James Billington
James Billington
Russia Transformed:  Breakthrough to Hope
ISBN: 0029035155
Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope
James Billington, author of Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, published by The Free Press, discussed his analysis of the transformation of Russian culture following the collapse of Communism. Mr. Billington spoke on his experiences in the Soviet Union over the past thirty years, including his visit to the Soviet Union before, during and after the attempted coup in August 1991.
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Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope
Program Air Date: September 13, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Dr. James H. Billington, author of "Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope," August 1991, why did you write this book?
JAMES BILLINGTON, AUTHOR, "RUSSIA TRANSFORMED: BREAKTHROUGH TO HOPE": Well, I wrote the book because I felt at the time and have not changed my mind since that this was one of the great transforming events of the second half of the 20th century, maybe the greatest political event. And because I think it had been perceived in the aftermath as being sort of a musical comedy, a little interlude, as something that maybe wasn't that important, particularly in the aftermath of the changes all the bread lines and the confusion and so forth.

But to see something which most people thought would never change or never end or never end in anyone's lifetime alive today the totalitarian Soviet state, the greatest, most repressive ideology, the most powerful land empire and the most effective political machine of the 20th century all come unglued in a 48 hour period .... And since I'm a student of Russian history and culture, to be there during it, I felt I had a kind of obligation to report on the meaning of this, particularly since my view was that it was much more important than I think many people had assumed in the last...
LAMB: How many times have you been to Russia or the old Soviet Union?
BILLINGTON: Oh, it's hard to say, 25 or 30 I guess over the last 38 years that I've been going there, four times since the putsch, and I was there, of course, for nearly a month before, during and after the putsch itself.
LAMB: At the beginning of your book you have a quote, "We always had faith and love. Now we have hope." This was an old woman at the barricades, Moscow, August 21st, 1991. Where did you get that quote?
BILLINGTON: I got that from an old woman on the barricades.
LAMB: Yourself?
BILLINGTON: Yes, myself. It was the first night. There were two crucial nights when they expected an attack on the people the Yeltsin forces and the so called Russian White House, that were holding out against this overwhelming force that the Soviet system had assembled to try to try to crush the resistance to this reactionary takeover.

And one of the things that was really decisive was the role of women older women. All the young people were there, of course. There were very young boys and very old women, and the old women went out and talked to the boys in the tanks, who were going to do the attacking, and in effect, talked them out of it, made them feel ashamed, talked to them as their mothers. It was a great moment. But beyond that they said some very wise things that day. And right after the first which was, I think, the most dramatic moment, on the first night, when the tanks that were supposed to attack came over 10 of them came over to the Yeltsin forces, turned their turrets around to face the other way something unprecedented in Russian history, that an army unit was defecting from their line of command to support the change.

There was this sort of sense of electricity in the air, and I turned to this old woman shortly there afterwards, and she hadn't said very much and, you know, the business in Corinthians about faith, hope and love. She paraphrased it. Said, “Well, we always had faith and we always had love” that was, in effect, what enabled the people to survive the horror of totalitarianism said, “But now we have hope.”

So that's why the subtitle is "Breakthrough to Hope," because what you really saw was the end of the fear of power and the beginning of the power of hope. That's a kind of great change in human psychology excuse me and it was a very exciting thing to see it happen among people whom you'd studied and been with all your life, and to see them really become different people under the tremendous pressure of those events, when it wasn't certain which way people things would go.
LAMB: What was the Librarian of Congress doing that close to potential combat or conflict or ...
BILLINGTON: Well, I was there to attend two conferences, both of which opened on the day that the tanks rolled into Moscow. One was an international library conference, as a representative of the Library of Congress, and the second was the so called Congress of Compatriots, which basically the Yeltsin had assembled all the Russian emigres. They wanted to reconcile all the people who had left for political reasons, to bring them back to Russia and make them feel at home again. And they also brought people in from all over Russia, which helped that congress was very important because that brought a lot of provincial people in.

And one of the themes in my book, which I think is very important and hasn't been properly perceived, is that basically the Siberians took over the Russian franchise. Yeltsin's from western Siberia, from Sverdlovsk. And it was the people of Siberia who were most supportive of Yeltsin and the Russian government and the whole democratic experiment. People farthest from the center of power, used to doing things on their own sons and daughters of the gulag. This is very important, the sons and daughters of the gulag, that whole generation that's now killed off, exiled, sent to prison. They died in the camps but they married local Russian gals before they died and had a few children. Those children came back. So it was kind of like Andrew Jackson moving back into Washington and sort of cleaning up the mess that the old city slickers had made, except the mess that the Communists had made was far, far greater and the change was far more dramatic.
LAMB: You write that you and your son Tom back in 1990 went to Sverdlovsk?
LAMB: What was that for?
BILLINGTON: I went with my son, Tom. I was, in the summer of 1990, the so called honored guest, as I was at this Congress of Compatriots in '91. In '90 I was the honored guest of the teachers of Russian language and culture every five years they have a meeting. They had a meeting in Moscow. And the head of it was Ryzhkov, who was the very conservative prime minister. And I was the sort of equivalent of a vice president of this international conference.

And he asked me at the end and a man named Momleyev, who was a writer - both of them involved in this conference asked me, “Well, is there something we can do for you? What would you like to see?” I said, “Well, I've never been to Siberia. I hear there's a different perspective out there. And I'd like to go out to Siberia.” So they arranged for a little trip for me, and I took my son with me, who had been working for the Reader's Digest and was about to enter business school, so he had a little interim with me and we went out there together and had a wonderful time.

