Richard Pipes

Russia, The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

VTR Date: November 25, 1990

Guest: Pipes, Richard


Host: Richard Heffner
Guest: Richard Pipes
Title: “Russia: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same”
VTR: 11/25/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Thirty years ago, just before I visited Russia for the first time (actually, to study Soviet broadcasting), former Senator William Benton, whose foundation made my research trip possible, advised me that my weeks in Moscow and Leningrad would be the most exciting, and the day I left Russia to return to the United States, would be the happiest in my life. Well, he was on target then and on my later trips tot eh Soviet Union, too: enormous excitement at looking out from my hotel room onto Red Square – literally so much the focal point of so many of the harsh world events that informed my life and times – and enormous relief each time I finally left such a gray land and such a widespread, palpable sense of oppression.

Today, of course, many people insist that things have changed enormously in the USSR, changed so radically that perhaps we can point to a second Russian Revolution…surely not ten days that shook the world, but a nation, and, indeed, a world power struggle turned up-side-down, nonetheless.

Others, of course, pass a far different judgment. But all who would understand what has gone on in Russia in recent years can turn now to a truly definitive study of the first Russian Revolution, published by Knopf. The author of The Russian Revolution is my guest today, Richard Pipes, Baird Professor of History at Harvard, and, in the early 1980s, President Reagan’s National Security Council Advisor on Soviet and east European Affairs.

When he joined me here on THE OPEN MIND more than a dozen years ago – when our national debate was over détente, long before glasnost and perestroika, even before Ronald Reagan would refer to the USSR as that “Evil Empire”, and before it seemed to collapse, Professor Pipes said some things right up front on our program that I’d like to read from now and then ask him to comment on, both from hindsight and from foresight.

“Détente”, Professor Pipes said, “has been based on a premise that fundamentally Soviet aggressiveness is a result of a certain amount of insecurity or paranoia on the part of the Russians. And additionally, it is due to low living standards and an alienation from the world system, if you will. Therefore, in order to bring the Russians into the community of nations, which you must do, you must first of all give them an absolute sense of security by making concessions to them. And secondly, by massive transfers of capital and technical know-how, raise their economy and their standard of living. And that”, said Professor Pipes, more than a dozen years ago, “I found wrong in both its premises. I believe in détente to the extent that the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons requires us more than ever before in history to come to terms with potential rivals and enemies. That is war avoidance is more important today than it ever was before. But I do not believe that Russian behavior is either motivated by a sense of insecurity or in any substantial way, influenced by low standards of the economy. And therefore, that neither concessions to the Russians, or massive foreign aid, if you will, is going to change their behavior”. And so I wonder whether a dozen years later you feel the same way.

Pipes: Well, I think it’s well put. (Laughter) Speak for myself. Yes, well I think the experience of the past two years has shown it. That, indeed, the very tough stance of the United States under President Reagan and of Britain under Mrs. Thatcher, and the whole Western Alliance has had just the effect we wanted. It is, it has created a far more agreeable policy on the part of the Russians and a willingness to come to terms with us, which was not the case when we were pursuing détente for détente’s sake.

Heffner: But now that this has occurred, the change that you expressed, you give voice to has occurred, would you say we need a different approach?

Pipes: Yes, we definitely need a new approach because clearly with a Soviet Union which has given liberty to Eastern Europe, that has lifted the dark clouds of fear that hung over that nation, that is going very far in giving liberty of speech and human rights and so on, the policy of confrontation, which was alright ten, fifteen years ago, would not work, would be counter-productive. So the question is what kind of policy do we want today? And I’m not sure that I’ve entirely made up my mind on what it should be. I know one thing, that the massive transfer of capital and technology today, would be just as erroneous as it was then because the Soviet Union has not re-ordered its system, economic system, and therefore…the money and the technology would only go to bolster the old system which has brought this mischief, and would postpone, delay, painful reform moves. I firmly believe we should give them know-how. We should teach them managerial techniques, and if there should be hunger there, as it threatens to be this winter, give them humanitarian aid. Beyond this, I…my advice would be, if I was still in the White House, as I was ten years ago, I would advise a very cautious policy to see how things develop because things are tremendously in flux in the Soviet Union and we don’t know…I’m doing an article right now for a leading national journal about what our policy should be. The article is due in two weeks, and I just worry that almost anything I write may be completely upset before it appears in print. And I think on that basis you can’t have a fixed foreign policy.

