Stephen White

Born: July 1, 1945;

Died: November 15, 2023

During a career spanning over 45 years at the University of Glasgow (from 1991 onwards, as the James Bryce Professor of Politics), Stephen White, who has died aged 78, was widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on Soviet and post-Soviet politics.

Sir Winston Churchill famously described the actions of Russia as being like ‘a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma’. Stephen White, born six years after that remark was made, spent much of his life trying to unwrap it. He wrote over 500 books, articles and working papers on the Soviet Union, Russia, and Central and East European politics.

But his scholarship was not only imparted through the pages of traditional academic journals: he could distil complex events into easily accessible commentary, imparted with energy, enthusiasm and wit. Generations of Glasgow students had their interest in politics and history piqued by his lectures. Many other members of the Scottish public would have heard his clear explanations of events in faraway places on the BBC.

Much of his early research was historical, including a focus on the Soviet Union’s foreign relations with Britain and other countries in the 1920s, and the early ideological foundations of the Soviet system. Through the Soviet stagnation of the 1970s and the perestroika and glasnost reforms in the 1980s, his research increasingly focused on contemporary developments in the region.

For the last 25 years of his career – aided by the new opportunities for collaboration with Russian colleagues and increasing openness on the part of policymakers (now, in both cases, sadly diminished again) – he was synonymous with the study of Russian elections, public opinion and political parties. He also headed or participated in a series of research projects examining the implications of NATO and EU expansion, and the politics of Ukraine, Belarus and – with other Glasgow colleagues – China. Alongside these works, he wrote several other books – for example, on the complex Russian relationship with alcohol, and a visual analysis of Bolshevik propaganda posters – that reached out to a wider audience.

Stephen Leonard White was born in Dublin. His father, W.L. (‘Jack’) White was a journalist, broadcaster, dramatist and novelist. As a child, Stephen grew up in a household steeped in literature and current affairs. He was elected a Foundation Scholar at Trinity College Dublin (a contemporary of later Irish president Mary Robinson, neé Bourke), and completed a 1st class Moderatorship degree (BA) in Politics and Modern History at TCD in 1967.

His Irish roots were always a source of pride, but it was Glasgow – to which he initially came to conduct doctoral research – in which he spent the majority of his life. The University of Glasgow’s ancient scholarly heritage, the city’s lively cultural life, and the friendly local environment of the West End created a propitious atmosphere in which he flourished for more than half a century.

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He completed his first doctorate (rather unusually, he had three) in Soviet Studies, in 1973. He remained at the University of Glasgow for the entirety of his career and was a staunch defender of academic collegiality and scholarly excellence.

Alongside his Glasgow duties, he also held short-term visiting positions in a wide range of other academic establishments in Europe and Australia. High-level recognition came on both sides of the border: he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2002 and became a Fellow of the British Academy in 2010. Additionally, he served as a highly effective president of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) from 1994-97.

In an era in which analysis is often based on superficial generalisations and informational shortcuts, Stephen White’s approach was the opposite: deep understanding, reached the long way round. His attention to detail was legendary, aided by his ability to read and absorb large amounts of information very rapidly, and an effortless proclivity for analysis and writing.

During frequent trips to Russia and other post-Soviet states from the early 1970s until 2015, he gained a unique cultural and political understanding of the part of the world he was studying. He spent hours in archives and interviewed hundreds of politicians and other public figures. His office was piled from floor to ceiling with materials that he had collected on the way. The disordered space belied a highly ordered mind. Every document had been read, assimilated and, in most cases, cited somewhere in one of his works.

Stephen White’s legacy lies not just in his publications and lectures, but in his generosity of spirit and his multifaceted persona. He seamlessly combined a streak of radicalism with a love of tradition. He was a patron of the arts, highly appreciative of opera, music, literature, film and theatre of the classic and modern varieties. Generations of undergraduates – and over 30 doctoral students, many of whom themselves went on to distinguished careers – benefited from his training.

To him, colleagues were an extended family, often welcomed hospitably to his home and warmly encouraged and supported in all their endeavours. But it was his own family – wife Ishbel (with whom he celebrated a golden wedding anniversary last year), and son Alex, a successful filmmaker – who made him most proud, and supported him most. He is survived by them, as well as by sisters Melissa and Victoria. He also lives on also in the happy memories of the many people, both in Glasgow and across the globe, with whose lives he intersected.

Derek S Hutcheson