James Forsyth, Russian linguistic, literary and ethnohistorical scholar. Born: 8 December 1928 in Edinburgh. Died: 24 August 2016, in Norwich, aged 87
James Forsyth was born in Edinburgh on 8 December 1928. His early life was marred by sadness, with the death of his mother when he was just four years old. His father, a tailor, was lame – after contracting polio as a child, so Jim – as he was usually called – was a vital help as delivery boy from the shop in Bruntsfield Place.
Jim began his career as assistant librarian in the City Library. Fascinated by the Cyrillic alphabet, he began to teach himself Russian before embarking on an Honours Course in Russian at the University of Edinburgh under the late Dennis Ward. He graduated in 1957 with First Class Honours in Russian and German.
His first academic post was at Keele from 1958-1961. He moved to Glasgow in 1961, and then on to Aberdeen, where he was appointed Head of a new Russian Department in 1964 and remained until the Department was closed in a round of cuts in the late 1980s.
Jim was a sympathetic but strict teacher, believing strongly that a sound knowledge of basic grammar was necessary for progress in language and literature. He was sceptical about the efficacy of language laboratories, preferring to make use of native speakers of Russian. Among his many appreciative students was Angus Roxburgh, for several years the BBC’s correspondent in Moscow.
In 1962, his first book was Russian Through Reading, on which he collaborated with Kenneth Brooke. This was followed in 1963 by A Practical Guide to Russian Stress. A Grammar of Aspect, Usage and Meaning in the Russian Verb, a thorough survey and analysis of a fundamental problem, came next in 1970 and remains the authoritative work on the subject. In 1971 Jim edited Vinokur’s The Russian Language, a Brief History, translated from the Russian by his then wife, Mary.
Together with Harvey Pitcher, he produced a translated collection of short stories entitled Chuckle with Chekhov, in 1975. Listening to the Wind: An Introduction to Alexander Blok followed in 1977. He also edited and contributed notes and introductions to classic Russian literary texts, such as The Queen of Spades by Pushkin, and Gogol’s The Overcoat.
Together, these works were a more than adequate output for a busy teacher who was also responsible for the administration of his department. His greatest achievements were still to come in the shape of two definitive books on ethnohistory completed after his retirement. The first of them was A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1930, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1992. With evident sympathy for the Buryat Mongols, Yakuts, Tatars, Samoyeds, Tunguses, Chukchis and others, the book tells how tsarist occupation led to warfare, tribute-collection and many kinds of exploitation threatening the very survival of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. But he is even more critical of the deracination involved in Soviet collectivisation and the environmental effects of industrial development, pouring scorn on such concepts as the “friendship of peoples”.
Originally, Jim had intended to write about all the peoples of European Russia, but he concentrated instead on those from the most challenging region in The Caucasus: A History, published again by Cambridge University Press in 2013. Now his focus was on Abkhazians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Chechens, Daghestanis, Circassians, Georgians and other victims of recurring imperial invasions. As in the book on Siberia, there is a determined attempt to convey the distinctive character of each people, its language and culture, as well as its history. And again, he was a severe critic of the policies of the central government, tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet, towards the region. Acknowledging that colonial peoples throughout the world had been harshly treated, he insisted with considerable justification that the travails of those he dealt with had been comparatively neglected.
Jim was unhappy with the turn of events after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and decided to bring a long series of visits to Russia to an end. He never reached Siberia, but travelled extensively in the Caucasus.
He was a reliable friend, always ready to help with linguistic difficulties and other problems. He could also be thrawn, whether refusing to accept the demise of the department he had worked so hard to be build up without a determined fight or insisting on the publication of all 898 pages of his book on the Caucasus without abridgement, to give just two examples.
He greatly enjoyed company, but was also happy alone at his desk.
In the last year or so of his life, while living with dementia in a Norwich nursing home, Jim turned his thoughts increasingly to his early life, and to Edinburgh. Although he struggled to remember some everyday English words, he never forgot the grammatical terminology to describe them and retained his Russian. He was still playing with words and making puns up to the end on 24 August 2016.
He was married three times, first to Mary, secondly (and briefly) to Tanya and thirdly to Josephine, who predeceased him. He had a daughter, Marion, with Mary, and a grandson, Jack, as well as two brothers, John and Lauchlan, who also predeceased him.