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This volume is almost half a century old and remains an insightful look at the cultural history of Russia from the early years of the Kievan Rus to the state of the Soviet Union at the time of publication (1966). The title refers to Billingtons interpretation of both spiritual/psychological conditions (the icon) and materialist/economic views (the axe). He avoids the linear modernizing perspective as seen in his contemporary W. W. Rostow, but places both of these techniques within broader eras of Russian history of action and reaction.The first section of the book covers the Kiev period and the psychology of landscape: plains and the forest. After that is The Confrontation and how Russia grapples with European contact and remnants of the Byzantine-Orthodox legacy. Third is The Western Schism, which includes the reforms of Peter the Great. Fourth is The Century of Aristocratic Culture from Catherine the Great to Nicholas I, and the period after that, On the New Shores, discusses the era of tottering through reforms, political humiliation, and undercurrents of revolution. The final segment discusses Soviet culture from the early avant-garde to its rebirth after the death of Stalin. After this are some comments on The Irony of Russian History, forming a parallel with Niebuhr. Despite this apparent vague broadness, The Icon and The Axe can still be specific. Billington can discuss the importance of bells, Swedish influences in modernization, the exact details of religious schisms, and often uses symbols as an aid to understanding. The book straddles the line between popular and academic history, and some academic sources would no doubt criticize the lack of theoretical rigor, or his use of such formless terms as organic religious civilization. But the synthesis is broad enough that if you have specific knowledge in one area, you will appreciate his original or challenging opinions. Another reason I assume the book has endured is because of its prediction that the Soviet Union would collapse for the reasons that it did - specifically, his prediction that further tinkering with the Soviet experiment would lead to its collapse (a la Tocqueville) and the attempts to achieve the end-products of other nations and empires while following a different developmental trajectory. This is a challenging, frustrating, and sometimes beautiful history book, which has earned much respect.

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