Obituary: Dr Oliver Smith, lecturer

Oliver Smith
Oliver Smith
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Born: 28 June, 1979, in Solihull. Died: On Skye, aged 33

In his few short years as an academic, Oliver Smith had already exceeded the achievements of many of his generation of scholars.

A superb linguist, generous teacher and prolific writer, he had an extensive bibliography of publications behind him and a stellar career was predicted in his particular field of Russian studies.

Though he only arrived at St Andrews University five years ago, his potential was immediately evident and he quickly progressed from a teaching fellowship to a permanent post as lecturer, proving to be an engaging tutor – not least for his ability to employ his musical skills on the accordion to persuade his class to belt out the Russian national anthem – and a most industrious researcher.

Tragically, his full potential was never to be realised: he fell during a solo hillwalking trip on Skye in April and his body was found two months later on Bla Bheinn, or Blaven, one of the island’s most picturesque peaks.

Yet for someone in the relatively early stages of his academic career he leaves a rich archive of work, mainly focused on the Russian intellectual tradition as it developed from the start of the 19th century.

Born in Solihull, he grew up in Warwickshire and was educated at prep school before attending historic Warwick School. He went on to obtain a first-class degree in Russian from Leeds University and a masters in Russian Studies, followed by a doctorate from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.

Still in his 20s, he came to St Andrews in 2008, to a teaching fellowship at the Russian department, and was soon spotted as someone with suitable attributes for a permanent position. Two years later he was appointed as a lecturer and went on to make a significant contribution to both the academic and administrative aspects of the department and School of Modern Languages.

Most of his work centred on Russian religious thought. He had a particular interest in representatives of the Russian Spiritual Academies such as Metropolitan Platon and Fedor Golubinskii, as well as the 19th-century Russian thinker Vladimir Soloviev and his successors.

He published a monograph on Soloviev, Vladimir Soloviev and the Spiritualization of Matter, which peers described as one of the best recent works about Russian philosophy, praising his ability to tackle complex philosophical concepts with unusual clarity, lucidity and cohesion.

He also published several pieces on Russian environmental thought, and was recently working on questions of biblical exegesis and the influence of the prophetic tradition on Russian thought.

He had won a two-year Humboldt research grant from the German government to work on his next book, a second monograph, this time dedicated to the prophet Daniel in the Russian tradition, and to liaise with Russian colleagues at Trier University.

He taught all components of Russian language, as well as honours modules in Russian intellectual history and literature, and was involved in various administrative duties in his own department and the school. He was examinations officer, library officer, co-ordinator on the Mundus postgraduate programme, the Russian study abroad programme, and served as a liaison for the university’s environmental policies.

He also co-organised the Centre for Russian, Soviet and East European Studies’ 2010 conference on the Caucasus, which attracted significant British Academy funding, and its conference on Orthodoxy last year.

Colleagues knew him as a brilliant linguist who spoke Russian beautifully and was always happy to take on extra responsibilities, while students appreciated his friendly, approachable manner and obvious enthusiasm for his subject.

He had first become interested in Russia when he visited St Petersburg as a schoolboy. Later the country introduced him to his wife. They met in the late 1990s when they were both studying Russian at Moscow State University. They married in 2004 and have a one-year-old daughter.

Beyond work his other interests included reading and music – he was an accomplished pianist and had organised a visit to St Andrews by piano tutor Simon Nicholls of the Birmingham Conservatoire – plus the outdoors and the environment. A keen walker, both out on the hills and on the streets of cities he visited, his first serious trek had been in the Altai region of Siberia. He also trekked in America and Crete. In addition he loved birds and birdwatching, was keen on sport, particularly swimming and cycling, and was a strong Scrabble player.

A devout Anglican and deeply spiritual man, becoming a father was the best and most important thing in his life. Devoted to his little girl, he spent as much of his free time as possible with her enjoying two of his favourite pastimes, reading and playing the piano together.

He is survived by his wife, Shelley Jacobsen, their daughter Thea, his parents Gail and Richard and sister Victoria.