U.S. Librarian of Congress James Billington: “A Constitutional State Is Art Rather Than Knowledge”
Izvestia (Moscow, Russia)
Posted on September 1, 2003
By Andrei Lebedev
The OPEN WORLD program was founded in 1999 for promising young Russian political leaders to look at the U.S. democratic process and the everyday life of Americans. Soon after, however, representatives of other professional communities began participating in the program. Russians go to the U.S. in small groups for ten days, where they live in different U.S. towns with American families and visit companies and institutions connected to their occupations.
The program is unique because it is the sole international exchange project established and supported by the U.S. Congress. So far, about 7,000 Russians have participated in it. In 2002 alone more than 2,600 people visited the U.S. under the OPEN WORLD program. In March Congress set a new trend within the program – now Russian cultural leaders will be able to come to the U.S. to exchange experiences.
Q: Dr. Billington, are you satisfied with the developments within your project?
A: It seems to us that OPEN WORLD is more than just a success. This is not tourism, visits of Soviet officials or general examination of the nation’s living conditions. Communicating with the program’s participants, I see they are going deeper into specific, practical and even technical issues. This is particularly true of the Rule Of Law program, which really meets the needs of our Russian friends from the legal community.
Q: How else did your guests change over four years?
A: Russia is experiencing essential changes – a new generation is appearing, which is beginning to play an increasingly important role in state development. Their interest in the activities of non-governmental organizations – parts of civil society – is growing. They are also concerned about the relationship between central and local authorities – key problems of federalism.
However, I would like to point to a more general feature – the openness and enthusiasm both on the part of guests and the hosting Americans. The program affects not only Russians. The U.S. media provides extensive coverage of the developments as presented by the program’s participants. This deeply affects my countrymen and it is very important since the Western media has the tendency to report more on problems – corruption, crimes and so forth – than on the achievements of your country and a new generation of Russians.
Q: Why did you decide to expand the program to include cultural leaders?
A: A peculiar feature of the democratic process is that, both in the U.S. and in other nations with developed democracy, representatives of the media and cultural leaders play an important role in leading the country. This is especially true in relation to Russia. They influence Russian history indirectly: by means of moral authority, which is transformed into political power under democratic conditions; and, through participating in establishing moral values, which become the basis for political life. I think Russians are becoming aware that the nation must be led not by a political caste, but the public with its moral and cultural resources.
Because culture plays a leading role in Russia, its great variety should be used to make society more open, where cultural institutions survive not only due to state subsidies, but also through relationships with public structures (in particular, with support from private corporations and charity donations). I think the idea of culture acting as a moral leader for the public corresponds to Russian traditions.
Q: Does the same relate to religion?
A: Public institutions will be more stable and effective if they base themselves on the joint efforts of representatives of various beliefs. Russia has a deep empirical basis for that – first of all, it is the Orthodox Church, but it is also the Islamic faith, as well as a number of non-Orthodox faiths – Judaism, Buddhism and so forth. The democratic process aims to retain religious beliefs as a source of people’s strength for everyone – not only for believers – and at the same time, to maintain the separation of the church and state (this provision is stipulated in the American and Russian constitutions), watching carefully to make sure that religion is not involved in directly supporting a political position. I think it would be a big mistake to give equal weight to religion and politics, or to say that the church and state would strengthen each other if linked.
Q: Do you let religious leaders participate in OPEN WORLD?
A: We do not consider candidates’ religions when forming groups. We welcome a variety – our program’s participants represent various ethnic groups, religions and political views. I don’t understand why a priest or mullah could not participate in the program, but the program does not provide a special status to clergymen, nor any other social group.
Q: You founded OPEN WORLD in cooperation with Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev. If you had a chance to choose a partner in Russia today, who would it be?
A: It is unlikely that another Likhachev exists. He was unique. Scholar Likhachev is a combination of great Russian traditions and the cosmopolitism of the new open world. During our last meeting with him, he talked absorbedly about his idea of creating a university of a new type, whose facilities would be located in various countries along the Baltic Sea: in Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, the Baltic states and others. Nowadays, there are many young Likhachevs in Russia who see contradictions between Russian cultural traditions and absence of openness to the outside world.
