policy that required sangfroid.” Pipes conceded that many in the intelligence community viewed his “cold warriors” as “dangerous lunatics capable of igniting World War III.”

Pipes’s Team B report argued that it was wrong to assume Moscow thought in terms of nuclear deterrence, arguing that Soviet leaders think “first and foremost offensively” and if war appeared imminent, they were prepared to “strike first.” Even the CIA was dismayed that the report lacked “raw data” to support its analysis. Included in the report, though not mentioned in his memoirs, was the statement that although no evidence could be found of “non-acoustic anti-submarine system,” nevertheless “that didn’t mean the Soviets couldn’t build one, even if they appeared to lack the technical know-how.”

“In sum, the issue was one of understanding a different culture,” commented Pipes in his memoirs. The strategic balance was determined “above all by the mentality and intentions of the people” controlling the nuclear arsenals. This assessment also lacked verifiable proof and instead relied heavily on Pipes’s mind-reading capabilities that assumed an inherently hostile and aggressive Soviet regime. Paucity of factual documentation did not prevent Pipes’s ramblings from influencing Reagan policy, even though they would later be proven false. Previously classified interviews with former Soviet officials found no evidence “to support arguments made by Richard Pipes” that the USSR thought they “could win” a nuclear war but instead show that “all of the strategic models developed by Soviet military experts had a defensive character and assumed a first strike by NATO.”

In Survival is not Enough, Pipes described “the unique ability of Communist regimes to impose tight control over their own domain while destabilizing the enemy.” This notion of Communists as master manipulators of the masses was not limited to Pipes’s writings on the Russian Revolution. In October 1983, several million Germans poured into the streets of West Germany to protest the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles scheduled to begin that December. In his memoirs, Pipes recalled how “Moscow launched a massive propaganda campaign in Europe to foil these deployments, using to this end large-scale public demonstrations which its agents organized and financed.” Vice-President Bush “was worried sick over the prospect of confronting anti-American mobs,” and Pipes attempted to convince him that “the mobs were manipulated by rent-a-crowd professionals.”

As a member of Reagan’s National Security Council, Pipes was regarded as a right extremist in Soviet policy for proposing “to do everything in our power to change the system, mainly by a policy of economic denial and a vigorous rearmament program.” In his memoirs, he congratulates himself on “contributions to a foreign policy that helped bring down the Soviet Union, the most dangerous and dehumanizing force in the second half of the twentieth century.”

After his foray into government, Pipes returned full-time to Harvard, where he switched his academic focus from US–Soviet relations back to Russian history. After completing The Russian Revolution, Pipes compared himself to Chapman, translator of Homer, “the work that I was born to do is done.” One of Pipes’s former students, Peter Kenez, was less sympathetic, writing perhaps the most devastating Soviet studies reviews ever to appear. Some of Pipes’s allegations were so preposterous, wrote Kenez, that the reader “wants to read a sentence a second time” because “perhaps the ‘prosecutor’ is simply carried away with his own rhetoric.” Kenez rightfully challenges and ridicules many of Pipes’s claims: that Bolshevik ideology as nothing more than a thin cover for power-hungry people, that the April and June demonstrations were attempted Bolshevik “putches,” that the Bolsheviks deliberately initiated the civil war, that the Red terror was more violent than the White terror. Pipes even contended that the peasantry were and remained monarchists after 1917 without offering “sources for this assertion, for there cannot be any.”

More problematic than his litany of historical distortions was Pipes’s historical method. His approach to the Revolution, suggests Kenez, is to see “every event as a consequence of the sinister manipulation of revolutionaries implies that there is no point in examining the views and desires of ordinary people.” Parsing out contrary evidence, Pipes “mercilessly excludes every topic and bit of information” not relevant for the ‘prosecution.’” This meant that Pipes “has nothing to say about the emancipatory goals and legislation of the Bolsheviks.” His “hatred of the revolutionaries is so great” argues Kenez, that he ceases to be a historian and “becomes instead a prosecutor of revolutionaries.”

