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The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture

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"A rich and readable introduction to the whole sweep of Russian cultural and intellectual history from Kievan times to the post-Khruschev era." --Library Journal. Complete with Illustrations, references and 32 pages of index, this is an exhaustive history of Russia and its peoples. "A rich and readable introduction to the whole sweep of Russian cultural and intellectual history from Kievan times to the post-Khruschev era." --Library Journal. Complete with Illustrations, references and 32 pages of index, this is an exhaustive history of Russia and its peoples.


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"A rich and readable introduction to the whole sweep of Russian cultural and intellectual history from Kievan times to the post-Khruschev era." --Library Journal. Complete with Illustrations, references and 32 pages of index, this is an exhaustive history of Russia and its peoples. "A rich and readable introduction to the whole sweep of Russian cultural and intellectual history from Kievan times to the post-Khruschev era." --Library Journal. Complete with Illustrations, references and 32 pages of index, this is an exhaustive history of Russia and its peoples.

30 review for The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture

  1. 5 out of 5

    ☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣

    While a decent attempt at getting the Russian culture, it was just that, an attempt. Patchy. For example, Scythians and Slavic paganism and the gathering of the ancient peoples, out of which the Kiev Rus was created are dismissed, along with everything folk, all legends. I don't think the great prince Monomakh, Alesander Nevsky (a saint and a prince and a warrior), Konstantine Balmont, Zinaida Gippius and many other were adequately portrayed (or at all). Some things the author got better than th While a decent attempt at getting the Russian culture, it was just that, an attempt. Patchy. For example, Scythians and Slavic paganism and the gathering of the ancient peoples, out of which the Kiev Rus was created are dismissed, along with everything folk, all legends. I don't think the great prince Monomakh, Alesander Nevsky (a saint and a prince and a warrior), Konstantine Balmont, Zinaida Gippius and many other were adequately portrayed (or at all). Some things the author got better than the other ones, such as Peter the Great's role, the Old Believers, Catherine the Great's intellectualistic endeavors and Enlightenment... The other ones are ... sort of misinterpreted, like 'Voltaire's chair'? It's not a cultural thing, the term's never been in use in Russia. Flagellant tradition was never in big vogue..., since the Orthodox Christian faith is largely more inclined to help people reach the light than destroy the flesh... Destroying the flesh has never been a big problem in most regions of Russia, anyway, one can just walk out in winter inadequately clothed and - voila! - no pesky flesh anymore. It's keeping healthy that has always been more challenging. DNFing this for the time being, since, well, I know most of this already and the inconsistencies are not too entertaining a material. Of course, stuffing thousands of years of cultural advancement in under 1000 pages is a daunting task, practically unfeasible, which gets this volume its 3d star. Q: ...Russian culture is a tale of three cities: Kiev, Moscow, and St. Petersberg... (c) Well, as long as people's thinking is as rudimentary as that, no one's going to understand even the basics. What about the rural culture? Or do they think there was none?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    I entered Grinnell College with the intention of becoming a professor of history like one of those fine individuals, two of whom had gone to the same college, who taught the subject at my high school. During the sophomore year I took Greg Guroff's year-long, eight-semester-hour credit Russian History course. Guroff was Russian himself, a collector of icons and, strange for Grinnell at the time, a political conservative. Unsurprisingly, he went on later to work for the State Department. At the tim I entered Grinnell College with the intention of becoming a professor of history like one of those fine individuals, two of whom had gone to the same college, who taught the subject at my high school. During the sophomore year I took Greg Guroff's year-long, eight-semester-hour credit Russian History course. Guroff was Russian himself, a collector of icons and, strange for Grinnell at the time, a political conservative. Unsurprisingly, he went on later to work for the State Department. At the time, however, he was in continuous struggle with us, his students, to try to pound into our heads the information and perspectives which had shaped his intellectual understanding of Russia and its history. He was by far the most demanding professor I ever had at Grinnell, demanding not only quite a lot of reading, but also an enormous amount of writing--several substantial papers a term. I liked the reading, doing much of it in the music listening rooms of the library while listening to Russian classical music and opera, but the writing was almost too much. I didn't figure out how to manage that kind of work until the end of that year and didn't really write anything of academic note until the senior thesis. Still, I got by. Guroff did the usual lecture/discussion class arrangement, the discussions often being arguments because of his political differences with most of the students. The one exception to this was the visit of Dr. Billington, Guroff's own teacher from Princeton, who visited the college during the course of the year and was staying at the school's guesthouse. On that occasion we went to see the great man, the twenty to thirty of us crammed into the guesthouse's living-room reception area, most of us on the floor facing him in his winged chair. I don't particularly recall what he said, just the sun streaming through the windows and the uncomfortableness of a cross-legged position. I was, however, impressed enough by his talk to go out and purchase his 'The Icon and the Axe' at the college bookstore. Obviously, I didn't read it then. I didn't read it for decades. I was too busy with school, with politics, with social activities. When I did read it, though, I was happy to have obtained the thing and impressed enough to pass my copy on--after buying another copy--to a scholarly old Croatian fellow I know in the neighborhood.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    I wouldn't call this an exhaustive study of Russia, as the blurb does. (Though it is exhausting.) It is a cultural history as the book's title indicates. Large chunks are given over to religious history, which you would never know from reading the back of the book. There's lots of intellectual and philosophical history (of which I began ignorant, and finished half-ignorant) and analysis of Russian artists, writers, and composers. Military history is superficially dealt with. A chronology of Russ I wouldn't call this an exhaustive study of Russia, as the blurb does. (Though it is exhausting.) It is a cultural history as the book's title indicates. Large chunks are given over to religious history, which you would never know from reading the back of the book. There's lots of intellectual and philosophical history (of which I began ignorant, and finished half-ignorant) and analysis of Russian artists, writers, and composers. Military history is superficially dealt with. A chronology of Russian leaders and tsars should have been included, up front with the map. There are an astonishing 160 pages of endnotes; Billington did an impressive amount of research.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Paul Jellinek

