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Remembering Dr. Iain Elliot

Dr. Iain Elliot in the Radio Liberty offices in Munich, (West) Germany, ca.1991-92
Dr. Iain Elliot in the Radio Liberty offices in Munich, (West) Germany, ca.1991-92

Author, scholar, and former Radio Liberty Associate Director and RFE/RL Research Institute Deputy Director Dr. Iain Elliot OBE passed away on January 26, 2022. The following remembrance was written by London-based author and journalist Gerald Frost.

In August 1991 Dr Iain Elliot, the editorial head of Radio Liberty’s Russian service, accompanied by his wife Elisabeth, travelled to Moscow to attend a conference but instead found themselves observing the attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev. The conference had been intended to bring together Russian liberals, dissidents and exiles who had felt sufficiently safe to return to their homeland to discuss ways forward for Russia. But as news came of the Soviet leader’s arrest by hardliners many of the exiles promptly fled. Iain remained to report the botched coup and to coordinate the work of the radio station’s stringers, while Elisabeth reported for the BBC. Recognising that the events unfolding before their eyes would have profound consequences, both experienced a deep sense of exhilaration. Within a matter of days it became clear that these would include the end of Soviet communism and the collapse of the USSR – outcomes to which Iain’s work as a writer, broadcaster and lecturer had made a significant contribution. For although too modest to say so himself, he was one of a relatively small number of people who in the latter half of the 20th century brought badly needed improvements to the understanding of the USSR, thereby laying the intellectual foundation for changes in Western policy, which in turn helped lead to the demise of the Soviet empire.

Iain, the son of a Glaswegian railwayman, was born in Kilmarnock in 1943. He was educated at Clydebank High School where his interest in Russia was first aroused by his history teacher’s accounts of Stalin’s despotic rule, and at Glasgow University where he studied French, German and history. His love affair with the Russian language began with the purchase of a copy of “Teach Yourself Russian” and continued in 1964 with his first visit to Russia to attend a language course organised by the Scottish Union of Students. After completing double honours MA in Soviet and East European Studies he attended the University of Leningrad as a British Council research student. It was on the boat from Tilbury to Leningrad that he met wife to be, Elisabeth, who was subsequently to become head of the BBC’s Russian service. Their first date was to see Eugene Onegin at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad; later anniversaries were celebrated by further trips to Tchaikovsky’s opera.

Elliot’s first job was as assistant lecturer at Bradford University where he completed a PhD thesis on Soviet energy resources which was to become the basis of his first book, The Soviet Energy Balance [1974] – almost certainly one of the first English language publications to anticipate the strategic implications of the huge discoveries of oil and gas reserves made in Russia between the 1950s and 1970s.

A lectureship in Russia studies at Brighton polytechnic [later Brighton University] followed. Now married to Elisabeth, their home in the city’s Preston Park area became a regular visiting place for Russian dissidents and exiles, as well as British specialists in Soviet affairs. It was as editor of the Soviet Analyst from 1973 to 1988 that Iain’s work attracted national and international attention. This fortnightly publication, printed on inexpensive pink paper had been started by the historian Robert Conquest whose works on the Soviet terror Elliot greatly admired, and by Tibor Szamuely, the dissident Hungarian scholar and polemicist. Both believed that the West’s understanding of the Soviet Union was marred by a combination of political bias, naivety and the desire of some British Russia specialists not to give offence for fear of losing their Russian visas.

After Szamuely’s death in 1972 and Conquest’s decision to move to the Hoover Institution in California, Iain was recommended for the job as editor by Leonard Schapiro, the distinguished historian of the Russian revolution. The publication, combining news items and analysis, flourished under its new editor, enjoying an influence and reputation greatly in excess of its modest circulation. Avid readers included news editors, broadcasters, embassies and desk officers at the FO where heavily annotated versions passed from colleague to colleague, before finding a home in the Foreign Office archive.

