Russia Has a Good Tradition of Diplomacy
Interview with RICHARD PIPES, historian and US presidential adviser during the Cold War. Interviewer: MARCIN WOJCIECHOWSKI
What made a Jewish immigrant from Poland study Russia in the United States?
Living up until the Second World War in Poland, I was not interested in Russia. Only in America did I become interested in it. During the war, Russia became a country that could and was supposed to stop Hitler, which increased attention to it. I began to realise that as a Pole I could quickly learn Russian. I did this in three months, previously buying grammar books and dictionaries. I was then in the army because it was during the war. And after the war, as a student at Harvard, I had to choose one country in which to specialise. And I chose Russia, which at that time was very fashionable. Many lecturers of Russian origin, mostly still from the old post-Revolutionary immigration, taught at every university.
After the war, Russia would seem to be the USA’s ally. The Cold War began only towards the end of the 1940s.
I did not believe that Russia could be a lasting ally. Already then there were difficulties. In all honesty, I had hoped that Russia could be an ally of the United States, but I did not have any illusions.
There was no internet, and television was only in an early phase. Newspapers and books were distributed significantly late. How could you then gain sources to study Russia? Today, thanks to the internet, you can keep up to date with the media and read the press from all over the world and listen to the radio.
It is true that it was difficult with regards to sources. Newspapers came and there were magazines. But in Russia there was censorship and in the official translations there was virtually no information inconvenient to the authorities. You had to read between the lines a little.
Studying Russia perhaps was reminiscent of the studying of exotic peoples by anthropologists. The distance between the USA and USSR must have been galactic.
You took every opportunity to get some knowledge. After the war, a new wave of immigrants from Russia who were the prisoners of Nazi concentration and POW camps came to the USA. It seems that I had a decent idea of what was happening in Russia.
Could you reconstruct from these conversations what Stalinism was? What the Gulag and the purges were?
Not right after the war. Then you still wanted to see Russia as a positive country and potential ally. The whole truth about Soviet Russia was detected in the USA after the Soviet aggression on Czechoslovakia in 1968.
That’s rather late.
Such were the times. To me, 1968 was a watershed. Then I truly realised that Russia is an authentically dangerous country.
You quickly became one of the best experts on Russia in the USA and the world. You studied 19th-century Russia and the October Revolution. Why this period?
The October Revolution is a great event in world history. But previously I dealt with Russian conservative thought, mostly from the 19th century.
Why exactly conservatism?
I studied it because most of my colleagues studied anarchists or liberals, which made no sense. One of my colleagues then wrote a biography of Alexander Herzen, one of the first Russian democrats. But if Herzen or Chernyshevsky lived in Stalin’s Russia, they would certainly end up in the Gulag. I realised that since Russia has a conservative government I should deal with conservative, and not democratic, thought. I wrote a book about the conservative historian Nikolay Karamzin, and later one about Peter Berngardovich Struve. And thanks to this I had a good idea of what Stalin’s Russia was, because Stalinism essentially derived from Russian conservatism.
Do you see ideological continuity between Putin and his team and Russian conservatism? Putin likes to refer to Pyotr Stolypin and Sergei Witte, who were also conservatives of the late empire.
Certainly, I see such continuity. Putin is a true Russian conservative. He said that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, the century of two world wars and genocides. This is inconceivable! I think that Karamzin could say the same if he lived in the 20th century, because for Russian conservatives the greatest failure is the collapse of the empire.
What is today’s Russian conservatism based on? It is not the same as in the 19th century. Russia was overrun by communism and the Soviet Union.
The government must be very strong and take care of its citizens both domestically and abroad. How it comes to power and how it governs is of secondary importance. The important thing is for the government to be strong. The Russians feel contempt for weak rulers.
Not everyone realises that sometimes weakness can be a sign of strength?
They do not accept this. The Russian heroes are Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. They were terrible people, but they are respected by a large part of society because they were strong.
In a recent issue of Time magazine there was an article titled “The World According to Vladimir Putin” with Putin’s photo on the cover. It describes Putin’s visit to Volgograd, previously known as Stalingrad. The president met with veterans of the Second World War as well as bikers. One of the veterans said that Vladimir Putin is becoming a great leader, almost like Stalin.
After some time you left academia for politics. What were your motivations?
I did not deal with politics but history. I had views that appealed to various politicians, especially Republicans, though my first political patron was Henry Jackson, a Democrat, but one with rather conservative views. He invited me to his group of advisors. And later I became an advisor to the conservative President Ronald Reagan. He invited me to him and I thought that helping the president is my civic duty.
