Grigory Tunkin personified an era in international law. For decades he was an architect and a prominent advocate of the peaceful co-existence between East and West.
Tunkin was born in 1906 in the far north of Russia into an Arkhangelsk peasant family. Like his famous countryman Mikhailo Lomonosov, Tunkin left for Moscow to study sciences. Though eventually he became the leading international lawyer in the Soviet Union, Tunkin's interests were always much wider. He wrote his first dissertation on the history of law of the ancient world, spoke many languages fluently and was even good at mathematics.
For 13 years he headed the Legal Department of the Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union. From 1957 to 1966 he was a member, and in 1961 President, of the United Nations International Law Commission. He led Soviet delegations to international conferences such as the first and second UN Conferences on the Law of the Sea (1958, 1960) and the Vienna Conference on Diplomatic Relations (1961).
But Tunkin was never merely a practitioner in international law. He published nine books, all of which were translated, and wrote more than 250 articles and essays. In 1965 he was forced to leave the Foreign Ministry, a place where good lawyers were often a nuisance for political decision-makers. He then entered academic life as Professor of International Law at Moscow University. He became a member of the Curatorium of the Hague Academy of International Law and of the Institut de droit international and received many foreign honours. In 1957 he founded the Soviet (now Russian) Association of International Law and until his death remained its President.
Like most interesting Russian writers and poets of the Soviet period who started their careers after Stalin's death, Tunkin became prominent as an international lawyer during Khrushchev's 'thaw'. Because of his official position he often had to defend the indefensible and justify the unjustifiable, but he managed not to become an outright apologist of all the Soviet Union's foreign policy actions.
Even his predilection for theoretical and sometimes abstract issues of international law was due, not only to his natural ability to make generalisations out of individual events and processes, but also to the fact that writing on politically sensitive issues would have often led either to an outright apology for Soviet foreign policy - or to Siberia.
Privately Tunkin often spoke of those who had made their careers mindlessly advocating whatever the Soviet Union did: they were not jurists, they were Marxists. For his numerous students he was a window to the larger world. In his personal library they could easily find and borrow books and journals on international law and politics, which were prohibited for general distribution. If one takes away a layer (sometimes rather a thick one, it is true) of Marxist phraseology in his works, one can still find a solid analysis of how international law is made and how it functions. His talent, diligence, integrity and conscientiousness outweighed restrictions imposed by the social environment in which he lived and worked. Now, when Russia is trying desperately to find its new place in the international system, it is especially in need of people of Grigory Tunkin's stature, of his talent and integrity.