The second of a two-part series studying the city’s ties with the current Olympic hosts.


By Victoria Bentata

Almost a century after Tsar Alexander I’s famous visit to Oxford, ‘Felix comes Soumarokoff Elston filius natu quartus Felicis principis Youssoupoff de urbe S. Petersborgii’ signed University College’s register in 1909, and began his studies in Forestry and English.  A contemporary of his, later invited to spend a summer touring the magnificent Youssoupoff palaces (one of which Stalin later used as his base for the Yalta Conference during the Second World War), wrote ‘I found the gaiety and charm of this young Russian irresistible’. 

The very same charming Prince Youssoupoff fed Rasputin cakes containing potassium cyanide and subsequently, dismayed by the mad monk’s refusal to die, shot him in the chest and beat him over the head.  After the revolution, in 1919, he was evacuated by HMS Marlborough together with the surviving members of the Imperial family. He never denied the murder, though he did successfully sue MGM for suggesting, in the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress, that Rasputin had had an affair with his wife.

That Youssoupoff enjoyed his time at Oxford is not in doubt. ‘The three years spent in England were the happiest time of my youth,’ he wrote, though he was not uncritical of his college living conditions. ‘In the bedroom there was no heating and it was as bitterly cold as on the street.  The water in the basin froze.’ He recalled ‘the hated cold shower’ and dubbed breakfast ‘the only edible meal of the day’.  Fonder memories were, perhaps unsurprisingly, of drinking, singing, music-making and hauling fellow students back into college by rope after curfew. 

On one occasion, he found a policeman on the end of the rope and only avoided rustication thanks to the intervention of the Bishop of London; on another, he invited the ballerina Anna Pavlova to dance in Oxford. However, his most lasting legacy to Oxford was surely his founding of the Oxford University Russian Society. The Society now claims an impressive membership of over 900 and its traditionally lively termcard last year included a visit from Prince Michael of Kent, a close relative of the Romanoff dynasty.

A more tangential Oxford link to the Imperial family is via Hieromonk Nicholas Gibbes (born Charles Sydney Gibbes), the founder of Oxford’s first Russian Orthodox Church and former tutor to the Tsarevich Alexis, murdered in Ekaterinburg.  After the revolution, Gibbes settled in East Oxford and established the church in the chapel of St Bartholomew.  Today the Orthodox tradition is alive and well and has found its home on Canterbury Road in North Oxford. 

By the time Youssoupoff arrived in Oxford, the University had its first Professor of Russian, William Morfill, whose picture is above the issue desk in the Taylorian’s Slavonic Library and is accompanied by an inscription which reads:

‘Prof. William Richard Morfill, Philolog and Slavophile. One of the most earnest and exemplary of teachers and most modest and industrious of students. As a kindly and appreciative host of the numerous foreign guests, he has made his house for many years the Oxford consulate of the linguistic world.’ 

The man remembered with such warmth had offered Slavonic lectures since 13 May 1870 and, according to Gerald Stone’s Slavonic Studies at Oxford: A Brief History, these were ‘the only modern-language lectures of scholarly standing being given in the University at that time.’  Morfill was made a professor in 1900 and Russian became a full degree subject at Oxford in 1904. Stone unveiled a Blue Plaque to Morfill at 42 Park Town on 1st November 2009, ‘a pioneer who outstripped his contemporaries’. 

Sadly, as Stone records, numbers of students completing Russian degrees were low.  From a high point of 5 finalists in 1922, throughout the 1930s and WWII ‘the average number was slightly less than one a year’.  The opening of the Joint Services School for Linguists in 1951, which was able to cherry pick the linguistically outstanding from the nation’s conscripts and train them intensively on Bodmin Moor, made a vast difference to the provision of Russian teachers in this country and many made their way to Oxford following the training.  

Student numbers today are much healthier, despite being dealt repeated blows by various government ‘initiatives’, with 118 undergraduates and 91 at graduate level.  Ab initio courses for up to 16 students per year were introduced in 2003 as Russian teaching in schools declined and, away from Moscow, Voronezh has been replaced by Yaroslavl as the destination of choice for the year abroad, with other options in Tver, Volgograd, St Petersburg and Petrozavodsk. Students actually from Russia this year number 77 and the Russian department is, for the first time. headed by a Russian professor, Andrei Zorin. 

The champions of Slavonic and Russian studies are too numerous to cover adequately in a paragraph, but it is thanks to such as these that Russian continues to thrive at Oxford, with 5* its last RAE rating:  Neville Forbes, the first BA in Russian and the author of a Russian Grammar used by generations of Russianists; Professor Konovalov, the founder of the Oxford Slavonic Papers, which published amongst other things Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox; Boris Unbegaun, who used his deportation to Buchenwald  as an opportunity to make a study of Slavic slangs  ‘les Argots Slaves des Camps de Concentration’; Anne Pennington, whose tragic early death deprived the department of an original and brilliant mind; and John Fennell, whose Penguin Russian Course was probably the least of his achievements, but was the starting text for decades of Russian learners.  

Today’s Russianists are still achieving great things, with Professor Catriona Kelly recently elected president of the Slavonic and East European Association in the USA. All of this is not to mention what is now the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, and the legendary historians Professors Archie Brown and Robert Service.  This year’s honours list also saw an MBE for Karen Hewitt, tutor in the Department for Continuing Education ‘for building academic and cultural understanding between the UK and Russia’. 

It is the famous Obolensky family, though, that has provided Oxford with both a scholar —  in Prince Dmitri Obolensky, Professor of Russian and Balkan History, knighted in 1984 — and perhaps its only true sporting link. Prince Alexander Obolensky, known as ‘Obo’, left with a fourth-class degree in 1938, but did win two Rugby Blues along the way.  His tries can still be viewed on YouTube

The first part of this series, Oxford’s Early Russian Connections, was published last week.

Image by U.S. Army IMCOM under Creative Commons license.