    A dense but richly rewarding cultural history of Russia. What is especially impressive is that in this book, which was published in 1966--25 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union--Billington makes a persuasive case that the Communists will eventually lose their grip and fall from power because of deep-seated internal historical and cultural forces that have characterized Russia's development from its earliest days. While this book will give you a whole new appreciation for the complexity A dense but richly rewarding cultural history of Russia. What is especially impressive is that in this book, which was published in 1966--25 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union--Billington makes a persuasive case that the Communists will eventually lose their grip and fall from power because of deep-seated internal historical and cultural forces that have characterized Russia's development from its earliest days. While this book will give you a whole new appreciation for the complexity and drama of Russian history--and for Russian literature, music, and art--Billington's insights extend well beyond Russia to the meaning of history itself.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brett C

    This plethora of information goes from the pre-Romanov era through sixth century to the reign of Joseph Stalin. It covers art, music, literature, philosophy, mythology and more — the book provides readers with an alluring portrayal of Russia’s proud heritage. This book is fact heavy and quite expansive. If you have the time to digest all of this, it will be worth the while!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    This book had a "horrifying beauty." Two tools symbolize Russia: The Icon and the Axe. The icon is the heart of Russia, the concrete vehicle of spiritual truth. The icon illustrates Russian theology: theology is beauty and is best communicated in terms of the beautiful. Russian churches, for example, are bell and onion-shaped. The dome in a very real sense symbolizes heaven, or rather heaven on earth. The icon was more than just a picture. It was the lives of the saints. The saints were living i This book had a "horrifying beauty." Two tools symbolize Russia: The Icon and the Axe. The icon is the heart of Russia, the concrete vehicle of spiritual truth. The icon illustrates Russian theology: theology is beauty and is best communicated in terms of the beautiful. Russian churches, for example, are bell and onion-shaped. The dome in a very real sense symbolizes heaven, or rather heaven on earth. The icon was more than just a picture. It was the lives of the saints. The saints were living icons. Father Zosima in *The Brothers Karamazov* is one example. "Each icon reminded man of God's involvement in human affairs" (35). The axe was the peasant's survival. It allowed him to hew an existence out of the primeval forest. The forest was to the Russian Orthodox monk what the desert was to the Eastern Orthodox monk: a brutal environment in which to fight the demonic hordes. THE THIRD ROME While it is true that "Third Rome" ideology was a desperate move by monks to form a pan-Slavic mentality, in another sense Russia was indeed the final Rome. Prince Vladimir sought to recreate Kiev after Constantinople. And it was Holy Russia that opened its arms to its Greek brothers fleeing the Turkish hordes. Who better, in an ethnic and religious sense, to occupy the final Roman Empire than the Russian Tsar?