And that's where I really discovered the different perspective of the Siberians. A lot of attention has been given to the different perspective of the different nationalities that had been part of the old Soviet Union, but there's also a different perspective in that eastern half of Russia which is or two thirds of Russia which is Asian, Siberia, from the Urals on to the Pacific. And that was a great discovery and a great experience, to see those people, to feel a certain frontier spirit. It's very congenial to Americans, I think. Some of the Siberians, in fact, said to me, “Well, you know, when we sold Alaska to America, we should have thrown Siberia into the bargain included it as well.”
LAMB: How far ...
BILLINGTON: There's kind of an American openness and a much different mentality.
LAMB: How far is Sverdlovsk from Moscow?
BILLINGTON: Well, Sverdlovsk is a good distance. It's oh, maybe I don't know a couple thousand miles from Moscow. The distances are immense there. It's more or less on the border between Europe and Asia. The Ural Mountains run down the middle and it's at the foothills of the Urals. And Sverdlovsk was the western-most point that exiles could go to, so it was an unusual concentration of brain power that had been exiled, couldn't come back to European Russia, but congregated in this city. It's now called Yekaterinberg, by the way. That's where the czar was killed, you'll remember. The czar and his family were murdered in Yekaterinberg or Sverdlovsk.
LAMB: And Boris Yeltsin did what in that city?
BILLINGTON: He was the party boss for a great many years. And it's interesting. That's when I also realized, talking to people in Sverdlovsk before Yelstin had been elected president of the Russian Republic that's when I realized what his strength was. I said to them, “You know, what did Yeltsin accomplish out here? Why is he so popular?”' And they said, “Well, you must understand, he was different from other Soviet leaders.”

The great style of Soviet leadership is bombastic speech which promises great things and delivers almost nothing. He was exactly the opposite. He wasn't terribly bombastic. He isn't even a particularly good speaker, but everything he promised, which was very modest, he delivered on. He was a person you could trust. And that's the secret, because he said, for instance, he promised they told me at one point he promised to deliver a few more eggs at the end of the year every week to every family. They said that actually happened one or two more eggs. That may not sound like a lot, but in Russia, where everybody promises the moon and gives you nothing, to just promise a little bit and then really deliver.

So he has a great reservoir of trust as a direct man. They use the word promoy. He's straight. He's straight on. He doesn't have these kind of indirect phrases, these rationalizations for doing nothing which are part of bureaucratic life everywhere, but are particularly galling in the Russian context, where bureaucracy was combined with cruelty. He broke through that. And what Yeltsin did, really, that's so important and has not been fully appreciated in this country is he made democracy and a market economy something that is just a little bit understandable and highly desirable for ordinary Russians because they figure, “Well, if Yeltsin” here's a tough guy from the heartland of Russia, from the very middle in Siberia “He believes in it, it can't be all bad.”

In other words, it's not just something for all the Westernized intellectuals sitting around in the city and go to parties in Western embassies. This is a real man from the deep interior of Russia, a man who thinks like us not an intellectual, not a Western type, but a sort of rough hewn, burly caricature of Joe Six Pack from the heartland. And he believes in all this stuff so it can't be all bad, even though we don't quite understand what it is.
LAMB: What was the first year you made the first trip to Russia?
BILLINGTON: '58 1958.
LAMB: How did you get interested in the whole subject in the first place?
BILLINGTON: I got interested in Russia I was sort of interested in the world a young kid in Philadelphia, public schools of Philadelphia. And it was during the war. I was young, in junior high school, and I kept asking my teachers, “Well, how come the Russians are able to hold out against Hitler? Everybody else caved in.” And nobody could give me a good answer. And so I finally went to an old Russian lady who worked in the drugstore up the street, and everybody used to make fun of because she had such a foreign accent, and I said, “How can you explain you came from Russia, didn't you?” She said yes. “Why are the Russians able to hold out?”

And she looked at me very sternly and, like that old woman on the barricades that's where you get your wisdom in Russia, is from the old ladies. They don't say much, but when they speak, they have something to say. She said, “Young man” she said, “You go read ‘War and Peace.’” So I did. I felt, you know, it's not very often that young people are told what to do by an older person who commands authority, and this woman did.

So I went and read it. And it was, of course, the great story, the great novel of Tolstoy, that tells of the resistance to Napoleon, which was being eerily re enacted by the resistance to Hitler I mean, gloriously re enacted, to be sure. But as I read that story and saw the sort of strength of family that Tolstoy depicts so much, this strength the sense of defending their land, a link between the land and the people, and this strange sort of religious quest of these people all of that was very fascinating to me, and it helped explain what was going on in the world and, at the same time, it introduced me to a people I'm not at all of any Slavic background or origin that was very different. And so that became my great passion, to figure out I also had a father who loved books never went to college, loved books. I guess that's why I'm Librarian of Congress, because my father kept bringing back used books from Leary's Bookstore in Philadelphia.

But it was also a wonderful bit of advice, “Go read "War and Peace,” because it taught me early in life that if you want to really learn about something, it's better to read yesterday's novel than today's newspaper. That's where you get some wisdom, some perspective on things. Also, it made all books seem short after reading "War and Peace." It's 1,200 pages.
LAMB: I was in the store the other day and I think you can get a paperback for about 8 bucks of "War and Peace." It doesn't break you like some of the...
BILLINGTON: No, no, no. Well, that's the great thing about books, you know. They're portable, they're affordable, you can take them with you. It's a very democratic thing. And so that's also why being there as a librarian puts you in touch with people instinctively sympathetic to democracy. We think of democracy as the rule of law, as having a variety of political parties, but it's also access to knowledge and information. That's what they didn't have.

