Professor Bill Wallace: Highly respected expert on the Soviet Union and its dissolution

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The Independent Online

In the momentous years from 1970 to 2005 Bill Wallace educated us all in the intricacies of the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

On the Radio 4 programmes Today, World at One, PM and The World Tonight his measured tones made him an obvious pundit: no, something more than a pundit – a teacher of quality.

In 1980, my student chum, the late Brian Redhead, presenter of the Today programme, told me, "We like to interview that Scot of yours. He, unlike so many interviewees, actually answers the questions that we ask – and answers them in a way that our listeners can readily understand."

Wallace's success on the radio lay in the fact that with the arguable exception of his friend, the late Professor John Erickson, he knew more about the Soviet Union than any academic of the time. He was among the first to predict the break up of Ukraine and other parts of the empire away from the hegemony of Moscow.

Bill Wallace was born in Glasgow and went to the rigorously academic Hutchesons' Grammar School. In 1944 he volunteered for the Royal Navy and saw action against U-boats at the end of the Second World War.It was to be one of his strengths, asa commentator on Eastern European and Russian affairs, that he knew more about the Russian navy than anyone else in the West, and it was also a strength that he had experience of military operations. This madehim more convincing than commentators and politicians who had never seen military action but still pontificated about war.

After completing his degree with first class honours he took up an appointment at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. He told me that for an understanding of the United States it was better that he had gone to a university in an industrial city rather than to Harvard or Yale. In his broadcasts Wallace displayed not only a deep knowledge of Russia but an equally deep understanding of American attitudes. Returning to London University, he was promoted to posts at Aberdeen and Durham, before becoming Professor of History at the new University of Ulster between 1967 and 1979. He was always somewhat reticent about giving his views on the affairs of Northern Ireland because, as he put it to me, there was a danger in becoming "a universal expert". Such a reputation might have detracted from his real expertise, which was Eastern Europe.

Wallace was president of the Association of University Teachers between 1974 and 1975. These were difficult years and he was thought to have been an effective champion.A decade later he was chairman of the Assocatiion of University Teachers Scotland (1985-88). Those whohold national office in the AUToften receive much flak; Wallace, though, was deemed to be balance and effective.

It was at the suggestion of Professor Alec Nove that in 1979 Wallace applied for the post of Director of the Institute of Russian and European Studies at the University of Glasgow. It was in this capacity that he enhanced the reputation of Glasgow as being a leading European centre for the study of Eastern Europe.

On his retirement he became a senior research fellow and Vice President from 1996 of the Council for Education in World Citizenship. The Russians acknowledged his contribution to the rapprochement with the West by making him a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Technological Sciences. One of Wallace's causes was the promotion of Eastern European studies in the new universities, and from 1995–2000 he was a welcome visiting professor at the University of Sunderland. In the last decade of his life Wallace devoted himself more and more to studying the emergence of China.

Paul Dukes, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Aberdeen, and author of several well-received books on Russian and world history, reflected to me that Wallace was a most generous external examiner both with his time and knowledge. Wallace was marvellous to me because whenever I was thinking of contributing to House of Commons debates involving the Soviet Union I would ring him up in the certainty of a direct answer. One of his favourite phrases was "be careful before you make that particular generalisation", and he wasn't slow to tell me if I was barking up the wrong tree. His knowledge was so considerable, and his attitudes so careful, that he really became, as far as I was concerned, the authentic voice for what it was sensible for me to say in parliament about Russia and the states that were to break away from Moscow.

William Villiers Wallace, historian and teacher: born Glasgow 15 December 1926; Professor of History, University of Ulster 1967–1979; Director, Institute of Russian and East European Studies, Glasgow University 1978–1992; married Gulli Fyfe (two sons; one daughter); died Glasgow 3 April 2011.

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