OBITUARY : Professor Dame Elizabeth Hill

A. D. P. Briggs
Monday 06 January 1997 00:02 GMT

Eccentricity characterised Elizabeth Hill's academic achievement. In scholarly terms, she was both a nonentity and a colossus. She wrote almost nothing original, yet she was the direct inspirational force behind dozens of serious articles and books by other people.

As Professor of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University for 20 years, she was a poor teacher of literature but, paradoxically, a powerful inspirer of love for the Russian writers, and also a brilliant, though terribly demanding, language instructor. Undergraduates loved her as a person but went elsewhere for their lectures and supervisions. Postgraduates, however, derived enormous benefit from her in many areas. She found them jobs, suggested research topics, showed them how to compile a proper bibliography, gave them books on long loan from her massive library, followed their progress and rejoiced in their many successes.

Long before her untimely death she had the satisfaction of seeing her proteges ensconced in high academic positions the world over, especially in Britain, steadily purveying the love for Russian culture which they first learnt from her.

Yelizaveta Fyodorovna (her name in Russian usage) came from a prosperous Anglo- Russian family, her mother Russian, her father an English businessman (Frederick Hill); they fled from Russia for their lives in 1917 and ended up impoverished in London. Lisa, barely 17, began a succession of language teaching jobs before entering University College London, where she gained a First in Russian in 1924 and a PhD in 1928, though her first university appointment was delayed until 1936, when she went to Cambridge as Lecturer.

Her big opportunity came during and after the Second World War, when the Government gave her the job of training young recruits to read and speak Russian. Eventually their numbers ran into thousands, every one of whom would look back on this rigorous intellectual and cultural education as an immensely rewarding experience. Hill was appointed as the first Professor of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge in 1948, a position which she held for precisely 20 years.

A good example of Hill's capacity for long-standing friendships, and her Christian sense of love and charity, may be seen in her relationship with Doris Mudie, whom she first met in the late 1920s. At first Hill and her family were greatly helped by the successful Mudies, though as Hill's fortunes improved those of Doris declined. By the late 1960s Doris had suffered several strokes and needed constant nursing.

Hill's two-year stint from 1968 to 1970 as Andrew Mellon Professor of Slavic Languages in Pittsburgh was partly motivated by the need to earn money to cover Doris Mudie's medical expenses. Her devoted attention to an old friend over many years were exemplary. Their collaborative efforts produced two edited volumes of letters, Dostoevsky's Letters to his Wife (1930) and Lenin's Letters (1937). Hill's practical support for Russian emigres who had once taught on her Services courses was also legendary.

Lisa Hill was a woman of strong personality and personal charm, whose energy, warmth of spirit and massive enthusiasm for things that mattered will be long remembered. Despite the fact that her true distinction lies not in her own scholastic attainment but in the count- less academic achievements of others, there can be no doubt that she stands proudly in the line of important 20th- century pioneering educators such as Wallace, Bernard Pares and Konovalov, who took up the cause of Russian and Slavonic studies and raised them to the high standing which they now occupy in the Western world.

Lisa Hill's death came as a shock even though she was 96 years old. She arrived with the century and everyone expected her to see it out. She may have retired three decades ago, but she had never been forgotten. Admirers turned up in hun-dreds at her various anniversaries, told warm stories of her life in public, confirmed her indestructibility and vowed not to miss the next occasion.

She continued to turn up everywhere in a small car, driving herself and some other diminutive companion in such a way that neither could be seen above steering-wheel height. The recently acquired Mini which still rests in her Cambridge garage is an honourable descendant of the weirdly sprung Renault with which she terrorised that city four decades ago. Hill's car was reputed to be the only one ever allowed to park regularly in front of the British Museum, such was her bamboozling Russian charm over British policemen.

She was a most satisfying person for those who like their professors to be eccentric. For one thing she never knew which language she was speaking. In one of her last letters, sent to an ex-student who now heads a Department of Russian in Canada, Hill wrote, "she escaped from the Berlin Control Commission hoping to popast' v Ameriku, no ne vyshlo as the train headed for the British Zone". That was also how she spoke.

Elizabeth Mary Hill, Slavonic scholar: born St Petersburg 24 October 1900; University Lecturer in Slavonic, Cambridge University 1936- 48, Professor of Slavonic Studies 1948-68 (Emeritus); Andrew Mellon Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Pittsburgh 1968- 70; DBE 1976; married 1984 Stojan Veljkovic (marriage dissolved 1995); died London 17 December 1996.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in