You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Face of Russia

Perhaps the task of tracing Russia's rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington's unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of familiar generalizations. He presents the nation's history patchwork-style and considers its artistic heritage with few novel concepts.

With:
Host: James Billington

Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of familiar generalizations. He presents the nation’s history patchwork-style and considers its artistic heritage with few novel concepts.

For Billington, it’s the icon, that sublime fusion of craft and devotion, that marks Russia’s artistic heart, and he discusses this form with some eloquence in the first hour. His tours of several breathtaking churches are also noteworthy. But Billington’s stiff, tentative speaking style often undermines his commentary, and he grows pedantic when discussing topics at length.

Yet the real problem with this program is Billington’s idiosyncratic approach to his subject. He devotes much attention to Gogol in the second hour but never mentions Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy — let alone Chekhov or Solzhenitsyn. And though Eisenstein occupies a good deal of time, Stanislavski and Diaghilev are never spoken of. Mussorgsky is discussed, Tchaikovsky barely mentioned. Billington also fails to note that many of this century’s greatest musicians — Horowitz, Heifetz, Chaliapin, Piatigorsky, to name but a few — were Russians. Most amazing of all is that he ignores the ballet, that pillar of Russian culture, which is not once alluded to in this series.

There are lovely shots of palaces and churches, but pretty pictures do not a portrait make. And the occasional breezy anecdote hardly atones for the serious gaps in this survey. The interviews spliced into the narrative help alleviate the tedium, but not all the comments are that insightful or informative. And Billington’s concluding panegyric offers nothing but stale platitudes. Even those completely unfamiliar with the history and culture of Russia will not benefit from this poorly organized effort, as the confusion encountered surpasses whatever learning can be gleaned.

Tech credits are to be lauded. The film and opera clips are well-chosen and excellently reproduced.

The Face of Russia

PBS; Thursdays, June 18-July 1, 10 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Russia by Malone Gill Prods., the Library of Congress and WETA Washington, D.C., in association with Public Media Inc. and Media-Most. Executive producer, Phylis Geller; producer, Michael Gill; director, Murray Grigor; writer, James Billington

Cast: Host: James Billingtoncamera, Douglas Campbell; editor, Dave Jacobs; sound, Allan Young; music, Carl Davis. 3 HOURS

More TV

  • Ann Curry Matt Lauer Today

    Ann Curry Warned NBC of Sex Harassment Claim Against Matt Lauer (Report)

    Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of […]

  • Supernatural -- "Unfinished Business" -- Image

    'Supernatural' Director on Jensen Ackles' Advice, Juggling Two Characters and That Fight Scene

    Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of […]

  • Tom Brokaw Accused of Sexual Harassment

    Tom Brokaw Accused of Sexual Harassment By Former NBC Anchor (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

    Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of […]

  • Priyanka Chopra Power of Women Variety

    Priyanka Chopra on Defying Stereotypes: 'My Ethnicity Doesn't Define My Opportunity'

    Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of […]

  • "Deion Sanders" -- Coverage of the

    CBS Sets 'Undercover Boss: Celebrity Edition' With New Series to Debut in May

    Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of […]

  • Quantico Priyanka Chopra

    Priyanka Chopra on How 'Quantico' Is a 'Really Big Step' for Women of Color & Immigrants on TV

    Perhaps the task of tracing Russia’s rich cultural history is simply beyond the reach of any three-hour documentary, but James Billington’s unfocused assessment, which airs on three consecutive Thursdays, is profoundly disappointing. Billington is the Librarian of Congress and a respected historian, but his gloss on Russia is little more than a trotting out of […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content