School of Slavonic and East European Studies Alumni Stories

School of Slavonic and East European Studies
Alumni Stories
Professor John Keep, who was a student, postgraduate and then member
of staff, looks back at his undergraduate years at SSEES in the late 1940s.
First surprise: the premises. In 1947 the lofty white tower of the Senate House in Bloomsbury
was the tallest building in all of London after St Paul’s Cathedral. Few Londoners could have
known what went on inside. During the recent war it had housed the Ministry of Information.
There was no signboard in the street to indicate that it was now involved in the spread of
knowledge rather than propaganda. There were indeed still plenty of officials in it, but the first
floor in its northern section was occupied by a curious institution popularly known as SSEES.
That its inmates had something to do with Eastern Europe was apparent from a winged
figure in the entrance labelled, ‘Spirit of the Slavs’. Supposedly it symbolized the Slavic
renaissance striven for by the School’s founders towards the end of World War I, which had
rather lost credibility now that a second world war had been fought, and won, over the same
battlefields -- and was a bit hard on Finno-Ugrians. Around the statue the floors were of
stone. They were industriously scrubbed once a week by a team of elderly charladies, on
their knees and armed with brushes and pails: floor-scrubbing machines were still a thing of
the future.
1. Senate House
But who had really won the war? The grim figure of Joseph Stalin loomed over the region
and the ‘cult of personality’ was in full flower. The leading light among the historians was the
idealistic Reginald Betts, an acclaimed authority on Jan Hus and the medieval Czechs.
Czechoslovakia, he thought, might with luck still form a bridge over the rapidly forming gulf
between East and West. But the latest defenestration of Prague (Jan Masaryk, from a
window of the Czernin Palace) made it clear that this was an illusory hope, and thereafter
disappointment was written all over the humane teacher‘s features. He continued to queue
up for morning coffee (served inappropriately in the Masaryk Hall) with the students learning Hungarian.
R. R. Betts was an exception in socializing with undergraduates. The rest of the staff were
distant figures. The formidable Dorothy Galton slotted one into the approved notch in the
academic structure. She was actually an expert on bees, as it turned out, a skill no doubt
suited to her dealings with students. The School was still young and there were as yet no
departments, yet departmentalism was writ large. Most students did ‘the language and
literature’ of one or other of the east European peoples, under the supervision of the
redoubtable Professor Matthews, who hailed from the Baltic and was reputed to speak no
less than 23 languages. Russian was acknowledged by His Majesty’s Treasury, no less, as
an ‘exotic’ language that entitled some of its devotees to modest financial support: enough to
keep one alive (lunch in the Senate House cafeteria cost 2 shillings), but not to patronize
London Transport (one could buy a bike and so save sixpence on the fare to Golders Green),
let alone restaurants, the theatre, or other cultural delights. Sporting facilities were indeed
provided, but in inaccessible Fulham. A room could be rented for £2.10s (that is, two and a
half pounds) a month, and Dorothy Galton kept a list of landladies, whose doings would
doubtless deserve separate treatment.
Aficionados of history (for that was what the Russian Regional Studies course turned out to
be about) first encountered the memorable Bertha Malnick, whose colourful style of dress
and coiffure was a healthy antidote to the unfathomable doings of the Kievan Rus‘ princes.
Unfathomable because there was as yet no suitable textbook of Russian history in English:
(Sir) Bernard Pares did not get one very far, and the vast literature in Russian was
inaccessible due to our ignorance. True, Anna Pankratova’s work had indeed been
translated, but more valuable was the work of the Soviet economic historian Peter
Liashchenko, since the emphasis in teaching was heavily on the economic and social
aspects, viewed as more ‘progressive’. This suited us fine since we were all politically on the
left, many even far left (except for the lone Conservative, who went off to take over his
Papa’s wine business, leaving us to cope as best we could with the plight of various
categories of serf).
One or two colleagues were actually competent in the refinements of Marxism. They relished
the informal (and probably illegal) seminar on the topic offered to volunteers after regular
teaching hours by the amiable Doreen Warriner, who was actually no dogmatist but a valued
expert on social matters who later worked for the UN. A few of us dared to put socialist
principles into practice, for instance by backing striking workers at the Savoy Hotel. The man
who knew all about the class struggle was the formidable Andrew Rothstein, whose father
had once been close to leading Bolsheviks. He was well liked and an excellent teacher, but
these gifts did not help him when political storm clouds began to gather over his head;
fortunately for him, after the celebrated ‘Rothstein Affair’ (which brought the School a good
deal of adverse publicity), he returned to left-wing journalism and so his sufferings were not
too severe.
Over all these shenanigans presided the somewhat mysterious George Bolsover. Why the
place needed a Director was (and perhaps still is) a puzzle. George was in reality a stalwart,
good-natured and even tolerant, generous man, but he was not prodigal with public funds
(one of his maxims was that a librarian should not be paid a salary running into four figures)
and at the time he was feared and privately mocked - treatment that in retrospect one feels
he did not deserve.
As for the library, whose riches one
could scarcely skim, access was
governed by the lively and
somewhat eccentric Arthur Helliwell.
In summer he would go cycling
through northern France. This was
about as far as anyone then thought
of venturing - certainly not behind
the Iron Curtain, still opaque. In any
case foreign travel was difficult:
there was an official allowance,
sometimes as low as £25 per
annum, and its issue was firmly
marked in one’s passport. But who
were we to question the doings of
our wise, paternalistic Labour
government? Was it not dedicated
to the task of making Britain the
best country in the world to live in,
marked by social equality, free
health provision, and other noble
virtues? Food ration cards were
honoured, and occasionally items
such as cheese would come off it.
Anyway, we were certainly better off
than those wretched Russian serfs
one heard so much about.
2. Professor John Keep
By Professor John Keep