And it was the beginning of the awareness that there was a different world out there, largely brought by television, that brought this whole event about, with images, the very images. They weren't the people that rallied to defend the fledgling democracy of the Russian Republic that Yeltsin had just Yelstin, remember, had only been elected president of the Russian Republic two months before these events, so it wasn't really established. But they spontaneously rallied to defend them, not because anybody said, `Form a human ring,' but because they'd seen on television the images of the Lithuanians doing the same thing in January.

And the idea of climbing on top of the tank of human beings stopping tanks. You had Glebiya Kunin, the priest, standing in full regalia in front of a tank. You had Yeltsin climbing on top of a tank. That was the image, the unforgettable television image of the young boy in Tiananmen Square, who stood there in front of the tank and diverted it. There was a sense of empowerment that these television images brought, that spontaneously made people do things gave people an image of what they could do to make a difference and to maybe change the tide of history.

And so the supreme irony was that, despite all these colorful events in other countries Eastern Europe it was in Moscow, the absolute heart of the Evil Empire, the center and the originator of the whole totalitarian nightmare, that it all fell apart with a relatively small number of people standing up and putting their lives on the line and making the kind of moral choices that totalitarianism was structured to prevent people from ever making, because the secret of all bureaucracies is that you avoid choice. There's just rules and regulations. You follow the rules and you don't have to think, you don't have to choose. Above all, you don't have to make moral choices.

During those 48 hours that I describe in the book everybody in Moscow and most other parts of Russia had to make moral choices. They were forced to confront a dimension of their own life that had been ruled out by the totalitarian nightmare. They were forced to say, “Do I speak up? Am I for the putsch or am I for the ... Will I speak up? Will I not? Will I go to the barricades? Will I not? Will I take food or not? Will I aid in the defense or not?” That started a whole contagion of moral reawakening of a people who'd been taught to dull their moral sensibilities because they were living in a fundamentally, structurally immoral system.
LAMB: This happened, you know, just a little bit more than a year ago, and you arrived in country what date?
BILLINGTON: I arrived on the 12th of August. So it was...
LAMB: And what hotel did you stay at?
BILLINGTON: I stayed in the Hotel Rossiya, the big kind of monstrosity on Red Square, but very central and very convenient. That's where the Congress of Compatriots was having its conference.
LAMB: We get an image of you, from your book, of eating granola bars and staying up all night, and a lot of rain and walking through the streets, and tell us the story of how you got close to this whole event.
BILLINGTON: Well, I was woken up early Monday morning. I'd been on a talk show rather like this, a thing called Echo Moscow, the night before.
LAMB: A call in show.
BILLINGTON: A call in show, where you sort of talk with the country. And everything seemed fairly normal. I went to bed, and I was woken up early in the morning by a call from the head of our Moscow office. We have a wonderful man who's a hero of this book, Misha Levnir, who buys books for us and was on the barricades, collecting all the pamphlets at the same time for the Library of Congress as he was standing with his friends.

He called me up and said, “There's been this terrible thing that's happened. It just came on the radio that there's been a government committee on the extraordinary situation. Gorbachev's said to be ill, is in prison, so forth.” Well, I went downstairs I was in the Rossiya Hotel immediately and saw all these Russian compatriots who were gathered from all over. And everybody realized that this was a coup; that Gorbachev wasn't sick, that he'd been taken over. This is the standard device. Khrushchev had been thrown out years before when he was vacationing in the Crimea Gorbachev was ..

And then the question was what to do. And I noticed people were drifting off to go somewhere, and the first scheduled event of this Congress of Compatriots was a religious service on the Feast of Transfiguration in the Uspenski or the Cathedral of the Assumption inside the Kremlin. And so I went to that and ...
LAMB: Most of these people, by the way, were Russians that you were with?
BILLINGTON: Russians almost entirely Russians, yeah.
LAMB: And you speak Russian?
BILLINGTON: And I speak Russian. No, I was one of the relatively few people of not of Russian extraction involved in this group. So I was with Russians structurally right from the beginning and stayed with them all through this period. Well, many of those people went off immediately to the White House, but I stayed ...
LAMB: And what is the White House?
BILLINGTON: The White House is the tall building maybe about a mile and a half from the Kremlin, right by the American Embassy the tall white building which is the headquarters of the Russian government. It's as if the Russian government was the center of the democratic resistance, whereas the all union or the Soviet government in the Kremlin was the center of the putsch.

But we were in the Kremlin for this worship service and we wanted to hear what the patriarch was going to say. You could hear the tanks rolling into Moscow as this worship service was going on. This was partly to dramatize that the new Yeltsin government the democratic government was tolerant to religion, as distinguished from the old Soviet government, which was atheistic. Well, nothing much happened at that. But as soon as that service was over, we had a library reception in our Moscow office with a lot of the officials, Soviet Russian officials. And that was very chilling because the head official had broken out a bottle of champagne and was watching television, was celebrating the putsch the takeover. I mean, the high level officials were, whereas the little librarians were terrified that this meant the restoration.

