27 February 2024

The Perennial Problem of Russian Political Culture

Can we learn the reasons for Putin's aggression against Ukraine by studying the history of Russia as seen through the eyes of Richard Pipes?

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Filip Mazurczak

Historian Richard Pipes argued that Russia is firmly rooted in an imperialist and authoritarian tradition.

On February 24, 2022, the world was shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many had naively thought that after the Old Continent’s bloody 20th century, a war of aggression was unthinkable in Europe, of all places. Last year marked the centennial of the birth of the Polish-Jewish-American historian Richard Pipes; it is worth recalling his life and ideas, particularly his view on the past, which can help to better understand Putin’s brutal imperialist aggression.

Escaping the Holocaust

Ryszard Edgar Piepes was born to an assimilated Jewish family in Cieszyn, Poland, on July 11, 1923, just five years after the Polish state’s resurrection following more than a century of foreign partition. In the late 18th century, an internally weakened Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, once Europe’s largest state, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, had been swallowed up by what Herman Melville aptly dubbed the “three pirate powers” of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Cieszyn found itself under Habsburg rule; of the three invaders, Austria’s enlightened monarchy was most tolerant towards Jews and gave the Poles the greatest level of autonomy.

Polish patriots saw World War I as an opportunity for independence. Thus, a Polish Legion was formed under Austro-Hungarian command; the Austrians promised the Poles independence in the case of a victory by the Central Powers.

One Polish legionnaire was Marek Piepes, the future historian’s father. Although the Central Powers had lost the Great War to the Entente, an independent Polish state was created under the Treaty of Versailles. Cieszyn found itself near the disputed border between Poland and Czechoslovakia; the Olza River separated Polish Cieszyn from Český Těšín.

In postwar Cieszyn, Marek Piepes founded a chocolate factory called Dea. He eventually sold it and moved his family to Krakow, but in less than a year they had moved on to settle in Warsaw, where he also worked in the confectionery industry. Dea has since been renamed Olza and produces the popular Prince Polo wafer bar, which can be purchased in any Polish grocery.

While the interwar period was a time of cultural flourishing for Poland’s Jewish minority, institutional and violent popular antisemitism grew following the death of the nation’s autocratic but tolerant leader, Józef Piłsudski, in 1935. This was consistent with trends elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe; most worrying were the developments in neighboring Germany, which since 1933 had been ruled by the Nazi Party. In addition to its official antisemitism, Germany increasingly threatened to invade its eastern neighbor, whose foreign minister, Colonel Józef Beck, refused to yield to Hitler’s territorial demands.

On the 1st of September, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west, followed by a Soviet invasion from the east 16 days later. Although the Polish Army fought bravely, it was no match for the Wehrmacht, which began its brutal six-year occupation of Poland. The Piepeses quickly realized that, in what was unfolding, being Jewish would be potentially lethal. Warsaw, where the Piepes family had been living, was badly damaged by German bombings. In addition to enormous property damage, 25,000 Varsovians had been killed in September 1939.

Thanks to the help of old acquaintances from the Polish Legions, some of whom had become important figures in the Polish military, government, and diplomatic corps, Marek Piepes and his family escaped from Cieszyn through Breslau, Germany, before going on to Italy, and ultimately settling in the United States.

An expert on Russia

A couple years after arriving in the U.S., Ryszard, who had anglicized his name to Richard Pipes, enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He signed up for the Army’s Specialized Training Program, which allowed U.S. military personnel in colleges to study engineering and foreign languages. Pipes enrolled at Cornell University, as his parents had settled in upstate New York. Due to Polish and Russian both being Slavic languages, Pipes was, by his own account, able to gain a rudimentary knowledge of the latter within three months.

Having learned Russian as well as the geopolitical situation of the war, during which the U.S. was allied with the Soviet Union, Pipes developed a fascination with Russian history. In 1950, he defended his doctoral dissertation on the formation of the Soviet Union at Harvard University, where Pipes would teach until his retirement in 1996.

Over the decades, Pipes became a well-known scholar of Russia, gaining fame in particular for his informal trilogy consisting of Russia Under the Old Regime (1974), The Russian Revolution (1990), and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (1994). The U.S. government took advantage of his expertise on Russia; in 1976, the CIA appointed him head of Team B, which analyzed the military threat posed by the Soviet Union to the United States. Pipes and his team particularly criticized détente, which would later be a cornerstone of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy.

Under Reagan, meanwhile, Pipes served as director of East European and Soviet Affairs in the National Security Council. Pipes’ service in this capacity from 1981 to 1982 coincided with the birth of Solidarity in his native Poland and its crushing by the junta of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, whom the U.S. secretary of defense accurately called “a Soviet general in a Polish uniform.” During this time, Pipes recommended imposing sanctions on the Jaruzelski regime and for the U.S. to offer assistance to Solidarity ($20 million of which was through the CIA).

Pipes and Russian imperialism

While half a century old, Russia Under the Old Regime seems remarkably relevant as the world watches Putin’s continued aggression against Ukraine with horror. In the work, Pipes argues that, due to various circumstances, Russia had developed a firmly rooted imperialist and authoritarian political culture that would be difficult to change. He notes that between 1462 and 1533, Muscovy’s territory grew sixfold. From the mid-16th and late-17th centuries, meanwhile, its area increased by an area equivalent to the size of the present-day Netherlands on average per year.