Heffner: Will you urge caution upon…the White House?

Pipes: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: …is caution the by-word now as far as you’re concerned?

Pipes: I think it is. I think President Bush is conducting a very cautious policy. And, for example, unlike the Europeans, particularly the Germans, but also the Italians and the French, he’s against giving extensive credit to the Soviet Union.

Heffner: Now, how would you…in your volume, your new volume on the Russian Revolution is considered by so many experts of the Soviet Union, the final word…on that great event in world history, and it is an even that you say has marked approximately a hundred years, a century of our lives.

Pipes: Yes. I, I don’t like the word definitive for any book. No history book is ever definitive, and I don‘t think mine is definitive because definitive assumes that history is like a science. Now Charles Darwin has demonstrated scientifically the theory of natural selection. And it cannot be upset…said Einstein’s theory of relativity, general and special, cannot be upset. They can be broadened, but they cannot be upset. But in history, such a thing does not exist. What I would like to say, however…

Heffner: Please.

Pipes: …is that I think mine is the first and the most ambitious history of the Russian Revolution in the sense that we have an awful lot of books on the subject but they’re usually little slices of what happened, and mine is the first comprehensive history.

Heffner: Well, you are unduly modest. But in your modesty, could one say in the years, in the decades now that you have been working…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …on what eventually will be a trilogy…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …on the Soviet Union, on Russia, the revolution and what came afterwards, do you find that you did move, fundamentally, basically, importantly in your perception of what happened in those years?

Pipes: Oh, yes. I…the fun of writing this book, as well as its sequel is discovering, constantly discovering new things because like everybody else I assumed that what I read was true, and I found that in almost all cases, what I read was not true, was only partly true. And that very many things have never been studied at all, so it generates enormous excitement, this kind of work. I think most laymen don’t appreciate the excitement generated by doing research on history. It’s fantastically exciting.

Heffner: The first revolution…the first Russian Revolution…do you now find its counterpart in what some people have called the Second Russian Revolution?

Pipes: Yeah. Well, I’ll put it this way…I think what we see now is a counter-revolution, we see the unraveling of this. That is the state which Lenin put in place, in 1917/18, which I describe in here, and which Stalin subsequently expanded and solidified. I don’t deal with that in this book. That state is now unraveling and very rapidly, and in fact, almost everything that Gorbechev is doing is contrary to what Lenin wanted. So, in that sense, on these points I think are right. So what we’re seeing now is a counter-revolution, or another revolution from above, but which tries to go back in history, back to the period before these incidents took place.

Heffner: Do you expect that Lenin will become a non-person in Russian historical-biography?

Pipes: Well, he will become a very negative person. I mean some reviewers have pointed out quite rightly that the…what this book does above all is to show how evil the legacy of Lenin is. Because in mythology, I’m a Marxist, and certainly in the Soviet Union is…everything that is wrong in the Soviet Union is due to Stalin. Lenin was a good man, a creative man, a man who made some mistakes to be sure, but fundamentally who had the welfare of mankind in his hart, and in mind. And I think what this book shows is that there’s really not a fundamental difference between what Lenin wanted and what Stalin wanted, allowing for Stalin’s personal paranoia and so on. But the political philosophy was identical. So this book which incidentally is coming out in the Soviet Union in ’92…

Heffner: How do, how do you account for that, Professor Pipes?

Pipes: Well, they don’t have their history, they’re curious and “what really happened”, they have been lobotomized about their past. Now there’s no one in the Soviet Union who can do this sort of thing because you’ve had to have Western training, plus many years of access to the sources, which they didn’t have. So, the moment this book appeared in…I was in Moscow with the manuscript last summer and the publishing house, a very prominent publishing house, just grabbed it, and they said, “We’ll publish it sight unseen because it is our history and we want to know about it”. So, the first printing, incidentally, in the Soviet Union is 100,000 copies.

Heffner: Now, you mentioned that such history writing in the Soviet Union is impossible…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …so the sources are not available.