Although Iain did not entirely escape the criticism of left-wing colleagues who argued that the Cold War was as much the fault of the West as of the Soviet Union, the breadth and depth of his knowledge, combined with his innate kindness and decency, discouraged attacks. In a milieu in which sharp elbows and egos were not uncommon, his calm, gentlemanly demeanor and evident lack of personal ambition enabled him to remain on good terms with scholars with whom he nevertheless profoundly disagreed.

In 1982 his work as editor of the Soviet Analyst brought him to the attention of Charles Douglas-Home, the editor of The Times, who employed him to write leaders and comment articles on Soviet affairs. He felt tempted to take the offer of a staff job but decided to retain his academic position at Brighton and the freedom that went with it, a decision which he did not regret when Douglas-Home, whom he greatly respected, was followed as editor by Charles Wilson, whose interest international affairs Iain rightly judged to be somewhat limited, following Douglas-Home’s premature death in 1985.

In 1980 he published Soviet Empire: Pressures and Strains - which proved prescient because it identified many of the factors which led to the Soviet collapse, but which also succeeded in irritating left-leaning colleagues in Soviet Studies departments who denied that the USSR constituted an empire. Subsequent publications included essays and chapters on political opposition within the Soviet Union, détente, perestroika, glasnost and Gorbachev.

Unlike some critics of the USSR he did not blame Soviet expansionism purely on communism. As he was apt to point out, a glance at any historical atlas was sufficient to demonstrate that Russia had been, and remained, an expansionist power. An understanding of the country’s continuities, as well as its violent upheavals, was therefore necessary.

In 1988 Iain was headhunted by Radio Liberty to become its Associate Director, a hugely challenging task which in practice meant determining the Russian output and integrity of the US-funded Munich-based radio station whose role was to provide Russian listeners with objective accounts of what was happening in their country. He was later to move to become Deputy Director of the combined Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe Research Institute and Chief Editor of its Research Report.

Following his wife, who had already left Munich to rejoin the BBC Russian service, Iain returned to Britain to become Director of the Foreign Office-funded Britain-Russia Centre in 1993. The Centre’s work was later expanded to cover all the former Soviet Union’s republics and the organisation was renamed the British East-West Centre. The Centre’s formal task was to improve understanding between Britain and the former Soviet empire, but is clear that Iain enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to assist the cause of those genuinely seeking to establish the foundations of a democratic society. He did so by means of a highly imaginative programme to bring Russian scholars, journalists, businessmen, trade unionists and others to Britain to see how a functioning democracy actually worked, and he combined this with visits to Russia and the former Soviet republics by their British counterparts. He also participated in election monitoring missions to, among other places, Moscow, Vladivostok, Kyiv and Kharkiv.

It was clear that his Russian friends, mostly to be found among liberal reformers, treated him with a respect accorded to few outsiders and greatly valued his opinion. One British friend who accompanied him on a visit to Moscow recalls his Russian contacts urging Iain to give his opinion as to whether Vladimir Putin was responsible for the apartment block explosions in Moscow and two other cities which preceded the Russian invasion of Chechnya – and a subsequent improvement in Putin’s poll rating. “He wouldn’t do that, would he?” the man earnestly inquired. Iain expressed sympathy for the dilemma of his Russian friend, proposed a toast to Russia’s democratic future but gently declined to offer the reassurance that his friend so plainly craved.

Iain’s final years were marred by poor health, but he continued to read prodigiously, concentrating on events in the country which had fascinated him since his adolescence.

He leaves his wife Elisabeth, his son John and daughter, Alexandra.

Gerald Frost is a London-based author and journalist. He was Director of the Institute of European Defense and Strategic Studies (IEDSS) from 1980-92 and Director of the London-based Centre for Policy Studies from 1992-95. Mr. Frost collaborated with Dr. Elliot on several projects, including during his time with IEDSS where Dr. Elliot was a board member.