Obituary: Professor Alec Nove

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The Independent Online
FEW academics could claim to have influenced politicians' perceptions of the principal political problem of the day as Alec Nove did, writes Tam Dalyell. Nove tutored informed opinion about the Soviet Union for 30 years. An enviable work-rate allowed him to be a prolific writer, a skilled seminar conductor, a riveting lecturer for serious listeners, and a ubiquitous broadcaster.

In February 1964, Harold Wilson, then Leader of the Opposition, asked me to go on a Labour science delegation to the Soviet Union led by Vivian Bowden, then Principal of what became Umist, and David Schoenberg FRS, the Russian-speaking director of the Mond Temperature Laboratory in Cambridge. I telephoned Nove, recently arrived in Glasgow, for information. 'Come to dinner with me tonight.' He proceeded to give a thumbnail sketch, one by one, of the people we were likely to meet, what they were likely to say to us, and what they really thought. A couple of weeks later, when we did meet them - Peter Kapitsa, Mstislav Keldysh, Kirillin, Millionshikov, and our host, Sergei Gvishiani, Kosygin's son-in-law - Nove was proved spot-on. He seized every opportunity to meet visiting Russians, and his knowledge of the dramatis personae of the Soviet Union was simply


But I shall remember that evening for ever on account of Nove's insights into and attitude towards Stalin. He explained his rise, his methods, his successes and brutalities in the context of Russian 'political culture', of the fate of the Bolshevik Revolution in a backward and peasant country under conditions of international isolation.

Nove knew in detail how Stalin had achieved power and imprinted his personality on events. He was fascinated by Stalin's style of work and showed how his vengeful cruelty brought much avoidable suffering to millions of people. Yet, Nove reflected, if the cruel and vengeful Tsar Peter could be called the Great, would not my generation give to Joseph Vissarionvich Dzugashvili, called Stalin, this same title, and with as much or as little reason as to that ruthless modernising despot of bygone days. When I suggested that we lived in a more civilised century than Tsar Peter's, Nove raised his eyebrows, his typical reaction to great disagreement.

When the Labour Party delegation got to Tbilisi, at the time an extraordinary city, we were shown statues of Communist luminaries alongside those of obscure Georgian princes of the 14th century, but nothing about the dictator who had ruled the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century.

Broaching the subject of the Georgian supremo late at night with the most scholarly of our hosts, I got the reply: 'Gospadin Dalyell. If you want to learn about Stalin, ask your Professor Nove; he knows.'