Martin Dewhirst: Remembering J. C. Q. Roberts (1933-2024)

23 May 2024

by Martin Dewhirst

Photo: from the website of J. C. Q Roberts

Younger and, I suspect, not so younger people in the UK who are interested in Russia may not know much, or even anything, about the gentleman whom genuine oldies like me regard as the John Roberts, the Director of the Great Britain-USSR Association for almost twenty years (1973-1993).

He was one of those young men who learnt Russian during their National Service (in his case, in the RAF), graduated at Oxford University, and then took up a job with Shell in 1957 in … Africa! I knew only one other British person, Charles Janson (1929-2006), whose life, work and travel in Africa, also in the 1950s, were similar to John’s before he became attracted by the USSR and its prospects of becoming a bit more like us in the West. (Janson founded two periodicals, Africa Confidential and then Soviet Analyst.) I greatly regret that I never introduced them to one another, because if you have the experience of living only in ‘the West’ it’s much harder to comprehend the past, present and likely future of a huge Eurasian, not European, country like Russia. Those two real British gentlemen could do so. As recently as in 2022 Roberts published a short memoir, Just before the Dawn: Tales of Late Colonial Africa (Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.). It’s well worth reading.

After Africa, Roberts worked for Shell in spy-ridden Austria, but soon decided to return to the UK and taught modern languages at Marlborough College (I can confirm that he spoke excellent German and French as well as Russian) until 1973. That was when he was selected – I don’t know by whom, but I suspect that some of them later regretted it – to take over the running of the GB – USSR Association from Major-General Thomas Churchill (but not, I suspect, awarded a Major-General’s salary).

Throughout John’s ‘reign’ I was the Association’s representative in Glasgow (and, in effect, the West of Scotland, including the territory of Sir Fitzroy Maclean, with whom, to put it mildly, John was not on the best of terms). Naturally, the Association’s office in Scotland was located in Edinburgh, but in some ways the ‘Red Clyde’ area, with its political heritage and the then still flourishing ‘SovScot’ Friendship Society, was a more important ‘target’ (though I never heard or used that word and was never given any instructions or advice on how to deal with it). In fact, I simply ignored it until Gorbachev came to power, when I was invited by a very friendly ‘SovScot’ to attend and indeed speak at many of its meetings. For twenty years John was kind enough to ensure that as many as possible of his Soviet guests whom he sent to Edinburgh also spoke in Glasgow.

After he retired I naively and wrongly expected that John would join institutions such as Chatham House and finally be able to speak more freely in public and write about neo-Soviet and/or post-Soviet political and economic developments in Russia and its new supposedly independent neighbouring countries. How wrong I was! He was always more involved in the ‘finer’ areas of life – not only literature, art, music, religion, but also good food and drink, discussions with tolerant others, skiing on the most challenging slopes, etc., etc. Kremlinology, even, perhaps, Sovietology, seemed to me (perhaps wrongly) to bore him. What did, I think, annoy him was the bureaucracy not only in Moscow, but also in London, which made it so tricky and time-consuming to plan visits by worthy people, both from Britain to the USSR and from the USSR to Britain. And how difficult it was not to invite people the Soviet bureaucrats pressed him to invite! How much smoother – or how much more difficult – have these matters become after the collapse of the Soviet Union? During recent conversations with John I sensed a profound but not expressed sadness in him that so much for which he struggled so hard and for so long appears to have been lost. For examples of his problems while in office, do read his memoir, Speak Clearly into the Chandelier, with a foreword by John le Carré (‘Curzon’, 2000).

John was an extremely generous person. On one occasion, long after he had retired, I happened to mention in passing that I was still a stamp collector, especially of Soviet and Russian postage stamps. Some time later I received, out of the blue, a huge packet containing at least 100 Soviet and Russian envelopes, dating back to his time at Marlborough and up to the then present, nearly all of them covered with ‘special’ stamps carefully chosen by their senders, as though they thought that John was himself a philatelist or knew people who were. When, earlier this year, I reminded him of this totally unexpected gift, he said he had completely forgotten about it. Also in 2024 he was immediately willing to help me to find a worthy recipient of several hundred books that I wanted to donate to a worthy charity. He immediately contacted a friend of his, and they both twice drove to my home this spring and picked up all these books, which are already being put on sale by Nigel Palmer, of the Chelsea Book Sale Team, for the benefit of a wonderful charity, originating in Glasgow, now called ‘Mary’s Meals’, which provides impoverished children, notably in Africa, with a nourishing daily meal, but only if they dutifully and regularly go to any school where these meals are served. So some of John’s legacy, dating back to his time in Africa, is again producing quiet, but positive, developments there.

May he long be remembered!

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