So it was shortly after that that I made the first of many visits to the White House, because I had heard at that time that people were gathering and that the Russian government had said this was an illegal putsch and that they were the only legal government until the legal president, Gorbachev, was able to return from imprisonment or they could have access to him. So it was clear by the early afternoon that there was going to be a resistance at the White House. And from then on, for the next two and a half days I spent much of my time on the streets talking to people. I was also attending various events of the two conferences. And what was interesting was people on both sides of the barricades were at those meetings, and then they would go back to their respective things, so I was in constant contact with people on both sides of the divide here and I was frequently on the barricades, talking to people. And particularly I was there the first night most of the first night, for that memorable moment when the tanks crossed over.

And what was interesting about that...
LAMB: You mean changed allegiance?
BILLINGTON: Changed allegiances. And that was at that moment you knew and that, it turns out, was the moment at which the greatest danger of an attack was, because the Alpha regiment of the KGB had been ordered to attack it then, but they didn't follow through. They delayed and didn't follow through on the orders. And if that attack had come then, it probably would have been successful, because the resistance wasn't very well organized.
LAMB: Why did they change allegiance? How did it happen?
BILLINGTON: They changed allegiance because this was a conscious strategy on the part of the there were some respected military leaders who stood by Yeltsin from the beginning. His vice presidential candidate was an Afghan veteran named Rutskoi and there was a General Kovyetz. They were both heavily decorated generals. They and a couple of other highly decorated who were standing with Yeltsin went directly to the commanders of these tanks and said, “You are receiving illegal orders. They are not the president is being held.” And they said, “Well, we got these orders from the minister of defense.” They said, “Yes, but the minister of defense works for the president. The president is in prison and in his absence you take orders from us, because I'm an elected president.”

And these kids were left you see, this when the tanks moved in, the assumption was that a mere show of force would intimidate everybody into compliance. That had been the history. When the tanks rolled into Prague, they didn't need to fire. Everybody was intimidated into compliance. When the tanks rolled into Moscow, it was supposed to work the same way. Well, it didn't work that way. And so these kids weren't prepared, in the tanks these young officers. They see a general coming out of the White House, saying, “You should obey the president of the Russian Republic, since the other president is in prison.” And eventually they persuaded them. And they not only persuaded them, but they got them to add to their tanks.

This didn't receive any attention, as far as I know, in the West, but I talk about it in the book because I think it was one of the decisive moments. And I was there to hear the announcement, which was kind of thrilling. But each one of those 10 tanks that defected would have, in the tank, an elected member of the Russian Parliament to symbolize that these tanks weren't just switching sides. They were switching concepts. They were going from a totalitarian system to a democratic one, that they were going to be subordinated to elected representatives. And by implication, if they blew up these tanks, they were not they couldn't just because the fear was that there'd be some fast air strike or tank strike because these insubordinate officers would be the first targets of any assault. But if they were, they were not going to die alone. There would be an elected symbol of the government to which they were subordinate would go down with them. So it was an act of courage and it was also an act of great symbolic statement, that what we were seeing was a new legitimacy. It wasn't just Yeltsin vs. this junta. It was democracy vs. a return to totalitarianism.

And so, in a simple sort of way these people understood it. But, of course, from a tactical point of view, as Talleyrand once said, `The only thing you can't do with bayonets is you can't sit on them.' And that's what they were doing. They had tank commands that had roared in, taken up their positions and everybody was supposed to faint, and they weren't fainting. And so what do these kids do? They were sitting in place, waiting for instructions. And then the women the old women were coming out and lecturing them. There are two things that tanks can't fight against. One is old women and the second is flower power, because that was the other thing that was involved. This was late August. Flowers were in blossom, everybody had them and they were festooning these young men in the tanks with both stern lectures from the women, flowers from the surrounding crowd, to sort of make them feel good. And then, of course, these short teams that were being sent out from the White House these political teams, to convince them to come over and change sides.

So what made them change varied with different people, what they responded to. Maybe it was some of them listening to a woman that reminded them of their mother, saying they were doing the wrong thing. Maybe it was a more rational, mature political argument from the parliamentary representatives.

They always sent them out in teams. It was like Jesuit missionaries who used to travel in teams. You know, the Yeltsin people would send out one military person in uniform and one civilian political type to talk to the tank commanders. And that worked so well the first night, at that dramatic moment, that they began sending them all over Moscow, so there was, so suddenly, Moscow, which had been a city of uniform monologue, controlled by this totalitarian system, was a place of just dialogue going on everywhere. Everybody was in dialogue and the military, above all. And so what you basically had was a youth rebellion within the armed services. The younger officers wouldn't do what the old generals and finally the senior general of them all, at the very end, when the putsch unraveled, Marshal Akhromeyev, very well known to Americans because he's sort of the great symbol of Soviet military power, finally hanged himself, saying everything he'd worked for is gone. In other words, the whole disciplinary control structure...
LAMB: Did you know him?
BILLINGTON: ...had unraveled. I knew him. Yes, I knew him well.
LAMB: Did it surprise you when he committed suicide?
BILLINGTON: Not really, because he was a convinced Communist and at the same time a sort of man of honor, man of great limitations, authoritarian personality, but a figure with a certain kind of honor. He'd been a great war hero in the defense of Leningrad and but he'd also it surprised me more than it did many Americans who'd met him and thought he was a very nice guy, which he was in some respects, but he was a real hard core Communist because he was also a parliamentary delegate from Moldovo, which is now independent.

