Disappointed by Richard Pipes

Sorry for this long break. I am still trying to translate a little excerpt from a novel by N. Leskov, but I'm coming to the conclusion that I just can't. I will have to simply retell the story and it'll take some more time.

In the meanwhile, I'd like to post another article I was writing some months ago, when I finished reading Richard Pipes. The article is not finished. I wanted to write a concept of Russian history alternative to the one offered by Pipes, but it seems to be more than I can do. So, here it is. A self-righteous critique of Richard Pipes.

Pipes, Richard. The Russian revolution

Some time ago I promised to some of my readers that I will write on my impressions from the monumental history of Russian revolution written by Richard Pipes. The time has come to do so.

I have to say in the first place that I read the Russian edition of the book, which means that the phrases marked by quotation signs below are not real quotations from Pipes, but from the Russian translation. Also, the Russian three-volume edition includes "The Russian revolution" in two volumes and a separate volume of "Russia under the bolshevik regime". Hence, I will speak of the two books as one.

In the foreword to the first Russian edition, Pipes says: “The book will disappoint two categories of the readers: those who think that the events of 1917 were inevitable and positive, and those who see them as an unnatural deviation from the Russia's true historic way. But it will be accepted by those whose thinking is not constrained by the fetters of the socialist or nationalist orientation. For many years of the work at this book I was convinced that the described events were not inevitable, but the sentiments behind these events could not remain without consequences.”

Least of all I would like to think of myself as of a socialist or, even less, a nationalist, but, paradoxically, I tend to belong to both categories of Pipes' readers who are supposed to disagree with him. I will explain my view on Russia, her history and some patterns behind the history a bit later. Now, I will concentrate on the book.

When Pipes explains the concept of the "patrimonial" state which becomes the basis of his "theory of Russia", he makes some characteristic errors.

In Pipes' opinion, “Muscovy was ruled as a private patrimony: its population, territories and everything upon it were the property of the throne.” This is wrong. S.F.Platonov, whose course in Russian history I translate and post at this blog, describes the state system of the Muscovite Russia and, in particular, the freedoms of the Russian peasants:

“All other people living in the knyaz's appanage, were called simply "Christians" (hence the Russian word "krestyánin", the peasant) and were not knyaz's subjects. In the posads (towns) and in villages they organized communities. The peasants' community was called mir. So, if the knyaz knew that some krestyáne (peasants) live in a certain region of his appanage, say, in a valley of a river, he ordered to count the number of the peasants' houses and obliged them to pay tallage. On a certain day (on Christmas or on St.Peter's day) the pesants had to bring the tallage. People came to this region and left it without the knyaz's permission. The local mir accepted them and let them go, it also defined their part in the mir's tallage. The elected elders gathered the tallage and took it to the knyaz. And so it went on, year after year, till the knyaz noticed that the number of peasants in this region increased or decreased. Then, after the new census the knyaz changed the amount of tallage. The peasants didn't even know their knyaz and the knyaz did not have to worry when some peasants left his lands. The krestyáne had the same freedom also on the boyars' lands. When they came to the new landlord, they signed the contract where their duties and payments were determined. When they wanted to leave, they renounced the land by an established procedure. According to the law and the tradition the usual day for leavin the landlord was the autumn St.Yuri's day (Yuriev day, 26 November). If we say also that the transfer from one social group to another (from peasants to the town's population, or to kholops and back) was easyly available for anyone, we'll understand how weakly delimited the society was.”

Beg your pardon for this long quotation, but it should explain why I think Pipes was wrong here.

A similar error was made when Pipes enumerated the features of the Russian absolutism, mentioning among them "the monopoly on economic resources and wholesale trade". While in some areas of the economy the control of the state was more or less firm (depending on the epoch in history, of course), in most industries the merchants and entrepreneurs were quite free. In the medieval period they were even more free than their European colleagues, whose activity was strictly watched and limited by guilds.

Another group of errors made by Pipes is explained by the false assumption that the shape of the European society was "correct" and that the needs typical for the Europeans were also typical for other societies: “How do we reconcile high level of industry and culture with the political system that deems its own citizen incapable of self-government? Why do Serbs, and Finns, and Turks have both the constitution and the parliament, and Russians don't?”, asks Pipes. The assumed answer is because the absolutism didn't let them. But, probably, because they didn't need it? Exactly because the self-government on the local level was so efficient. “Outside the cities, the central government relied on only 1582 pristavs and 6874 gorodovois for 90 million people of rural population,” writes Pipes. How could the police forces that small manage the country, had it not been for the self-government? “The power of the imperial government affected only 89 cities,” confirms Pipes. "In 1763 in Prussia there were 100 times more officials per sq.km. than in Russia. By 1900 the number of officials per capita in Russia was 3 times less than in France and 2 times less than in Germany." And no self-government? Of course, there was, and Pipes even says: "As a matter of fact, the village was governed autonomously by the rural communities, who carried collective responsibility for the collection of taxes and the draft of recruits, and by volosts, which performed simplest judicial and administrative functions."

When Pipes declares his political position in the foreword, he says that had he lived in 1917 Russia, he would be an "oktyabrist". It seems to me that he goes so far that he even adopts the prejudices typical for this circle of people, especially in his description of Russian intelligentsia, “usually defined as a category of educated urban citizens, mostly from upper and middle classes, who are always in opposition to the monarchy.” And then Pipes blames intelligentsia for the revolution and all the crimes committed in the course of the Civil war. As a matter of fact, he repeats Lenin's erroneous idea that the workers who are not led by a group of intellectuals are unable to revolt. On the other hand, Pipes is too eager to accuse the intelligentsia. Intelligentsia formed also the most active part of the supporters of liberalism. Pipes gives many examples of the university opposition to the bolsheviks, among both students and teachers.

