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Reviewed by:
  • Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger
  • Vladimir Brovkin, Independent Scholar
Richard Pipes , Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Perhaps what is most striking about this memoir by Richard Pipes, a distinguished professor of Russian history who was also a senior adviser on Soviet affairs to President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, is its sincerity. Seldom in our age of political correctness, when writing is a craft of not offending anybody, does one encounter such openness and intellectual honesty. Perhaps that is why Pipes calls his memoir that of a "non-belonger." Of course he did belong, as he himself admits, to many communities, including the community of Washington policymakers and that of Western historians. But what distinguished Pipes was his uncompromising intellectual integrity. His willingness to speak his mind about events and people is why he did not belong. He said what he believed was right, and for that reason he did not belong to the politically correct crowd of those seeking favors, appointments, promotions, and fame. Intellectual integrity, uncompromising honesty, and an ability to defend his view to the end made Pipes what he is, a remarkable personality in the study of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Vixi is the story of his search for new ideas, of people he met and worked with, and of the projects he has accomplished. Many readers will also find in it a story of [End Page 127] their generation—the Holocaust, the quiet prosperity of the 1950s, and the upheavals of the 1960s. The events discussed in the book span much of the twentieth century, from 1939 to the late 1990s. We learn about intellectual debates in Russian history and about the way policy was formulated under Reagan. The book presents the narrative chronologically, with vivid portraits of the people involved.

Pipes's story begins with the bombing of Warsaw and a miraculous flight from Nazi-occupied Poland in October 1939. In these masterfully written pages, one can see something most Americans have never experienced: bombardment of urban populations, blood, devastation, and a fear of imminent death, followed by a miraculous salvation. Pipes's friends and relatives who stayed behind wound up in Nazi death camps, but he escaped. This experience made him determined not merely to build a career and to enjoy the benefits of life but to seek the truth and fight for it no matter what that would mean for him personally. He became fiercely independent and outspoken, knowing that what he had to lose was nothing compared to the millions of Jews who had perished in Europe.

Attending a small college in Ohio after arriving in the United States, the young Pipes noted a peculiar quality of Americans that he would encounter repeatedly in later years; namely, a propensity to disbelieve the existence of evil and a desire to attribute to others positive characteristics similar to their own. His professors refused to believe stories of Nazi atrocities and ascribed his account of those horrors to the traumas of a recent refugee. Three decades later, Pipes encountered the same kind of American propensity to attribute reasonable, commonsensical traits to Soviet political leaders. "They must be the way we are"—that was the typical view. Pipes called that mentality mirror imaging, a consuming effort to find goodness in people and view others, even adversaries, as essentially similar to oneself. The implication of this mindset is that if people are naturally good-intentioned, attempts to be nice to them will prompt them to reciprocate. At least until September 2001, Americans found it hard to imagine that villains exist and are ready to destroy millions because of their own profound beliefs.

In 1976, when Pipes was already a well-established Harvard professor, his work as a foreign policy adviser began over precisely that question—the perceptions of others. He was asked to evaluate assessments by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of Soviet military strategy. Leading the work of what later became known as Team B, Pipes discovered that the CIA did not understand Soviet behavior. In a classic case of mirror-imaging, the agency projected the same kind of motivations onto the Soviet...