James H. Billington: Treasured Memories

My wife and I and our two very young daughters spent the better part of the academic year 1960–1961 in Helsinki on a Fulbright research grant working in the National Library.  Things were still a bit austere in Finland in those days.  Finns experienced a small version of what they called a “night frost” with the Soviet Union, and lettuce during the winter was sold leaf by leaf.  Fresh produce was hard to come by in the dead of a Helsinki winter.  Yet for me professionally, and for our family personally, it was one of the happiest and most productive times of our lives.            

It was not easy to use libraries then in the Soviet Union, though I made one extended trip into St. Petersburg to give the first series of lectures on the then new Harvard-Leningrad exchange program. The Helsinki Library had been a deposit library for the Russian Empire from 1809–1917. It was beautifully serviced and maintained with Scandinavian efficiency. I was thrilled to find that the basic organization of the stacks was by decade throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and I was permitted to work in the stacks. As a result, I was able to read the original versions of Russian literary and historical writings and periodicals and then read the response and criticism of them in subsequent journals of the same year.  This permitted an immersion in Russian literature of a kind that few scholars are able to have. This opportunity enabled me to focus on transforming a course I was giving at Harvard into probably my most important single scholarly work; The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture.

I became fascinated with Finland as a total society. Having our very young  kids run along free outside with their “park aunt” during the week was a thrill for them.  My wife and I enjoyed seeing them both having fun and not having a single cold or adverse effect from the harsh winter weather.  Stopping off for lessons in the Finnish language with Mrs. Altio, who was a marvelous language teacher, enabled me to manage enough Finnish while I was there to read such works as The Seven Brothers, whom I could never quite relate to, and Väinö Linna’s Here Under the Northern Star.  I always wondered why he didn’t get a Nobel Prize.  I loved shopping for books on the way back from the library and then walking on to our apartment on Runeberginkatu. I enjoyed regular saunas, warm human associations with Finns, and a particularly memorable trip to Kuopio up north which has the special beauty of a very different type of 19th century wooden town. The beautifully displayed treasures of the Valamo monastery of the Finnish Orthodox Church were far more attractive and reverently displayed than comparable treasures in the Soviet Union.

Central to the experience was the wonderful series of events for me and my wife that made dark evenings shine thanks to a magnificently ordered Fulbright program in Finland under Sven Sjögren. I have since returned regularly and always happily to Finland to keep up with old friends and to hear the glorious music under the midnight sun at Savonlinna.  Later, as a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships that runs the Fulbright program world-wide and as its chairman in the early 1970s, I always held up the Finnish Fulbright program as a model for what an exchange program should be.  Every time I return to the National Library overlooking the beautiful square, it will always be for me a kind of homecoming.     

James H. Billington
Librarian of Congress


Published in the Fulbright Finland News 2/2008