The Icon and the Axe : An Interpretive History of Russian Culture

The Icon and the Ax is subtitled an “interpretive history” of Russia.  It tells the story of Russia from its origins as the Kievian Rus through the 1960s Soviet Union when the book was written.  The author, James Billington, loves Russia and this comes through clearly when he laments the Soviet destruction of Russian culture. During early Russian history, the focus of the story is on leaders and historical events.  As the narrative draws closer to the present the emphasis shifts to philosophy, thought and the arts in Russia. If you are interested in Russia and willing to invest some effort, I strongly recommend reading this book.

Depending on your previous knowledge you will gain different insights from this book.  If you already about the history of the arts (writing, plays, music, painting…) and philosophy in Europe, you will come to understand how Russian thought compares, draws, and influenced European thought.  If you already know the facts and events in Russian history, you gain a better understanding of why these events happened and how they affected the Russian psyche.  If you start without much knowledge of their of these topics (my case), you will learn the plot of Russian history and gain insights into how Russians think.  Unfortunately, if you do not already have a lot of background information, the book will take some effort to follow.  There are allusions to and discussion  many different thinkers, politicians, czars, books, plays, paintings and historical events.  It can be difficult to keep them all straight at times.

The Icon and the Ax and is long and densely written.  Each chapter is about 40 pages and I read at a pace of one chapter per weekend.  It was limited by the amount of mental energy it took to read and digest the information in each chapter.  Reading at this pace it will take a long time to finish this book, so I recommend taking some notes after each chapter.  This will help you retain the information and you can refer back to these notes while reading future chapters.  Reading this book is a worthwhile–but not easy–mental endeavor.

While many threads ran through this book, in this review I will only discuss a few of the ones I found especially interesting.

  • When you read at all about Russia, you are guaranteed to hear about the intellectual battle over whether to follow Europe or Asia and how Russia is part European and part Asian.  I was always a little confused by this because the Russians (to my knowledge) have never interacted extensively with the Japanese, Chinese or Indians (the centers of the East) and are not Buddhists.I got a better understanding of this struggle from this book.  The Mongol (Tartar) invasion which overthrew the Kievan Rus had a large influence on the development of Russia.  The Tartars remain in Russia to this day and the effects of their invasion linger.  The Russian have at times both hated the Tartars and viewed them as national heroes.

    There are also the “Old Believers” who wanted to follow the traditional Orthodox Christian beliefs and Russian ways and fled from Peter the Great into Siberia.  The Old Believers and their thoughts have been present ever since.  Their “Eastern” ideals battled with Peter’s “Western” secular goals.

    Various philosophical ideas from Western Europe have flowed into Russia and been met with resistance.  They have been seen both as corrupting Russia and destroying its morals at the same time as being a path to wealth and greatness.

  • Russian leaders have often tried to import the successes of Western Europe without following the reforms that Western Europe underwent to attain these successes.  This led to numerous problems because the Western successes were a byproduct of political reforms and decreasing government power, not random occurrences.A cyclical pattern ensued.  A Czar would bring in intellectuals from the West, start printing presses, and grow the universities in the hopes of growing industry, and developing a Russia as a cultural leader.  Intellectual discourse would ensue, but eventually the intellectuals would question the Czar.  Why should he/she be an absolute ruler?  What gave him the right to rule the country at his whim?

    Academic discussion of this matter was not what the Czar had envisioned.  It was upsetting to a monarch whose power had not had his power checked like those of the Western monarchs.  If left unchecked, discussion of this topic probably would have spelled an end to the Czars.  The Czars seeing this problem would crack down on the intellectuals and roll back the freedoms.

    On the surface, the “openings” were major changes, but most of the change was shallow and in the end a facade.

  • Russian thought is very dark.  My first experience of it was reading Crime and Punishment my senior year in high school.  Until recently I hadn’t thought of this as being typical Russian literature, but it appears to be typically Russian.Over the course of history, many Russian intellectuals have committed suicide or gone insane.  Hamlet is one of the most popular plays in Russia.  Morbid thoughts probably stem from Russian suffering and failed political reforms.  At low points in Russian history so many men were being killed that the sex ratio reached 20 to 1 in parts of Russia.

    Unsurprisingly Russians are drawn to theories where their suffering leads to some greater good or redemption for the world.  They like unifying theories of history which bring meaning to their suffering and a direction for the future.

  • I had not realized the disillusionment and consequent apathy Russians felt at the time of the writing of this book (the 1960s).  The Russians lost a war to Japan and the First World War at the beginning of the 20th century.  Both wars involved massive losses of life.  The Russians then endured Stalin:  his purges and destruction killed millions.  When things could not get any worse, the Second World War came.  Although the Russians won World War II, they were nearly drowned in their own blood.  When Russia emerged from World War II, Stalin remained at its helm and his killing continued.Billington talks about how the Communist leadership was upset [at the time of the book’s writing] by the apathy of the youth.  The young generation was not weeded by war and had access to more education than their parents, yet they would not buy into the plan the communist party had for them.  How can you blame someone who has seen their father, grandfather, and probably great grandfather killed by the government for not expecting to live a life worth investing in?  How can you blame someone whose grandparents fought for a revolution which turned into a bloodbath for not working for great societal changes?

    Every Russian you meet today had a family member killed in World War II.  In the 1960s these dead men and women were not ancestors but parents, siblings, and friends.

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