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The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture (Vintage) Paperback – December 12, 1970
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"I cannot begin to touch on the riches of this book. It is packed with detail without being dry, vivd without being 'colorful,' and wide-randing without crying up special theories." --Elizabeth Janeway, Books Today
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Billington begins his book with a Preface in which he explains his understanding of an interpretive cultural history, explores the notions behind the artifacts of the icon and the axe, and traces out his cultural history of Russia. This is followed by a section detailing his Acknowledgements. The first part of the book is entitled "Background". Here, Billington begins by detailing the earliest history of modern Russia as it existed in "Kiev", the role of the Slavs and Mongols, and the arrival of Christianity in the form of Eastern Orthodoxy. Billington explores ancient Russia literature and various sagas and lays. Following this, Billington turns to "The Forest" where he traces out Russia's earliest history, noting the relationship between the ancient tribes, how Eastern Christianity came to dominate, and the history of earliest Russia. Billington details this through sections exploring "Axe and Icon" and "Bell and Cannon". The second part of this book is entitled "The Confrontation" and explores the early Fourteenth to the early Seventeenth centuries. Billington traces out "The Muscuvite Ideology", noting the rise of Moscow as the "third Rome", tracing the heritage of the Russian rulers from the time of the semi-legendary Riurik, and exploring the mystical traditions of the Eastern Church and the Hesychasts. Billington next examines "The Coming of the West", noting the problematic role of Russia's relationship with the West. Billington discusses such things as "Novgorod", ""The Latins"", ""The Germans"", and "The Religious Wars". In particular, Billington notes the importance of Spain on Russia, the relationship between the Eastern churches and the Roman Catholics, the role of the tsars and the tsar seen as an Old Testament king, the notion of "Holy Rus", and various other relationships between Russia and the West. The third part of this book is entitled "The Century of Schism" and discusses history between the periods of the Mid-Seventeenth to the Mid-Eighteenth centuries. Billington discusses such things as "The Split Within" mentioning the schism of 1667 and considering such responses as "The Theocratic Answer", "The Fundamentalist Answer", and "The Great Change". Billington also discusses "The Westward Turn" mentioning such things as "New Religious Answers", "The Sectarian Tradition", "The New World of St. Petersburg", and "The Defense of Muscovy". The fourth part of this book is entitled "The Century of Aristocratic Culture" and discusses the Mid-Eighteenth to the Mid-Nineteenth centuries. Billington first discusses "The Troubled Enlightenment". Here, Billington examines such topics as "The Dilemma of the Reforming Despot", "The Fruits of the Enlightenment", "The Alienation of the Intellectuals", "Novikov and Masonry", and "The Frustration of Political Reform". Following this, Billington examines "The Anti-Enlightenment". Billington examines the forces operating against the Enlightenment in the form of the "Catholics", the "Pietists", the "Orthodox", and "The Legacy". Next, Billington considers ""The Cursed Questions"", examining the problems taken up by aristocratic intellectuals. Billington examines such topics as "The Flight to Philosophy", "The Meaning of History", "The Prophetic Role of Art", "The Missing Madonna", and "The "Hamlet Question"". The fifth part of this book is entitled "On to New Shores" and examines thought as it developed in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Billington examines such issues as "The Turn to Social Thought", "The Agony of Populist Art", and "New Perspectives of the Waning Century" (including discussion of "Constitutional Liberalism", "Dialectical Materialism", and "Mystical Idealism"). The sixth part of this book is entitled "The Uncertain Collosus" and examines the period of the Twentieth century including the rise of the Soviets. Billington first devotes a section entitled "Crescendo" in which he examines periods following the revolution of 1917 and discussing such things as "Prometheanism", "Sensualism", and "Apocalypticism". Following this, Billington discusses "The Soviet Era" mentioning such topics as "The Leninist Legacy" and "The Revenge of Muscovy". Next, Billington discusses "Fresh Ferment", mentioning some of the accomplishments in Russian culture under Bolshevism. Here, Billington discusses such things as "The Reprise of Pasternak" and "New Voices". This part ends with a discussion of "The Irony of Russian History". Here, Billington discusses the concept of irony and absurdity, traces the role of Russian history from the time of the tsars to the post-Stalinist era, and discusses Russia in a post-Stalinist world. The book ends with an extremely detailed Bibliography, References, and an Index.
This book offers an extremely rich source of valuable material on Russia's unique and lasting cultural contributions. Many themes play out throughout the book including the natural spirituality of the Russian people and the role of the Eastern churches, the history of the Russian tsars and the courtly culture, the role of aristocrats and intellectuals, the role of artists, writers, and poets, the problematic of Russia's relationship with the West, and finally the rise of the Soviet state and Russia under the Soviets. If one seeks to understand these contributions of Russian culture, one can surely look in no better source than here. While the book is difficult, it remains an essential study meandering through the threads of Russian cultural history and bringing forth much detailed and rich information. It is highly recommended to all those who seek to understand in depth Russian culture.
Top international reviews
This is relevant reading nowadays in the era of Vladimir Putin, because Billington traces the origin of 'Rus' back to its roots in the Ukraine. This past does not justify Putin's invasion of the Ukraine, but it certainly explains the reluctance of the average Russian to leave the Ukraine alone and independent.
The irony is that early Rus was founded by Scandinavian kings, and there was considerable intermarriage with early European rulers, so Rus looked both west and east in its earliest days. If only 21st century Russian politics could be as flexible and open as medieval Rus was!