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A Tribute: Remembering Herbert J. Ellison

Herbert Ellison shakes hands with President Ronald Reagan

October 15, 2012

Herbert J. Ellison

Herbert J. Ellison

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Professor Herbert J. Ellison on October 9, 2012. Herb was a brilliant Russian historian, but also a visionary leader for the whole field and a cherished mentor to so many.

In 30 years of distinguished service, Dr. Ellison left an indelible mark on the University of Washington and on our program in Russian studies. The national and international reputation of both the REECAS program, to which Dr. Ellison kindly lent his name in 2004, and the Jackson School as a whole, can be traced in large measure to his vision, leadership and tireless enthusiasm for teaching and research in Eurasian and international affairs.

View the video tribute from the Ellison Center: Herb Ellison – Life and Legacy


I met Herbert Jay Ellison in the autumn of 1987 in the second quarter of my REECAS MAIS program, which at that time was known as REEU for “Russian and East European Studies.” Professor Ellison would eventually supervise both my MAIS thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation in the UW Department of History. Herb had an encyclopedic knowledge of the REECAS field and of the major institutions around the country, especially in Washington, D.C., with which it was associated. This knowledge proved indispensable time and again to his colleagues and students, and Herb was always happy to share it. He was a superb lecturer who always said things simply, clearly, and in the most useful way possible, and this made his classes a real delight. He loved the field and did all he could to promote it and to foster cooperation between individuals and organizations concerned with it.

Herbert Ellison shakes hands with President Ronald Reagan.

Herbert Ellison shakes hands with President Ronald Reagan.

Herb could walk into a crowd or a room and get along well with everyone. He knew just the right thing to say to put everyone at ease; and he knew when to keep a respectful silence. He was a consummate diplomat and gentleman. I wish I could have learned more from him in this regard, and I think he wished the same for me, but he never held my relative lack of finesse against me.

It was my great honor to work with Herb on his last book, Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s Democratic Transformation, on which we spent two years together. I was his assistant as we raced the clock to produce the book in keeping with a University of Washington Press deadline. On one weekend when I had stayed round the clock in the office, Herb and his wife Alberta came from their home in Bellevue with some homemade goodies to see that I wouldn’t go hungry. True to his character, when part of the book’s production was marred due to an unfortunate miscommunication, Herb insisted that I not pursue the matter. Herb was a very patient and compassionate man. He walked with me through some of my most difficult challenges and visited me several times in the hospital during my frequent illnesses, all while encouraging me to finish my education and hang in there. He always had something positive and encouraging to say when we met or talked on the phone, even if it was only a brief anecdote to cheer me up. As we got to know each other, we discovered how much we shared philosophically. I felt especially privileged to know him in this way.

I will miss Herb, but for the rest of my life his investment in me will encourage me, and his example will remain for me and others, helping us all to recognize the value of our work and of each other.

Oscar J. Bandelin (Affiliate Lecturer, Jackson School of International Studies)


Herbert Ellison stands with colleagues in front of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington.

Herbert Ellison stands with colleagues in front of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington.

It was Herb Ellison’s commitment to outreach that first helped get me interested in study at the University of Washington. In the late 1970s, while working as a typist for a local title insurance company, I attended several public lectures by Herb on developments in the Soviet Union. In 1981, I enrolled in the School of International Studies and had the pleasure of taking a course on Soviet history from Herb. I wrote a paper for him on the opposition to Communist rule in Lithuania, and was impressed and influenced by the “peace through strength” approach that Herb took to foreign policy during the time of the “Target Seattle” anti-nuclear movement. I also recall speaking to Herb in spring 1983 about potential graduate schools, and how, even though he had just had a gun put to his head while visiting Columbia University, he encouraged me not to rule out graduate school in New York City. He and I both left the UW at the same time — Herb off to direct the Kennan Institute, me to begin graduate study in Bloomington, Indiana. When I returned in 1989 as an assistant professor, I had the further pleasure of having Herb as an esteemed colleague. He was kind and helpful to junior faculty, and was someone I could always count on for timely advice and honest opinions. He also treated me to a dinner or two at scholarly conferences. It was an honor to have known and worked with Herb, and I will always remember him fondly.

— James Felak (Professor, Department of History)


“To Herb Ellison, model of a humane scholar”: this was how I phrased my inscription in my book, Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia. I had occasion to read this inscription just before the current academic year began. When I did so, I began to reflect upon how fortunate I was to have had Herb as my senior colleague when I began teaching at the University of Washington. Since I learned of Herb’s passing on October 9, 2012, I have thought about it even more, pondering the ways in which Herb modeled for many of us what being a humane scholar is all about. And he did so with exceptional grace and modesty.

“Humane” can mean many things, but in Herb’s case, it was a rare combination of empathy, kindness, and concern for others, near and far. As I remember these traits, I recall a story he once told me about a language program he led to the USSR. One of the young women in the group was taken very ill with giardia, a terrible affliction of the digestive tract, one to which foreigners drinking tap water in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and other Soviet cities were particularly susceptible. The woman became so ill from dehydration that her life was in danger. Herb recounted the steps he took to get her emergency medical care and save her life. One hopes that any faculty member entrusted with acting in loco parentis would act so wisely and decisively. But what struck me was the way in which Herb told the story. He was not touting himself as a hero. There was no boasting involved. Rather, even though the event had occurred many years earlier, an expression of grave concern came upon his face as he recalled how sick the young woman was and what a tragedy it would have been had she died. It was as though he was still able to imagine what the loss of this young, vibrant life would have meant to those closest to her, and to the world itself.

Upon reflection, I would say that Herb took his capacity for empathy and concern — even for people he did not know personally — and allowed it to motivate his scholarly and professional work. I recall many a lunch at the University of Washington Faculty Club, and many a conversation in Thomson Hall, in which Herb lamented what ordinary people had suffered in the Soviet Union by being deprived of life’s daily necessities, or worse. In a scholarly age often dominated by abstract categories and inaccessible jargon, Herb never lost sight of the humanity in the human beings whose history, politics, and culture he was studying.

A related, yet separate, dimension of his career as a scholar was his great achievement as a public intellectual. Herb was a distinguished public intellectual in two senses. First, he excelled reaching audiences that included, though went far beyond, fellow academics. There are many examples, such as his acclaimed film series, “Messengers from Moscow.” But he also sought to serve the public, or what he considered to be the public good. He played an instrumental role, for example, in creating exchange programs between the United States and the Soviet Union, programs that he hoped would enhance the greater good in both of those countries — and that indeed did so. As deeply erudite as he was about the history of not only the Soviet Union, but of Europe and Asia, he had a gift for conceiving of institutional development and specific programs through which he sought to shape the future. And that he did.

Just as “humane” can mean many different things, and just as distinguished scholarship can take many forms, so, too, are there multiple ways to be a humane scholar. Herb was a model of a humane scholar in that he did not brag about how good he was at it — that is, about how his achievements made a difference for the better in people’s lives around the world. His career as a humane scholar was not about ego, or selfish concerns. It was about service — to fellow human beings (chiefly students, but also faculty and staff) at the University of Washington and at the other institutions at which he taught, and to the peoples whose history and culture he studied. It was, perhaps most fundamentally, about using the life of the mind to make the world a better place.

— Glennys Young (Professor, Department of History and Jackson School of International Studies)

The Ellison Center

Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington
Box 353650
Seattle WA, 98195-3650