To many people, Russia’s starting the largest war in Europe since World War II was unthinkable. These war skeptics fell into two categories. In the first version, put forward by influential Russian pundits in particular, Vladimir Putin would never embark on a full-scale invasion because he was a cold, rational, risk-averse actor. In this view, Putin had worked hard to reimpose economic and political order on Russia. He would never endanger Russia’s economy and stability for imperial flights of fancy or to avenge past humiliations. These war skeptics couldn’t have been more wrong.
The second version argued that casting Putin in the worst light was the result of a deeply held Russophobia. This analysis places the blame at the doorstep of crusading American officials for failing to see things from the Russians’ perspective. These pundits have a point: They can claim they saw the war coming. But their mistake has been to dismiss Russians,’ and Putin’s, own agency in the story of U.S.-Russia relations.
In general, both versions focus on short-term foreign policy calculations and neglect possible deeper factors.
Richard Pipes spent most of his life engaged in the deep study of Russian culture and history over the longue durée. Pipes died four years ago this week after a dramatic life—born in Poland, fleeing the Nazis with his family, and serving in the U.S. military before embarking on a long and often controversial academic career. Whether he was writing about the “explosive force” of nationalism inside the USSR or the Russian origins of the Soviet police state, it was always with an eye on the past’s link to the present.
Renowned Soviet specialist George Kennan started his career in government and only later joined the academy, renouncing the militaristic form of containment the United States had adopted by the 1950s. Pipes had a different career trajectory, serving in government after establishing himself as a Harvard professor. Pipes’ harsh historical judgments and political leanings made him a bête noire in the academy, but he became part of an influential cohort of neoconservatives who found an ardent fan in Ronald Reagan. The new President quickly ramped up military spending and blasted the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” But Reagan, unlike Pipes, was always interested in engaging the Soviets, too. Once Mikhail Gorbachev proved himself a willing negotiating partner, Reagan quickly moved away from confrontation.
The perennial question has been whether Russia is bound to be an antagonist of the West. During the brief post-Soviet opening, there was a sense of hope and optimism, even among some pessimists; but current events lend credence to Pipes’ search for the deeper roots of Russia’s split with the West. For him, Russia’s peculiar historical development had left it with a unique political culture dependent on authoritarian leadership. The Bolsheviks not only failed to extract Russia from this historical legacy but were its most extreme heirs. The hapless Boris Yeltsin, unable to break the back of the security services, ended up turning over the new Russian state to Putin, a former KGB colonel.
Pipes warned against too much optimism, informed by his sense of the American ethnocentric impulse. “Americans did not really understand Russia,” he told historian Jane Burbank. “Americans, in general, feel that all cultures are the same. And that everybody is like an American, fundamentally. That given the chance they’ll be like Americans.” Pipes derided this idea. American democracy and capitalism had developed out of a particular historical experience, which had created a unique political culture. To Pipes, the theory that the United States can apply its own values and governance to other societies in a cookie-cutter approach—which most U.S. Presidents have believed—was bonkers. Without a similar political culture, such attempts were doomed to fail. U.S. democracy could not be both exceptional and universal.
In post-Soviet Russia, American universalism ran headlong into Russians’ own views of themselves as exceptional. In an essay for Commentary in 1996, a few years before Putin took over, Pipes explained that Russians believed everyone was out to “get” them. Harboring a sense of “isolation and uniqueness,” he argued, Russians didn’t mind being alienated from much of the world.
During the brief opening between authoritarianisms, Pipes held out the hope that Russia could turn West, though he seemed to sense that the interlude couldn’t last. Put another way, Russians had created their own civilizational sphere that didn’t require, desire, or admire Western institutions. It was true that many Russians, like people all over the world, found American popular culture irresistible. But popular culture does not equal political culture. And a taste for Coke, jeans, and rock ’n‘ roll did not mean Russians could just as readily import Western-style democratic and economic institutions.
What made Russian political culture so different, according to Pipes? Pipes famously applied Max Weber’s concept of the “patrimonial regime” to Russia. In a patrimonial state, there is no private property to constrain the expansion of political power. The leader encompasses the state. As Pipes articulated in his memoir, “the ruler is both sovereign and owner of the realm.” The leader is the father, not to be questioned. Higher principles, like a constitution or the idea that ultimate authority lies with the people, do not exist. There is no separation of powers, and there should be no dissent.
