October 16, 2012

Remembering Herbert J. Ellison, a guiding light in international studies

News and Information

Herbert J. Ellison, 1929-2012 UW prof emeritus of international studies

Herbert J. Ellison

The University of Washington community is mourning the loss of Herbert J. Ellison, professor emeritus of history and international studies and former director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Ellison taught at the UW for 34 years and was for decades considered among the world’s leading figures in the field of Soviet and post-Soviet studies. He died on Oct. 9, 2012, at the age of 83.

“Herb was a scholar-teacher for his time,” said longtime colleague Kenneth Pyle, UW professor of international studies.

“His career in Russian studies unfolded during the trying days of the Cold War when Americans needed the kind of informed judgments about the Soviet Union that he could make. In his teaching, writing and service to the national organizations in his field he made a huge contribution to our understanding of the historic forces that shaped Soviet-American relations.”

Ellison was born in 1929 in Portland, Ore. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the UW and held faculty positions at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Kansas before returning to the UW in 1968. He retired in 2002.

Besides serving from 1972 to 1977 as director of the Jackson School of International Studies, Ellison also held leadership positions in many major national organizations. He was director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, D.C., where his role as a government adviser during the last years of the Cold War was recognized by President Ronald Reagan.

Ellison also took the national lead in establishing language programs in Russia where American students could study. He researched and wrote about Soviet history, post-Soviet international relations and foreign policy toward Western Europe, Sino-Soviet relations, the nature of Gorbachev’s perestroika and the role of post-Soviet Russia in the changing international arena of Northeast Asia.

In 2005 his name was given to the Herbert J. Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, funded through a $3 million endowment created with donations from the Ellison family as well as dozens of other contributors. The center funds interdisciplinary research, graduate students, international exchange programs and other initiatives “to advance historical understanding, innovative teaching, and public awareness about this crucial region of the world.”

His book “Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s Democratic Transformation” was published in 2006 by the University of Washington Press; critics regarded it as an accessible and well-written look at that era of Russian history. Ellison also served as executive producer and chief consultant for the highly-regarded PBS/BBC television series “Messengers from Moscow,” on the history of the Cold War, as well as the PBS documentary “The Real Boris Yeltsin,” which was nominated for an Emmy award.

Ellison was one of the UW’s most well-loved faculty members. His undergraduate courses on the history of communism and on Soviet and Russian history were perennial favorites, and many of his graduate students went on to distinguished academic careers of their own.

Lara Iglitzin, executive director of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, said Ellison inspired generations of students to explore Russian studies. “He was an electrifying lecturer. Equally important, he was supportive to students and colleagues, intellectually rigorous, and a leader able to move Soviet and Russian studies forward as the world changed.”

Scott Radnitz, current director of the Ellison Center, said the center “will forever be indebted to Ellison for his vision and leadership in advancing scholarship on our critical region. He was a beloved teacher and an inspiration to many. He will be missed.”

A memorial service for Ellison will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina.

Ellison’s family and friends endowed in his honor the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies. Those who would like to support the Ellison Center may send donations to the center’s Herbert J. Ellison Endowment.

Ellison’s friend and colleague Pyle added, “He was a prime reason for the university’s world prominence in international studies.”