Richard Pipes, Historian of Totalitarianism

Richard Pipes on Firing Line with William F. Buckley. (Firing Line via YouTube)
He approached Soviet history like a prosecutor.

‘My subject is the Russian Revolution, arguably the most important event of the twentieth century. It is my considered judgment that, had it not been for the Russian Revolution, there would very likely have been no National Socialism; probably no Second World War and no decolonization; and certainly no Cold War, which once dominated our lives.”

Richard Pipes wrote these words to introduce one of his many prescient analyses of the Bolshevik phenomenon. His groundbreaking works serve as monuments to one of the most important historians of modernity. Pipes passed away peacefully in his home on Thursday, May 18.

From his early life, the great historian of totalitarianism was shaped by its ravages. Born into a Jewish family in the Polish town of Cieszyn in 1923, the young Pipes watched the drama of fascism’s rise firsthand. His family was living in Warsaw when Hitler invaded Poland. Through luck and his father’s connections to the diplomatic service, the Pipes family escaped first to Italy in 1940 and then to the United States. Most of his friends and family were not so fortunate. In his memoirs, mentions of childhood companions and relatives are almost always followed with a parenthetical reference to their fates in Sobibór or Dachau.

After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, Pipes returned to the United States and pursued his education. In 1958, he became a professor of Russian history at Harvard University. As Pipes entered the professoriate, the Cold War was reaching its hottest point. The academic discourse surrounding the conflict was equally contentious.

On one side, the “traditionalists” said that the Cold War had begun with and was propelled forward by the Soviet Union’s naked imperialist aggression — aggression fueled by the USSR’s Communist ideology. Their opponents, the “revisionist” school, countered that the USSR’s seizure of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II was a purely defensive move, executed by rational and conscientious leaders motivated by the Soviet peoples’ best interests and slandered by anticommunist zealots.

Pipes challenged the revisionists. His body of work dispelled the myth, propagated by the Soviet Union, that the 1917 October Revolution was a popular movement supported by broad swathes of the Russian people. Pipes argued that the Bolshevik Revolution was more akin to a military coup d’état. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party overthrew Russia’s liberal provisional government and seized absolute power.

Pipes also demolished the construct of “good Lenin, bad Stalin” — the Marxist shibboleth in which Vladimir Lenin was a benevolent reformer and a visionary whose grand work was subverted by the thuggish and brutal Stalin. This was perpetuated first in the 1920s and 1930s by an ostracized Leon Trotsky, and then in the late 1950s by Nikita Khrushchev in his attempt to scrub the Soviet conscience clean of Stalin’s purges, mass deportations, and endless executions. Pipes contended that the system Lenin built from 1918 to 1924 was not misused by Stalin, but rather wielded exactly as Lenin had intended.

Many social scientists of the revisionist school in the West, Pipes argued, came to their rosy conclusions about the nature of Soviet hierarchy and intentions because they assumed that the Soviet leaders were “just like us.” He called this fallacy “mirror-imaging.”

Nowhere was “mirror-imaging” more common than in Washington, D.C. In the heyday of détente, analysts and think-tankers assumed that the Soviet mind could be understood by better understanding ourselves. However, the intelligence community in the 1970s determined that “mirror-imaging” had led analysts to grossly miscalculate Soviet motives and actions during the Kissinger-Nixon years. So in 1976, Pipes was recruited to be part of an analytical program sponsored by the CIA to improve our understanding of the Soviet arms program. This group of liberal, anticommunist hawk academics would come to be known as “Team B.”

Pipes and Team B upended Washington’s common assumptions about the arms race. By examining the political and ideological nature of the regime, Pipes pressed the case that the Soviets were bent on dominating as much of the world as they could grab. “Arms control” would be meaningless as long as the Soviet Union was a totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist state. The insights of Pipes and his team were manifest in the Reagan Doctrine: meeting the Kremlin’s military advances, pressing the system’s economic weak points, and rolling back Soviet influence abroad.

One of Pipes’s students, Professor Peter Kenez, once said that Pipes approached Soviet history like a prosecutor — and he meant this in an uncomplimentary fashion. However, the analogy rings true: Pipes’s career was dedicated to uncovering the criminal history of the Soviet Union. Sadly, this task remains incomplete, but Pipes’s legacy lives on in the work of people he inspired to seek justice for the crimes of the USSR.

The last time I saw Richard Pipes was at dinner on Capitol Hill in June 2014 with his wife Irena, Ukrainian gulag survivor Myroslav Marynovych, historian Lee Edwards, and several Millennials like myself. The discussion centered on the details of Myroslav’s years in a Soviet gulag deep in the Ural Mountains. Irene, Pipes’s wife, pressed Myroslav on the exact location of the work camp and the winter temperature. The conversation, as calm as if discussing a long-ago Caribbean vacation, froze the Millennials, whose generation is not wholly sure evil even exists.

The conversation then turned to recent events in Ukraine. Myroslav’s colleague at the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv had been shot dead by a pro-Kremlin sniper during the Maidan protests a few weeks prior. The Obama administration was refusing to acknowledge that the “little green men” invading Ukraine’s Donbas region were in fact Russian troops. And yet Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemeliv, who was supposed to be with us at dinner that night and awarded the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom the next day, was trying to reach his wife, who had been detained in Crimea by Russian authorities.

The Millennials at the table, younger than the rest by more than half a century, could scarcely comprehend the conversation. I remember wondering if the twenty-somethings of June 1914 felt so unfamiliar with the chaos of war and the brutality of tyranny a mere month before WWI broke out. In that dining room listening to Pipes I felt the chill air of hard history blow through and felt it steel me for coming struggle. As Pipes told me the next day, this was his purpose.

Richard Pipes taught us that when you meet a threat, you must name it. The Russian people and those of the Captive Nations were living in tyranny not because a specific policy had gone wrong or the wrong bureaucrat was at the top. Rather it was, as Reagan claimed, “an evil empire.” Pipes provides a guide for 21st-century historians, who must have the discipline and moral courage to honestly assess the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, which have taken on the Soviet mantle as leaders of the unfree world.

Pipes lived long enough to see the Berlin Wall fall, but also to see a KGB officer rule Russia, the annexation of Crimea, the occupation of Eastern Ukraine, and the unveiling of new Lenin and Marx statues throughout Russia and Western Europe.

The tide of freedom is ebbing in the world today. The PRC is blazing new trails on the totalitarian road once traveled by the Soviet Union. Dictatorships and hybrid-authoritarian states are once again becoming the norm in much of the world. Make no mistake — the world’s tyrants have a deep bench of defense attorneys ready to defend them in Washington, the United Nations, and the court of international public opinion.

The free world can only hope to be informed by many prosecutors with the discernment, eloquence, and dogged devotion of Richard Edgar Pipes.

Marion Smith is the executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an educational and human-rights non-profit authorized by a unanimous act of Congress.


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