"I could see that the Russia I had been reading about was still alive."
Dr. James H. Billington has been the Librarian of the
Library of Congress since 1987. Previous to this, he
taught history in Harvard and Princeton, with a special
interest in Russian history. Dr. Billington has authored
books on Russia, including Mikhailovsky and Russian
Populism (1956), The Icon and the Axe (1966), Fire in the
Minds of Men (1980), Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to
Hope, August 1991 (1992) and The Face of Russia (1998),
the companion book to the three-part television series of
the same name, which he wrote and narrated for the Public
Dr. Billington has accompanied ten
congressional delegations to Russia and the former
Soviet Union. In June 1988 he accompanied President
Ronald Reagan to the Soviet Summit in Moscow. He is
the co-founder of the Open World Program, which
invites emerging Russian leaders to visit various
regions of the United States.
Possessing a strong interest in Russian religious life,
he has also accompanied church delegations to Moscow. Now,
two months after Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)
presented his book Everday Saints at the Library of
Congress, Dr. Billington has visited the Sretensky
Monastery, and we were given an opportunity to speak with
this distinguished man.
Billington, you are well known in both Russia and in
U.S. for your love of Russian culture and literature.
Tell us about how you developed this love. What are
your favorite Russian books?
—Well, I fell in love with Russian culture by
reading War and Peace as a schoolboy, during World War II.
I then worked on the Russian language through the
literature. The literature took me through a process of
proniknovenie, or delving into the culture.
Eventually I began to study Dostoevsky, later Soloviev,
and the entire remarkable, Orthodox Christian history that
is at the base of Russian literature. It always seemed to
me that there are three things that make Russian culture
rather unique: One is its remarkable feeling for
“space”, for nature. There is also the
constant interaction with other cultures—Russia has
been a multi-ethnic society from the very beginning. But
the third force which really gave it cohesion was the
Russian Orthodox Church, which has continued to influence
the great writers, the music, the culture, and of course
the whole condition of a basically pictorial theology, as
I would describe it. I am speaking of the beautifying of
the faith pictorially, concentrating not so much on
theological argument, but rather celebrating the beauty,
the mysteries, and the continuity of the Christian faith.
As a Christian myself, I found this a very moving and
enriching experience; in America we are more familiar with
the Protestant and Catholic versions of Christianity. The
Orthodox faith was a great discovery.
Beyond that, I got to know and to see so many of the
Russian people. Even in Soviet times, and certainly since
then, I saw that there is so much good, so much positive,
and such longsuffering in the Russian spirit that it has
reinforced my interest. Most of the years in the middle of
the 1960’s were spent by me and my family in Russia,
and my children even attended Russian schools—at the
height of the Cold War. So this has been a lifelong
interest for me—to teach about Russia, and to get to
know the Russian people better.
—Besides your work at the Library of Congress,
you were also, among many other things, a twenty-year
member of the editorial advisory board of Theology
Today. You have seen Russia in all different stages of
recent history—you were here when religion was
repressed, and later witnessed the return of churches to
the Russian Orthodox Church. As a religious man, what is
your assessment of these changes?
— When I came to Russia in 1958, during Soviet
times, I first of all saw the survival of the
Church. That was a time of new repressions under
Khrushchev. Most people outside of Russia did not realize
that there was still religious repression under that
regime. But the perseverance of the Russian people could
be seen. I had also previously come with Church
delegations during the Soviet period, and saw the
The first time, I went to Sergeyev
Posad, to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, and
the new repression under Khruschev was obvious. It
was not as bad as under Stalin, but it was still
present. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of
faith. I went to a couple of classes in the seminary,
and I could see that the Russia I had been reading
about was still alive.
The Soviet Union was the first place in world history
where a system had been set up specifically to reject
religions of all kinds; it was ecumenically rejecting
religion. But rather than this new system being a success,
it was actually a success of the older faith, which
survived amidst great difficulty although not without some
compromises. Nevertheless it was a survivor and even a
reviver in a later period. I think this is interesting,
because I am not sure that so many people in Europe,
America, or even Russia think that we live in a
post-Christian era. The media and popular culture is very
indulgent. It is not particularly representative of
ordinary people, of what they believe and think. I think
this is true of both America and Russia.
I was also here during the days of August, 1991, when the
coup attempt happened, and I wrote about that. You could
say that it was no coincidence that the coup began on the
feast of the Transfiguration, which is one of the great
iconic subjects, one of the great feasts of the Orthodox
Church. There was another visual image of Orthodox
Christianity that played a role then: the image of St.
George the Trophy Bearer. It seemed that Russians were not
just discovering modern technology and other things from
the West, in which they hadn’t been fully able to
participate, but they were recovering their own
past—the forgotten part, the religious part of their
Russia you are seeing a revival of the Church, its
activities, and religious professions. But that is
also true in America, as it is in other parts of the
world—in Africa, for instance, where
Christianity is growing. We recently had the former
president of Brazil at the Library of Congress, and
he said, “We are the largest Catholic country
in the world. We are also the largest Pentecostal
country in the world.”
So, Christianity is spreading in many forms. I suppose it
is all God’s Providence. It is growing in many
different ways, and in many different degrees in people.
It is not just a matter of faith, although it always is
that, but of—and this may stand up to scholarly
investigation—a flourishing of
Christianity—mostly in the southern hemisphere, but
also in America and Russia, which are frontier
civilizations on the outskirts of European civilization.
We now have a joint program in the Library of Congress
with Russia of digitalization of documents called,
“The Meeting of Frontiers”. These two frontier
societies have developed later than European
civilization—American society even later than
Russian society, which basically developed in the eleventh
century; that is when its distinct identity began.
It is about the survival of religious faith. Many people
came to America to escape religious persecution in their
own countries. But I think that both these countries have
a survival of Christianity, although it is somewhat
chaotic. It is a revival deep in the human spirit, and
widespread in people who don’t necessarily control
the media. Those people have better things to do than to
waste their time with celebrities’ divorces, and the
—Dr. Billington, as we speak about the
cooperation of cultures on a religious platform, perhaps
the performance by the Sretensky Monastery Choir in the
Library of Congress was a kind of model of presenting
religious art. What was your impression of this concert
that took place there two months ago?
We were of course very happy to have them perform, and
particularly happy to have them perform religious music.
Although it was modern music, and I more prefer
Znameny chant, because I am interested in the
period of the Old Believer schism and the traumatic
contact with the West under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. I
relate that period to the general religious crisis
happening during the religious wars of Europe. I feel it
was part and parcel of the same thing.
We have an exhibit in the Library of Congress of
“Russian America”, mainly of Alaska—the
archives of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America.
It is a very moving story, because they recorded many
languages and played a very educational role in part of
what is now America.
In addition, there was recently a very successful
presentation of the English language version of
Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov’s) book, Everyday
Saints and Other Stories in the Library of Congress.
This is a very nice book, because people don’t pay
much attention to everyday saints. You get a lot of
publication in the media and everywhere about everyday
criminals and everyday scandals, but you don’t hear
much about everyday saints. I for one would like to read
more about everyday saints. Their stories are not always
told. Ithink this book could have a strong resonance with
American people as well.
—We thank you Dr. Billington for taking time to
talk with us.