By Stephen Dewar
Piping His Own Tune
Richard Pipes, one of the West’s most respected authorities on Russian history, has published his memoirs at the age of 81. Though it’s virtually impossible to find a book dealing with Russian or Soviet history that does not draw on Pipes’ work, he argues in this autobiography that he has been an intellectual loner throughout his career. Pipes’ fundamental and controversial conviction is that scholars have an obligation not only to describe and explain – but that they also must make judgments.
The Professor Emeritus of Russian History spent his entire working life at Harvard, save two years on President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council – a post he quit because he found politics so frustrating. His account of his time at the White House confirms what others have said: Reagan was no intellectual and was sometimes confused by complex arguments put before him, but he had uncannily good intuition on the big issues. Pipes has far less sympathy, however, for Secretary of State Al Haig, who he describes as manipulative and egotistical.
It is for Pipes’ scholarship that he will be remembered rather than his time as a policy adviser. Yet he believed it was impossible to maintain “insensitivity to the moral outrages of communism,” a charge he made of many of his fellow academics. In fact, although he considers himself to be an outsider, generations of scholars following after him have adopted his ideas with enthusiasm. A remarkable scholar and a remarkable man, this intellectual autobiography is a fascinating read.
VIXI: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger by Richard Pipes, 263 pp., Yale University Press. ₤19.95 (US $30).
America Through Russian Eyes
During the Cold War, most Americans and Russians had views about each others’ countries based on propaganda and myth. This new book is a collection of often brilliant essays in which Russian writers describe the reality of the America they eventually visited. With so many different styles, the best way to give a flavor is to quote. Thus, Max Frai in his contribution, "Nine and a Half Americas," writes, “In the skies of my fifth America kites are swooping, and down on its earth unwashed shamans walk, and the sound track to this idyll is provided, of course, by Jim Morrison, who else?” Or take Linor Goralik in “A Real American Girl”: “I want to distribute leaflets against sexist male teachers on my campus. I want to love a man whose father was lost in Vietnam. I want to give birth while they are shouting ‘Breathe! Breathe!’ and I want my husband to hold my hand. I want to work for my mortgage. I want my daughter to hurt her eye playing Frisbee. I want to find out my husband is having an affair with a shopgirl from Barnes & Noble. I want to start dieting and to become anorexic in three months. I want to be hospitalized and I want a shrink in the hospital to explain that I simply don’t love my husband anymore. I want to have an ugly divorce.”
This is America portrayed in an extraordinarily fresh way by these talented Russian writers. The book also acts as a valuable reminder to all expats that, while their perceptions of their host country might be perfectly valid, they are often profoundly different from the views of the host population itself.
Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States, edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker, Dalkey Archive Press, $11.16.
Here is our tip for gripping excitement with a Russian twist. Although the first book was published in 1997, the Constantin Vadim trilogy by Donald James is engrossing and, despite many excellent reviews, is not nearly as well known as one might expect. Vadim is a dysfunctional cop from Murmansk in the near future, after post-Soviet Russia has been through a dreadful civil war. A heavy drinker with modest police skills, he is attractive and enjoys affairs with bevies of beautiful women, all of them, however, well-developed characters – not just bimbos thrown in to spice up the story. But the real storyline is how Vadim, in spite of the appalling treachery and deception that engulfs his life, patiently unravels complex mysteries, all of which center upon vicious serial killers who strike dreadfully close to his own life. It is also about a Russia that might-have-been or might-be. These books are Silence of the Lambs crossed with Gorky Park, spiced with James’ own terrific story-telling skills. The sardonic cat, V.I. Lenin, who has a penchant for fish burgers, serves to alleviate the tension.
As some characters appear in all three books it is best to read them in order, although each novel is a work in its own right.
Monstrum, The Fortune Teller and Vadim, by Donald James, Arrow Books, $7.50, $6.95 and $9.89 respectively.