The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is mourning the loss of friend and former Director Dr. James Billington.
Dr. Billington was Center director between 1973 and 1987, after which he served as Librarian of Congress from 1987 until 2015.
"Jim's legacy is significant. He was a scholar and an educator who played a major role in making the Wilson Center what it is today. His deep knowledge of the former Soviet Union helped generations of members of Congress, including me, learn our history. His personal tour of the Kremlin was unforgettable. He added great luster to the Library. Many of us at the Center shared admiration and affection for a truly great man," said Wilson Center Director, President, and CEO Jane Harman.
Among Dr. Billington’s lasting accomplishments at the Wilson Center was the founding of several regional studies programs that have become the hallmark of the Center’s activities. These include the Kennan Institute, the Latin America Program, and the Asia Program, among many others. He also expanded the Center’s trademark Fellowship Program and oversaw the creation of its award-winning magazine, The Wilson Quarterly.
Dr. Billington was among his generation’s seminal experts on Russian history. His book The Icon and the Axe (1966), a landmark of interpretive history, helped define American understanding of Russia.
“Jim has been a friend and a teacher for all of us in the field of Russian studies, well beyond his leadership of the Wilson Center,” said Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky. “The Icon and Axe is still the single best work on Russian cultural history in the English language.”
Dr. Billington asserted that any understanding of contemporary Russia begins with the complex and interwoven historical, cultural, and ideological underpinnings of Russian life. Such a perspective begins with Russian Orthodox thought as the set of beliefs that provide the moral foundation to Russian behavior, he argued. This perspective reflected Dr. Billington’s belief that ideas shape the world, a dynamic that he also explored in his monumental European intellectual history Fire in the Minds of Men (1980).
Dr. Billington remained associated with the Wilson Center as a trustee ex officio in his capacity as Librarian of Congress. In his honor, the Center launched the Billington Initiative three years ago, supporting the next generation of Russian cultural historians and bringing publications and events on Russian culture to a Washington audience.