In the turbulent decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, conditions have worsened considerably for many Russians, and a wide-ranging debate has raged over the nature and destiny of their country. In Russia in Search of Itself, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress and a noted expert on Russia, examines the efforts of a proud but troubled nation to find a post-Soviet identity. The agenda has not been controlled from the top-down and center-out as in Russia’s past. Nor has it been set by any intellectual giant such as Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn.

Billington describes the contentious discussion occurring all over Russia and across the political spectrum. He finds conflicts raging within individuals as much as between individuals and organized groups and finds a deep underlying tension between the Russians’ attempts to legitimize their new, nominally democratic identity, and their efforts to craft a new version of their old authoritarian tradition. After showing how the problem of Russian identity was framed in the past, Billington asks whether Russians will now look more to the West for a place in the common European home, or to the East for a new, Eurasian identity. Billington sees three elements shaping Russian culture: Orthodox Christianity; a special feeling for nature; and an intermittent, sometimes excessive passion for imported innovation. Out of this mix, he suggests, Russia must find its own moral anchor for its venture into democracy if it is to avoid falling back on a negative and authoritarian nationalism in order to recreate some sense of common purpose in society.

The prospects for world peace in the twenty-first century depend in large measure on the way Russians decide to define themselves in the next few years. Drawing on his vast knowledge of Russian history, his frequent visits to Russia in the past decade, and his longstanding relationships with Russians from many different regions and segments of society, Billington provides an authoritative exploration of one of the world’s most pressing issues.

James H. Billington has been the Librarian of Congress since 1987. The originator and guiding force of two major Russian-American bipartisan initiatives in Congress in the 1990s—Meeting of the Frontiers, a bilingual, online educational library; and the Open World Program, which has brought more than 7,500 emerging young Russian leaders to America—he also founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in 1974 as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, he is the author of five books on Russia, including, most recently, Russia Transformed and The Face of Russia.



I. The Long Prologue
1. The Nineteenth-Century Discovery of Identity
2. The Twentieth-Century Search for Legitimacy

II. The Quickening Quest
3. A New Nation in Search of Identity
4. The Authoritarian Alternative: Eurasianism
5. The Travails of a Democratic Identity

Bibliographic Postscript


“What form Russia will take is of major significance for the world, but of course no one is more interested than the Russians themselves, who are already busily attempting both to divine and determine that future. Russia in Search of Itself allows us to eavesdrop on Russia’s national conversation, which ranges from the brilliant to the boozy (and wouldn’t be Russian if it didn’t).”—Richard Lourie, Washington Post (full review).

“Russia has been in search of itself for a long time. For the present state of the old vs. new debate there is no better guide than this short book by James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress since 1987.”—Walter Laqueur, The Moscow

“Modest in scale (but not conception)…Russia in Search of Itself ought to be required beach reading for the administration’s policy-makers…  Most political prognostications benefit from being qualified and hedged. Mr. Billington, guided by the extraordinary history of the land and people he knows so well, here courageously opts for the opposite approach.”—Martin Sieff, Washington Times

“If you want to be ahead of the crowd in understanding it [contemporary Russia's intellectual ferment ‘in spite of the growing repressiveness of the current regime’], read James Billington.”—Times Literary Supplement

“The style is in many ways more literary than political science, but its content treads confidently across today’s Russia.”—Edwin Bacon, Political Studies Review

“An engaging look at Russian identity formation through the lens of intellectual history.”—Alison Rowley, Canadian Slavonic Papers

Russia in Search of Itself ought to be required beach reading for the administration’s foreign policy-makers.”—Martin Sieff, Sunday Times

“A slim but extraordinarily useful survey of the main currents in Russian thought and letters in the post-Soviet era.”—Martin Walker, International Affairs

“James Billington, one of America’s greatest experts on Russian history and culture, applies his knowledge of the past to Russia’s present. The result is both literate and readable, a book anyone interested in the subject will need to buy.”—Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History

Russia in Search of Itself offers an indispensable guide to current Russian thinking about the eternal question of Russia’s identity and the historic roots of the lively debate in which Russians today are engaged. His study illuminates the moral and spiritual roots for both pessimism and optimism about the path Russia may choose.”—James F. Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia

“Jim Billington has reminded us yet again of why he is a giant in the field of Russian studies. His wisdom about what is happening in Russia today—and what may happen there in the future—is rooted in his profound knowledge of its history. To have tackled a subject as complex as Russian identity and the Russian national idea with such concision, clarity, and confidence is a major achievement.”—Strobe Talbott, author of The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy