When not thinking and writing, Richard Pipes tells us in these memoirs, he is at a loose end. At different times he had ambitions to be an art historian or perhaps a musicologist, he also says, but settled to be a historian. The writing of history depends in the first place on scholarship. Vixi is the work of a man of immense learning, whose apposite quotations range through several classical and modern literatures from Praxilla of Sicyon in the fifth century BC and Seneca all the way to Trollope, Guizot and Sainte-Beuve. But selection of facts rests ultimately on the historian’s humanity and aesthetic sense. Most unusually, Vixi is also the work of an intellectual for whom beauty is truth, and truth beauty.
Pipes’s field was Russian history, which he taught for 50 years at Harvard. By temperament, he probably would have liked to limit himself to the study of congenial figures like the early historian Karamzin and the liberal Peter Struve. But his career coincided with the Cold War, and with his specialist knowledge he could hardly avoid taking a position. On a first trip to the Soviet Union in 1957 he saw for himself how brutal and ugly communism was. Just to walk in the streets was enough to bring tears to his eyes. On a streetcar in Leningrad, a woman suddenly whispered to him, ‘We live like dogs, don’t we? Tell me, please.’ The more he saw of communism, the more he despised it.
The system was to blame, not the people. A day would surely come, he always maintained, when the people would free themselves from the system. Diplomats and Sovietologists on the contrary held that the system was sound, and people one way and another were living up to it successfully. At conferences in prestigious universities and at government-sponsored seminars, Pipes was invariably odd man out, written off as a conservative, a scandalous Cold Warrior. When the sequence of events initiated by Gorbachev with his glasnost and perestroika quickly and peacefully collapsed communism, Pipes was proved to have been right all along.
How had it been possible for the assembled experts to miss what was so obvious? They dealt exclusively with those who ran the totalitarian system, apparatchiks apparently much like themselves. Lack of imagination led to a measure of dehumanisation — the experts didn’t notice or didn’t mind that the system was producing victims in the mass. In contrast Pipes knew totalitarianism at first hand. Born in 1923 in the small Polish town of Cieszyn, he had escaped death at the hands of the Nazis only through his father’s resourcefulness and a lot of luck.
Pipes was still small when the family moved to Warsaw. His father was in the business of manufacturing chocolate wafers, and his mother had some income from real estate. Assimilated Jews, they began to suffer from anti-Semitism only after the death of Marshal Pilsudski in 1935. The 16-year-old Pipes lived through the German attack on Warsaw in September 1939, and from a window of the family’s apartment observed Hitler that October driving in triumph through the shattered capital.
Pipes’s father managed to obtain a blank passport from a Latin American country (which one Pipes doesn’t say). A Jewish engraver forged the necessary consular seals. On an extraordinary journey, father, mother and son left Warsaw at the end of October on the first train out to Germany, apparently going in the most dangerous of all directions. At the frontier they talked their way past a Gestapo official; they reached Munich and then Rome, and after eight months Spain and finally Portugal, where they caught a Greek boat to the United States. Two uncles escaped from Warsaw to Moscow, where Pipes met them years later. The Germans murdered all other relations, including one of his grandmothers. He admires ‘the mood of resigned idealism’ in Jewish culture, no matter how great the test to which it is put. A feeling survives in him, he writes, that God saved him from the hell of German-ruled Poland for some higher purpose, in practice to show the simple moral message that ‘evil ideas lead to evil consequences’.
At a small college in Ohio, Pipes completed his education, and then enlisted in one of the American army’s specialist training programmes, learning Russian in three brief months. And so after the war to Harvard, as graduate student and then professor, becoming in due course the acknowledged doyen of Russian studies, keeping company with the likes of Edmund Wilson, George Kennan and Andrei Sakharov. In general terms, he held that Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union had definitive features in common, for instance autocracy, the abuse of property rights, and a corresponding contempt for the individual. Culture, he concluded, is more important than ideology. Assorted experts and fellow-travellers who believed that the Bolsheviks had laid the foundations of a new utopia were naturally enraged, and so were Russian nationalists like Solzhenitsyn, for whom the ancien régime was an ideal which had been violently suppressed.
Rather willingly, Pipes let himself be drawn into politics. In the Brezhnev era, the doctrine of détente was appeasement by another name, working inexorably to Soviet advantage. As from 1976 Pipes became a Washington insider, whose contribution was a realistic analysis of Soviet objectives with recommendations to counter them. The United States had more money than the Soviet Union, and Pipes was one of the leading advocates of spending that money to make aggressive policies unbearably expensive for Moscow, and so further expose the system’s inability to deliver its promises of a better life for people. External pressure of the kind maximised the internal contradictions which in the end caused communism to implode.
The summit of Pipes’s political career was his appointment in 1980 to be head of the East European and Soviet desk of the National Security Council. This parachuted him into the turf wars and personality clashes which seem to dictate the agenda in Washington. Pipes is entertaining about it. He saw quite a lot of Reagan, who possessed ‘the imponderable quality of political judgment,’ something that cannot be taught but one has to be born with it, ‘like perfect pitch’. Mrs Reagan was always determined that liberals should approve of her husband, an impossibility which made for nothing but trouble. The first President Bush seemed to Pipes to be more a cipher than a statesman. Secretary of State Al Haig will not enjoy this book. Nor will Henry Kissinger who at one point uttered a warning, ‘Pipes, I can destroy you.’ How so? ‘By saying that I agree with you.’ Observing him on another occasion, Pipes thought that Kissinger’s self-conscious expression seemed to say, ‘Yes, indeed, it is I, Henry Kissinger, in your midst; your eyes are not deceiving you, even as I myself am astonished by my existence.’ History seemed to have come round in some strange circle when Pipes found himself at his NSC desk in 1981, and General Jaruzelski closed down Solidarity and declared martial law in Poland.
Much recognition has come Pipes’s way. On a visit to his birthplace in Cieszyn where the family house still stands, he was granted honorary citizenship; acknowledged as a free spirit, he’s become an emeritus ornament of international platforms, and his books are as well known in Russia as in the West. And all of it is the consequence of that providential passport.