Pipes formulated his patrimonial state thesis in his classic Russia under the Old Regime. Published in 1974, it came out just as revisionism was becoming popular. Pipes saw revisionists, many of whom he disagreed with politically, as adopting a pro-Soviet viewpoint under the guise of neutrality. The revisionists, skeptical of what they deemed Pipes’ outdated approach and of his conclusions (and, later, his government service), saw the Harvard professor as reactionary. The heated orthodox-revisionist debate played out over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, and often devolved into mudslinging from both sides that left egos bruised. Pipes mostly sat it out, however. He responded by refusing to engage or acknowledge the revisionists at all. Despite the enormous number of quality revisionist studies on the Russian Revolution published between 1974 and Pipes’ own treatise on the subject in 1991, he cited nary a one. Ironically, whereas Pipes’ Russia pessimism put him on the right wing of American politics during the Cold War, today it is largely the American hard Right that acts as an apologist for Putin’s belligerence.
Even scholars of the older generation thought Pipes’ view of Soviet and Russian history could be too starkly negative. Donald Treadgold, the editor who in the early 1960s had brought the field’s top journal Slavic Review into the modern era, was no revisionist. Yet in his 1975 review of Russia under the Old Regime, Treadgold thought Pipes could have stressed more of Russia’s positive traits. Treadgold allowed for the possibility, however, that Pipes’ “final assessment may look more balanced to historians in 2075 than it looks to me now.” We are almost at the halfway point of that hundred-year speculation, and Pipes certainly looks more balanced now.
In his sequel to Old Regime, predictably titled Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (1994), Pipes explored the persistence of the patrimonial state in the early Soviet era. There he identified “four pillars” of “Tsarist patrimonialism.” All seem applicable to Putin’s reign as it enters its third decade:
Autocracy. Putin appoints Russia’s regional governors and chooses his own “opposition” candidates. The Duma has become a rubber stamp.
The leader’s personal “ownership of the country’s resources.” Putin and his circle have not only pilfered the state coffers to become extremely wealthy; Putin has also demonstrated his ability to seize assets and jail or exile oligarchs who disagree with his policies or try to get involved in politics.
The state demands “unlimited services” from its citizens without guaranteeing their rights. It may no longer be true that the Kremlin demands service to the state, but Putin has steadily chipped away at Russians’ legal rights. The poisoning and trumped-up conviction of Alexei Navalny is but one in a long line of examples of violence again political opponents and journalists. The Duma recently passed a law effectively making it illegal to criticize the war in Ukraine.
“State control of information.” Soon after the invasion of Ukraine, Putin shut down Russia’s last independent TV station, Rain, and Echo of Moscow, its last independent radio station, which started broadcasting in the final years of the Soviet Union. Russia’s last remaining independent newspaper also suspended operations amid intense political pressure. Last year, the security services forced the telecom industry to install special equipment that enhances the state’s ability to monitor and control internet traffic.
Pipes’ deeper study of history takes us into basic questions of the roots of culture and change. Why do cultures differ? Why do countries take different paths? These aren’t the same questions, as one needs to distinguish among long-term cultural orientations, the shorter-term calculus of interests and alliances, and the personalities or motives of particular leaders. In Putin it seems the short-term strategic calculus of interests has been overridden by a strong belief in Russian exceptionalism. Putin, like Stalin in World War II and others before him, has made basic strategic mistakes in his appraisal of enemies, ignoring (or refusing to receive) intelligence that might contradict his worldview. He may indeed personify a particular Russian patrimonial orientation, one not reducible to his particular psychology, but one widely shared in Russia.
This shared orientation stems from Russia’s unique geographic and cultural position between East and West. Russian thinking and culture, as elsewhere (as recent work in cultural psychology reveals), are also deeply embedded in its environment, religion, and social organization. Pipes anticipated this finding. He argued that the geography and history of Russia militated toward patrimonial rule. The wide expanse of the land and short growing seasons required a certain cooperation that has some similarities to that of rice farmers. The need to expand to better lands in the 16th to 18th centuries (toward Ukraine!) meant that a strong authoritarian state had to develop.
The ideal of individual liberty just doesn’t resonate in Russia the way it does in the West. In general, Russia is a top-down country, without deeply rooted civic organizations and volunteerism that one finds in more decentralized systems. The United States and places in Europe (think Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or Scandinavia) have been “bottom-up” countries with traditions of participation in town hall meetings and decentralized local polities. Sure, people want to be free; but many Russians remember the humiliation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the triumphalist Cold War narrative took hold in the West and the American economy took off, Russians plunged into a decade of economic depression, rampant crime, and runaway inflation. The 1990s seemed like another chaotic “time of troubles.” Putin limited Russians’ liberty in exchange for economic and social stability.