Pipes also attributed great power to propaganda. As Kenez suggests, “he believes that people do not want what they seemed to want, for their views and therefore their actions have been manipulated by others.” Pipes’s approach is that of an “extremely conservative man”; the only figures in The Russian Revolution not depicted as knaves or fools are the “remarkable exceptions” of General Kornilov and Nicholas II.

Conservative pundits have incorrectly depicted Pipes as a champion for democracy —obviously without having read this book. Pipes’s admiration for vile antisemitic warlords was only comprehensible by situating his extreme conservatism as not being far removed from fascism. In Communism: A History, Pipes defended the 1973 US-supported Pinochet coup against Allende in Chile and in April 1996, Pipes told a University of Toronto audience, “Italian fascism wasn’t all that bad.” “I lived there — there was lots of operetta and bad architecture, but it wasn’t much worse than the Poland I’d left in 1940.” In his search for alternatives to Bolshevism, Pipes made no attempt to clumsily invent a “democratic” alternative to Soviet power — he sided openly with the ruling class forces who had engaged in mass repression as a “solution” to the Russian Revolution.

Before the Revolution, Pipes’s hero Kornilov was sympathetic to the antisemitic Black Hundreds and during the war had talked incessantly about hanging “all those Guchkovs and Milyukovs.” But by August 1917, he had common cause with the liberals, as they both wanted to annihilate the Revolution. On the evening before his attempted coup, Kornilov told his generals, “It is time to hang the German agents and spies, Lenin first of all,” and vowed, if necessary, to “hang the entire membership of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” Pipes contends that “The country yearned for firm authority,” meaning that the ruling classes’ desire to drown the revolution in blood represented the interests of the nation.

Pipes blamed Kerensky for his “refusal to take resolute measures against the Bolsheviks,” but, in reality, this slaughterhouse solution to the Russian Revolution was bound to fail. Most workers refused to disarm, and the ruling classes simply did not have enough goons on the streets to make their dictatorial aspirations a reality.

Kornilov’s (and Pipes’s) mass repression solution, however, reflected developments that underpinned Allied policy for the next several years. Despite public pronouncements about “democracy,” by December 1917, US president Woodrow Wilson started sending millions of dollars to various strongmen in an attempt to install a Russian “military dictatorship” — as Secretary of State Robert Lansing put it — amenable to American needs.

In an era of brutality, class violence against the Romanovs and the wealthy was particularly galling to Pipes, though mass violence against ordinary Russians was not. While writing The Russian Revolution, Pipes “felt constant outrage at the duplicity and brutality of the communists” who “reminded me time and again of the Nazis.” While writing on the execution of the tsar’s family, he smelled “a whiff of the Holocaust … the smokestacks of Auschwitz.” As a supporter of Russia’s war aims, Pipes had no problems with 6,324 deaths a day during the war, nor the US support for the mass White Terror. As Mike Haynes insists, “Without major assistance from outside, these counterrevolutionaries would have had neither the confidence nor the means to continue their war.”

Though all his books were written from the perspective of the far right, Pipes nevertheless attempted to feign objectivity in his memoirs, writing that his “historical methodology is deliberately eclectic” because “events are propelled by diverse forces.… I approach sources with an open mind and expect them to guide me. Genuine scholarship … lies in the willingness of the historian to ponder the subject from all sides, and this takes time.”

More accurate is his admission of the “great man” view of history and his contempt for ordinary Russians. “In my own historical writing, my central interest has always been to determine the mindset of the principle actors and then to demonstrate how it influenced their behavior.” The corollary to this method was the “sharp distinction” he drew between “educated Russians and the population at large.”

Pipes’s following volume, Russian Under the Bolshevik Regime received much less fanfare. The Bolshevik villains were all too predictable. Pipes’s editor even allowed a zany essay on “Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism, comparing the regimes of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler right in the middle of the text. The heroes are again Kornilov, who died a “tragic” death by a Bolshevik shell, and his replacement, Anton Denikin. Pipes clumsily apologized for Deniken, who “combined personal integrity with utter devotion to the cause.” Denikin’s troops would commit some of the worst atrocities of the Civil War, as Bruce Lincoln describes, including the infamous Kiev pogrom where defenseless Jews in “gigantic five and six-story buildings began to shriek from top to bottom.” Entire Jewish settlements followed the Red Army rather than facing the wrath of Deniken’s forces.

