Parlamentskaya Gazeta (Moscow, Russia)
Posted on July 30, 2003
By Alexander Vitkovsky
Dr. James Billington is among the few leaders of the U.S. Library of Congress who has visited our country. On his most recent visit he gave an exclusive interview to Parlamentskaya Gazeta. When asked to describe himself, he said that he always preferred reading rather than speaking. His major grievance is that because of his busy schedule, he hardly has time to work on his own books.
Q: Dr. Billington, when and why did you get interested in Russia and where did you learn the Russian language, which you speak very well?
A: During World War II. At that time I was studying at a public school in Philadelphia and became interested as to why Russians were so good at fighting, selflessly defending their country, while France and nearly all of Europe surrendered to Hitler within weeks. I once encountered an old woman, a Russian emigrant, and she told me, “To understand Russia, read “War and Peace” by Tolstoy.” I read that book (during the days of the Stalingrad Battle) in English first and then in Russian while I was in university. I understood two things. The first one is that there are no thick or thin books; there are only those of vast or poor knowledge. The second one is that reading old books helps to understand the present better than looking through current newspapers and magazines. Literature explains the deepest roots of human consciousness. After “War and Peace,” I began to seriously study Russian literature and the Russian language. Currently, I am working on an idea, which can be outlined as follows: Russia’s search for its identity after the collapse of the USSR.
Q: What other works of classical Russian literature did you read? Which did you like most of all?
A: Of course, I read Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Saltykov-Schedrin. I was surprised and delighted to open myself to Leskov, who was unknown in the U.S. And I certainly read poetry of the Silver Age. By the way, in the 1960s, when I visited the USSR, I was lucky to meet Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelshtam. I even attended the meetings she held in her kitchen, where I encountered Shalamov and Brodsky.
Q: In 1999, by decision of the U.S. Congress, the OPEN WORLD program was launched. You are one of its founders and Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Would you tell us about this project?
A: The OPEN WORLD program is the only exchange program housed in the U.S. Legislative Branch. The program’s purpose is to forge a better understanding between citizens of the U.S. and Russia. For four years, OPEN WORLD has brought over 6,000 Russians from all of Russia’s 89 regions to all 50 U.S. states. The visiting Russians are hosted by American families and attend our institutions to learn, first-hand, about U.S. civil society and how its institutions work. This kind of communications is not regulated. There are things Americans want to learn from Russians to gain a better understanding of their culture and the peculiarities of the Russian soul, which is so mysterious for us.
Q: Recently, in St. Petersburg, you announced the expansion of this program.
A: Yes. The U.S. Congress made the decision that the OPEN WORLD program will expand to include the participation of Russian cultural leaders. It was a pleasure to make this announcement in St. Petersburg, a gem of global and Russian culture. Both our nations have long-standing cultural relations. In 1891, Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky was invited to conduct our orchestra at the unveiling of Carnegie Hall in New York. Americans are very familiar with Balanchin, Baryshnikov, Prokofiev, Rakhmaninov, Stravinsky and many-many other Russian cultural leaders. We work in close cooperation with your Ministry of Culture as well as many non-governmental and nonprofit organizations. We plan to host over 100 Russian cultural leaders during the first year and gradually increase this number over time.
Q: At the same time, in St. Petersburg, you signed an agreement with the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography and the Library of the Russian Academy of Science to transfer materials about Russian and U.S. histories into a digital format.
A: It will be executed under the “Meeting of Frontiers” project. It is the first large-scale project for posting unique materials from the major book depositories of two nations on a website of the bilingual electronic library containing materials on the history of the American West, Siberia and Russian-American relations in Alaska. The idea was developed at the initiative of Senator Ted Stevens in 1999. At the end of the same year, the website http://frontiers.log.gov was launched. Since that time, unique materials from the U.S. Library of Congress and documents from Russia’s major libraries have been added to the site regularly.
Now users of the “Meeting of Frontiers” project can access more than 100,000 electronic maps, photos, drawings, books and documents from 12 Russian and U.S. libraries and museums. The U.S. provides financing for the project while Russian specialists select photos, drawings, documents and rare books from their libraries to make these materials available on the Internet for everyone in the world.
Q: Don’t you think that from the media our nations gain an inadequate impression about each other? Violent American movies or uninteresting comedies that are shown on Russian television create an impression that U.S. culture is flawed…
A: Believe me, television, especially American television, does not adequately depicts the idea of real America and real Americans. Any mass culture creates stereotypes that are often far from being real. That’s why a video on the Internet must take a person to a book and promote one-on-one communications. These are the objectives of our “Meeting of Frontiers” and OPEN WORLD projects. It is a unique opportunity to better learn about each other without any intermediaries.
Q: When do you think the worldwide prosperity will finally come?
A: It is essential that newspaper, radio and television news begin with announcing cultural events in various countries rather than with information about wars, terrorist acts, famine, diseases and death. That was a dream of Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev. He was a unique person, a key figure not only for Russians, but also for the rest of the world. I knew him for many years and we communicated frequently during my visits to your country. When Russia began to undergo epoch-making changes, he assured me that these changes would be effective. He dreamt about a global university whose faculties would work in various countries. Success in political interaction between our nations must also be achieved in cultural areas because the importance of culture has always been a distinctive feature of Russia.
Q: It would be interesting for our readers to know about the U.S. library of Congress from its director.
A: The library is a component of the U.S. parliament’s administrative structure and the world’s largest collection of manuscripts, printed materials, films and photos. Our resources currently contain over 120 million units, including the first North American printed collection of psalms issued in 1640, the Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz from the 15th century, as well as personal documents and correspondence of many American presidents. One of the largest sections in classical and modern literature is devoted to Russia. The main goal of our work is not only to provide materials to U.S. governmental structures, research institutions, scientific centers and a vast number of readers, but also to preserve this unique collection for the next generations.
James Hedley Billington was born in Bryn-Mawr (Pennsylvania) in 1929. In 1950 he graduated with highest honors from Princeton University; and three years later, received his doctorate from Oxford University, where he taught history. James Billington is the founder of the Kennan Institute. In 1987 he was appointed as the thirteenth director of the U.S. Library of Congress since its establishment in 1800. Dr. Billington has been awarded 32 honorary titles. He visited the USSR and Russia several times. James Billington is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an author of several books about Russian history and culture.
The PBN Company
[Reprinted with Permission]