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.