And I remember a party in Washington I talk about this in my book, how everybody was saying what a wonderful man it was, how civilized it was. You know, he didn't put his fist in the mashed potatoes and so forth, and he was a charming man. And I asked him about his role as a delegate from Moldavia, which was then the Moldavian part of Russia, and he denounced the nationalists and the separatists and so forth, and got madder and madder and began and you realized that underneath that dignified exterior was a kind of very narrow, nationalist mentality that was not only Communist, but deeply, almost fascistically nationalist. And, for instance, he said this Parliament anyhow was just a place where little people make much noise. And the contempt for little people, which is sort of a code word for the subject minorities and usually for the Jews, is the kind of mentality of this kind of reactionary nationalist group.

Revolutions line up the defeated and shoot them. Revolutions are violent. Revolutions are made by political elites. This is a spiritual and moral transformation that was made a revolution of conscience, if you like, made from the bottom up and not by an elite, working from the top down.
LAMB: There's one little line in there and I don't know I'd never seen it before. You said that in the middle of all this was it Dmitri Yazov, the defense minister's wife came in to him?
BILLINGTON: Yeah. That's one of the more dramatic moments in all this. The minister of defense, Yazov, on the second day, his wife came this shows how this sudden reawakening of the moral dimension of life and of accountability was occurring everywhere not just among the people who were resisting, but among the people who where going to attack, because Yazov's wife, clearly another case of a woman intervening, came into a meeting in their equivalent this great building right by the Arbot, which every tourist passes, which is their version of the Pentagon.

There was a military meeting. She apparently burst into it and publicly rebuked her husband and said, “You must turn your guns away from the Yeltsin forces and turn them on the other people making the putsch that you've been working with.” In other words, she became an agent of appealing to the minister of defense to change sides, to which he then made his famous response that he couldn't be a traitor for the second time. In other words, he had to at least retain some shred of decency by remaining faithful to his original sedition, which was to join the putsch and overthrow Gorbachev. But he couldn't now fire on the people whom he'd made that compact of insurrection with.
LAMB: You also say then and it may be reported in your book for the first time that there was a group of some 60 that came back to the White House after all this had cleared?
BILLINGTON: That's an event there are two things that I mention in my book which I think have not been in any of the accounts that I've read. One is the fact how exposed the place was very early in the morning, both nights, both the 19th and the 20th, when the metros reopened, because a lot of the people that had bravely stood through the night went home to take a shower and have breakfast.
LAMB: Now were you there during those hours?
BILLINGTON: Yes, I was there.
LAMB: Just hanging around the White House?
BILLINGTON: Well, I was coming I was back and forth. I came back...
LAMB: Standing on the barriers.
BILLINGTON: But I saw both of those things and it was amazing, because it was really very thinly deployed. And if they'd really had a systematic set of options, they could have attacked then.

The second thing that's happened: After it seemed to be all over and the tanks retreated, really on the third day now on the 21st suddenly, not at that moment not ….but a little later in the same morning. I was not there at this point but I was told this by several witnesses. Suddenly 60 people appeared on the roofs and so forth, and it looked like there was a small unit that was going to attack at a point when the main defenses had gone. And they very rapidly rallied enough defenders to scare these people. But it was a very scary moment and when the defenders appeared enough people appeared with guns, both inside and outside the White House, this group then just suddenly vanished. But it's a very strange one of these unaccounted moments that has not been reported and the significance of it isn't even entirely clear.

But there was always the fear, and even for several days afterwards, that there were snipers, that there was going to be some kind of an attempt either to assassinate Yeltsin or to make some kind of lightning strike, because you remember the Romanian pattern after Ceausescu was thrown out. The security forces kept reappearing in odd places and terrorizing the population, so there was a lot of apprehension about that.. And that group that appeared after the coast seemed to be clear was a sort of a little aftershock and a reminder that there were still a lot of people at bay who might have wanted to try and make this thing unravel.
LAMB: When was the last time you were there?
BILLINGTON: I was there in April. I was there for a couple of weeks in April during the last session of the Congress of People's Deputies, which was the time, incidentally, when a kind of constitutional coup against Yeltsin was expected because their version of a Parliament predates the installation of democracy. It was largely chosen by and largely dominated by Communists, and there was the fear that they might and they still are representing a kind of force of opposition to the Yeltsin government. But Yeltsin survived that crisis and the reform path has also survived.

So we have a remarkable phenomenon. The general tendency is to say that things are such a mess over there that really nothing has changed except, fortunately, the Soviet Union is broken up and it's not as much of a menace to us. Even that isn't true. The nuclear weapons are still there. If this were to turn sour, it would be much worse than it was before. It wouldn't be just a reversion to before, because it would be under a new nationalist banner. All those nuclear power stations those many Chernobyls are lying around. And if you had Russia turn into a big Yugoslavia, it wouldn't be just a big Yugoslavia, it would be a qualitatively different type of crisis. It would involve the Middle East because of the expanse and reach of the former Soviet Union, and it would involve nuclear weapons and it would involve us and the whole world.

So our stake in all of this is much higher than we're inclined to think now because we're so preoccupied with our own political and economic concerns, quite properly. But this big question mark of the future of Russia remains, really, the most important single international issue on our agenda, and it certainly isn't being treated in the media as if it were because you can barely read anything about it.
LAMB: Go back to those days in Philadelphia, and your dad and the books. How many books did he have in his house?
BILLINGTON: Well, we had a lot. And the interesting thing is they were all used books, partly because we couldn't afford any other kind. He was a book collector. But he collected used books from Leary's, and that was a wonderful introduction to scholarship. We maybe had I don't know 2,000 or 3,000 books. But...
LAMB: What did he do for a living?
BILLINGTON: He was an insurance broker. But he was really a teacher of people.
LAMB: How about your mom?
BILLINGTON: Mother was, well, she ran the kitchen testing department for the Curtis Publishing Company for a great many years, so she...
LAMB: The people that own The Saturday Evening Post?
BILLINGTON: The people that own The Saturday Evening Post. There was a thing called the Country Gentleman, the Ladies Home Journal, things like that. She would test the recipes. So while we were growing up, we used to eat food that actually it wasn't always that good, but it looked great because it was colored for color photography. She would put it in the back seat and bring it home and we would eat the recipes that she'd baked up, that somebody from Iowa sent in an old Amish recipe or something, and they would try it out and she would bring it in.