Pipes: No, they have the sources…they haven’t had them, however, for many years. So what you have to do now is to train a whole school of historians to…how to deal with these sources, how to write history. Because basically, any historian before had a ready-made form and he poured the contents into that mold, and he knew very well what was going to come out because he couldn’t contradict the accepted theory. Now we say, “Look, just look at the sources impartially. What do they tell you?” Sources sing in a way, “What music do you hear?” They aren’t used to this, so we have to develop a whole new school and then teach them to be bold about these things because they are taught to work on very small monographs, you know, Odessa trade unions between 1905/1907, or the…I don’t know…the food policy of the Soviet government in the summer of 1918, this sort of thing. So when you come up with this, they say, “Well, every committee has to…we have to have 50 people do it”. And you say, “No, no. No, you end up with the proverbial camel…one person has to do it”. But never trained in this way. They are trained to do very meticulous monographic work.

Heffner: Professor Pipes, did a point of view inform your writing of the earlier volume, this volume and does it inform your writing of the next volume?

Pipes: Yeah, Well, it does, certainly.

Heffner: How do you identify that point of view?

Pipes: Well, it’s philosophical. I, I view history as a lesson in philosophy and I’m not concerned with facts as facts. You know this is something for the antiquarian. They don’t interest me. They interest me to the extent…they teach me about human nature, and they teach me about what’s right and what’s wrong in politics. And what this teaches, and now summarizes in the next volume, although it’s already here…it shines through, but it will really be put together, synthesized, are the concluding part of the last volume and the next volume, which we call Reflections on the Russian Revolution, what went wrong and why it went wrong. Was it unforeseen and it went wrong?

Heffner: Was it?

Pipes: No…it ws foreseen and intelligent people foresaw it. I think the idea of fundamentally changing mankind, of changing human society, of creating a new and perfect human being is folly. And it leads to mass murder because what happened in this case is, even if we granted Lenin and Trotsky and their associates were decent people who had the good of mankind at heart…

Heffner: You’re not granting that.

Pipes: I’m not granting it, but I’m willing to consider for the sake of argument, even then, dealing with human beings as we are, they found themselves in positions where they had to murder them, you know. I quote Zbignoviev who is the bete noir of historians, who says that “we in this country 100 million people…we are concerned with 90 million and the other 10 million must be exterminated because they’re good for nothing, they’re dead stuff”. Dead philosophy. He said this in 1918 or maybe 1919, and leads to the massacres of Stalin.

Heffner: Now, do you believe that that philosophy, that prevailed…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: Prevails today?

Pipes: No, it’s completely gone today.

Heffner: Completely gone?

Pipes: Oh, there maybe some fanatics of the right who still believe it…

Heffner: Of the Right.

Pipes: Well, the Soviet Right, which is the Stalinist…the new Stalinist, the Communist people, you know, this sort of semi-fascist, anti-Semitic group. But they are a tiny group. No, you see the reason why things are developing so slowly now is that people never believe in miracles. I mean now that you take things as they are and that trial and error is the way of proving things. And nobody wants revolution in the Soviet Union today. Nobody wants a new…brave new world.

Heffner: But you know, that description that people know that things take time, seemed to me to have been a description truer of the Russian peasant, maybe not of the intellectuals who made up the Revolution. Is that a fair…

Pipes: No, it’s right, yeah. Now I blame the intellectuals very much for what happened. In fact, some people object to that, but I think the intellectuals are very much to blame.

Heffner: Why do people object to that insight?

Pipes: Because the people who read these books are mostly intellectuals. (Laughter) Think that these barbs are directed against them. And, and I argue that the fundamental change occurred in the nature of the Western intellectual…

Heffner: At the time of the Revolution?

Pipes: No, long before. That Russian Revolution is an offshoot of that, but until very modern times, intellectuals were basically philosophers who said, “Well, life is the way it is, and we’ve got to accept it. And wisdom consists of adjusting yourself to the vagaries of life and to the inevitability of death”. Then come active intellectuals…Marx, perhaps, epitomizes all of this, who said “Purpose of philosophy is not to accept the world as it is to study the world, it’s to change it”. Once you begin to do that, you then begin to inflict your ideas on ordinary people like peasants and others who don‘t have these notions of changing them. Oh, most ordinary people, what do they want? They want to have a nice family life, nice children, you know, a certain amount of prosperity and so on. They don’t want to create a new world. They intellectual says, “That’s not good enough, that’s petty bourgeoisie. They’ve go to come in there and change the world”. So my…my point is that the intellectuals have done tremendous harm in Russia and elsewhere by introducing this notion that what we see is a corrupt world. It is corrupt and it must be changed. And the intellectual says, “people will change”, and they end up by having concentration camps and extermination camps.

