Richard Pipes: ‘I Have Been Spared Not to Waste My Life’

Richard Pipes in 1982 (Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
A personal appreciation of a great scholar, an important public figure, and an extraordinary man

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current National Review.

Richard Pipes was a great scholar and an important public figure. In this appreciation of mine, however, I will write mainly personally — Pipes was a big deal to me (as to the world at large, to be sure).

He was born in Poland — Jewish — in 1923. You could see the year of his birth in his e-mail address: “rpipes23.” He was 16 when the Nazis came. Much later, he wrote, “I noticed with surprise that the soldiers were not the blond supermen of Nazi propaganda: many were short and swarthy and quite unheroic in appearance.”

On October 6, a month and a week after the invasion, Hitler took a victory lap in Warsaw. Pipes saw him from his window, up on the fourth floor. “He rode in an open Mercedes, standing up in the familiar pose, giving the Nazi salute. I thought how easy it would be to assassinate him.”

He and his parents were able to flee. Many relatives, not to mention schoolmates and friends, were not. They were murdered.

Newly in America, Pipes went to Muskingum College, in Ohio. Then he went into the Army — which had him learn Russian, at Cornell. At Harvard, he earned his Ph.D. And he would teach at Harvard for the duration of his career.

What he was, was a leading historian of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Communism. Why? Why this field? In large part, because he felt the need to deal with political evil — but the European experience under Nazism was a little too close to home. So he studied the other side of the same, totalitarian coin. Not until he was almost 80, when he wrote his memoirs, did he speak personally about what happened to his family and his community after September 1, 1939.

He had an important public assignment in the mid-1970s. He was chosen to lead “Team B,” whose charge was to challenge the CIA’s assumptions about the Soviet Union (which were wrong). A bit later, in the early 1980s, he served on the National Security Council staff for President Reagan.

One story from those Reagan years? In 1982, Brezhnev, the Soviet premier, died. It fell to Pipes to go to the Soviet embassy in Washington to pay the respects of the U.S. government. Confronted with the condolence book, he felt in a bind: to sign or not to sign? Thinking fast, he decided to sign — but illegibly.

To hell with Brezhnev, to hell with the Soviet Union, to hell with Communism.

I first saw him in 1987, when he appeared at a forum with Yuri Orlov, the great physicist and dissident who had just come out of the Soviet Union. Pipes told some truths about the Soviet Union and Communism that the student audience was not pleased to hear. The next day, I slipped a note under his office door. It was a fan letter, really. He wrote me back, via the Post Office (in those pre–e-mail days).

Later, when I became a journalist, I contacted him every chance I got. I told him I would seize any excuse, and he didn’t mind. Indeed, the opposite.

I asked him about things big and small. Here is something small: Customarily, do you capitalize “Communist” and “Communism”? Yes, said Pipes.

Something a little larger: Lenin once described Kerensky as “stupid.” (Alexander Kerensky was the Russian prime minister before Lenin’s takeover.) Did he have a point? “Kerensky,” replied Pipes, “was ‘stupid’ in Lenin’s eyes because he did not know how to hold on to the one thing that mattered to Lenin, namely power. I met Kerensky many times and found him gentle, perhaps too much so for a politician, but certainly intelligent.”

Okay, what about this notion of a “right side of history” (a phrase about which I was writing an essay)? Pipes replied, in part,

I went into the Internet to ask for “right side of history” and was astonished at how many responses I got! It is apparently a standard code phrase. Of course, it means whatever the user wishes it to mean. If you think democracy is the wave of the future, then favoring democracy is to be on the “right side of history.” If, on the contrary, you perceive the future of mankind to be Communist or socialist, then everything that contributes to the spread of Communism or socialism qualifies as “historical.” The concept is not necessarily Marxist, although, of course, Marxists do espouse it.

I must have asked whether “right side of history” was inherently Marxist, or Marxist-flavored. Anyway, Pipes continued,

The whole notion is nonsensical. History is a mental construct: it does not exist as reality. Hence you cannot be on its “right side.” You can only be on the “right side” of historians.

Okay, back to Lenin for a moment: What was his attitude toward children? “I do not think he was especially interested in them or fond of them,” said Pipes. “Indeed, according to Alexander Yakovlev, the brain behind Gorbachev’s reforms whose biography I am completing, he sent children to concentration camps.”

Well, then — that’s not liking children at all.

From Richard Pipes, I got a fund of stories. This is one of the most striking, I think: One day, he was in a Soviet town somewhere, riding a city bus. A woman, noticing a foreigner, started to extol the glories of her town and of her country generally. Surely there was no better country anywhere in the world. She was speaking loudly, for all to hear. Later, before she got off the bus, she sneaked up to Pipes and said, “Please, tell me the truth: We live like dogs, don’t we?”

