THE ICON AND THE AXE: AN INTERPRETIVE HISTORY OF RUSSIAN CULTURE BY JAMES BILLINGTON
This is an interpretive history of modern Russian thought and culture. The period under consideration is the last six hundred years, during which Russia has emerged as a powerful, distinctive, creative civilization. Two artifacts of enduring meaning to Russians – the icon and the axe have been chosen for the title. The two objects were traditionally hung together on the wall of the peasant hut in the wooded Russian north. They serve to suggest both the visionary and the earthy aspects of Russian culture. The eternal split between the saintly and the demonic in all human culture, is however, not provided in the Russian case by any simple contrast between holy pictures and unholy weapons. For icons have been used by charlatans and demagogues, and axes by saints and artists. Thus, the initial focus on these primitive artifacts contains a hint of the ironic perspective with which we shall end our examination of Russian culture.