Obituary: John Erickson

Academic and military historian with a scintillating prose style and an unrivalled knowledge of the eastern bloc

'The only way to succeed in academia, my dear," observed Professor John Erickson, who has died aged 72, "is to be a very, very good academic indeed." John was the western world's leading authority on the Soviet Union, its politics and military power, for most of the cold war and after, with a unique insight into the heart, mind and soul of that country and of the new Russia which succeeded it.

Unlike many "experts", he was neither hostile to the stumbling bear, nor convinced that it was 10 feet tall. He was for many years Nato's top adviser on its adversary, courted by US commanders and policy-makers. He once recalled how he had arrived in Moscow with a British trade union delegation. The delegates were left stranded as John was met by a general. When they expressed disappointment, the general was dismissive. "What sort of people do you think we want here? Communists?"

Eastern Europe was in John's blood. A Swedish forebear was in the Russian navy and served on the cruiser Aurora, which fired the blank shot signalling the assault on the Winter Palace in 1917. His father served in the convoys which braved ice, air attacks and U-boats on the terrible passage to Archangel and Murmansk from 1941 to 1945.

John first met the Soviet army in what was the former Yugoslavia after the war had officially ended. He was a British sergeant - a rank that he regarded as the best in the army - commanding a patrol which met a column of Soviet tanks. The Russian commander offered tea, and challenged John to chess.

It was in Yugoslavia, too, that he later met his wife, Ljubica, a Serb who had witnessed the activities of the Croat extreme-right ustashe. Such experiences bred in John a hatred of fascism and a wary respect for the Slav peoples. Three years before he died, John and Ljubica witnessed the horrific and ironic spectacle of Nato bombing Ljubica's country and relatives in the name of "humanity".

For the latter part of his life John lived in Edinburgh, but, although he acquired a deceptively Scottish lilt, he was a Geordie. Born in Newcastle, he was educated at South Shields high school and called up into the King's Own Scottish Borderers, rounding up renegade SS men fighting on in Yugoslavia after the end of the war.

After the war he attended St John's College, Cambridge, but was recalled to military duty for Suez in 1956. At one stage there were plans to convert the King's Own to paratroops. The intellectual giant was physically slight, and he was ordered to carry a brick in his trousers to make him heavy enough for the parachute to open.

On his return he spent four years at St Andrews University, then moved on to Manchester University, where he rose from lecturer to reader in politics. He picked up German, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croat and, later, Russian. It was during this time at Manchester that he worked on his first great book, The Soviet High Command 1918-1941 (1962), still the standard work on the formation of the Red Army. John loved models and structures, but his prose revealed a preoccupation with people. "These guys really hated each other," he explained.

As a scholar respected by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, John was given unique access to Soviet archives and generals. He met Marshal Rokossovsky, whom he regarded as the best Soviet wartime tactical commander, and from such personal meetings came fascinating insights into the chance events that shaped the conduct and outcome of the Great Patriotic War.

The next project was the two-volume history of the second world war: The Road to Stalingrad (1975) and The Road to Berlin (1982). These works are an account of Stalin's war with Germany unsurpassed in any language, drawing on German and Soviet sources, and turning volumes of minute detail into epic prose.

From 1967 John set up a Centre for Defence Studies at Edinburgh University, with his secretary Kathie Brown. From 1969 until 1988 he was professor of politics (defence studies) at the university. There, in an attic high above Buccleuch Place, he worked with a small number of research students. The US armed forces, which had high regard for John's expertise, sent him promising officers under a language-training programme. John had few other students, but he was devoted to those whom he took under his wing. His operation had something in common with a medieval university: a guru, surrounded by devoted pupils. He was an astute supervisor, giving his students space and advising with a few succinct words.

Defence studies initially received some government funding, but after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the UK suspended contact with the superpower. Convinced of the value of dialogue, John maintained his, and funding was withdrawn. Throughout the 1980s he maintained contact through the "Edinburgh conversations", where US and Soviet admirals and generals could meet. The Soviets arrived bereft of cash, but John and the university were generous.

When I worked with John at the end of the 1980s he was writing a third volume of the history of Russia's war on the Soviet home front, Blood, Bread and Steel. A perfectionist, he would not tolerate anything that did not meet his exacting standards, and would never sacrifice quality to meet a deadline. This did not make him popular with publishers.

He was meticulous about research methodology, and stressed the value of bibliographies. With Ljubica he completed The Soviet Armed Forces 1918-1992 (1997), a definitive bibliography. Every source cited had to meet the most exacting criteria. John's research papers and presentations were eloquently and stylishly written and delivered, either immaculately typed, or on index cards in his beautiful handwriting reminiscent of mathematical formulae.

John had little time for performance criteria, men in suits, political correctness, spin, or form over substance. "The death of scholarship," he once said, "will be the word processor. It looks good, but there's nothing to it." He loved new technology and gadgets, but only where they were useful.

John was devoted to his family - Ljubica and his two children, Mark and Anna-Joanna ("A-J") - and to his students. He once said that "good scholarship is good morality". He was more valued abroad, particularly by the two superpowers, than in his native Britain - a prophet with less honour than he deserved in his own country. He could have compromised his principles to gain high academic office and government honours but refused to do so. As Karl von Clausewitz, the military philosopher-general, said, "Genius rises above all rules." John was such a genius.

· John Erickson, soldier, scholar and teacher, born April 17 1929; died February 10 2002

Christopher Bellamy

The GuardianTramp

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