Some years ago, I was writing a piece about the influence of the Chinese government on China studies in the West — and the influence of Arab governments on Middle East studies. Naturally, I talked with Daniel Pipes, the Middle East scholar, and one of Dick and Irene’s sons. (For Daniel’s extraordinary appreciation of his father, go here.) I also talked to Dick about Russia or Soviet studies.

There was never much money in Sovietology, he told me. But Sovietologists wanted to go to the Soviet Union, as one could well understand. And that meant that you had better not be too critical of the Kremlin.

One day, Pipes was testifying before Scoop Jackson’s committee in the Senate about SALT (the arms-control treaty). Pipes was taking a hard and realistic line; another Ivy League Sovietologist was taking a soft and unrealistic one. As they were leaving, the other guy said to Pipes, “I really agree with you, but if I talked as you do, I wouldn’t be able to go to the Soviet Union. They wouldn’t give me a visa.”

As a class, the Sovietologists got the Soviet Union very, very wrong. (And many resented Pipes for getting it right.) They just glided on, with hardly a backward glance. Many of them “have fallen in line behind Putin,” Pipes told me, back in 2008. They were traveling to Moscow to attend conferences hosted by him.

Speaking of Putin: I asked Pipes to locate him — to sum him up, to get to the heart of him — in a 2014 podcast. “Very much a Soviet man,” said Pipes. “He is at heart a Communist, and a Russian imperialist. . . . What he worries about, and what every Russian ruler worries about, is to appear weak.” Putin had annexed Crimea. Hitler had done the same with the Sudetenland in 1938, said Pipes.

Toward the end of his career, Pipes wrote a book called “Property and Freedom.” He believed that you could not have one without the other. Property rights were the barrier to government power. To his amusement, a Chinese state publishing house put out a translation of his book, but with a different title. The word “freedom” evidently could not be stomached. The book was published as “A Discussion of Property.”

At every stage of his career, Pipes attracted controversy. Why? In explanation, he once quoted Samuel Butler, who wrote in a letter, “I never write on any subject unless I believe the opinion of those who have the ear of the public to be mistaken, and this involves, as a necessary consequence, that every book I write runs counter to the men who are in possession of the field; hence I am always in hot water.”

Let me tell you something about writing: I was once editing a piece by Pipes and suggested to him a different tense in a certain passage. He said, with some disgust, “I long ago gave up on English tenses. They are confusing and inconsistent.” Ain’t it the truth. I think of Pipes every time I am stuck on a tense, which is often. In fact, it happened as I was writing this appreciation, several paragraphs ago.

In February of this year, I went to Harvard, to interview another great nonagenarian scholar, Dante Della Terza (a Dante specialist, as befits his first name). I called Dick, but did not get him. I never heard back from him, which I thought was curious. It transpired that he was ill, and he passed away on May 17.

Listen to him: “The main effect of the Holocaust on my psyche was to make me delight in every day of life that has been granted to me, for I was saved from certain death.” Pipes wrote those words in his memoirs, Vixi (Latin for “I have lived”), published in 2003. He went on, “I felt and feel to this day that I have been spared not to waste my life on self-­indulgence or self-aggrandizement but to spread a moral message by showing, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences.”

What’s more, “I admit to having little patience with the psychological problems of free people, especially if they involve a ‘search for identity’ or some other form of self-seeking.”

As 1999 turned into 2000, National Review published a millennial issue, consisting of big-think pieces, including an essay by Pipes. He cited a book by Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (on ancient Near Eastern religion and society). He had the g in “gods” down — in the lower case — but, as it was in the title, I, of course, as editor, put it up. He insisted on its being put back down. “I am a Jew,” he said, “and there is one God, and I will not have the plural word capitalized.” I pleaded, “I am as monotheistic as anyone, but this is a matter of style, and to have the word up doesn’t imply any idolatry: It’s just a word in a title, like ‘table’ or ‘chair.’” No, no, said Pipes, it could not be up, title or not.

So, that’s how the book was referred to in the magazine: Kingship and the gods. It was wrong but, at the same time, right — and totally, wonderfully Richard Pipes.

He gave his memoirs the subtitle “Memoirs of a Non-Belonger.” He and Irene — his tall beauty of a wife — had a home in the British Virgin Islands, where they were classified as neither “residents” nor “visitors” but “non-belongers.” Pipes said he had gone through life feeling like a non-belonger.

Well, wherever he belongs, I’d like to belong there too.


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