Scholar and Bibliophile Reigns at World's Greatest Library

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, January 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

Scholar and Bibliophile Reigns at World's Greatest Library


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


James Billington is the 13th librarian of Congress. He is a first-rate scholar who has published seminal works on Russian history and the history of revolution in the modern world. Billington tells Insight that his position at the world's largest library has "profoundly impressed me about the durability, flexibility and creativity of American culture." But "we have a common enemy now, we've got to strengthen our inner values."

Insight: James Billington, how did you happen to decide on a life of scholarship?

JB: My interest partly developed from some very good teachers I had both in high school and in college. But mostly it came from my father, who never went to college, who had to go to work at a very early age to support his mother. He had an eclectic curiosity and filled our house with books, most of them used books. Many of them had underlining and I began to wonder why people underlined this passage rather than that. [Pause.] That's a terrible thing for a librarian to be saying, that you learn from books that have been defaced.

Insight: What whetted your interest in Russian history?

JB: I remember asking an old Russian emigre who worked at the drugstore in the Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in why the Russians were able to hold out while almost everyone else collapsed during World War II. He said, go young man, go and read War and Peace. So that was a great stimulus. I learned that you can learn more about a nation from reading yesterday's novel than today's newspaper. No book ever seemed too long after War and Peace.

Insight: In what direction is Russia moving today?

JB: I think what Russia is going through now is fundamentally one of these periodic times in its history they themselves call Time of Trouble, in which they withdraw legitimacy from an old and discredited order. The key problem is not so much the package of reforms, but where is legitimacy going to be relocated.

This happened in broad outline in World War I. The old order was delegitimized and thrown out and the revolution, a series of revolutions, really, and civil war followed, until finally you had an autocracy far worse than the one that preceded it.

I don't think [what is happening now] is necessarily going to lead to a worse autocracy than before, partly because there is not an external enemy.

Insight: What form of government is likely to emerge?

JB: There are two forms of legitimacy possible for Russia. One is the nationalist authority - not communism, that's really been pretty much discredited - but the Soviet-type of state, a centralized autocratic state, largely relying more on nationalist than on ideological precepts, bureaucratic, militarily inclined. The other is a federal, democratic government, or some variant thereof, that will legitimize participation and accountability in the system.

There is another analogy people use, with some justification, and that is late Weimar Germany. If you want to take a pessimistic reading, you see it as a situation in which a new democracy was created but never really given support, seriously saddled with blame for the preexisting regime ... and a fair amount of trouble with a demobilized military having no place to go....

I think we are more likely to see a Pinochet emerge than a Hitler, if it goes in that direction.

But I'm of the hopeful school that the changes in the political culture over the last 10 years are so great, and the amount of interesting activity that's coming from the bottom up in Russia, plus the irreversibility of privatization, and of glasnost, freedom of expression, are such that some kind of variant of democratic institutions has a better than even chance of taking permanent hold in Russia.

Insight: In Fire in the Minds of Men you analyzed the revolutionary temperament as it has existed since the French Revolution. What endangers world stability today? …

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