OBITUARY : Terence Armstrong

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The Independent Online
You always knew when Terence Armstrong was around - his laughter filled the air. Generations of polar scientists, of all ages and disciplines, who passed through the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge, in the course of almost 50 years, will remember what a happy place he made it. His meticulous scholarship, kindness, courtesy and an inability, borne of a deep Christian faith, to speak ill of anyone, touched his vast circle of friends, and all he did.

Armstrong was the first boy to study Russian at Winchester. He went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1938 to read Modern Languages under Dame Elizabeth Hill, who, he said, "taught him how to study". With the Army Intelligence Corps from 1940 to 1946, he served in many theatres, was wounded at Arnhem, and on 8 May 1945 led a small group of British soldiers into Oslo, the first of the liberating forces. Returning to Cambridge in 1947, he was appointed to a Fellowship in Russian at the SPRI, and later to an ad hominem Readership in Arctic Studies.

From the beginning of the Cold War, Armstrong's work was virtually the only source of information in the West on the current situation in the Soviet North. In the years before fieldwork was possible, he was tireless in monitoring and inter- preting Soviet newspapers and specialist periodicals. His interests covered exploration and settlement, economic development and the destiny of native peoples. His skill in discovering and synthesising previously unknown material from Russian sources was always revealing. His book Russian Settlement in the North (1965) was a major contribution, not only to the history of the region, but also to the comparative study of European colonisation world-wide.

His studies of the demography, literature and schooling of the 26 indigenous peoples of the north threw a searching light on wider Soviet nationality policy at a time (in the Sixties and Seventies) when ethnic conflict was assumed to be a thing of the past. His annual digests of the movements of Soviet Arctic shipping, published in Polar Record, provided the most accurate and comprehensive picture of an activity that was crucial to the extraction of minerals and thus to the entire Soviet economy.

Armstrong was much liked in the Soviet Union. On arriving in Moscow, the day after the death of his closest Russian friend, the geographer Boris Kremer, he was asked to give the funeral oration - a rare honour for a foreigner in those suspicious times. While he did not shrink in his writings from making judgements about the intentions and effects of Soviet social and economic policies, their balance and fairness made him trusted throughout the Soviet polar research community, who also appreciated their sheer informativeness.

On a visit to Siberia in the 1960s, he was asked by his hosts to confirm that he was responsible for a detailed map of local internal air routes which had appeared under his name in Polar Record. With some apprehension, he replied that he was, and was astonished at the response: "Thank you so much, it is the most accurate map of our own region we have been able to find." In all his work, Armstrong was careful to ensure the steady build-up of Russian holdings in the SPRI. It did not surprise him that in recent years, Russian scholars have come to the Institute's library to find out what was going on in their own country in the Communist years.

Armstrong applied his unique knowledge of the Russian north to the wider study of society throughout the Arctic. He worked extensively in Canada and Alaska with scholars and administrators such as Graham Rowley, George Rogers, Vic Fischer and Frank Darnell. In 1976, he became, with Darnell, a founder member of an international committee on cross-cultural education in the north, and two years later published, with Rowley and Rogers, a seminal study entitled The Circumpolar North.

McGill University awarded him an honorary LLD in 1963 and the University of Alaska an honorary DSc in 1980. In 1978 he was awarded the Victoria Medal by the Royal Geographical Society for outstanding contributions to geographical scholarship. He was Honorary Secretary of the Hakluyt Society 1965-90, and Honorary Treasurer of the International Glaciological Society 1963-70.

Just those characteristics which made the SPRI such a happy place were also brought to bear on the foundation and nurturing of Clare Hall, of which Armstrong was made a Founder Fellow in 1964 and later Vice-President.

In 1943 Terence Armstrong married Iris Forbes. With their four children, they were an incomparable team, supporting each other in all they did, whether it be in the University or the village of Harston in which they lived for more than 40 years. They were mainstays of the parish church. A warm welcome and intellectual stimulation were found at Harston House by a vast number of scholars, whether they had "snow on their boots" or not.

Terence Armstrong did not aspire to leadership in the hierarchical sense, but whatever he put his hand to was changed for the better.

John Heap

Terence Edward Armstrong, polar scholar: born Oxted, Surrey 7 April 1920; Fellow in Russian, Scott Polar Research Institute 1947-56, Assistant Director of Research 1956-77, Acting Director 1982-83; Founder Fellow, Clare Hall, Cambridge 1964-96, Reader in Arctic Studies 1977-83, Vice- President 1985-87; married 1943 Iris Forbes (two sons, two daughters); died Harston, Cambridge 21 February 1996.