Heffner: But aren’t those who are bringing about change now in the Soviet Union, aren’t they those you would consider intellectuals, too?

Pipes: Yeah, but very chastened intellectuals.

Heffner: A new class… a real, truly new class, chastened intellectual?

Pipes: Very chastened intellectuals. And they don’t get along with our intellectuals at all because our intellectuals think that they are all wet and that they are so timid and so on. They come here, they have no language of our liberal intellectuals because they are…they believe in trial and error, they believe in liberty, they believe in letting people be. And not imposing any ideology. So, it’s a very different breed of intellectuals that you meet today. I have not met anybody and I’ve been in the Soviet Union a number of times. I’ve been twice last summer, and I, I speak fluently Russian so I can talk to people…I don‘t know anybody who says, “We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to change society”. Everybody says, “Let’s liberalize, let’s free everything and let’s see how things go”. So it’s our kind of pragmatism.

Heffner: You know, talking about “our kind of pragmatism”, I was fascinated, going back to the transcript of our program…

Pipes: This was 1977?

Heffner: It was ’78, I think.

Pipes: ’78…

Heffner: We taped it, we recorded it in August, 1978…there was a…there were things you said about the differences between our approach and the Soviet approach, and you…to relationships, and you referred to a commercial sense that you felt characterized…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …America’s and England’s…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …relationships with other people, and you said, if I may quote, because I think it was so fascinating, “Oh, I think that the foreign policy of most countries, historically, is decided to a very large extent, by the economic and social experience of the leaders and powers. Our culture, and by that, by ‘our’, I mean the British and the American is profoundly commercial. And our’s is even more so than the British. What this means is that we tend to look on relations between two nations as if it is a controversial relationship, a relationship of rivalry, as being one misunderstanding, which can be clarified by an exchange of opinion, cultural exchanges, or what have you. Wherever the division of spoils and the commercial mentality teaches you that any arrangement that you make with somebody else, there had to be in it profit for the other fellow…

Pipes: Right.

Heffner: …as well. You can grab everything, you have to give him something, and therefore in debates you discuss with him, you argue with him over the exact proportion of what’s his and what’s yours. Now if you don’t have a commercial background, if you come say, from an agrarian society or a feudal society, as the Russians, you don‘t think in those terms at all, in terms of compromise essentially”. And when you said that, you were concerned that we would be too commercial-minded in our dealing with the Soviets.

Pipes: That’s correct. I talked to people who negotiated with the, with the Soviets, this is arms control…And they’ll make a concession to them in the expectations that they’ll reciprocate. But they wouldn’t. In fact, an American general who did that, negotiated with them, said that the Russians said, “I’m not a philanthropist. Now let’s start bargaining”. So they pocketed whatever they got and began bargaining from that point on. We made many mistakes for that reason because we did not understand…their philosophy was, I think they bay be changing now, but their philosophy was that “you look out for yourself, and you grab what you can, and let the other fellow look our for himself”. And if the other fellow is not smart enough to look out for his interests, well, that’s his problem. So, there’s a bit of the horse-trading mentality. If you don’t know horses and you buy a lame horse, well, you know, it’s your tough luck.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting, and I noted…a dozen years ago, that that puts us in a position in which the Liberal intellectuals in this country were willing to give away and the commercial people in this country, the hard-nosed businessmen…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …were also willing to give too much.

Pipes: The only ones who were aware, were the trade union leaders, you know. The CIFL is the bete noir of Soviet production. They don’t like them. They never go there because trade union leaders know, you know…negotiate these things.

Heffner: They’re horse dealers too.

Pipes: Yeah, they don’t give nothing for nothing. So, it was very amusing…again, it’s changed now…but in the sixties and seventies and eighties when Soviet dignitaries would come here they would always go to the Chamber of Commerce or they’d go to Wall Street…they would never go to the AFL/CIO headquarters because they knew that they had their number…they…what…how they negotiate.

Heffner: And you know, when you…when you said that a dozen years and when I re-read it today I was thinking of our efforts…this nation’s efforts to understand the Japanese mentality, as we went into the War and as we were coming out of it…

Pipes: Yes.

Heffner: …to know what to do. Do you think…we do now?

