The Icon and the Axe by James Billington is a classic that profoundly influenced the development of Russian cultural history, stated Michael David-Fox, Associate Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of History, Georgetown University, and former Title-VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, on a 3 February 2012 panel that included Eric Lohr, Director, Initiative for Russian Culture and Associate Professor, American University and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute; and Kathleen Parthé, Professor of Russian, Director of Russian Studies, University of Rochester, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute. The panelists shared about their personal observations on the book and its influence on the field and their scholarly careers.

David-Fox contended that that The Icon and the Axe was not so much a classic work of history in the traditional sense, but rather a ground-breaking classic in the new field of Russian cultural history. The book reconfigured the prevalent narrative of post-war Russian historians. By deviating from the Westernizing narrative of Russia, Billington produced a distinctive narrative of Russian history that was highly cultural but contextualized and blended culture, politics, Orthodoxy and intellectual life together.

Billington swept across the chronological boundaries of Russian history using a nexus of culture and politics and connecting them with cultural continuities and themes, David-Fox explained. Unlike other works, however, The Icon and the Axe avoided reductionism and had no single, historical “master key” to unlock understanding of patterns in Russian history. The two namesake symbols of the book, the icon and the axe, represent the visionary and the earthly, the religious and military, and the spiritual and material, but they were not dichotomously opposite. Billington showcased how the icon was wielded militantly while the axe was used delicately. There are multiple dimensions to Russian culture and history, and Billington created a non-deterministic, flexible framework from which there was no rigid causality but instead a cross over and connection between events.

Lohr recounted his experience with the book and what he thought made the work compelling. The speaker found that Billington’s focus on Russian engagement with large religious and philosophical questions made the book compelling. The book’s emphasis on religion and Russian traditions of art and ascetics both inspires and teaches, according to Lohr. Billington was able use religion to create explicit connections between older history and modern Russia, with bold jumps between the two subjects. Lohr believed that the most difficult task for Russia will be to reconnect to their culture and history without becoming overly nationalistic.  The Icon and the Axe offers an alternative narrative of Russian culture, argued Lohr, as one that is traditionally spiritual rather than nationalist in nature.

Kathleen Parthé concentrated on how Billington possessed an “insider’s knowledge” of the Russian identity. The book gets into the “interior” of Russia where nature and non-human agency is a powerful force. She noted that many Russian elites and scholars treated Billington with respect and as an authoritative figure in scholarship.

The book is successful in reaching an “interior” perspective because no individual dominated the book, Parthe said. The book has no mentions of battles or generals and rulers and cultural heroes do not dominate the book but rather “have to earn their way in.” By contrast, many historical individuals that were considered to be on the periphery of importance received attention. These choices, Parthé explained, was made to reflect Russian perspectives more accurately: that individual Russians are subordinate to the greater common creative quest and conflict that has shaped Russia. This produced continuity in the book that was established and not merely stated.

Billington briefly spoke at the end of the seminar reflecting on Russia and developments since publication. Russian culture and sprit, he described, has been influenced by Orthodoxy and feeling for nature.

Switching from Russia to the broader study of history, Billington emphasized the need for recognizing the importance of internal processes and transformations that occur in people. He referenced what he considered the two biggest global transformations in the last 50 years, the explosion of Iran and radical Islam and the implosion of the USSR. Both were unanticipated because of a lack of understanding in the internal thoughts and changes in the people of these states. He also cited the meltdown of the moral imperative of globalization after the 2008 financial crisis as the most recent unanticipated, global transformation that needs closer study.

By Max Votey
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute 

The Kennan Institute speaker series is made possible through the generous support of the Title VIII Program of the U.S. Department of State.