Obituary: RF Christian, professor of Russian at St Andrews University

Reginald Frank Christian, Professor of Russian at St Andrews University. Born 9 August, 1924 in Liverpool. Died 3 May 2018 in St Andrews, aged 93.

RF Christian
RF Christian

RF Christian was the leading post-war Tolstoy scholar in Britain, and one of the foremost in the world. He attended the Liverpool Institute, then went up to Oxford in 1942 with the Senior Open Scholarship in Classics at the Queen’s College. There, he read the wartime Shortened Honour Moderations, gaining distinction in Latin and Greek. Concurrently, he joined the University Air Squadron, later serving for three years in the RAF. He had hoped to become a bomber pilot but, having come top in the navigation exam, was posted as Pilot Officer (navigator) to the Atlantic Ferry Unit, 231 Squadron, based in Montreal. He mostly flew in North American-built Liberators and Dakotas, initially delivering them to North Africa, India and Scotland for RAF use in the Mediterranean and Far East; latterly the focus shifted to delivering VIPs to international destinations.

War service introduced him to overseas travel, and he made the most of all sightseeing opportunities. One pilot returning from Karachi to Rabat was keen to see famous archaeological sights en route, and asked Reg to prepare flight plans requiring deviations from the prescribed route, and keep simultaneous official and spurious logs; this meant inventing wind speeds and directions and reporting false positions every hour.

His father’s 1943 Christmas present of Aylmer Maude’s translation of War and Peace and biography of Tolstoy introduced Reg to Russian literature. He was a voracious reader and, with ample time for reading between flights, a growing interest in Russian literature and Soviet affairs made him decide to switch to Russian on his return to Oxford, and he began to teach himself the language. Back at Queen’s in 1946, he discovered that this would continue to be necessary since modern Russian language teaching was then non-existent at Oxford.

Graduating with first-class honours in 1949, he became an attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow, the only way private citizens could enter the USSR without invitation. His work was largely tedious translation from the Russian press, though he did see numerous ballet and concert performances at the top venues, and travelled as much as was allowed. On holiday in the Caucasus, he and an embassy friend were arrested by railway police for being on a train without authority (their scheduled one had failed to stop). He also came close to arrest in Moscow after being seen defacing a poster saying “Vote for Stalin!” with a comment concerning the lack of choice, but easily outsprinted the armed militiaman who gave chase. Bored by his work and frustrated by the difficulty of meeting Russians in Stalin’s day, he soon decided to embark on an academic career.

In 1950 he returned to Liverpool as Assistant Lecturer in Russian at the University, becoming Lecturer and Head of Department in 1952. He then became Senior Lecturer (Professor from 1963) and Head of Department at the University of Birmingham. In the early 1960s, he was also Visiting Professor at McGill University, Montreal and the No. 1 Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, before appointment to the newly created Chair of Russian at St Andrews in 1966.

There he built on his work at Birmingham, giving Scotland one of the UK’s leading venues for studying Russian language and literature. He was an outstanding teacher – patient, understanding, and much loved by generations of students. One writes: “From our second year we got to know him personally and were overwhelmed by his sharp mind, his humour and his exceeding kindness… his lectures on the 19th century Russian novel stood out as true gems.

“They shaped my understanding particularly of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy for the rest of my life.”

He also served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Senate Assessor on the University Court, and Convener of the Library Committee. He was a member of the UGC Arts Sub-committee, and his report on Russian studies in universities for the Atkinson Committee was published in 1979. For five years he was one of two British representatives on the International Committee of Slavists.

Reg continued to visit Russia until 1994, working in the principal libraries and at Tolstoy’s estate of Yasnaya Polyana. He travelled extensively within the former Soviet Union, including to Central Asia, and once shared a sleeper with Yuri Gagarin.

Over the years he visited close friends in Russia with whom he corresponded and exchanged books, including the stepson of the last tsar’s chauffeur (who took Rasputin’s body to Tsarskoe Selo for burial, and whom he also knew). For some, his determined book-smuggling adventures were their only hope of obtaining material from the west. Not in 1979, however, when, during a customs check at Moscow airport, a copy of Zinoviev’s satire, Yawning Heights, concealed under his trouser belt, slipped down the inside of his trouser leg and appeared on the floor! He was made to strip, his luggage was searched, and all that year’s offerings were confiscated.

His research interests ranged from early manuscripts and printed books to Russian literature and the modern Russian language. His first book, Korolenko’s Siberia (1954), presented translations of VG Korolenko’s stories arising from his internal exile. Russian Syntax (1959, with FM Borras), a pioneering textbook partly based on the notes he had been obliged to compile for himself at Oxford, remained in print for more than 30 years. In 1962, Tolstoy’s War and Peace: A Study inaugurated a series of books and articles on the work and life of Tolstoy. Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction (1969) was followed by two-volume translations of his selected letters (1978) and diaries (1985), which gave non-Russian-speaking readers new insights into the life and character of the great novelist as a man; the diaries reached a wide audience through popular paperback editions.

As Emeritus Professor, he published the first biography of Alexis Aladin who, having led the Labour Group in the first Russian Duma following the 1905 revolution, spent most of his remaining two decades in exile in England.

Reg balanced his academic activities with playing soccer for Queen’s and in the Lancashire Amateur League, and subsequently tennis and squash. A keen walker, at St Andrews he sometimes held departmental meetings at a brisk pace on the West Sands. Music was a lifelong passion; his mother had been an outstanding pianist (who, curiously enough, taught a member of the Russian royal family). In his teens he led his local church choir; as an adult he took up the violin, and regularly performed in concerts by the St Andrews University Orchestra.

In 1951 Reg met Rosalind Iris Napier, a Cambridge history graduate who had given up teaching down south for social work in Liverpool. They were married in 1952 at Jordans, the famous Quaker Meeting House in Buckinghamshire. Rosalind’s developing interest in vegetarianism would help to guide Reg towards a more Tolstoyan way of life. While he remained a proud Liverpudlian – and proud of his father’s Manx heritage – they came to love Scotland (both had Scottish grandparents). The family lived for over 20 years in St Andrews University’s last professorial house – the Roundel, overlooking the Cathedral ruins – and for 40 years had a holiday home in Perthshire.

Reg was kind, gentle, compassionate, modest and generous. A fellow airman declared that he was the only person he had met in the RAF who didn’t drink, smoke or swear. Over the years abstinence shaded into gentle moderation, but he kept his mildness of manner and language.

Almost to the end, he looked 15-20 years younger than he was and insisted on his daily walk. He always looked smart, his colour scheme rarely deviating from blues (especially Air Force) and greys, with an RAF or Queen’s tie. For more than a decade, as her sight deteriorated, he was Rosalind’s devoted carer. A carer who helped to look after him towards the end of his life said he was the nicest man she had ever known.

He is survived by his wife, daughter, son and grandson.