In general, Russians are proud of their cultural accomplishments and feel they should be following their own path, one that is neither “East” nor “West.” Western-leaning Russians may be only about 15 percent of the population, disproportionately intellectuals. Pipes stressed that the small business bourgeoisie were expected to serve the state, not themselves and their communities, as in the West; so the foundations of modern liberal democracy, a strong middle class, never developed. Putin putting the oligarchs under his heel followed this pattern and is the reason they can’t oppose him today.
Likewise, Pipes detailed how the church is in service to the state, as we see today with the Russian Orthodox Church’s backing of the Ukraine war, to the chagrin of fellow Orthodox elsewhere. The relationship between church and state has always been very tight (except for the Soviet era). Moscow has seen itself as the “third Rome” and, after the fall of Constantinople, the rulers of all Orthodox everywhere. Yet over time the church became dependent on the state and retains little autonomy. All evidence indicates that Putin cares more about Russian historical greatness than about the culture war issues he uses to mobilize support.
Pipes also applied his insights on the development of political culture to Ukraine. In 2004, soon after the Orange Revolution, Pipes explained why Ukrainians had very real historical reasons for differentiating themselves from Russians. In the long view of history, Ukraine was a relatively recent addition to the Russian Empire. Before that, most of modern-day Ukraine had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, “a constitutional monarchy dominated by the nobility, with parliamentary institutions and extensive civil liberties.” Meanwhile, “runaway serfs from Muscovy” formed “anarchist Cossack communities.” The Western-leaning nobility thus joined with the freebooting Cossacks to create a “libertarian” political culture that differed substantially from Russia’s patrimonial tradition. This didn’t mean that Ukraine’s transition to Western-style democracy would be easy. But Pipes believed it was possible, even necessary. “Unless they want to give up their independence, or become a Russian satellite,” Pipes said in a 2014 interview, “that’s what they have to do.”
That’s not to say that Pipes got everything right. We now know, for example, that his 1976 conclusions about Soviet capabilities as part of a U.S. intelligence analysis (by “Team B”) were just plain wrong. In many respects, Pipes’ analysis fell into the trap of failing to account for possible change. His unrelenting negativity on Russia’s potential turned many off. Then again, Pipes was perhaps a less rigid historian than people most familiar with his polemics might recall. In Old Regime, for example, Pipes admitted that after 1762, at least, the “trappings of imperial omnipotence … concealed weakness” and camouflaged “the actual power wielded” by bureaucrats and gentry.
Others have made good arguments that Putin’s rule is fragile for a host of contemporary reasons. Pipes’ Harvard colleague Edward Keenan located “deep structures” of Russia’s political culture in the “folkways” and kinship practices of the Muscovite era, which demanded that Russian leaders rule through oligarchy. Powerful monarchs, according to Keenan’s interpretation, were the exception, not the rule, throughout Russian history. The Russian state projected the ideology of the all-powerful tsar to outsiders as a way of masking its decentralized, “informal, interpersonal, and conspiratorial” nature. For now, it seems that Putin has solidified his singular grip on power à la Pipes’ patrimonial autocrat, but perhaps this is illusory or masks a different dynamic inside the Kremlin. Time will tell.
Culture is not destiny, but it has a tenacious grasp. Those who were critical of Pipes, like fellow Russia scholar Martin Malia, saw Russia in less pessimistic terms, stressed its European influences more than Pipes, and felt the Bolsheviks were more of an aberration in Russian history. In contrast, Pipes argued that Putin follows a deeper Russian pattern encompassing both tsarist and Soviet leadership. By 2015, Pipes had seen enough of Putin so that any hope he had for a stable democracy had vanished, though this meant his historical views were confirmed. In his 2015 interview with Burbank, he predicted that “for the next decade or two I think we are going to see more repression and more nationalism and more expansionism. I find this very discouraging.”
Certainly in 2022, four years after the death of Richard Pipes, the world has awakened to the reality that he knew long ago. The Germans, among others, would certainly be in a better energy and military position today if they had paid attention to Pipes. Looking ahead, Pipes would have loved to be wrong, but unfortunately his insights seem as prescient as ever.
Michael Jindra, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a cultural anthropologist at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University whose writing and forthcoming book center on the relationship between lifestyle diversity and economic inequality.
Paul J. Welch Behringer is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln DPAA Research Partner Fellow. He also leads the oral history project U.S.-Russian Relations under Bush and Putin at the Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. Behringer is not an employee of DPAA; he supports DPAA through a partnership. The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DPAA, DoD, or its components.
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