A director on the National Security Council, Richard Pipes sits with Vice President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1982. (New York Times)

Richard Pipes, Historian of Totalitarianism

May 21, 2018


From his early life, the great historian of totalitarianism was shaped by its ravages. Born into a Jewish family in the Polish town of Cieszyn in 1923, the young Pipes watched the drama of fascism’s rise firsthand. His family was living in Warsaw when Hitler invaded Poland. Through luck and his father’s connections to the diplomatic service, the Pipes family escaped first to Italy in 1940 and then to the United States. Most of his friends and family were not so fortunate. In his memoirs, mentions of childhood companions and relatives are almost always followed with a parenthetical reference to their fates in Sobibór or Dachau.


Pipes challenged the revisionists. His body of work dispelled the myth, propagated by the Soviet Union, that the 1917 October Revolution was a popular movement supported by broad swathes of the Russian people. Pipes argued that the Bolshevik Revolution was more akin to a military coup d’état. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party overthrew Russia’s liberal provisional government and seized absolute power.

Pipes also demolished the construct of “good Lenin, bad Stalin” — the Marxist shibboleth in which Vladimir Lenin was a benevolent reformer and a visionary whose grand work was subverted by the thuggish and brutal Stalin. This was perpetuated first in the 1920s and 1930s by an ostracized Leon Trotsky, and then in the late 1950s by Nikita Khrushchev in his attempt to scrub the Soviet conscience clean of Stalin’s purges, mass deportations, and endless executions. Pipes contended that the system Lenin built from 1918 to 1924 was not misused by Stalin, but rather wielded exactly as Lenin had intended.


The tide of freedom is ebbing in the world today. The PRC is blazing new trails on the totalitarian road once traveled by the Soviet Union. Dictatorships and hybrid-authoritarian states are once again becoming the norm in much of the world. Make no mistake — the world’s tyrants have a deep bench of defense attorneys ready to defend them in Washington, the United Nations, and the court of international public opinion.

At the time of publishing, Marion Smith was executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Originally published in the National Review.

Stay Informed

Join our mailing list and be the first to receive exclusive news.

Thank you for signing up!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.