So she tested that. So she was a professional. She did some writing, but basically she was just a terrific mother. And they married very young and my father and interesting kind of story. My father was in the insurance business and he left Philadelphia to go to San Francisco, and he had the misfortune to insure a large part of San Francisco in the year 1906, when the earthquake came before the time of limited liability. So my father, who'd been brought up in relatively pleasant circumstances, suddenly found he had to quit school, go to work to support his mother because they were flat broke. And so he went back into the insurance business, never got to complete his education, but did complete his education as he said in later years, when they asked him for his biography, he always said he went to Leary's University because it was this used bookstore.

It was very interesting reading used books because they had underlining in them. They were worn. And so very early my curiosity was stimulated as to, you know, why did they underline this passage and not what kind of a person is this, that read not only what, who wrote this book and what were they trying to say, but who's read this book and what were they trying to say about it? This is a bad thing for a librarian to say. You're not supposed to mark up books in libraries but in bookstores you can. And it was a kind of an education far better even than the very good education I later got at Princeton and Oxford.
LAMB: Why'd you go to Princeton and what'd you study?
BILLINGTON: I studied general European history there. They had a great department and, I mean, I had a wonderful freshman adviser, an old German named Theodore Mommsen. I was sort of interested in Russia already, knew the language somewhat, but I decided, with typical freshman enthusiasm, I was going to take a little course on everything. And he looked at my smorgasbord set of course choices, he said, “Young man” he said, “I think you better learn something well before you try to learn everything poorly.” So he said, “You want to study Russia, fine, but study your own culture first. Study your own Western history.” And so I took a very tough core course on European history there, and then I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to Oxford and went, and I then got more into Russian things with Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the great minds on Russian thought, and did my doctorate there.

So then I went in the Army and started teaching, but I always had this Russian interest whatever I was doing. But, fortunately, I was grounded in some deep reading and love of books from my father, and in a good training in general European history and American history at Princeton. So I think whatever, and there's a lesson there, I think -- I don't want to be too pompous about generalizing my own experience -- but I think studying foreign culture helps you understand your own. And it's very important at some point to really deeply immerse yourself in your own history, your own origins. And I think you get a new appreciation for it.

Certainly we see that now at the Library of Congress, you know, with all these Russians and others from Eastern Europe coming. The Congress has set up this Frost Commission, which is setting up little libraries inside Parliaments, the way the Library of Congress is the library for our Congress. The democracy, to be dynamic, has to be knowledge based. They have to have access to knowledge. That's something we kind of take for granted. But that's almost as important as having a variety of candidates to choose from in an election and having a rule of law under which the whole system functions. So I think to me it was very important, for my own development and for my own understanding, not just to study a foreign culture, but to study it on a base where you really deeply studied your own history and culture.
LAMB: What year were you at Oxford?
BILLINGTON: '50 to '53.
LAMB: And what'd you do after that?
BILLINGTON: I was in the Army. I came back and was in the Army for four years. I did a couple years of troop duty and then I was attached to something called the Office of National Estimates, which was kind of a precursor of the people who prepare papers for the Security Council, so it was very interesting staff work. That was an extraordinary operation and kind of holdover from World War II and but it was a very interesting also form of intellectual training. That was my only time, really, of government service. Then I went off in '57 and started teaching first at Harvard and then at Princeton. And then after, in '73, I came to Washington to run the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, within which I developed a lot of area studies to try to encourage the study of the world, which has been my own with a special emphasis on Russia my own emphasis.

