Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

‘I Have Been Spared Not to Waste My Life’

Richard Pipes in 1982 (Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
The brilliant and useful life of Richard Pipes

Richard Pipes was a great scholar and an important public figure. In this little appreciation, however, I will write mainly personally. Pipes was a big deal to me (as to the world at large, to be sure). He passed away on May 17.

He was born in Poland — Jewish — on July 11, 1923. You could see the year of his birth in his email 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.”

Five weeks after the invasion, Hitler took a kind of 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.

In America, Pipes became a leading historian of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Communism. Why? 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 taught at Harvard for almost 40 years. In the mid 1970s, he was tabbed to lead “Team B,” whose assignment was to challenge the CIA’s assumptions about the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, he served on the staff of the National Security Council for President Reagan.

When Brezhnev, the Soviet boss, 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-email 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. Customarily, do you capitalize “Communist” and “Communism”? Yes, said Pipes. Lenin once described Kerensky as “stupid.” 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.”

People speak of “the right side of history” — what did Pipes, a true historian, think of that? “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.”

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. Indeed, according to Alexander Yakovlev, the brain behind Gorbachev’s reforms whose biography I am completing, he sent children to concentration camps.”

Huh. All right, what about the current boss in the Kremlin? “Putin is at heart a Communist, and a Russian imperialist. . . . What he worries about, and what every Russian ruler worries about, is to appear weak.”

From Pipes, I got a fund of stories. Here’s one from way back. Pipes was in a Soviet town somewhere, on a bus. A woman, noticing a foreigner, started to extol the glories of her town and of her country generally. She was speaking so that all could hear. 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?”

Late in his career, he 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 National Review, I was editing an article by Pipes, and suggested 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.

Earlier 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, as Pipes was to his friends, but did not get him. Nor did I hear back from him. It transpired he was ill, and he passed away on May 17, as I noted above.

“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. “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.”

Moreover, “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, NR published a millennial issue, which included an essay by Pipes. In it, he cited the 1948 book by Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods. He had the “g” in “gods” down, i.e., in the lower case. I put it up, because that’s what you do with nouns in a title, no matter what. No, said Pipes, the “g” had to be down: “I am a Jew, and there is one God.” With smiles and admiration, I gave in. We published Frankfort’s title as “Kingship and the gods” — which was wrong but, at the same time, right.

Pipes gave his memoirs the subtitle “Memoirs of a Non-Belonger.” He and his wife, the tall and beautiful Irene, 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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