  7. 5 out of 5

    Fred Dameron

    This is a wonderfully informative book about why Russians think the way they do. Why Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Lermontov, and the rest of the Russian pantheon of writers, musicians, and artists think, wrote, composed, chiseled and painted the way they did. That being said this is not an easy read. After 50 to 60 pages one has to stop and digest what has been said. This is a must book for any one who is serious about his/her love of Russian literature, music, art, or generally Russian culture. This is a wonderfully informative book about why Russians think the way they do. Why Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Lermontov, and the rest of the Russian pantheon of writers, musicians, and artists think, wrote, composed, chiseled and painted the way they did. That being said this is not an easy read. After 50 to 60 pages one has to stop and digest what has been said. This is a must book for any one who is serious about his/her love of Russian literature, music, art, or generally Russian culture. For example there is a 50 page discussion about the schism between Nikon and the established Orthodox Church, 20 pages on Dostoyevsky, and a whole chapter on Pasternak. All well written and complete leaving the reader with a far better understanding of these authors or the greatest religious event in Russian Orthodox History. All extremely useful to the person trying to better understand Russia, Russians, or their cultural heritage which in modern times can lead one to understand why the current ruling power acts the way they do. A great read for those who care to take the time.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I remember that I read this decades ago and found it fascinating. At 79, I could never tackle such a work now. It gives you a panoramic view of Russian history but especially the culture. I knew very little of Russian history then, and first discovered the depth of the Russian soul, for lack of a better word, and their tremendous pride in knowing how to suffer and prevail. From reading about the Scythians, to their battles and bargains with the Tatars, to their embracing of the Orthodox faith, an I remember that I read this decades ago and found it fascinating. At 79, I could never tackle such a work now. It gives you a panoramic view of Russian history but especially the culture. I knew very little of Russian history then, and first discovered the depth of the Russian soul, for lack of a better word, and their tremendous pride in knowing how to suffer and prevail. From reading about the Scythians, to their battles and bargains with the Tatars, to their embracing of the Orthodox faith, and the behavior of the czars, and more, I could not recommend this more.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Julio Pino

    "Russia is an autocracy softened by assassination." This was true of the birth year of the Romanovs, 1613, and is still true today. The village priest, vodka, and the occasional ax are the true rulers of Russia. James Billington, historian and later Librarian of Congress, set out to explore how so many people could survive so much misery under so many regimes and still remain one nation. Recommended for scholars of all things Russian, e.g. Dostoevsky and Stalin, but also to those who ponder why "Russia is an autocracy softened by assassination." This was true of the birth year of the Romanovs, 1613, and is still true today. The village priest, vodka, and the occasional ax are the true rulers of Russia. James Billington, historian and later Librarian of Congress, set out to explore how so many people could survive so much misery under so many regimes and still remain one nation. Recommended for scholars of all things Russian, e.g. Dostoevsky and Stalin, but also to those who ponder why Russia did not develop into a democracy after 1991.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl Anne

    A good primer on Russian culture. A literary counterpart to Billington's wonderful documentary series "The Face of Russia." A good primer on Russian culture. A literary counterpart to Billington's wonderful documentary series "The Face of Russia."

  11. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Shea

    Could not finish. I read 300 of 600 pages. Obviously the author is a very learned professor and knows everything about 300 years of Russian history. Much of this cultural history is description of religious “hair splitting” by various sects. I decided my time would be spent in another book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Remains, I imagine, the final word on the subject.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    People really like to generalize about Russia and Russians. It can't be so, well, easy. It's a big place. I found the book very dense and I sometimes got irritated with the generalizations. People really like to generalize about Russia and Russians. It can't be so, well, easy. It's a big place. I found the book very dense and I sometimes got irritated with the generalizations.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    WHY. JUST, WHY.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Francis J.

