Professor Olga Crisp: Resistance worker who became an authority on Russian economic history

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The Independent Online

Olga Crisp survived the turbulent occupation of her native Poland during the Second World War, and a stint in the Polish Resistance, to become a meticulous, pioneering scholar of Russian economic history.

She was born in 1921, the youngest of five children in Stratyn, Poland, now in Ukraine. She started university in Lwów (Lviv), but her studies were interrupted by the invasion of Poland. Her mother was killed in the first Soviet bombing raid on Lwów in 1939 and her sister's husband was murdered, with more than 20,000 other Polish officers, at Katyn. Another sister, Elzbeta, was killed in a bombing raid working as a nurse in Coventry. Her brother was deported to Siberia; nothing more was heard of him.

During the German occupation, Olga used her linguistic skills to work in a German office, from where she passed on official paper and stamps to the Polish Resistance. She also obtained papers for escaping POWs, met them and passed them on to Resistance cells. Once she was arrested by the Gestapo and questioned, but was released.

In 1946, she graduated in German, with subsidiary Latin and history, and was preparing to take a job in Polish radio when a friend in the secret police warned her the Soviets were arresting former Resistance workers. Her brother Rudolph was in England, and she joined him, enrolling in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of London University. Although she knew no English on arrival, she obtained a first-class degree in Russian regional studies two years later.

Crisp then began a PhD on financial aspects of the Franco-Russian Alliance, 1894-1914. She was awarded a Treasury grant and lived for several months in Paris. In 1949-50 she was a Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, and she was awarded her doctorate in 1954. In March 1950 she married Horace Crisp, whom she had met in the SSEES Library. A prodigious linguist, he used his 18 languages at the foreign branch of Barclays Bank.

In October 1950 she was appointed to an assistant lectureship in Russian economic history. She became a lecturer in 1953, senior lecturer in 1968, reader in 1971 and professor of Russian economic history in 1979. She differed from many academics in being an outgoing, good-humoured and sociable person who enjoyed the give-and-take of intellectual argument. She was modest about her academic abilities, and never brought to fulfilment the reassessment of the Russian economic system which was latent in her arguments. But, even with small children, she provided a stream of meticulous and scholarly articles. Some were gathered in her one book, Studies in the Russian Economy Before 1914 (1976). She also published a long, groundbreaking article on the evolution of the Russian industrial workforce in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe.

Her work was significant in challenging the then dominant interpretation of the Russian economy, which portrayed the state as dominant even before the 1917 revolution. Crisp emphasised how important and diverse the private economic activity of peasants, artisans, traders and small-scale industry was, and how much Russia owed to foreign investment. Her study of peasant agriculture and land tenure was also pioneering in suggesting that peasants were not necessarily backward or superstitious, but were rational given the problems they faced. Soviet scholars followed her work, and would admit in private that there was much to be said for her point of view.

In later years, she headed a research project on civil rights in pre-revolutionary Russia, whose results were published in 1989.

Olga Brinker, historian: born Stratyn, Poland (now Ukraine) 21 August 1921; married 1950 Horace Crisp (died 1992; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Esher 15 December 2010.