Culture as Conversation: A Classic Turns Fifty

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Written by Anne Harris

“Great books, like great wine, only get better with time.”

These words were spoken by Dr. Anton Fedyashin, Director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History, as he introduced Dr. James H. Billington. The grand conference room at the American University College of Law was a wash of warm purple and green, colored by dozens of pastel lights lining the walls. Candles danced atop tables, lighting up the faces of hundreds of guests who had turned out to honor Dr. Billington. On this night, we had gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Billington’s masterpiece, a book called The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture.

Librarian of Congress Emeritus Dr. James H. Billington graduated from Oxford University with a PhD in modern Russian History. His passion for Russian history and culture was instilled at a very young age: as a young boy of thirteen, Billington devoured the book War and Peace time and time again. Presently, scholars of Russian history and curious minds alike can attest that Billington’s own writing has contributed immensely to the understanding of Russian culture. The Icon and the Axe appeared during the Cold War when Russia’s religious and cultural history fell into neglect in Western historiography under the impact of the “social turn” in academia that emphasized economics and sociology. Billington created a book that not only examined these decisive facets of history, but applied them to the country’s long-term development. In the time since the creation of The Icon and the Axe, the book has fast become one of the most influential studies of Russian history.

On the night of his book’s fiftieth anniversary, it was clear the impact Dr. Billington made in his years as a scholar. The symposium panel for the evening included old friends and colleagues alike, yet it was often difficult to discern one from the other. More than once did the evening find panelists wiping away tears, moved by the lifelong dedication Dr. Billington had made both to his work, and his friends. Dr. William Brumfield, Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University and avid photographer, named Dr. Billington as his inspiration in preserving Russia’s architectural heritage through photograph. “I read The Icon and the Axe with a sense of wonder,” Brumfield recalled, “but also felt stimulated to pursue my own vision. In that pursuit he was enormously supportive.” Dr. Vladislav Zubok, Professor of International History at London School of Economics, emphasized the importance of applying culture to the study of history, and graciously thanked Dr. Billington for being “one of the first to pose fundamental and sensitive questions about Russian cultural history.” Susan E. Carmel Lehrman, Founder and Advisory Committee Chair of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History praised Billington’s vision and leadership as “unparalleled…particularly as it pertains to greater cultural understanding.”

Following the symposium, Dr. Billington himself opened the floor up for questions regarding his work. Several students of Dr. Fedyashin posed questions for Dr. Billington, inquiring about his inspiration and sources. By the end of the night, Dr. Billington had emphasized one point in answering every question: culture and history go hand-in-hand. Without understanding of one, there will not be sufficient understanding of the other. His words resonated with the audience, and Dr. Billington was given a standing ovation as he left the stage for the evening. A truly remarkable human, Dr. Billington left the audience inspired by his words. In seeking the truth, understanding must be actively sought to avoid misinformation. A timeless piece of literature penned by an extraordinary man, The Icon and the Axe reminds us that constructive dialogue must be derived from thorough examination of culture and history.