Leslie Kitchen: Review of Richard Pipes's Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (Yale University Press, 2005)
For some fifty years, Richard Pipes has been an eminent historian of Russia and the Soviet Union and a Cold War polemicist of the first rank. He also once served as an advisor, albeit a controversial and troublesome one, to President Reagan on Soviet and Eastern European affairs. He has now written his autobiography, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, in which he offers us a vivid and pugnacious account of his long, rich, and productive life. Make no mistake; this is no typical academic memoir. It is not filled with quibbles and carefully qualified statements, nor does it trouble to be politically correct. Pipes is a man who knows his own mind and is eager to give us a piece of it.
Pipes, of course, has given us generous pieces of it before. He is the author of an impressive number of historical works, always fiercely argued, filled with biting, contentious assessments, and buttressed by energetic scholarship. A short list would include Russia under the Old Regime; The Russian Revolution; Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime; The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923; Property and Freedom; Communism: a History; The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia; the truly groundbreaking Social Democracy and the St. Petersburg Labor Movement, 1885-1897; and an outstanding two-volume biography of the tragically forgotten liberal, Peter Struve. Each one of these works has received generous praise. Nearly every one of them, however, has also become a subject of controversy due to the author’s crotchety tendencies to ignore the scholarship of others, to push his arguments to the limits of intellectual respectability, and to allow his ideological preferences to boil to the surface on nearly every page.
Vixi is the story of the man behind all those books—the story of how a young, indifferently educated Jewish refugee became a Harvard professor, an internationally recognized scholar, and one of America’s most widely recognized Cold War warriors. It tells how the Pipes family survived the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Poland before the Nazi invasion, narrowly evaded the Holocaust, and finally reached the U.S. by way of Italy and Spain. Young Pipes found himself uprooted in America, and he felt the separation from his homeland keenly. He looked on powerlessly over the years as Poland was ravaged by fierce ideologies, first by German fascism with its crazy racial hatreds, then by communism with its power-mad utopian schemes.
Those were savage times that are recounted in Vixi, and they taught brutal lessons that left a deep imprint on the young man. To his lasting credit, Pipes, a man of prodigious energies, overcame all, rising to the very heights of his profession. By the time that Pipes had survived the flight from Europe and his frenetic scramble up the American academic ladder, he had become a combative, unyielding, tightly controlled man. Sadly, and to the detriment of his scholarship, these experiences seem to have engendered in him an intellectual style dominated by moral rigidity and marred by his habit of splitting the world into opposing camps. Vixi shows, in Pipes’s own words, that his world has long been a bifurcated one, made up of good men and evil men. Of course, all of that works as a wonderful form of moral shorthand for a young man caught up in dark and murderous events. It also works as impeccable training for a polemicist. It is not, however, an ideal emotional foundation for mature, subtle, and scrupulous scholarship.
Vixi is at its best, therefore, when these matters do not command front and center, that is, when it reads like a condensed, but invigorating crash course in themes that the author has developed over the last five decades and more. He reminds us, for example, of his deeply considered contention that the development of the institution of private property in the western nations was a sine qua non for political freedom, a brake on the power of the state. He also is once again eager to argue, and he is probably correct, that the tsarist autocracy in Russia left such a social and political void after it collapsed that there was almost no chance for the development of democratic socialism under Lenin and Stalin. Pipes also tells how his research convinced him that the Bolsheviks under Lenin came to power with nothing like mass support. He carried that conviction into the Reagan administration and it informed his belief that the Soviet Union was a deeply unpopular, ramshackle system that would surely fall if enough pressure could be brought to bear from outside. Pipes, never a man of half measures, did not stop there, but called for directly confronting a deeply suspicious enemy armed with a vast array of nuclear weapons, most of which were directly aimed at the United States. Can any one doubt why his critics called him reckless?
But what of the other luminaries who crossed his path, both in the groves of academe and in the halls of political power? Pipes is a sheer delight on this score, offering clearly delineated character sketches of the Hamlet-like George Kennan; the dazzling Isaiah Berlin; the imperious and impenetrable Solzhenitsyn; the grasping Alexander Haig; and the morally august, but basically simple-minded Ronald Reagan. Vixi’s rapid-fire assessments are usually of the poison-pen variety, but they are colorful and incisive, and they are delivered with thunderous authority. Who would expect otherwise?
We are also treated to the author’s sometimes comic, sometimes rebarbative social attitudes. Pipes was not the sort of man who would have much truck with the student activists of the 1960’s, and he despised them. The professors who curried favor with the activists are characterized as self-serving cowards. Nearly forty years later, Pipes still moans about graduate assistants demonstrating for higher pay and Jewish students demanding kosher foods in the Harvard cafeterias. It seems never to have occurred to him that one ought to love a country where everyone has an unalienable right to gripe publicly about low pay and bad food. He also expresses his contempt for efforts made by Harvard over the years to achieve sexual and racial diversity, even to the point of drawing shrill, ridiculous comparisons with the Soviet Union.
For all of these reasons, Vixi is an entertaining and instructive read that lays bare the connections between Richard Pipes’s private and public lives. To this day, the man clings to his hidebound notions and the lessons that he learned too well. Vixi shows, in Pipes’s own words, how he remains stubbornly resistant to many of the social and cultural developments associated with modernity, as well as to his critics, a man proud and aware of his strengths, but purblind to his flaws.
The flaws, however, will prove fatal to his reputation. A hundred years from now, Richard Pipes will not be remembered as one of the twentieth century’s great historians. He will be remembered as a polemicist par excellence of the Cold War. His story will be that of a man who allowed his hatreds and anxieties to constrict his vision and pollute his judgement. A man of his tremendous gifts might otherwise have left behind a body of work as elegant and lasting as that of George Kennan, as breath-taking as that of Hannah Arendt, or as sweeping as that of Barrington Moore or Karl Wittfogel. That he has not done so marks him as still one more tragic victim of the Cold War.
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