And then in '87 I was appointed Librarian of Congress. And I think I'm the first there have only been 13 Librarians of Congress in the nearly 200 years of its history because it's a long term appointment -- and I think I'm the first one who has been a professional student to foreign cultures, so maybe there's some message in that for our time, in which our whole lives and our economy and our future is so much dependent on how we relate to the world. Will we be able to export? Will we be able to regenerate the economy? Will the international flow of markets redound to America's benefit? And will we be able to see what we've been seeing so excitingly in recent years, the spread of democracy and of an open economy and an accountable political system under the rule of law? It's a very exciting time to be alive, but it's a time in which America is interacting more and more with the world. And so to be Librarian of Congress, three quarters of the books, which aren't in English, is an international as well as a national job.
LAMB: How long is the appointment?
BILLINGTON: It's open ended. I mean, it's, in that sense I guess, somewhat like a Supreme Court justice and a great rarity in the American government.
LAMB: And how would you describe the job of Librarian of Congress? How many books are there, by the way?
BILLINGTON: Well, we have about 25 million books, but we have about 100 million objects, because the Library of Congress isn't just books, it's the world's largest movie collection. It's the world's largest map collection. It's and as far as books go, we're not only the world's largest collection of English language books but also Spanish language and Portuguese language books. And we tend to be the largest largest collection of books outside the countries of origin very large Russian collection, for instance. But it's also prints and photographs, music it's the world's largest music library. So it's a universal library and we're just about to reach our 100 millionth item in the Library of Congress, so that's the dimensions of it, on about 575 miles of shelving.
LAMB: All in Washington?
BILLINGTON: Almost all of it's in Washington, yes. It's another rarity for large libraries, is that it's almost all of it in one place and accessible.
LAMB: How many buildings?
BILLINGTON: We have three large buildings here on Capitol Hill. We have a big warehouse out in Landover. We also keep movies and restore them in Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. And we have some storage in caves in Pennsylvania and things like that, but most everything that people want is in these three buildings, is directly accessible here within an hour, an hour and a half of putting in a call slip.
LAMB: How many employees are there?
BILLINGTON: Five thousand, about.
LAMB: You mention that one of your heroes of this book is a Library of Congress employee in Moscow.
LAMB: How many other parts of the world do you have employees?
BILLINGTON: We have seven offices internationally. In fact, I'm about to go off to India, which is where this library conference that was held in Moscow last year is being held this year in India. And there we have an office of nearly 100 employees and we do preservation microfilming not only for the Library of Congress collections, but for all other major collections of Indian materials in the United States and in India. We do this for the Indian government. So it's a wonderful cooperative relationship because paper, as you know most paper self destructs. And in India, where the climate's bad and the paper is even more high acid content than it is in America, the lifespan of printed things is not very great. So we do a lot of preservation microfilm, particularly of periodicals. And these offices are major cultural links with particularly in the Third World and in countries where there aren't developed book trade. We don't have them in Europe, by and large, but we have one in Moscow; we have them in Djakarta, Delhi, Karachi, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro and so forth. Cairo is a very, very important one. So...
LAMB: What's one of the larger misconceptions you find among Americans about the Library of Congress when you travel around and speak?
BILLINGTON: Well, I don't think people realize the extent to which it represents an invisible subsidy to the whole library profession in America. It costs more to catalog a book than to buy a book. Without our invisible subsidies largely invisible subsidy to the cataloging, most libraries or many libraries would simply go out of business. And I don't think they realize that, because our bibliographic records are often repackaged and sold under other things, but that the origin of it lies that free central subsidy or the 21 million items a year we distribute free to the blind and physically handicapped, or the fact that we distribute a million books a year to prisons and Indian reservations and other libraries duplicates.

We don't sell anything. The enormous amount of free service that the Library of Congress gives to underpinning the reading in the library system of the country. Just the amount of what the off campus contribution of the Library of Congress is to the country as a whole is, I think, least understood and appreciated.
LAMB: What's the budget a year?
BILLINGTON: The federal budget runs around $320 million a year.
LAMB: And do you have a boss?
BILLINGTON: Yes, the Congress of the United States.
LAMB: And how is that administered?
BILLINGTON: Well, there's a joint committee on the library, which is a joint committee between Senate rules and House administration. There are also appropriations committees for the legislative branch. We're part of the legislative branch of government. Incidentally, I think that's another misconception.

I mean, when people talk about the extent of the budget of the legislative branch, they should realize that at least a good part of it is to subsidize the national library of the United States, which is what, in effect, the Library of Congress is. Eight hundred of our 5,000 employees work full time for the Congress in the Congressional Research Service, and some in the law library and other areas work intensively especially for the Congress. But most of the Library of Congress works for the nation as a whole, in keeping a library of last resort for information purposes. We answer a couple million inquiries from around the country a year. We run a national referral service. We lend books an interlibrary loan free and most libraries charge for that.

I think people don't realize the extent to which this within the legislative branch of government there is a giant service center for America and a source and something which, by the way, we're not resting on what we're doing already. We're going to move with our American Memory project to get the core of our Americana collection. You know we have the papers of the we were the presidential libraries up till Coolidge. It's only Hoover, FDR and beyond that have these independent presidential libraries scattered around the country. We have the Lincoln papers, the Jefferson papers, the Washington papers. We have all these old political cartoons.

We have much of the American memory because we have the copyright deposit the whole record of American creativity. And we're going to get a good deal of that out on digitized form into every library and school in America in the next century. It's going to make a big difference to the educational process and to our sense of who we are as a people. And I guess I'm influenced by my own experience of having been well grounded in our own Western culture, that sort of core values and culture of the country as a wonderful background for then studying and discovering another culture.

American Memory is going to give every schoolchild and librarian in this country, in the not too distant future, in the early 21st century, a chance to use the core collections of the Library of Congress in place in their community and not have to come here. That's a very exciting frontier that we're working on very energetically.
LAMB: Was it a goal of yours to be the Librarian of Congress?
BILLINGTON: Well, no. I think this is a kind of a one of a kind job that nobody could ever envisage themselves doing or even preparing for. There's so much to it. There's so much variety and so much responsibility. I don't have a board of trustees. You have to do it all yourself. It's a lot work, but it's absolutely fascinating.
LAMB: What's the biggest surprise about the job?
BILLINGTON: The biggest surprise about the job is, I would say, how great it's I would say the unused knowledge in the people within the Library of Congress. That is to say, people who live around books tend to be wise and humane and have interesting things to say. But we have 5,000 people on our staff. We catalog for the world, basically. We're the only place in the world where the world's intellectual production is read every year by a discerning mind in order to introduce the cataloging entry. And yet that knowledge the extent and the amount of that knowledge and the extent to which it hasn't yet been put to use for the good of the country and of civilization generally that's my biggest surprise and my biggest challenge.

