In memoriam: Dr Mike Nicholson

Dr Mike Nicholson, who died suddenly on 9 September 2022, was tutorial fellow in Russian at University College, Oxford, from 1987 to 2011. He had originally studied Russian and German at Manchester University, and then came to Brasenose, where he completed his D. Phil. on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He taught first at Essex and then at Lancaster, where in 1981 he became Head of the Department of Russian and Soviet Studies. Mike then moved to St. Cross College in Oxford as Fellow and became University Lecturer in Russian. In 1987, Mike moved once more to Univ and was tutorial fellow and Praelector in Russian there for over 20 years. In the run-up to his retirement, Mike secured the future of Russian, and Modern Languages, at Univ by playing an instrumental role in the creation of the Schrecker-Barbour Fellowship in Slavonic and East European Studies; the subsequent establishment of the Czech fellowship in college was also substantially to his credit.

Mike was best known as one of the world’s leading experts on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: one of the most important Russian authors of the 20th century, and a Nobel laureate. His knowledge of his oeuvre and life was quite simply encyclopaedic, and he met Solzhenitsyn and members of his family on several occasions. He pioneered Solzhenitsyn studies as the author rose to fame in the Soviet Union, and then tracked his long career as an émigré writer before his return to post-Soviet Russia; his edited volume Solzhenitsyn in Exile (Hoover Institution, 1985) remains an authoritative work on that period. Mike’s prolific articles and chapters on Solzhenitsyn have had an immense and lasting influence. A series of articles on Solzhenitsyn’s little-known early works robustly challenged the commonplace that Solzhenitsyn had started by writing short, subtle narratives (in the vein of Ivan Denisovich) and only later moved to more epic or didactic works. Another influential intervention was his provocative argument (in an article that appeared in English and Russian) that Solzhenitsyn shared many features with Socialist Realism. Mike also published widely in both Russian and Chinese; like his Anglophone scholarship, these articles and chapters had a predominant focus on Solzhenitsyn and his fellow writer of Gulag literature, Varlam Shalamov. Deeply respected in Russia and China, he visited both countries frequently, often with his wife Barbara, and learned Chinese later in his career, as well as developing a keen interest in the Russian émigré community in Harbin. The University of Henan awarded him an honorary Professorship in 2005.

Despite his immense erudition and towering scholarly reputation, Mike saw teaching as his most important job; indeed, tutoring was not so much a job for him as a way of life, something to which he was devoted beyond measure. Tutorials with Mike would often last for hours, so his students quickly learned which chairs in his legendarily untidy office were the most and least comfortable for these epic sessions. First would come an always astute response to students’ essays or translations (often preceded by a bemused scratch of the beard), and then virtuoso riffs on the wonders of Russian literature and the endless variety of the Russian language. Sometimes (actually, quite often), things would end up back at his beloved topic of Prince Felix Yusupov, whose time at Univ was for Mike just as exciting as his role in the murder of Rasputin. Many students and colleagues would receive Mike’s signature send-off when they left Oxford: a glass or two of cold vodka and a platter of black bread piled with sprats and gherkins (much tastier than it sounds). However, Mike himself never really left, even in retirement; on the day before he died, he was making arrangements to spend yet another of his Saturdays acting as Dean of Degrees for Univ. In the week since his death, many dozens of tributes have flooded into the college and faculty. Every single one contained the word ‘kind’, and many evoked the life-long impact of working with Mike or being taught by him. We send our deepest condolences to his family.

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