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A Cold Warrior at Peace

America's leading Russia scholar reflects on the 20th anniversary of communism's collapse, and the new threats to the world order today.

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By NANCY DEWOLF SMITH

 

Twenty years ago, on Aug. 19, an attempted coup in Moscow accidentally started the countdown on what would be the final days of the Soviet Union. The August putsch began as an effort by Communist Party hard-liners to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev and stop his reforms, including efforts to give the Soviet republics more freedom from the center. Civilian resistance in Moscow and other cities, aided by military units who refused to move against the protesters, effectively foiled the plot and made a popular democratic hero of Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. By the time Mr, Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day and Mr. Yeltsin took power over Russia, most of the republics had declared independence and Soviet Communism was dead.

 

On the anniversary of the coup, you might expect to find a celebration under way at the house of the man who taught generations of Harvard students the history of the world's most powerful totalitarian regime. Especially someone who helped inform America's response to the Soviet military threat and served on the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan. Surely, this particular professor—still demonized in certain circles as the archetypal Cold Warrior or, sin of sins, a fantasist about Soviet military might—surely he is cackling with delight at the thought of how we beat the Sovs?

 

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of "the most important events of the 20th century," says Richard Pipes. But he says this while serenely sitting on the porch overlooking the sunlit lake by his summer home. This is a Cold Warrior at peace.

 

No wonder. Surveying the post-Soviet universe, he sees no threats of the old magnitude on the horizon. When it comes to new foreign powers, he says, "China is the only successor, but the Chinese don't have such world-wide aggressive intentions. For the Russians, for them to triumph, the whole world had to be communist. I don't think that is true of Chinese Communism. They are perfectly content to be a rich and powerful country, to have influence in their region, but I don't think they have any intentions to take over Africa, or Latin America or anything like that."

 

Despite all he knows about Russia's sad history, he was upbeat even about that country for a time after 1991, after the last Communist czar, Mr. Gorbachev, stepped down. "I was rather optimistic" for the Russian people, Mr. Pipes says. "I thought all the chains which had held them had broken and they are free. But it didn't happen."

 

By 2000, ex-KGB strongman Vladimir Putin was in charge, and along with launching a war in Chechnya (and other grim misadventures in the near abroad of the former Soviet Socialist Republics) he began rolling back new freedoms in Russia, eliminating the election of governors, taking over television networks, and reinstating a culture in which free-speaking journalists get murdered. It may seem odd to us that, in the face of re-oppression, Mr. Putin's approval ratings soared. But Mr. Pipes is not surprised.

 

"Russians like strong leaders, autocratic leaders: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin. They have contempt for weak leaders, leaders who don't impose their will but who listen to the people. Kerensky, who was prime minister of the provisional government in 1917, is held in contempt because he was a democratic leader."

 

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Ken Fallin

How and why Russians missed the social and intellectual developments that infused the rest of Europe with ideas on the rights of man and civil society is the complex subject of Mr. Pipes's scholarship. In simplified form, he explains: "First of all, not only were the Russians peasants, which there were in Europe too, but they were serfs, which were not exactly slaves but close to it. They had no rights. They had no civil rights, no legal rights, no property rights. They were chattel. So that meant they did not develop any sense of belonging to a community."

 

This theory—received by many Russians as a Russophobic accusation that they have a slave mentality—has made enemies for Mr. Pipes, among them the late novelist and gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. While both men saw the moral horrors and mass human sacrifice that constituted Soviet Communism, they explained its origins very differently. "He said it was because Marxism was a Western idea imported into Russia," Mr. Pipes says. "Whereas my argument is that it has deep roots in Russian history."

 

That drove the nationalist Solzhenitsyn up a wall, judging by his reaction after Mr. Pipes mailed a copy of his book, "Russia and the Old Regime," to Solzhenitsyn in Switzerland in the mid-1970s.

 

"I never heard from him until two years later," Mr. Pipes smiles, "when he attacked me . . . saying I was a 'pseudo scholar.'"

 

Some things do not change. Earlier this month Prime Minister Putin described the United States as "a parasitic" country. But name-calling may be about the worst that Russia can do anymore, at least to the West.

 

"They do pose a threat to their ex-republics," Mr. Pipes says. "They have no problem with Central Asia, because those [states] are rather docile. But they can't reconcile themselves to the loss of the three Baltic Republics [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania] and Ukraine and Georgia. I feel fairly confident that if Georgia or the Ukraine were to join NATO, as they would like to, the Russians would invade and destroy their independence. But to us they don't pose a threat."

 

Even so, Mr. Pipes says, the rise of China has presented the U.S. with an opportunity to nudge Russia toward the fold of normal European countries. "I don't admire President Obama in general and I don't like his foreign policy. He doesn't have a clear course," Mr. Pipes says. "If you liked, as I did, Reagan's foreign policy, then you can't like Obama's."

