Scotsman Obituaries: Prof Paul Dukes, historian known for works on Russia

Paul Dukes, historian. Born: 5 April 1934 in Wallington, Surrey. Died: 25 August 2021, aged 87

Paul Dukes insisted that history should be considered a scientific discipline

Paul Dukes, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Aberdeen, died on 25 August 2021 after a short illness. Best known for his many works on Russian history, he published widely on a range of other subjects, including Europe, the Anthropocene, Manchuria, the Superpowers, and the long-standing connections between Scotland and Russia. He possessed a remarkable breadth of historical vision, alongside a rare ability to distil enormous amounts of information into accessible yet thought-provoking studies.

Dukes was born in Wallington, Surrey, on 5 April 1934. As an Exhibitioner in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge (1951-54), his primary interest was in American history, which he pursued as a Fulbright Travelling Scholar at the University of Washington, Seattle (1954-56), producing an MA thesis on American colonial history. His interest in Russian history developed during his period of national service (1956-58) when he learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Languages in Crail, Fife. From 1958 to 1959, Dukes taught American history for the University of Maryland in France and Germany, continuing this work in England while studying for a PhD in Russian history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London (1959-64) under the guidance of Hugh Seton-Watson and John Keep.

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In 1964 Dukes moved as a lecturer to the University of Aberdeen where he remained for his entire career, apart from visiting positions at Auckland (1974) and Cornell (1988). In the 1990s he directed the Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies at Aberdeen, which became an important focal point for building links and collaborations with historians in post-Soviet Russia. In 1999, the year of his retirement from university teaching, Dukes was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He remained no less active as an historian in retirement, as attested by his extensive bibliography. He also remained a frequent visitor to Russia, travelling to Moscow, St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, Archangel, Orel, Ryazan, and Vladivostok, amongst other places, to participate in conferences and establish academic connections. At home, he was a regular host and guide to dozens of guests from Russia as well as other parts of the former USSR and beyond.

His first book, Catherine the Great and the Russian Nobility (1967), was a revised and expanded version of his doctoral thesis. It examined the relationship between crown and nobility under Catherine through the materials of the Legislative Commission of 1767, and it remains a standard work on the subject. The following year, Dukes presented the inaugural paper to the first meeting of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia and remained a regular contributor to the group and its annual conferences until recent years. His status as an authority on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Russia was cemented by his contribution to the Longman History of Russia series, The Making of Russian Absolutism, 1613-1801 (1982; 2nd ed. 1990), which stressed the importance of Peter the Great’s predecessors to the emergence of modern Russia.

Dukes helped to bring a wider comparative and global perspective to the understanding of Russian history, and this approach became a hallmark of his work. Russia, he insisted, was an integral part of world history, not a country to be considered in ‘exceptionalist’ isolation, as it so often was. This approach was reflected in his series of comparative studies of the USA and Russia: The Emergence of the Super-Powers (1970), The Last Great Game: USA versus USSR (1989), and The Superpowers: A Short History (2000), which brought an innovative perspective to our understanding the Cold War. His History of Russia (1974 and later editions) was also intended ‘to reveal the limitations of an exclusively national approach to Russian history and to contribute to its analysis in a comparative framework’.

Other books which situated Russian history within the wider framework of Western and world history included: October and the World: Perspectives on the Russian Revolution (1979) and World Order in History: Russia and the West (1996). Even when he turned, in some recent works, to a more regional focus – A History of the Urals (2015) and Russia in Manchuria: a Problem of Empire, which he completed shortly before he died and will be published next year – it was to set them in their wider global contexts. He also brought a Braudelian longue durée approach to several of his works, setting events in a broad temporal perspective and downplaying the role of individuals in history, as, for instance, in Great Men in the Second World War: The Rise and Fall of the Big Three (2017).

Dukes developed a close interest in the history of connections between North-East Scotland and Russia, which resulted in a series of articles as well as a book-length study – Stuarts and Romanovs: the Rise and Fall of a Special Relationship (2009) – co-authored with Graeme P. Herd and Jarmo Kotilaine. He also helped to ensure, after many years of anticipation, the publication in its original language of the complete six-volume diary of Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (6 vols, 2009–16), a leading general of Peter the Great, edited by his long-time friend and colleague Dr Dmitry Fedosov (Institute of General History, Russian Academy of Sciences).

Throughout his works, Dukes insisted that history should be considered a scientific discipline which, if carefully handled, can help to tackle the world’s many problems. This was perhaps most evident in Minutes to Midnight (2011; 2nd edition 2020), a study of the role of history and the Anthropocene era which calls for a pan-disciplinary approach to addressing the climate crisis. His steadfast conviction in the value of history meant that he was a passionate advocate of bringing it to wider readerships. He was a long-standing member of the History Today Editorial Advisory Board. He was also a member of the International Commission on the History of the October Revolution.

Dukes wore his formidable knowledge lightly and always exuded a quiet modesty. He was an avid fan of cricket and football, supporting Aberdeen, Scotland and Crystal Palace. His kindness, generosity, hospitality and sense of humour will continue to inspire everyone who knew him. He is survived by his children, Daniel and Ruth, and his wife Cath.

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