Q: In your book entitled “Images of Russia,” you have drawn the conclusion that at least in terms of culture, our nation has the following peculiar feature – having inventively remade borrowed things (for example, Byzantine icon paintings), Russia brings them to a fundamentally new level and then rejects them. In 1999 we were afraid that the same might happen to the attitude of Russians towards democracy. What do you think now?
A: I have just finished a new book entitled “Russia Searching For Itself” (I sent the manuscript to a U.S. publishing house. It is being translated into Russia and I hope that the book will be released in the U.S. and Russia simultaneously – probably in about six months). Writing the book, I used a great number of pieces of non-fiction literature published in Moscow and St. Petersburg and also available on the Internet: reports and addresses during “round tables” held worldwide. I found a stable basis for hope in those documents. Russia is currently leaving the period of structural dishonesty built in the system, with which citizens dealt. Russia is not so much opening a democratic process for itself, open society and free entrepreneurship, as it is restoring its rich experience in these areas.
The creation of a constitutional state, where the law dominates and where democracy and a sound economy are capable of functioning under relatively fair and regulated conditions without being put under tight state control, is art rather than knowledge.
Therefore, I draw a parallel to icon painting, in which Russian painters, someone between Rublev and Dionisy, took the Byzantine manner of painting and remade it, reaching a fundamentally new level. Currently, your country is in a creative phase of adapting existing experience – however, there is still the risk of ruining it. It is a good sign that you have already made great progress despite all difficulties and the creative adaptation is being done without rejecting a foreign model. Here, the OPEN WORLD program can be very helpful. Probably, we cannot even imagine which of its elements will be of the best use to Russia. There are, however, interesting parallels between our countries. These are two multicultural civilizations and two branches of European culture, which together form the basis of the federal democratic model.
One of the Internet projects of the U.S. Library of Congress, being implemented in cooperation with the Russian State Library, is the united Russo-American electronic library entitled “Meeting at the Frontiers” (http://frontiers.loc.gov). It narrates in Russian and English about parallels in the histories of both nations. It presents unique materials: ancient books, manuscripts, photos and drawings dedicated to the lives of little-known nations, maps of discoverers and other documented historical relics.
Q: You were appointed to your current position by President Reagan, who used to call the Soviet Union “an evil empire.” Later you accompanied him during his visit to Moscow. Do you meet with other people from the White House?
A: I frequently meet with various people in Washington: congressmen and other political leaders. We mainly talk about Russian culture and share impressions about the OPEN WORLD program and developments in Russia. It is very encouraging that these people view the cultural side of Russia’s life as important and educational in political terms.
The annual budget of the U.S. Library of Congress is close to $450 million, including the maintenance of its research service, the world’s largest think tank, a department dedicated to providing literature to blind and other disabled people, as well as other divisions of the library. The library contains 126 million items. Websites created with the library’s participation recorded over 3 million guests last year.
Q: If you were the director of a Russian village library, what would you spend the main portion of subsidies on: purchasing new books or a PC with an Internet connection?
A: I don’t think I should have to choose. It is necessary to have a few great books and guides oriented toward families and family values, in a broad sense of the word. At the same time, it is necessary to have access to the Internet to receive accurate information. Yes, there is a lot of trash on the Internet: violent video games, pornography and chat rooms. But the Internet removes distance and makes it possible to discuss issues that are of interest to everyone and to learn about foreign cultures. Russia has a great literary culture and now an interesting Internet culture is arising.
However, the third element – a librarian – is required, who will navigate the sea of knowledge. He/she must defend the openness of information and its availability to readers. Democracy will not work without one. If there is no free access to cultural values in such a rich country like Russia, you will risk aggravating the disparity and losing a chance to develop real self-management. So, if there is an insufficient number of books or lines to access the Internet, find a librarian who will fight for that on behalf of his/her community at all levels and involve the local population. We have learned that when building a new settlement in the U.S., a church, school and library were the necessary buildings in that settlement, and the library was the place for public meetings. The library should be viewed as the central and most authoritative institution. A library and a librarian are necessary elements.
The PBN Company
[Reprinted with Permission]