Obituary: Professor John Fennell
Tuesday 18 August 1992
I WELL remember my first visit to the Fennells in North Oxford: our tall and gently humorous host dispensing enthusiastic hospitality in a setting presided over by his wife Marina. It was her unmistakably Russian warmth which made their welcome so special. And, for me, the encounter was to become very important.
It was not Cambridge (where in 1937 he went to read for the Modern Languages Tripos) that taught John Fennell Russian. He taught himself; indeed, his command of the Russian language was such that native speakers began to envy him his tournure de phrase. He was the obvious choice for the job of General Alexander's interpreter; and, after the war, for a Cambridge lectureship in the Department of Slavonic Studies. This post became the first step in a brilliant academic career.
But his fascination with Russia went much deeper than academic endeavour. During the war, in Cairo, he was received into the Orthodox Church. At Fennell's funeral, Bishop Kallistos said that he loved Orthodox Russia. This was undoubtably true in the sense that to John Orthodoxy and Russia were inseparable. Of course, he was aware of, and disliked, the darker sides of Russian history, and his abhorrence of the Soviet regime was obvious. But through the filter of Orthodoxy he was able to glimpse what was in Russia great and good. The choice of his Russian friends - a small and outstanding circle - bears witness to this.
The crowning of his career came in 1967 with the appointment to the Chair of Russian at Oxford. With this went two great fringe benefits, so to speak. One was a fellowship of New College, arguably the most splendid of all Oxbridge colleges. The other was the typically Oxonian vagueness of his academic remit: his was the chair of Russian - not Russian literature, or Russian history. In other words, he was given the luxury of choice within the bounds of, at the one end, literary analysis, and at the other, historical synthesis. Fennell, the acclaimed textologist and 'interpreter of the complexities of the Russian language', elected to concentrate on history.
It is interesting and, I think, significant, that in his historical pursuits he should have moved backwards through time. Having begun with Ivan Grozny and 16th- century Muscovy on the brink of imperial expansion, he proceeded to write The Emergence of Moscow 1304-1359 (1968), and then The Crisis of Medieval Russia 1200-1304 (1983). His personal commitment to Orthodoxy was paralleled by a relentless pursuit of the roots of Russia's statehood. It was a composite road towards understanding the essence of Russia. As chance would have it, his wife's family tree (she was born Lopukhina) effectively encapsulated Russia's history - an added short cut in that pursuit.
The hallmark of Fennell's output was a rigorous, almost ruthless reliance on primary sources. As a result of this discipline his analysis was uncompromising, brave, always original, and at times controversial. In his Crisis of Medieval Russia, for example, he expressed views on Alexander Nevsky which were very different from the standard Soviet eulogies. In spite of this, Fennell's book was translated into Russian and published in the Soviet Union just before its demise. This surely must be the ultimate accolade to his scholarship - and also a happy signal of changing Russian attitudes.
Fennell was fascinated by the phenomenon of tiny Lithuania's expansion into vast Rus', and he viewed it from the point of view of Moscow. My own work in the same subject was Lituanocentric. He very generously took an interest in my tentative results, enjoying, I suspect, our opposing perspectives. Soon swords were replaced by gin-and-tonics, and hands were extended across the Dnepr. I found myself safe under his professional wing, yet exposed to his gentle pressure for results. There was little choice but to put pen to paper. And ever after, for some 10 years in fact, I worked happily within the range of his discreet but persistent cajoling for more. Looking back, I understand now what a splendid teacher and magister Fennell must have been. He was prepared to extend his influence beyond the formal boundaries of academe, and to take a risky interest in the likes of me - independent aspirants from other fields. He was a Good Samaritan of scholarship.
And not only scholarship. A great deal of his time was channelled into the work of the Samaritans, and also into Sir Michael Sobell House in Oxford. Only when John Fennell died did the patients discover that the gentle and self-effacing regular helper was a professor of world renown. This, more than anything else, sums up the man.
Fennell has left an unfinished, but well-advanced, history of the Russian church. I was privileged to see some of the drafts and I feel that this might have become his crowning opus. This work, together with his unstinting support for 'The Voice of Orthodoxy', a radio station transmitting religious programmes to the peoples of the former Soviet Union, was I think intended as a special gift to his Church, from a faithful member. In the interest of scholarship, and of ecumenism, his text must be edited and published.
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