We've got all kinds of stuff in the back of people's minds that we've got to get into the front of their computer in front of their computers out to the R&D of the nation, out to the educational system. It's the endless discovery you make of the fact that information is proliferating without being turned into knowledge; knowledge is being stored without being turned into wisdom, practical wisdom for our society. And wisdom is being generated without our encouraging enough creativity, because that's the payoff. You go from data to information to knowledge, and if that doesn't turn into wisdom, which is a practical quality for our society, and creativity, which is the cutting edge of progress for the human race, then America's ceased to be at the cutting edge, and we have to be at the cutting edge. I think we are, but I think we have one of the greatest resources in the world and, frankly, it's underused. It's overused for ordinary library purposes, underused for generating real wisdom and real creativity. And that's part of the challenge. It's part of the challenge of renewing America, because we have this wonderful educational system.

We have this wonderful library system and so forth, but we're not using what we have as dramatically and as effectively as we could, and the Library of Congress is the greatest resource of all in this country. We've got to have it used in new ways and, incidentally, one of the great things about a universal library built around Thomas Jefferson's library, which was the most universal library of its kind at the beginning of the American experiment one of the great things about a universal library is that it can help overcome the narrowness of so much of academic scholarship.

People are busy taking things apart without putting them together in academia. The Library of Congress, because we have all languages, all formats and a lot of people wise people to draw on, it's the perfect place to put things together, rather than take them apart; to make some synthetic leaps, to see some new connections between different formats, different cultures and so forth. It's a wonderful place for creating the links, the bridges and the unities of the human adventure, which we're going to have to do on this planet if we're going to get along and if we're going to have Switzerlands, rather than Yugoslavias, in the future.
LAMB: In your book you refer to the 75 million either pieces of literature or something in a library that you went through that had never been opened before in Russia?
BILLINGTON: It's the archives. I'd been playing a role because one of the people I talked about in this book, Mr. Pikhoia, from Sverdlovsk another one of these Siberians is now in charge of the entire archives of the KGB, the Communist party and all of that. And we had this exhibit during the Bush Yeltsin summit at the Library of Congress, of the first revelations of these hitherto secret archives from the Central Committee and the presidential archives and the KGB.

Yeah, there are 75 million items in the Central Committee archives alone. That's only one part of it. Collectively speaking, the archives of the Soviet Union, which are just being opened up now, represent the largest single untapped resource for restudying the history of the 20th century there is. I mean, there's everything from suppressed novels and literature that was suppressed and confiscated. Fortunately they didn't throw too much away. It wasn't like Hitler, who burned books. They just impounded them all. But there's manuscripts; there are fantastic human records; there are long biographies; there are huge personnel dossiers on almost every important person of 20th century history. It's going to be one of the great gold mines and it's going to be one of the great minefields, too, because if this stuff is used improperly, selectively, it can be used for blackmail and defaming people and all kinds of things.
LAMB: Because we're going to run out of time, I want to get a couple of things in. You also suggest in the book that the academia or the academic exchanges bringing the Russians over here to this country made an impact on the change.
BILLINGTON: Tremendous impact. I mean, the impact on individuals who got to know this system in making the change the rector of Moscow University was on the exchange at Stanford and he really opened up. He introduced the study of America. I was chairman of the Fulbright Commission at the time and I worked with him on this introduced the study of American history by American professors in Moscow a long time ago. And he really changed the educational system.

The impact of a person like Yakovlev, who was an exchange student at Columbia, who was Gorbachev's principal adviser in the perestroika period; and the impact in Sverdlovsk I mention this one fellow a fellow named Shtinov, who studied in Buffalo for a year. He's introduced a whole new political science curriculum, a whole study of The Federalist papers, of de Tocqueville, all of that in Siberia, which is way ahead of Moscow and Leningrad. Those are just three individuals.

And the most important thing we can do now to help make sure that this kind of fascist nationalist fallback position of the old Communist bureaucrats does not creep back into power by hook or by crook in the next couple of years, when there's going to be all this economic difficulty and ethnic difficulty the most important thing we can do is to train some cadres, some of these young, fresh people who have never seen a free system in operation.

I don't think we can afford to wait to bring them over for a whole year, although we need exchange programs. There's the Bradley Leach bill in Congress, which is a very positive step, but I think we need to bring over a lot 10,000, 15,000 so that the thin line of reformers at the top, who are trying to change that system and make the changes that were begun so dramatically last August stick that they have some lieutenants that can support what they're doing.

At the moment they have disloyal lieutenants who are longing for the old Communist system under the new nationalist banners and aren't really interested in the democratic experiment.
LAMB: Prediction from you about democracy in the old Soviet Union. Will it make it?
BILLINGTON: I think it will make it because it's the belief of the young, it's the desire of the young. So I'm very confident that 10 years from now it will make it. The great problem they have to do is get through the next two winters. That's going to be very tough. But remember, they got through the first without either the hunger riots that were predicted or the ethnic riots between Russians and non Russians. Those risks, that one of those two kinds of violence will occur the next winter will be much greater than they were this past. So there's a great need for Western involvement. We need to have more personnel that we can help train them so they can get through this. They need help. But if they can get through the next two winters, I think their progress towards democracy and towards rapid economic recovery will be much more rapid than people are inclined to think because of the present chaos. And so for the long run, I'm very optimistic. But hope is what they broke through to, and hope is not necessarily the same thing as optimism for the short run.
LAMB: Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, the author of this book, "Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope." Thank you very much for being with us.
BILLINGTON: Thank you for having me.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.