Richard Pipes

National Humanities Medal


Richard Pipes has made a habit of being right, and about some of the biggest issues. He was right that the Russian Revolution was authoritarian in origin and nature, and he was right that the Soviet Union was a Potemkin state. His intellectual clarity is undeniable, as is the fact that his opinions have brought him as much opprobrium as praise throughout his career.

Pipes was born, in 1923, into a middle-class Jewish family in Poland. When the Germans invaded in 1939, his father immediately began preparing the family to emigrate. Using a forged consular document, they caught the first train out of German-occupied Warsaw and escaped to the United States by way of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Once in America, Pipes sent penny postcards to dozens of colleges, explaining that he was a war refugee and needed “both a scholarship and assurance of gainful employment.” From four offers, he chose the small Ohio college Muskingum and got his introduction to American life. He tried to enlist in the fall of 1942, but as a foreign national he had to await the draft. In January 1943, he was inducted into the Army Air Corps.

Pipes was eventually sent to Cornell to study Russian, as part of his training to become an intelligence officer. During this period, he came across, in a local library, François Guizot’s History of the Civilization of Europe. “It showed me that all the things that I was interested in—notably philosophy and art—could be accommodated under the spacious roof of the discipline of history.”

Thus did his military service help determine the course of his life. “At the end of World War II, in which Russia’s role was decisive, there was immense interest in that country and very little knowledge of it, so I thought to devote myself to Russian history.”

Thanks to his wartime credits, Pipes was able to apply to graduate school while still in the army. In the fall of 1946, he arrived at Harvard, the institution he would make his home for his entire career. After receiving his doctorate—for a dissertation on Bolshevik nationality theory—he stayed on as an instructor and made his academic name with his 1954 book, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917–1923. As a historian, Pipes’s focus has been the intellectual roots of the Russian Revolution. He believes that his “greatest scholarly achievement is analyzing the Russian political tradition and demonstrating the continuity between tsarist Russia, Communist Russia, and Russia since 1991.” His magisterial two-volume history of the revolution, The Russian Revolution, 1990, and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1994, presented the clear story of a coup d’etat by power-hungry revolutionaries whose goals, far from utopian, were purely authoritarian.

In the 1960s and 1970s, this view made Pipes a figure of great controversy. “I went against the current of prevailing opinion,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1996. “Whereas the profession as a whole regarded the Soviet Union as an essentially popular and stable regime, I saw it as an unpopular and weak regime.” He was attacked widely and repeatedly, but he never wavered in his convictions. Fellow historian Walter Laqueur characterized Pipes’s public stances as “courageous.” His response to Laqueur’s praise was characteristic: “If I was indeed ‘courageous’ in dealing with my critics, it is because I did not take them seriously.”

Soon enough, Pipes’s opinions were being regularly sought in Washington. In the mid-1970s, he chaired the famous “Team B,” a group of Russia and military experts called together to provide an alternative analysis to the CIA’s annual “National Intelligence Estimate” on the Soviet Union and to look closely into Soviet nuclear strategy. He served on the National Security Council in the early 1980s and closely advised Ronald Reagan on his aggressive stances toward Soviet Russia.

My main contribution,” he notes today, “was revealing the flaws in the détente policy and urging a policy designed to reform the Soviet political regime by a strategy of economic denial.” Pipes believes his government service also contributed to his scholarship. “My histories of the Russian Revolution gained a great deal from the opportunity I had had to observe at close range how high politics is made.”

Despite his work in Washington, Pipes never stayed away from Harvard for long and was always deep into a work of scholarship. “I emulated Anthony Trollope in that as soon as I finished one book, I proceeded immediately to the next.”

In his memoir of his life—Vixi, the title is Latin for “I have lived”—he noted that having defied Hitler he felt he had a “duty to lead a full and happy life.” And so he has.

By Robert Messenger

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.