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Bolsover, George Henry (1910–1990), historian, was born at 12 Powys Street, Atherton, Lancashire, on 18 November 1910, the son of Ernest Bolsover, cotton operative, and his wife, Mary Ann, née Edge. He attended Leigh grammar school in Manchester, where (unusually for the time, but like his contemporary William Barker, who also became a diplomat) he learned Russian. He graduated BA in Russian in 1931 and MA in 1932 at the University of Liverpool, and wrote a PhD thesis under R. W. Seton-Watson at the School of Slavonic Studies, University of London, on ‘Great Britain, Russia and the Eastern question, 1832–1841’ (1933). He began his academic career as a tutor in adult education at the Worcester annexe of Birmingham University (1937–8), then from 1938 to 1943 lectured on European history at Manchester University, under Lewis Namier, to whose Festschrift he later contributed. On 25 March 1939, at St Anne's Church, Atherton, he married Stephanie Kállai, four years his junior, and daughter of Jènő Kállai, merchant. They had one daughter, Anne (b. 1953).

Established as a Russian scholar, in 1943 Bolsover was appointed attaché and first secretary at the British embassy in Moscow, where he remained until 1947. After returning to Britain he was appointed director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, from which he retired in 1976.

When Bolsover took over the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1947, it was regarded by the security services as a hotbed of pro-Soviet sentiment, under the influence of Andrew Rothstein. Born in England, the son of one of Lenin's most trusted special agents and an Oxford graduate, Rothstein held a temporary lectureship in Soviet institutions, a position that had been granted with reluctance, since he was a founding member of the British Communist Party. He had spent several years in Moscow working in the Communist International organization before returning to England in 1931, ostensibly to head the Friends of the Soviet Union, but was (correctly) suspected of being an NKVD officer tasked with agent development. In 1949 Bolsover, ignoring the clamour of some staff and many students, informed Rothstein that his contract was terminated, as he was unqualified for a superior post. In the minds of many Bolsover had accomplished the task for which he had been appointed director.

The School of Slavonic and East European Studies had a well-established course for training military interpreters in Russian and other East European languages, and in 1951 this was substantially enlarged into the Joint Services School for Linguists, designed to turn national service personnel into Russian interpreters. Both the wartime Russian course and its national service successor had been inspired by Elizabeth Hill, an alumna of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and professor of Russian at Cambridge, where a parallel Joint Services School for Linguists came into being in 1951, both courses continuing until 1959, by which time 1500 interpreters of civil service standard had been produced. An element of rivalry arose between the two universities, but Bolsover stood above the fray, leaving the hard labour of administering the course in all its aspects to Ronald Hingley. When the principal British centres of eastern European studies awoke to the plight of Hungarian refugee students in 1956, and perhaps with a personal sense of urgency given his wife's Hungarian origins, Bolsover joined William Deakin and Max Hayward, warden and fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, respectively, on a delegation to Vienna to select candidates for British universities.

As well as his administrative duties, Bolsover was on the editorial board of the Slavonic and East European Review until 1963, and was its sometime editor. Nicknamed Mr Russia, he was occasionally called upon by the BBC to comment on Soviet affairs. He published articles in the Slavonic and East European Review, the English Historical Review, the Journal of Modern History, and International Affairs, all devoted to his lifelong interest in foreign policy and relations with the Soviet Union. He was appointed OBE in 1947 and CBE in 1970.

While for his students Bolsover was a shadowy figure, his staff felt he was intrusively unsupportive and often heavy-handed. He had excellent Russian but reputedly little time for Russians, who, he claimed, were all characters out of Gogol. One observer commented, more in grudging approbation of his tough and manipulative personality than in criticism, that ‘he struck me … as being “the useful bastard”, an asset (and inconvenience) to many an institution as a curb on wayward individualism’ (private information). But when he invited people, including staff members, to his home, he was the perfect genial and hospitable host, for as he also said (in his unpolished Lancashire accent), ‘you might as well enjoy yourself, for you never know where your next meal is coming from’ (ibid.) He was devoted to his family—and his pets too, latterly a dog and a tortoise—and made a point of maintaining a cordial relationship with those at the bottom of the university hierarchy, such as doormen or porters. He was an observant Anglican. He died at prayer on Easter day (15 April) 1990 in his parish church at Hatch End, London, of a heart attack. A memorial service was held at the university church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, London, on 9 June 1990.

Harold Shukman


The Times (20 April 1990) · The Independent (30 April 1990) · G. Elliott and H. Shukman, Secret classrooms (2002) · WWW · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) [J. Keep; P. Foote] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


School of Slavonic and East European Studies, U. London, papers


photograph, repro. in Elliott and Shukman, Secret classrooms

Wealth at death  

£838,986: probate, 5 July 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales