With simple elegance, Billington re-creates the face of Russia through its art, sketching in broad, brief strokes the accompanying political history. He starts from the beginning, presenting each historical period through its dominant creative expression: early and medieval Russia in icons; eighteenth-century Russia in architecture (Rastrelli); the nineteenth century in literature (Gogol) and music (Mussorgsky); and the early twentieth century in film (Eisenstein). He argues that at every stage Russia suddenly embraced an art form developed by other cultures -- often those previously reviled -- and took it to new heights before smashing it or casting it aside. Might, he asks, the Russians do the same with democracy but without (it might be hoped) that third phase? Whether one journeys to Russia by plane or book, this is a superb travel companion.