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by Richard Pipes

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40498-8
Publisher: Knopf

Harvard historian Pipes, author of a number of seminal books on Russia (The Russian Revolution, 1990; Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1994; etc.), seeks here to find the reason for the virtual absence of democracy and civil liberties through seven centuries of Russian history. He finds it in the refusal of the Russian state to recognize anything akin to Western attitudes on property. The growth of legal protection for the individual in England, and later in its colonies, was closely associated with the recognition of property rights. By contrast, he contends that “the critical factor in the failure of Russia to develop rights and liberties was the liquidation of landed property in the Grand Duchy of Moscow,” which deprived the Russians of the means to limit the power of their kings. But Pipes goes beyond this to contend that property rights have been critical throughout history to the development of liberty. He shows that the Marxist assumption of early communism, of property being shared in common, is historically unfounded. Surviving ancient legal codes, like the Code of Hammurabi (c.2000 b.c.e.), and Assyria (1500 b.c.e.), are very much focused on ownership. What concerns Pipes is that an awareness of this historic link has been eroded by evolutionary sociology, which emerged in the 19th century under the influence of Darwin; and by a thoughtless egalitarianism, epitomized by President Johnson’s famous statement that we seek “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.” Since human beings are by nature unequal, such equality in fact can be achieved only by compulsion. Pipes may be on some unfamiliar territory, and this book lacks the assurance of his earlier works, but it constitutes a valuable and cautionary lesson from his deep study of the failed Russian system.