Historians of Russia: James Billington

Described as an interpretive history of Russian culture, James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe (1966) opens by considering the role of two phenomena that were central to Russian life as early as the Kievan period, the religious image known as the icon and the axe used to chop down the tree from which it was made. While the history of Russia has arguably proceeded in less of a straight line that the histories of other European powers, Billington is continually alert to its continuities. His technique of placing old against new yields fascinating ideas, as in the notion of a ‘metamorphosis of luminous icons, ringing bells, and consoling incense into lithographs of Lenin, humming machines and cheap perfume.’ The idea of the movie theatres of the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century being the equivalent of the churches of earlier times is arresting, as is the comparison of a painting executed by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin in 1920 that is popularly known as ‘Our Lady of Petersburg’ with the earlier iconography of the Virgin. But surely there is a risk of such comparisons getting out of hand. It need not be significant that Stalin’s collaborator Michael Suslov was ‘a lean and ascetic former Old Believer who bore the name of the founder of the flagellant sect.’ Again, that name of a journal in which Lenin developed some revolutionary ideas, The Spark, was that of a key masonic symbol need not be revealing. Sometimes one has the feeling that Billington’s work leans on a giant system of cross references which may sometimes pick up no more than the background noise of random coincidences.

Billington, who has been the Librarian of Congress since 1987, is clearly a very considerable scholar. He is certainly more learned than John Lawrence, and interacts to good effect with the work of historians who belonged to the stellar generation of Russians that flourished at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, but like Lawrence he participates in an endeavour of the Cold War period to make the history of Russia in the period after 1917 fit into the larger picture, one that can now be seen to have been neither of the right nor the left, and hence largely free of the ideological peroccupations of that time. This is all to the good, yet the constant comparisons make me uneasy. Billington’s contribution to the Festschrift honouring the late Jaroslav Pelikan edited by Valerie Hotschkiss and Patrick Henry, ‘The Orthodox Frontier of Faith’, lacks the thick texture of The Icon and the Axe, and seems to me oddly thin and descriptive. But it too is worth reading, among other things for an observation from Kafka that the early fathers of the church could go into the desert because they had richness in their hearts, but with all the richness now in Europe we have brought the desert into our hearts.

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