I was looking up information on Terence Wade, the author of the excellent A Comprehensive Russian Grammar, when I ran across this fine Times obit from 2005:

…While less fortunate National Service recruits were square-bashing and polishing their buttons, the JSSL students were producing Russian magazines, musical extravaganzas and avant-garde theatre.
In a joint production of Aristophanes’ The Clouds with St Andrews University, Wade was the pianist, dressed as Liberace. In the Greek chorus was a Classics undergraduate, Mary McEwan, whom he married in 1958.
While some JSSL graduates fulfilled its original purpose and worked for Signals Intelligence, the Foreign Office or GCHQ, others, such as Wade, were to build Russian studies into a thriving academic discipline in British universities. In the spirit of the age of polytechnics and red-brick universities, of Lucky Jim and angry young men, Wade always poked fun at the stuffiness of the traditional academic establishment. …

But a reference to “the formidable and dynamic White Russian Professor Elizabeth Hill” sent me to her obit, an even better one (by A. D. P. Briggs) from the Independent:

Eccentricity characterised Elizabeth Hill’s academic achievement. In scholarly terms, she was both a nonentity and a colossus. She wrote almost nothing original, yet she was the direct inspirational force behind dozens of serious articles and books by other people.
As Professor of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University for 20 years, she was a poor teacher of literature but, paradoxically, a powerful inspirer of love for the Russian writers, and also a brilliant, though terribly demanding, language instructor. Undergraduates loved her as a person but went elsewhere for their lectures and supervisions. …
Yelizaveta Fyodorovna (her name in Russian usage) came from a prosperous Anglo- Russian family, her mother Russian, her father an English businessman (Frederick Hill); they fled from Russia for their lives in 1917 and ended up impoverished in London. Lisa, barely 17, began a succession of language teaching jobs before entering University College London, where she gained a First in Russian in 1924 and a PhD in 1928, though her first university appointment was delayed until 1936, when she went to Cambridge as Lecturer.
Her big opportunity came during and after the Second World War, when the Government gave her the job of training young recruits to read and speak Russian. …
She continued to turn up everywhere in a small car, driving herself and some other diminutive companion in such a way that neither could be seen above steering-wheel height. The recently acquired Mini which still rests in her Cambridge garage is an honourable descendant of the weirdly sprung Renault with which she terrorised that city four decades ago. Hill’s car was reputed to be the only one ever allowed to park regularly in front of the British Museum, such was her bamboozling Russian charm over British policemen.
She was a most satisfying person for those who like their professors to be eccentric. For one thing she never knew which language she was speaking. In one of her last letters, sent to an ex-student who now heads a Department of Russian in Canada, Hill wrote, “she escaped from the Berlin Control Commission hoping to popast’ v Ameriku, no ne vyshlo as the train headed for the British Zone”. That was also how she spoke.


  1. “to build Russian studies into a thriving academic discipline in British universities”: but infected with plenty of communist arse-lickers, unfortunately. Was that true in the US too?

  2. Depended on the department, of course. Not true at mine.

  3. brilliant obit, I think I’ll have to get Tony Briggs biography of Tolstoy – what a way to write about people.
    From what he says it’s hard to think of her as having been inspirational for stalinist lefties. As I am told, in those days if you studied Russian you were either a communist or a spy. In Britain many young men chose Russian studies as an option for doing the National Service. They included Freddie George, the former governor of the Bank of England.

  4. To be fair, it was at a seminar in an Australian Department of History – rather than Russian – that I heard a speaker refer to Stalin with an affectionate “the old bigger”. [The quotation had to be bowdlerised to placate your censoring software, Hat. Ironic, eh?]

  5. OK, I’ve removed the offending word from the blacklist, and he can now don his proper mantle of “the old bugger.”

  6. Ta.

  7. Bill Walderman says

    Wade’s Grammar is superb!

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