    Read it every four years. Contains the great spirit of the Russian people.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Zack

    Heavy going. Fun insights. Would love some scholar to undertake an update. I think it requires more knowledge of intellectual history than it should.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Spotted Towhee

    There's a lot of good information in this book, and I'm glad to have read it. But it's hard to recommend without reservations: -While Billington makes an effort throughout the book to tie the happenings of art, literature, & philosophy into the greater tapestry of events in the world (social, political, economic, et cetera), very often the bigger picture falls away, leaving a select group of writers & artists to stand in for larger changes which are barely touched on (if at all). This can give an There's a lot of good information in this book, and I'm glad to have read it. But it's hard to recommend without reservations: -While Billington makes an effort throughout the book to tie the happenings of art, literature, & philosophy into the greater tapestry of events in the world (social, political, economic, et cetera), very often the bigger picture falls away, leaving a select group of writers & artists to stand in for larger changes which are barely touched on (if at all). This can give an impression of great men turning the wheels of culture, a decade or more summed up in a few writers and as many painters. Not a terrible thing if one's versed in Russian history, but disorienting if one is not - particularly with his habit of jumping back and forth over a few decades as he follows one person's work for a while before returning to the early days of that person's contemporary. My knowledge of Russian history is a patchwork affair, so I find it occasionally time-saving but just as often disappointing. Certainly would not recommend for somebody's firt book on the subject. - His orientialism was grating. Not uncommon for history books to act as if European cultures existed in a bubble, totally unaffected by anything outside their sub-continent. Ahistorical, but something one should expect when looking into books like this. But there are a number of times when Billington does gesture towards non-European influence on Russian thinkers, only to handwave it away with a dismissive comment about "world-weary Oriental philosophy", a common but terrible summation of a huge array of diverse cultural modes & worldviews which often share very little in common, and what they do share is not "world-weariness". Indeed, some are much more intertwined with Christianity (sometimes European, sometimes not) than with many of the philosophies they're lumped in with! Disappointing and frustrating, though I know the scholarly approach to such things has only been changing fairly recently (and even that, slowly). Didn't expect much better from a book written when it was by who it was, but it's a flaw nonetheless. - He spends a little bit of time on anti-semitism in the earlier years, but it gets very little mention at all during the time I'm most familiar with. Anti-semitism among the Romanovs and many of their supporters was at a fever pitch through quite a bit of the 19th & early 20th century, during which time the tsarist secret police forge the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and it's disseminated throughout Europe. That book in particular was hugely popular among fascist movements across Europe and many others besides, and Billington's failure to grapple with that legacy is a major error. I understand a wish to focus more on the many wonderful aspects of the culture and to not spend as long on the awfulness, but to let it by without a mention is too much. - There was a real head scratcher when discussing Bakunin & the Russian intellectuals inspired by Romanticism, an extended consideration of how they were probably all suppressing homosexual desire, or that they at least had a sort of Platonic homosexual desire. While I could believe some of them were gay, his evidence was not convincing. It all seemed very tenuous & it made me reconsider his portrayal of other historical figures. Billington had quite the talent for portraying an era; the work is enjoyable to read (when he's not talking nonsense) and I've come away with a better appreciation for the history of Russian culture and the many forms it has taken. But I'll have to find another history if I want to introduce the broad sweeps of the culture to anybody else.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    This was a doozy. I learned a lot about the cultural history of Russia, most of which was totally new to me, so I'm glad I read it. It kind of covers the cultural movements throughout Russia's history, with a lot of attention to the books, poetry, music, theater, etc., of the various periods. It was interesting to learn about the context of some cultural works I am familiar with, such as the books of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I also learned a lot about the various Tsars and their various reformist This was a doozy. I learned a lot about the cultural history of Russia, most of which was totally new to me, so I'm glad I read it. It kind of covers the cultural movements throughout Russia's history, with a lot of attention to the books, poetry, music, theater, etc., of the various periods. It was interesting to learn about the context of some cultural works I am familiar with, such as the books of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I also learned a lot about the various Tsars and their various reformist/crackdown policies, and the changing role of the Orthodox church over time. And then of course the Soviet revolution. It probably would have been more interesting/useful if I were more familiar with the general history of Russia before reading this book. A lot of that was assumed knowledge, so some things went right over my head.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mattias Ehatamm