 

But he gives the president good marks for his choice of an adviser on Russia, Michael McFaul, and he judges the administration's so-called "reset" policy with Russia as an apparent success. "There are no conflicts right now," he points out, although "how much this is a result of Obama's policy and how much is a result of [Moscow's] fear of China and the desire to move closer to Europe and the U.S., I don't know."

 

Mr. Pipes says Russia is "obsessed" with how its neighbor's growth and progress threaten to make Moscow seem irrelevant on the global stage. "China is becoming a great world power. And that bothers them terribly. They're willing to have America the second great power but they are worried about China being a great power."

 

Mr. Pipes notes that when foreigners visited Russia in the 17th century, Russians would boast—fairly accurately as it turns out—that their country was the same size as the visible surface of the moon. It still is, although an eclipse by China seems unstoppable. "What can they do about it? They cannot reduce Chinese exports to the United States, the Chinese accumulation of hard currency, the military buildup and so on."

 

That is why Mr. Pipes believes Moscow may be ready to move closer to the West, an outcome that would remove a major irritant. This assumes NATO issues don't get in the way.

 

"I am very critical of what the Russians do but you also have to allow for their sensitivities," he says. "The Russians are very sensitive about NATO. If you ask Russians who is the No. 1 enemy of Russia—I think NATO would probably come in first place, even now."

 

That's one reason that NATO may have outlived its usefulness. "We have NATO acting in Afghanistan and et cetera," Mr. Pipes allows. "But NATO was created specifically against the Russian threat. The Russian threat does not exist. . . . So I think the time has come to consider dissolving it."

 

Mr. Pipes thinks the main challenge for America today is militant Islam. "This is difficult to fight with because it is not a direct threat. A direct threat you can stand up to. It is also different because you are dealing with fanatics," he points out.

 

"The communists were not fanatics. They were vicious people, but you could reason with them . . . and when the going got tough, they retreated." For instance, he says, "You had the Cuban missile crisis: Castro wanted the Russians to actually launch a nuclear attack on the United States, and he said 'OK, Cuba will be destroyed but socialism will triumph in the world.' And Khrushchev said no, nothing doing."

 

The communists "were never suicidal," either, Mr. Pipes adds, "and the ordinary Russians . . . they wanted to live. So this is a different danger. It's not as bad as the communist danger was because they don't [control] the arsenals of power, of military power. But they are fanatical, and they are irrational. We have to stand up to them and not be frightened of them. But we may be in for decades of the Muslim threat."

 

Do we have the fortitude for that? At the end of the Cold War, some of the victors questioned whether the U.S. and the West could ever muster the will and stamina for another prolonged ideological struggle.

 

This question seems to amuse Mr. Pipes, who still speaks with an accent of his childhood in Poland, from which he and his family escaped when he was 16. "I came to the U.S. in 1940 and I went to a college in Ohio, and the war was already on. And I remember discussions of whether America was strong enough, or too soft to meet the Nazis." Mr. Pipes laughs. "The same discussions, and that was 70 years ago. So I don't worry, I think that America is great."

 

As for defeating the last known enemy of world peace, Mr. Pipes gives credit to America's policy of containment, which held communists back in most places until the Soviet Union began an inevitable decline. But it might have lingered for decades longer if not for a big push. "Ronald Reagan contributed mightily to the collapse of the Soviet Union," he says. "It would have happened eventually, but not as soon as it did. Because he understood what communism was and how unnatural it was."

 

Another lesson is "that you should not give in for practical reasons to evil, which we had done for many years under détente and so on. We gave in and we treated these people not as crooks and criminals but as worthy partners. And this was a mistake, they were not. And history has proved it. Not to everyone, of course."

 

Partly he's referring to scholars, in his own and related fields, with whom he sparred for decades about the nature of the enemy. "In general, the profession in this country, they were not pro-communist but they thought—and that is why I had quarrels with them always—that the [soviet] system was popular and that it would be there forever. Ergo we have to get along with them, which means we have to make concessions and live with them, and not attack them the way I wanted to attack them, or Reagan wanted to attack them. I mean Reagan, whom they thought a dummy, said this: The Soviet Union is going to collapse. And they said ridiculous, he doesn't know what he is talking about—and he was right."

 

So Mr. Pipes has been vindicated too? "Yes, of course. But they don't admit it," he laughs. "They have done no self-analysis asking: Where did we go wrong? And they just merrily go on."

 

More than once, Mr. Pipes refers to a woman he met in Russia in the 1960s, when he was visiting Leningrad and she was assigned as his driver. She had lost her husband in the war, felt utterly alone and "looked worn out." He tried to comfort her, he says, with words like, "'Don't give up. You are young, you will find a husband, you will find a family.' And I'll never forget her answer," he recalls with what looks like a shudder: "What do you know? You live in paradise."

 

Mr. Pipes seems a happy man today. Even the faltering U.S economy—whose former vigor played such a role in the Cold War victory—hasn't got him down. "I have been through these recessions before. If you're my age and you've been through Hitler and Stalin, nothing frightens you. . . . Who's going to frighten me, [Hugo] Chávez?"

 

Ms. Smith is a member of the Journal's editorial board.

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