Martin Dewhirst remembers the life of Francis Greene, 1936-2022

24 May 2022

by Martin Dewhirst 

Photo of Francis Greene: Khakasiya Inform (2012)

Francis was the most genuinely modest and genuinely generous person I have ever met.  I first spoke to him, or rather, he first spoke to me in the splendid upstairs reception hall of the then British Embassy in Moscow, with its unforgettable view of the Kremlin, in the summer of 1994.  That year I was one of the five annual ‘Booker’ Russian Novel Prize judges who were asked to decide which was the best among about 35 Russian-language novels that had been first published anywhere in the world during the previous year.  Even I didn’t then know the identity of the sponsor of the additional ‘Little Booker Prize’.  This was awarded each year to a different ‘literary product’  – a provincial literary journal, a short story writer,  a memoir or whatever –  at the discretion of the anonymous non-Russian donor, who was apparently guided by some of her or his Russian friends, all unknown in that capacity to the judges of the main prize.  That was when and where I discovered who the donor really was, but with the proviso that there was absolutely no need to tell anyone else.

During our chat I happened to tell Francis that most evenings at 18.00 British time in my office at Glasgow University I watched and listened to the news programme of the Moscow NTV station.  Some time later he contacted me and asked how exactly he could access Russian TV from his home.  Naturally, I was very happy to tell him how to do it. 

We began to meet regularly only after I retired in 2000 and spent most of the time in my family home in Surrey.  Francis was particularly fond of the French Mon plaisir restaurant in central London and only very rarely, after I kicked up a tantrum, allowing me to pay the bill, even though, at his suggestion, I often brought with me someone or other whom I thought he might find of interest.  By then he was already visiting two if not three times every year the innumerable parts of Russia that were then (and in many cases, are again now) well off the beaten track.  Later on he liked me to check some of the details in his travel diaries, copies of almost 60 of which are now held in the Leeds [University] Russian Archive.

Francis hadn’t greatly enjoyed his school days, particularly in Yorkshire, and as soon as he could he went (back) to Oxford to read Physics at Christ Church.  This was in the mid-1950s, Stalin had recently died, the USSR was beginning to loosen up, and there was some restrained optimism in the air, despite the brutal crushing of the Hungarian Uprising, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Francis – possibly influenced also by his father, but also by a local unnamed Russianist, found that he was getting as interested in Russian and Russia as in Physics.

Nonetheless, on leaving Oxford he did his two-year National Service (in the army) and then went to work at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston.  This didn’t suit him at all, he soon left, and from time to time (if Francis had a fault, he was always very vague about dates) worked both at the Foreign Office Research Department and for the BBC.  What exactly he did in both these jobs is still a mystery to me, but on one occasion he told me what a mercy it was that he hadn’t quite managed to be taken on by MI6.  This was better both for him and for that venerable institution. Naturally, I didn’t press him for more details.

It seemed to me that Francis preferred reading to writing.  But he was also a very good handyman, and together with his wife, whom he found he loved more and more as time went on, reconstructed a very old house and garden in Devon.  One of his other great achievements resulted from the very active help he gave to the Russian ‘Memorial’ organisation, which he supported almost from its opening in the late 1980s.  Always trying to avoid publicity about himself (he was not one to sign protest letters), he financially enabled the publication in Russian of more than 30 books on several of the grimmer aspects of Soviet history.

Just a few weeks ago he asked me to specify more precisely which particular brand of vodka he should send me for consolation in August this year if my earlier expressed hope that Putin would be out of office by the end of July proved to be unfulfilled.  He was always thinking of others rather than of himself.                                                                      

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