    This book has no pretentions to be an introductory guide to Russian cultural history, and makes it very clear that the only events it will focus on are the cultural. Without a strong previous grasp of Russian political history and major European events/movements, it is very easy to get completely lost in this book and its glossing over major context. That said, it is a massive feat to even attempt to string together the often incoherent outputs of hundreds of years of Russian culture, and to mak This book has no pretentions to be an introductory guide to Russian cultural history, and makes it very clear that the only events it will focus on are the cultural. Without a strong previous grasp of Russian political history and major European events/movements, it is very easy to get completely lost in this book and its glossing over major context. That said, it is a massive feat to even attempt to string together the often incoherent outputs of hundreds of years of Russian culture, and to make it to the Soviet era with your conclusions intact should be considered a massive success. I wish that slightly more time was spent on a few thinkers (mainly Turgenev, Herzen, and Lermontov), but otherwise an impressive job was done putting intellectual movements in the context of their pasts. This is a massive book with far more information than anyone could possibly keep in their mind at once, so expect to learn, a lot.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Richard Wilson

    One of the best books Ive ever read and read again maybe dozens of times, my copy looks diseased, my third copy. Billingtonweaves it all from the begininng to the middle Soviet period, Russia Through her artists...He leaves out some, most notably Platonov, but its all here, gems on every page, sto? You read something and go back to read a reference, then back again, he mentions a date, you go back, forward, you jump, you are constantly in awe. I was anyway. Repeatedly. And unlike most books abou One of the best books Ive ever read and read again maybe dozens of times, my copy looks diseased, my third copy. Billingtonweaves it all from the begininng to the middle Soviet period, Russia Through her artists...He leaves out some, most notably Platonov, but its all here, gems on every page, sto? You read something and go back to read a reference, then back again, he mentions a date, you go back, forward, you jump, you are constantly in awe. I was anyway. Repeatedly. And unlike most books about Russia he doesnt beat you over the head telling tou shitty the place is.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Graham

    If you want a massive book about a massive place, this is it. Author Billington often leads the reader into unexpected places, but more often than not, I found that a delight. Who knew, for example, that Russian has a word for "bringing something upon oneself merely by mentioning its name"? It does: naklikanie. This is a book of wonder, of depth, and offers labyrinthine possibilities for investigation. If you're looking for a quick fix this ain't it. This is the kind of book that you could take If you want a massive book about a massive place, this is it. Author Billington often leads the reader into unexpected places, but more often than not, I found that a delight. Who knew, for example, that Russian has a word for "bringing something upon oneself merely by mentioning its name"? It does: naklikanie. This is a book of wonder, of depth, and offers labyrinthine possibilities for investigation. If you're looking for a quick fix this ain't it. This is the kind of book that you could take on the trans-Siberian railway. An astonishment.

  22. 4 out of 5

    TS Allen

    "It is perhaps more correct to speak of the vulgarization of Hegelian concepts than the influence of Hegel's ideas in Russia. In either case, the impact was great--and, on the whole, disastrous... One might almost say that the Hegelian medicine turned the Russian taste for all-encompassing philosophic systems into an addiction." "It is perhaps more correct to speak of the vulgarization of Hegelian concepts than the influence of Hegel's ideas in Russia. In either case, the impact was great--and, on the whole, disastrous... One might almost say that the Hegelian medicine turned the Russian taste for all-encompassing philosophic systems into an addiction."

  23. 4 out of 5

    David

    If you’re looking for an exhaustive breakdown of highly academic writing into Russian culture and history, go no further. This book does not disappoint. The font was very dense per page with not many paragraph breaks, but nonetheless Billington does not disappoint. A must read for anyone with deep study into Russia and it’s foundations.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Griffin

    Russia is an endlessly fascinating country to me. This book gives amazing context into how the same country that produced such meaningful and passionate art/music/literature could also produce a brutal and dehumanizing totalitarian regime. Also, a pretty spot-on and prophetic prediction about the eventual demise of the USSR (it was written in 1966).

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tami Sutcliffe

    Complicated but clearly written, with a non-historian in mind. Provides a unique view of why Russia has evolved in the ways it has, and how American interactions with this complex nation can never be simple for anyone or even fully understood by both sides.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tyson Guthrie

    I’m too much of a novice in Russian history to know if Billington is a good historian, but he writes beautiful prose. He also shares my penchant for the extended (tortured?) metaphor.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Hang On

    An extremely good review of Russian culture dealing with religion, poetry, drama, painting, music and philosophy within the context of political developments.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nat

    A very thorough history of Russia with an author that was written before the fall of the Soviet Union. He correctly speculated the fall of the Soviet Union so it shows how aware Billington was.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alexandr

    Great book, if you remember the year of its publication

  30. 4 out of 5

    Assa

    Good https://ru.wikipedia.org/ Good https://ru.wikipedia.org/

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