The Independent (UK)
31 December 2001
Obituary: Professor Sir Dimitri Obolensky
BY ANTHONY BRYER
DIMITRI OBOLENSKY had presence enough to allow him a quick self- deprecatory tale or grin. It was the resonance of his voice and precision of his speech which did it. His singing, liturgical or profane, was memorable. His English and French were cultured enough. But to Soviet ears his Russian was simply electrifying: the living voice of the past, a reminder of a lost world. Obolensky was equally intrigued by the Russia that he had missed, and freely acknowledged its achievements.
Such a complex man was a complex historian. As an academic, Obolensky began in 1946 with a Cambridge thesis on the Bogomils (1946), which may explain something. It is about medieval Balkan dualism, good and evil, and the identity of the fundamentalist and non- conformist followers of a hidden Bulgarian pop, or priest, which came to a show trial in Orthodox Byzantium in about the year 1110.
In 1948 Obolensky dedicated the published book (The Bogomils: a study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism) to his mother, Countess Maria Shuvalov (1894- 1973), and became a British subject. This was a turning point. A lesser move was from Trinity College, Cambridge, to Christ Church, Oxford, where some spotted that neat painters had made "Prof" out of "Prince" on Obolensky's door by 1961.
In Oxford, Obolensky's measured lectures led to his most influential book, The Byzantine Commonwealth, first published in 1971. It is a classic. The title tells all: a touching reference to the liberal kingdom and commonwealth to which Obolensky had transferred his allegiance. How far could the lost state of Byzantium control its Slav successors? Where is good and evil; how in medieval terms can a totalitarian state implement its desires?
Obolensky reported a discussion on such matters between senior Byzantinists and the Kremlin leadership in 1991 (when Gorbachev was unavoidably absent in the Crimea). It all ended in coffee cups. But in Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere in his commonwealth, Obolensky taught his students how to understand geography and texts, ideas and identity. Two of them, Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, were inspired to take one part of the matter on to The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200 (1996).
Russianists know Obolensky best as editor of The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (1962) and its successors under various titles. He introduced a whole world of Russian poets and writers, such as Osip Mandelshtam and Anna Akhmatova (whom he helped bring to Oxford for her honorary degree in 1965). Byzantinists asked Obolensky of his own academic identity in a subject which he did so much to create in Britain. Obolensky claimed Francis Dvornik (1893-1995), Byzantinoslavist of Moravia, as his prime mentor. Dvornik had a vivid conception of good and evil in central Europe, which he was to transfer to Harvard University's Byzantine outstation at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, in the 1950s. But in the 1940s Obolensky and the Catholic cleric used the North Library of the British Museum as their common study.
By the 1960s, young students in Oxford would daringly enquire if the Obolenskys were perchance related to the Romanovs? It was like asking a Plantagenet if he had anything to do with the Tudors. The truth was that Dimitri Obolensky's grandmother Countess Sandra Shuvalov (1869-1959), and great-aunt Sofka Demidov (1870-1953), daughters of Count Hilarion Vorontsov-Dashkov (d. 1915), Minister of the Imperial Court under Alexander III and Viceroy of the Caucasus under Nicholas II, indeed probably knew the last Tsar better than anyone else outside the Romanov family.
I hope I have got that right, for I am reading Obolensky's notes off the backs of menu cards. At dinner at his club (the Athenaeum) in 1983, I asked him to explicate an authorised version of his genealogy. Ignoring the upstart Romanovs, Dimitri began firmly with Rurik, Scandinavian fonder of the Russian state circa 862, followed by Igor, Svyatoslav and St Vladimir (d. 1015). Another sainted ancestor, Michael of Chernigov (d. 1246), appears on the next card until, several cards and courses later, they expand laterally with Dimitri's three-greats-grandfather, Prince Michael Vorontsov (d. 1856).