I think Pipes did not really understand what intelligentsia is. He defined it as "a category of educated people, usually from upper and middle classes, in permanent opposition to the tsarism". He was mistaking. A noble, no matter how well educated, like Bakunin or Tolstoy, would never be called "intelligentsia". It was a privilege of middle and lower classes. Which means that the revolution was not led by the forces foreign to the Russian peasants and workers, but by those of them who managed to receive a more or less good education.

Another, and the most annoying, group of errors made by Pipes may be properly called "cheating". They appear when Pipes gives way to his personal feelings, which leads to absolutely anecdotical situations. So, in chapter 10 of the second volume (The Red terror), Pipes colorfully describes Lenin's fears:

“Not a single tsar, even in the periods of the revolutionary terrorism – was not afraid for his life, and didn't possess the guard so strong as Lenin did… Lenin sat behind the brick walls of Kremlin, guarded by the Latvian riflemen day and night. When from time to time he dared to go to the city, it was never announced. Since he moved to Moscow in March 1918 till his death in January 1924 he visited Petrograd, the stage of his revolutionary triumph, only twice, and never made any trips to see the country or to talk to the people. His boldest voyages were rare trips to Gorky near Moscow in his Rolls-Royce.”

And then, only one page later, Pipes writes: “The bolshevist leaders, including Lenin, used to participate in meetings in various places of Moscow in front of workers and party members every Friday afternoon. Lenin's arrival was not usually known in advance. On 30 August, Friday, he intended to visit two meetings (my emphasis, DM)… Worried (by the murder of Uritsky), his kins asked Lenin to cancel the meeting, but, unnaturally for him, he refused.” This controversy is one of the best examples of the Pipes' bias.

Another example where Pipes' antipathy is seen too clearly is in Chapter 4 of "Russia under the bolshevik regime". “The suspicion (that Lenin wanted to establish the hegemony of Moscow over the Western socialist parties) is substantiated by the letter written by Stalin in 1924 to a German communist publisher: ‘The victory of the German proletariat will doubtlessly shift the centre of the world revolution from Moscow to Berlin.’” How does this sentence substantiate the suspicion, may I ask?

In the end of chapter 5 of "Russia under the bolshevik regime", Pipes says: "We have mentioned the high estimations given by Mussolini to Lenin and his praise to Stalin." I paged back through the chapter, but the only words of Mussolini about Lenin I could find are: "I reject all forms of bolshevism, but if I had to choose, I would choose the bolshevism of Moscow and Lenin, for its giant, barbarian, universal scale." Is this what Pipes calls "high estimations"? I would say that this chapter, "Communism, fascism and national-socialism", is one of the worst and least convincing parts of the book, and the third volume in general, "Russia under the bolshevik regime", is the weakest one.

In the same chapter Pipes makes a really outstanding claim, saying that Hitler had plans to make Stalin his deputy after the conquest of the USSR. He even gives the source of this information: an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I tried to find this article, but could not. Still, I'm very skeptical about this sensational bit and I'm inclined to think that Pipes made this unsubstantiated claim just because he wanted so much to equal Stalin and Hitler.

Sometimes the choice of words itself demonstrates the intentions of the author. When Pipes tells about the Soviet propaganda art, he says that the enemies of the Soviets were represented as worms and the workers and the Red Army soldiers had "Aryan" facial features. This word, "Aryan", is an awkward attempt to produce an impression of deeper links between bolshevism and nazism.

And the fourth group of errors is simply the repetition of some old myths still popular among the Western specialists. One of them is illustrated by the phrase written by Pipes in the first chapter of "Russia under the bolshevik regime": “A Don cossack who sympathised the Russians…” Clearly, Pipes assumes (or wants his readers to assume) that Cossacks were not Russians. This assumption was refuted by Cossack Gregory Tschebotarioff in a brilliant book of memoirs written especially for the Western audience, "My native land".

The books of Pipes are an amazingly well written and thrilling piece of literature. I enjoyed reading them. But those interested in Russian history definitely need a better reading, not as illogical and incoherent as this monumental


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Minaev:

I accidentally found your critique of my "Russian Revolution." I don't know where to begin a rebuttal but I suppose I will begin at the beginning. You cite Platonov to deny my claim that the Moscow state was "patrimonial". But Platonov was speaking about the pre-Muscovite period, the so-called "udel'nyi age." You surely will not deny that in Muscovy the peasants were enserfed either to the crown, or to the state, or to individual "dvoriane"! This is elementary. Your other criticisms are equally wrong but I will not take the time to point them out in detail. Richard Pipes

Dmitri Minaev said...

Dear Mr. Pipes,

Please, do not disappoint me again. I thought you should know Russian history better.

Let me remind you that the so called "state peasants" appeared only in 18th century, a long time after the Grand Duchy of Moscow, aka Muscovy, transformed into Russia and Russian empire. So, of course, I will disagree.

Secondly, I strongly disagree that all the peasants were serfs. Even in 19th century, when serfdom became the fullfledged basis of Russian agriculture, the serfs constituted only about one half of all peasants (about one third of total population).

I do not deny the claim that Muscovy was patrimonial. It's a matter of definition, after all. What I contest is that “Muscovy was ruled as a private patrimony: its population, territories and everything upon it were the property of the throne.” My point was that the population was not anybody's property. The serfs were free to leave the landlord (on certain conditions, of course). At least until 18th century, but it was not Muscovy any more...