Pipes: No, I don’t think so, because I know that in all our negotiations with the Japanese, they proceed very much the old warrior style way. And that is, “I will take what I can, and if you’re silly enough to let me get away with it, I don’t feel badly about it”. And the Japanese in our commercial dealings…they will submit every now and then to tremendous pressure, but if the pressure is not exerted, they will give nothing. And so, so it seems to me, and for which reason our commercial relations with Japan are very inequitable.

Heffner: And our relations, commercial and otherwise, with the Soviet Union? How would you characterize them now?

Pipes: Well, until recently they were that kind. Now, I think they’re beginning to change because they, I think, are trying to acquire our style of thinking. They are…they realized how wrong they had been…

Heffner: But wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You haven’t said “wrong” about what they were doing, you were sayi8ng they were very realistic, and we were being done in.

Pipes: Yeah, but they realized that in the short run you don’t get rich by being a horse trader. (Laughter) They, for example, never give anything for good will. They didn’t realize it, you know. Yeah, you can get away with it. They stole from us, all kinds of things. You know, for example, I remember what Senator Jackson called the “great grain robbery”…if you recall…

Heffner: Right.

Pipes: …when they bought grain at subsidized prices and just cheated us. I was in Moscow at the time, in 1974, at a Conference in…on these issues, and they said “Why are you so angry about this?” and we discussed it, and we had coffee, privately and I said, “Well, you cheated us out of $300 million dollars, and we don’t like that”. And one of the Russians smiled and said, “One billion”, and he was very proud… (Laughter)…meaning that we were so stupid. Alright, so they got away with it once. But what they did was damage détente. And they had many more good things coming to them, but they grabbed something, relatively small, three hundred million dollars, and they robbed themselves of the possibility of getting billions of dollars of credits. And they‘ve learned that now, I think, the people in the country, and they say, “Maybe that’s not so smart, to deal in that way”. I hope so, anyway, that that’s what they’re thinking.

Heffner: Do you think that Ronald Reagan’s realistic approach, and I know you feel that it was realistic, was a product of that kind of insight?

Pipes: Yes. One thing that Reagan learned about Communism from negotiating in Hollywood, with Communist run trade unions…he would refer to this very often…says, “I know these Communists. I met them in these negotiations”. He understood them in some instinctive way. People underestimated him greatly. He was not an intellectual, he is not an intellectual. He doesn’t read much, but he’s a very wise man and he has very, very sound political instincts. And he understood how to deal with them…very well.

Heffner: And where in that pantheon do you put the present President of the United States?

Pipes: I’m afraid he doesn’t have that instinct. He’s, he’s in some ways better informed than President Reagan was…I think in almost all ways, he’s better informed. But he has yet to show that he has that wisdom, the sagacity and the political instinct, which President Reagan revealed so many times.

Heffner: What would he have to…what would President Bush have to do now to demonstrate that political wisdom and sagacity, as far as you’re concerned?

Pipes: Well, he has this issue of Iraq, of course, and I don’t think he’s handling it very well. He…Reagan would have gone on the air…would have explained to the American people, in very clear, lucid terms…emotional terms…why this is necessary, and he would have acted. And President Bush is not explaining it, or at least he’s explaining in different ways each week, and he isn’t acting. And I think, he’s getting into deep trouble because of that, because his policy is eroding.

Heffner: Do you think that the present public opinion in the United States would tolerate something firmer, something stronger…military action?

Pipes: Well the polls indicate it would, as of now. But come Christmas…who knows. And then the President will have a great deal of trouble, because he’s committed.

Heffner: Professor Pipes, we have a minute left. In the study of the Russian Revolutions, the original Russian Revolution, do you find anything that leads to more hopefulness on our part, on your part, let’s say…about what is happening now?

Pipes: Well, I think so. Because I think that as the world is turning away from these utopias, not voluntary utopias, but utopias enforced by armies and secret police and so on, we may consider this a very ugly chapter in human history, and forget about it. But the lesson is very important. So we will not have any more of such experiments, which cost hundreds of millions of human lives.

Heffner: I hope, indeed, that many people read about this experiment and your The Russian Revolution…available now, just out, and certainly a volume everybody should address himself and herself to. Professor Richard Pipes, thank you so much for joining me today.

Pipes: Thank you, Sir.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.