Historian: Richard Pipes

Name: Richard Pipes

Lived: 1923-2018

Nationality: Polish-born American

richard pipes

Profession(s): Historian

Books: The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917-23 (1954), Russia under the Old Regime (1974), Soviet Strategy in Europe (1976), US-Soviet Relations in the Era of Détente (1981), Survival is Not Enough: Soviet Realities and America’s Future (1984), The Russian Revolution (1990), Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-24 (1993).

Perspective: Liberal-conservative, anti-communist

Richard Pipes was an American historian who specialised in Russia, the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. During the 1970s and 1980s, Pipes was also a significant figure in the formulation of American foreign policy.

Born in Cieszyn, Poland, Pipes and his family fled shortly after the Nazi occupation in 1939. He arrived in the United States in 1940, became a naturalised citizen and joined the US military as an intelligence officer.

As part of his training, Pipes was sent to Cornell University to learn Russian. It was here he acquired an interest in Russian culture and history. After the war Pipes attended Harvard, completing degrees and a doctorate specialising in Bolshevik foreign policy. He remained on staff at Harvard and in 1954 authored the first of several books. Over the next half-century Pipes produced numerous books on tsarist and imperial Russia, the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the Soviet Union and communism.

As a historian, Pipes became one of the world’s foremost experts on Russia. At a time when revisionist historians held sway, he advanced negative views about communism, the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime.

Pipes was a determinist who argued that Soviet totalitarianism could be traced back through Russian history, backwards through Stalin, Lenin and the tsars before them. He saw the Bolsheviks as a fanatic intelligentsia, intent on grabbing power for themselves rather than the workers they claimed to represent.

Unsurprisingly, Pipes places the onus for the Cold War directly on the Soviet Union. The Soviet state was aggressive, imperialistic and unrelenting. Its leaders used and misused military strength to expand Soviet power, overriding local political groups and nationalist movements and ignoring human rights.

Pipes’ expertise on Russia became so well known that in 1976 US president Gerald Ford recruited him to chair ‘Team B’, a committee of non-government experts tasked with analysing Soviet military strength and threat probability. Team B not only exaggerated Soviet developments in weapons systems and stockpiles, it claimed Soviet leaders believed they could win a nuclear war and were consequently willing to initiate one.

Team B and its findings were later discredited as an attempt to second-guess the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with a committee stacked with hardliners and outsiders. Despite this, Team B’s claims that the US was unprepared for a possible war with the USSR helped end Détente and contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

After Reagan took office, Pipes was appointed as the National Security Council’s director of Soviet and Eastern European affairs, a controversial appointment at the time. In 2003 Pipes penned an autobiography, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, detailing his life and career.

Richard Pipes died in May 2018, aged 94.


“It becomes apparent that the Marxist notion that revolution always results from social (‘class’) discontent cannot be sustained… the decisive factors were overwhelmingly political.”

“Lenin owes his historical prominence not to his statesmanship, which was very inferior, but to his generalship. He was one of history’s great conquerors.”

“Marxism and Bolshevism… were products of an era in European intellectual life that was obsessed with violence. No-one embraced this philosophy more enthusiastically than the Bolsheviks: ‘merciless’ violence, violence that strove for the destruction of every actual and potential opponent, was… the only way of dealing with problems.”

“Stalin was a true Leninist in that he faithfully followed his patron’s political philosophy and practices. Every ingredient of what has come to be known as Stalinism save one – murdering fellow Communists – he had learned from Lenin.”

“[The Cold War] pitted against each other two very different conceptions of life: one that stressed human rights and the rule of law, and another that subordinated human rights and law entirely to the interests of the state. In this contest, the rivals, even if they sometimes employed the same means, were not comparable.”

“The Cold War began long before nuclear weapons were developed, on October 26th 1917, when the Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian capital and proclaimed its intention of launching civil wars in every corner of the globe to usher in a new era of ‘proletarian dictatorship’. The ultimate objective of the revolution, in the words of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s comrade in arms, was nothing less than ‘overturning the world’.”

“The communists have everywhere and at all times, beginning with the Russian Revolution of 1917, exploited social injustice and national frustrations to come to power and then, on coming to power, promptly restored social injustice and repressed national aspirations.”

“[Ronald Reagan] understood the nature of the conflict with the communist bloc and he had a sound grasp of the balance of power; instead of allowing himself to be mesmerised by Moscow’s military arsenal and paralysed by the fear of nuclear war, he grasped that the ideological poverty of the USSR and its desperate economic straits made it a weak if blustering opponent.”

“The reforms carried out at an increasingly rapid pace since 1985 shattered the illusions the Soviet regime had assiduously cultivated among its people: that they stood in the vanguard of progress and enjoyed a degree of security known nowhere else in the world. To justify increasingly fundamental reforms, it became necessary for the Soviet leadership finally to tell the truth about the country’s condition, which indeed was worsening even as reforms proceeded.”

Citation information
Title: “Historian: Richard Pipes”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/historian-richard-pipes/
Date published: October 28, 2018
Date accessed: June 27, 2022
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