You say that you had a conservative approach to Russia. What does that mean? Does it mean that democracy is impossible in Russia and that the country will not change?
I believed that Russia is a conservative and aggressive country and that one has to realise this. In the United States as well as in Europe many influential people believed that Russia is a peacefully disposed country. At one point, three specialists on Russia in the USA had these views.
This aggressive country that was at one point the world’s largest military power collapsed practically without bloodshed. How can this be explained?
I had no doubts that Russia is in essence very weak. Reagan also did not have such illusions and at one point even publicly said that Russia will implode. That happened.
You understood that Russia is a giant with feet of clay.
Is it not the same with Russia today? Tsarist Russia collapsed in a couple days.
There were no massive social protests. For the average Russian, politics is unimportant. Russians have their private lives and what the government does does not particularly concern them.
Is today’s Russia also a giant with feet of clay?
An implosion will not occur, because there is simply nothing to implode. The Russian empire has already collapsed, and today it is limited to Russia itself. There are minorities in republics such as Bashkiria or Tatarstan, but these are minorities. Eighty-five per cent of the inhabitants of today’s Russia are ethnic Russians. I see no reason why Russia should collapse.
Is a crash of the current political system possible?
I don’t think so. There are no signs of revolution in Russia.
How would you characterise Putin’s Russia?
It is based on the old psychology of strong government and a strong state, a power, but it does not go together with development. We contrast this with neighbouring China. The difference is enormous. China is developing economically and is truly becoming a power. It is not so for the Russians.
What are the perspectives?
Everything can last as it is. If there will be peace for 20, 25 years, then democracy can develop in Russia, but it will be a very slow process. If, however, there will be economic political or military crises then such a democracy will not develop.
What about natural resources? There is a theory that Russia will stay in its present state as long as it will have oil and gas and they will still be strategically significant resources.
The elites and the system will survive, but the country will not develop in the right direction. In Russia, about 15 per cent of the population has pro-democratic sympathies and authentically wants development. Most, however, are indifferent. Having such large support, the current elites do not have to change anything.
Is cooperation between Russia and the West possible?
It is possible and it even occurs in several areas. But the Russians do not consider themselves to be part of the West but something unique, sui generis. Partly this is the heritage of their religion, because Russia is the only power adhering to Orthodoxy. The remaining Orthodox countries are small states. The Russians are convinced that they are the only true Christians and that Catholics and Protestants are heretics. Religion does not play such an important role today as in the past, but this way of thinking remains in the psychology.
What does the case of Syria say about contemporary Russia? On the one hand, Moscow supports Assad. On the other, it helps President Obama to remove chemical weapons from Syria.
Moscow does not help Obama but tries to get ahead of him. They are showing him that this problem has to be solved peacefully. Obama agreed to this because he did not want to act in the case of Syria along. Russia always contradicts America when it has the chance to emphasise its status as a power. When you tell America “no”, that means you are powerful.
Image-wise, Putin was able to show that Russia is just as influential as the USA.
But only image-wise.
Will Russia still count on the international arena?
Russia is in essence a small country with regards to its population and demographic potential. Five hundred million people live in Western Europe. In China, it is well over a billion. And Russia has only 150 million. They have a huge territory and an excellent geopolitical location, but nothing beyond that. They are not a large power.
But they can act. During its war with Georgia in 2008 they sent their army. Obama and the Western world have problems with undertaking such decisions.
But what is Georgia? It is a tiny country. This is not a major victory. It’s as if America attacked and defeated Nicaragua. That would not be a great victory.
But as the West is passive, Russia is active rebuilding its influence and showing that something is still dependent on it.
Indeed, they do have a good diplomatic tradition.
Translated by Filip Mazurczak
This interview originally appeared in Novaya Evropa, a new Russian-language quarterly magazine published by the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe.
Marcin Wojciechowski from 1998 to 2013 worked as a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza and was its correspondent in Kyiv and Moscow. He is the author of Pomarańczowy majdan (“The Orange Maidan”) published by WAB Publishing in Warsaw in 2006. In 2010, he became a laureate of the Award for Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation. Since 2013, he is the press secretary of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Richard Pipes was born in Cieszyn, Poland, in 1923. His parents were successful chocolate producers, and his father was one of Józef Piłsudski’s Legionnaires who fought for Polish independence during the First World War. Pipes immigrated to the United States in 1939, and fought for the American army during the Second World War. Pipes quickly became one of the world’s most respected historians of Russia, penning such classics of history as Russia under the Old Regime and Communism: A History. Pipes served as a member of the National Security Council in the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1982, being responsible for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.