T. H. Rigby Remembered

Article excerpt

T. H. (Harry) Rigby (1925-2011) was the Sovietologist that everybody liked, regardless of political, national, of any other kind of dividing lines. It was easy to see why: he was such a benign person, friendly and unassuming, with a sly sense of humor, nonpolemical but willing to argue, generous in sharing his remarkable knowledge of Soviet politics. Everybody knew him, too, despite the fact that for most of his career he was based in Canberra, far away from the main centers of Soviet studies. An Australian with a gift for languages and a love of empirical research, he was a political scientist in the British tradition rather than the American. The words he wrote of his mentor, Leonard Schapiro, could equally be applied to himself he remarks how English Schapiro was (despite not being English by birth), with his "suspicion of vague abstractions,... distrust of panaceas,... respect for hard facts, common sense and practical judgement" and tooted attachment to "tolerance, fairness and diversity." (1) Rigby's scholarly work was so universally approved that one might have expected it to be bland and middle-of-the-road, but not at all: in his own quiet and reasonable way, he was a trailblazer.

Harry Rigby was born in Coburg, a working-class suburb of Melbourne, and educated in state schools, where his bent was toward languages. He worked briefly as a clerk in the Australian Taxation Department before being called up into the Australian Army. Serving in New Guinea and Morotai, he was a "base wallah," assigned to clerical rather than combat duty, but consoled himself with the thought that it would probably be more interesting than the Taxation Department. Sympathetic to socialism and the Soviet Union on the basis of Soviet wartime achievements and his reading of Hewlett Johnson's The Socialist Sixth of the World, Rigby was one of many young Australian soldiers who briefly joined the Australian Communist Party before deciding its dogmatic tone was uncongenial and dropping out. (2) The low-key approach was typical of Harry--no breast-beating about Gods That Failed; no cutting-off of communist friends like the Australian political scientist and Soviet expert Lloyd Churchward; just a prudent silence about one aspect of his biography for the duration of the Cold War. Typical also (of Harry, not the Cold War) was the fact that it never caused him any real trouble. British Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency seemed not to care; Australia's Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) cared only marginally, and the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) was perhaps not even informed about it by the Australian Communist Parry, which after Harry's letter of resignation to the Coburg branch in 1947 seems to have forgotten all about him.

A beneficiary of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (the Australian equivalent of the GI Bill), Rigby went to the University of Melbourne after the war, studying Russian with Nina Christesen and Politics with W. Macmahon Ball. As a political science student, he found both Marx and Max Weber appealing, although the Weberian influence was probably the deeper. (3) Equally important as an event of the postwar years was Harry's marriage in 1947 to Norma, a Coburg schoolmate who shared not only Harry's background but also his unusual ability to appreciate and adapt to all sorts of strange milieux, from Oxford to Moscow; for the next 64 years, they were to be inseparable. Their son Richard was born in 1948.

In Harry's time--and in mine, too, a couple of decades later--what you did after taking a good Melbourne degree was to go overseas, preferably to Oxford or Cambridge. Harry went to London, a more sensible choice, and immediately met everyone in the then very small world of Soviet studies, which accommodated both the academic and intelligence communities of specialists. George Bolsover, director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, was a man with a foot in both camps; in my time, 20 years later, he seemed like a sworn enemy of all types of intellectual activity, but Harry's memoir shows him in a slightly different light. …