Many of Pipes’s subsequent books, including A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, The Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution, and The Unknown Lenin: From Secret Archive are essentially the same dull works. Pipes’s Lenin was in fact well known by 1996, he was still evil incarnate, and Pipes provided a few new citations and footnotes to prove it. His commentary in Unknown Lenin includes “Lenin had little regard for Trotsky’s judgement on any matter of substance,” Lenin had “contempt for Russians,” treated “his vast realm like a princely estate,” and repeated the allegation of German funds that “helped Lenin to create a party press and network of Russian cells in Russia, as well as his private army (the Red Guards).”

Pipes’s visits to Moscow 1991 and 1992 saw “Russians drunk with freedom” but by 1993, hyper-inflation had rendered tens of millions of Russians’ pensions and savings worthless. Any visitor to Moscow at time could not help but notice every Metro station packed with hundreds of people selling their household goods, books, and pets in an attempt to survive the collapse. Yet Pipes’s primary concern in his memoirs was an advance on his book royalties for the translation rights of Russia Under the Old Regime, “which could have bought a modest country lodge, now sufficed for just two slices of pizza.”

“Many Russians thought as soon as they had discarded communism and declared themselves free-market democrats they wallow in riches: indeed, Yeltsin as much as promised them this on coming to power.” But instead, opined Pipes, “with the collapse of communism the entire social services net which they took for granted had vanished and they were on their own in an unfamiliar and bewildering world.”

In fact, it was Pipes’s colleagues from the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) who had convinced Yeltsin’ economic tsar, Anatoly Chubais, of the benefits of “shock therapy.” It was “desirable,” wrote Pipes himself in March 1992, “for Russia to keep on disintegrating until nothing remains of its institutional structures.” As Janine Wedel shows, this strategy quickly eliminated “most of the price controls and state subsidies that had underpinned life for Soviet citizens for decades.” Several years later, billionaire oligarchs (and Harvard Institute advisors) were among the few financial beneficiaries while Russian citizens were faced to deal with the largest peacetime decline in living standards in recorded history.

In a May 1993 lecture in Norway on “Communism: the Vanquished Specter,” Pipes gleefully pronounced that the specter that Marx and Engels “had conjured up a century and a half ago as haunting Europe, had vanished overnight.” He again suggested that the “breakdown of the national economy, which in other countries would spell disaster, in Russia has a positive role to play.” This was because the people would be forced “to take matters into its own hands as it must if it is to acquire the habits of democracy and free enterprise.”

Pipes was conspicuously silent in his memoirs on the HIID scandal and his own “advice,” reverting to a familiar bogeyman to blame for the catastrophe. “Apparently, for all my reputation as a ‘cold warrior’, I had underestimated the damage that seven decades of communist rule had inflicted on the country and psyche of the people.”

By 1996, Pipes was horrified that the resurgence of the Communist Party, writing in Commentary about “our” disappointments in Russia for not following a “irreversible course Westernization” which was widely criticized as Russophobic. The main problem, according to Pipes, was that “Russia’s political culture is inhospitable to the political as well as the economic institutions of the West” and “until Russians become aware of what they have to change in their own culture, it is unlikely they can become a ‘normal’ society.” This was the best Pipes could offer as an explanation for the economic meltdown that he had encouraged. So dismal were the results of the transition that tens of millions of Russians by then preferred hardened Stalinists to “shock therapy,” while Harvard’s lackey, Chubais, was widely recognized as “the most hated man in Russia.”

Writing in the Nation, liberal historian William Rosenberg praised Professor Pipes’s “remarkable intellectual range, crystalline style and capacity to muster an extraordinary mass of evidential detail” but complained of “scholarship distorted by passion.” Yet Pipes’s scholarship was not distorted by passion, but by his extreme right ideology.

Russophobe, champion of mass violence, admirer of antisemitic thugs, more dangerous a nuclear crackpot than the original Dr. Strangelove, and advocate for economic disintegration in Russia — this is how we should remember Richard Pipes.