However, Pipes is no chauvinistic Russophobe; in various interviews and writings, he professed his love for Dostoevsky and other gifts of Russian high culture. In Russia Under the Old Regime, he tries to explain the various circumstances that led to such a legacy of imperialism and aggression. He argues, for example, that in a sparsely populated agricultural country with adverse environmental conditions, Russia’s constant conquest was motivated by the pursuit of new, more favorable soil.

Meanwhile, Pipes maintains that Russia had a patrimonial regime (a term he borrows from Max Weber) in which the landlords were the absolute rulers of their domains, while peasants had no rights, and thus there was no room for the development of a formidable ‘civil society’ that could temper their power. This consolidated authoritarian rule at the highest level.

In Russia Under the Old Regime, Pipes analyzes why the various groups that could seemingly have resisted tsarist absolutism did not. It is well known that in communist Poland, for instance, the Catholic Church played a crucial role in the collapse of totalitarian rule, just as Catholicism was a major challenge to right-wing dictatorships across Latin America and in the Philippines. In Russia, by contrast, the Orthodox Church has always enjoyed an intimate relationship with the state, regardless of the regime type (although, it should be noted, in his Communism: A History, Pipes does lament the tragedy of tens of thousands of Orthodox priests shot under Lenin and Stalin).

Pipes explains that the notion of the separation of church and state is a very Western one, whose modern understanding dates back to Pope Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy. In the Byzantine Empire, however, the Orthodox Church was under the strict control of the emperor. As Russian leaders see themselves as the successors to Byzantium, the Moscow Patriarchate has traditionally played the role of a vassal of the state. Pipes notes that the Russian peasantry had a tradition of anti-clericalism, but this did not bother Orthodox priests and bishops much because they could always rely on the state’s protection.

Other potential challenges to tsarist absolutism could have been the middle class and the intelligentsia. However, Pipes notes that both of these groups were extremely small in pre-revolutionary Russia; one chapter of his treatise is titled “The Missing Bourgeoisie.” The intelligentsia, he further notes, was small enough that it could effectively be suppressed by the brutal police and army.

Naturally, such an interpretation of Russian political culture was criticized by many Russian intellectuals, including anti-communists such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The latter accused Pipes of promoting a “Polish view of history.” In his Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Believer (vixi means ‘I have lived’ in Latin), Pipes praises Solzhenitsyn for his courage in writing the truth about the sadistic gulag system. Yet he notes:

An anticommunist in Russia, in the West Solzhenitsyn rapidly turned into an anti-Western Russian nationalist. His ideal was a benevolent theocratic autocracy which he believed to be rooted in Russian history, but which existed only in his imagination.”

Communism: a unique evil?

The next two volumes of the informal Russian trilogy outline the horrors of Soviet rule. In particular, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime is a damning critique. One of the book’s central arguments is that the diabolical seed of Stalinism originated from Lenin. Pipes notes that Stalin was a confidant of Lenin and goes on to argue that many of the most unsavory aspects of Stalinist rule, from the paranoid and ruthless elimination of real and imaginary foes to engineered famines, had their origins in Lenin’s Bolshevik dictatorship.

In Vixi, however, Pipes writes:

Marxism in Scandinavia, where traditions of property and law were relatively strong, evolved first into social democracy and then into the democratic welfare state. In Russia, where both traditions were weakly developed, it reinforced the autocratic, patrimonial heritage.

This is from a passage describing Pipes’ visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1978. In this part of the book, he contrasts not only Scandinavian social democracy but also Chinese communism with the Soviet model. “The Chinese did not brazenly lie, as the Russians were wont to do,” he writes.

This visit came just two years after the death of Chairman Mao, responsible for the deaths of more people than Hitler and Stalin combined; almost all of those deaths occurred in peacetime. Even today, with China having moved closer to adopting a Western free market model, the nation continues to oppress the Tibetans and the Uyghurs after having committed cultural genocide against them and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners. Meanwhile, Chinese censorship is among the worst in the world. The war of aggression against Ukraine aside, China’s contemporary human rights record is arguably worse than Russia’s.

Marxist regimes have taken root in extremely diverse cultures on multiple continents: Europe, Asia (China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and North Korea), the Americas (Cuba, Nicaragua), and even Africa (Ethiopia). Everywhere, the rotten fruits were the same: the murders of political opponents, famines, censorship, and sometimes ethnic cleansing. Although Pipes does acknowledge the brutality of communist regimes outside Russia in his Communism: A History, his notion that the Russian species of communism was particularly evil is unconvincing.

Yet his analysis of Russian political culture can be supremely helpful to all who have been disturbed by the recent revival of Russian imperialism. Although both the tsarist and Soviet regimes are long dead, Moscow’s lust for new lands has not disappeared. Meanwhile, Russia continues to lack a sizable civil society to oppose state authoritarianism and foreign aggression. The reader begins to understand why Putin enjoys such widespread support among the Russian populace. Patriarch Kirill is an apostle of Russian imperialism rather than the Gospels (or the Fifth Commandment), and the anti-war protests in Russia are paltry compared to those, say, in the U.S. in response to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. While useful, reading Pipes’ works can nonetheless be a sobering, depressing experience, as they demonstrate how firmly rooted the deadly flaws of Russian political culture are and, therefore, how difficult it may be to eradicate them.

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