This Vorontsov was the prototype Viceroy of the Caucasus and everyone's anglophile hero. Edward Blore designed for him the Alupka palace in the Crimea, a sort of oriental Balmoral by the sea, where Churchill was to feel at home at the Yalta Conference of 1945. Observant visitors to Alupka may still spot (in the library next to the Hogarth painting) that the Vorontsovs maintained their subscription to Punch unbroken throughout the Crimean War, which was fought a few miles away - Gorbachev's 1991 hideout is even nearer.
In 1918 the infant Dimitri Obolensky was brought through the revolution from his native Petrograd to the Alupka palace. One year later, after the longest period he was to spend in Russia, the Royal Navy embarked Dimitri (along with the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna and the Grand Duke Nicholas, among others) to an uncertain future.
Obolensky's final book, Bread of Exile, published in 1999, is what those without menu cards had been waiting for. It is a history of his family, largely from six sparely edited texts of their own memoirs - his own the least revealing. Yet here is a living 19th-century family tradition, where (until 1861) nannies could be bought at auction. Here is Dimitri's father, Prince Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky (1882-1964) leading a country life reminiscent of Turgenev's tales. This Obolensky was an improver and patriot. As local marshal of the nobility he delivered a stirring speech to his peasantry when the Austrians bombarded Belgrade in 1914. Local police explained their enthusiastic response: "They thought you were talking about Belgorod near Kharkov where the relics of Saint Ioasaph are."
With the subsequent revolution, family links were broken. In the dispersal, when every second taxi driver in Paris (including Dimitri's father) was a Russian prince, his mother married again. Dimitri's stepfather, Count Andre Tolstoy (1891-1963), ADC to General Wrangel, the final White Russian leader, was perhaps a more vivid influence.
Such a background does not really explain how the infant refugee from the Alupka palace ended up as a senior member of Christ Church in Oxford and vice-president of the British Academy (1983-85). The latter is a sort of academic foreign minister, where Obolensky relished employing his diplomatic skills. Obolensky's original peers were commonly lost in the Russian emigre society and circular politics of Nice, even the lycees of Paris. But Obolensky differed from them by being equally at home in Britain.
The Vorontsovs did not buy nannies, but employed English or Scottish governesses (for whom Punch was provided at Alupka). Dimitri's governess was called Miss Clegg. In a tale to do with an Englishman mispronouncing French and regrettably too long to repeat here, Dimitri found himself by 1929-31 in an archetypal English preparatory school (Lynchmere in Eastbourne).
After such rigours there was no turning back. Dimitri Obolensky spoke with some protocol and correctness of his own background and identity, but maybe it was Eastbourne which endowed him with the unexpected grace of puckishness. Things could have been so much worse. He liked to cite Hilaire Belloc's cautionary verse on Godolphin Horne, who was "nobly born" and "held the Human Race in Scorn"; "So now Godolphin is the Boy / Who blacks the Boots at the Savoy."
A consequence was that Obolensky chose British, rather than French, nationality in 1948. He also chose the medieval Rurukids rather than the modern Romanovs to illustrate his own genealogy. Obolensky had already explored the Bogomils. He was a pilgrim to Athos and a great traveller in Greece (I once found him slumming it in the back of a fish restaurant on Aegina). In Paris he knew the Russian Orthodox theologians and worked for the Emmaus community. He enjoyed, discreetly, his academic honours, and decent dinners at the Athenaeum and the Savoy.
But I think Obolensky most treasured his invitation in 1988 to attend the great council of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a lay member, on the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of the sainted prince Vladimir into the Byzantine Commonwealth. For Dimitri Obolensky it was, after all, a family occasion.
Dmitriy Dmitrievich Obolensky (Dimitri Obolensky), historian: born Petrograd 1 April 1918 (Old Style 19 March 1918); Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge 1942-48, Honorary Fellow 1991-2001; Lecturer in Slavonic Studies, Cambridge University 1946-48; Reader in Russian and Balkan Medieval History, Oxford University 1949-61, Professor of Russian and Balkan History 1961-85 (Emeritus); Student, Christ Church, Oxford 1950-85 (Emeritus); FBA 1974; Kt 1984; married 1947 Elisabeth Lopukhin (marriage dissolved 1989); died Burford, Oxfordshire 23 December 2001.