Professor John Erickson

Professor John Erickson, defence specialist, academic and historian

Born: 17 April, 1929, in South Shields

Died: 10 February, 2002, in Edinburgh, aged 72

IT WAS widely believed that John Erickson, director of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Defence Studies between 1988 and 1996 and a world authority on the Soviet military, knew more Russian top brass than he did their western counterparts - and he knew a great many of the latter. His success in bringing the military leaders and diplomats of both camps together in the "Edinburgh Conversations", the extraordinary series of seminars alternating between Edinburgh and Moscow during the Eighties, helped to thaw attitudes and influence official and academic thinking on both sides of the Cold War divide.

Erickson was born and initially educated in South Shields, Co Durham, before going on to Cambridge and Oxford, as well as taking in a postwar national service stint as a sergeant in Army Intelligence - during which time, he once recalled, in a letter to this newspaper extolling the efficiency of woman soldiers, he made a point of being "punctilious in saluting lady Red Army officers, not out of lame male sentiment, but rather out of respect for those battle decorations they wore".

Perhaps his due deference to these fighting women was an early foretaste of his later knack in persuading mutually suspicious Cold War antagonists to sit round a table at a time when, in the world arena, they were scarcely speaking to each other, although high-ranking Soviets were also undoubtedly impressed by the profound acquaintance with Russian military history which would result in, among numerous other books, the monumental Stalin’s War With Germany, and, written with his wife, Ljubica, The Soviet Armed Forces 1918-1992, regarded as essential reading for any serious student of Soviet military thinking.

He first came to Scotland as a lecturer in Russian and East European history at the University of St Andrews. After a spell in the department of government at Manchester University, he joined the University of Edinburgh in 1967, first as lecturer in higher defence studies and later as Professor of Politics (Defence Studies), an MoD-Universities joint-funded post which led ultimately to the establishing of the Centre for Defence Studies under his direction.

Initially regarded with considerable suspicion by both Pentagon and Kremlin leaders, the "conversations" flourished, managing to ride out crises such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the downing of Korean Airlines Flight KAL 007. What started off as informal exchanges developed into complex discussions taking in topics such as arms control and other security issues, as well as environmental topics such as Chernobyl. "I insist that commanders talk to commanders," Erickson once said.

A crucial element in their success was the extraordinary range of his contacts, and the respect in which he was held by both East and West, the Russians appreciating his interest in their history and particularly their role in the Second World War.

Professor Erickson also enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the BBC World Service and advised on various television documentaries. The striking figure with the coxcomb shock of hair and the piercing gaze was regarded as a phenomenal combination of sometimes startling individualist and astute historian and information broker by his colleagues and associates. "His specialist knowledge was absolutely staggering," one recalled yesterday.

"He was an extraordinary person," said another: "In some respects I think he would have liked to have been a tank commander; he certainly had a somewhat aggressive streak. On the other hand, he was profoundly interested in peace and co-existence. He was a phenomenal linguist, and a passionate academic who wrote these incredible histories of the Russian front but at the same time really enjoyed policy, being able to talk to top generals and others on both sides."

Another recalled a lunchtime seminar at Edinburgh University during the Sixties, during the wave of indignation which greeted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when the professor was talking about what was going on at the frontier and, amid the high feelings, one sceptical student stood up and said to him: "Well, how do you know?" Erickson replied simply: "Because I was there."

His apparent ability to flit about the Eastern bloc and almost uncanny links with both Cold War protagonists occasionally gave rise to unfounded presumptions that he must enjoy double-agent status, although he did say that in his time he had been approached by many people working for foreign intelligences. He was widely quoted in the press, whether gloomily lamenting the post-glasnost rise of the Soviet yuppie - "hell-bent on personal achievement and lacking any sense of personal responsibility", warning of the Star Wars-type electro-magnetic weaponry which could come to pass even in a nuclear-free world, or recalling meeting two of Saddam Hussein’s top lieutenants - in Dalkeith, of all places - who wanted his help in updating their combat manuals. "But the one thing I don’t do is help improve combat effectiveness, not for the Brits or anyone," he stressed.

His recreations are listed in Who’s Who as model-making and music, and he seems to have brought a historian’s passion for accurate detail to his model aircraft.

It cannot be many husband-and-wife teams who have lectured the Russian General Staff, but the consequences of such ventures now provide a unique legacy to students and researchers: he and his wife, Ljubica, who survives him along with their two children, Amanda and Mark, donated their 7,000-volume collection of Soviet military materials and records, built up over some 40 years, to the National Library of Scotland.