IN MEMORIAM: Robert H. Johnston (1937-2005)

By van der Oye, David Schimmelpenninck | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2005 | Go to article overview

IN MEMORIAM: Robert H. Johnston (1937-2005)


van der Oye, David Schimmelpenninck, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Our profession lost a gentleman with the death on October 19 of Robert H. Johnston after a long illness. As Professor Emeritus of Russian history at McMaster University, Johnston had been an inspiring teacher to several generations of students and a much-loved friend to many of his colleagues. A scholar of considerable erudition and eloquence, he published an important study of the Russian émigré community in Paris during the inter-war years.

Johnston was born in 1937 to a prominent family of Toronto industrialists. In true colonial tradition, he was shipped off to Mother England to be educated at Haileybury, the public school founded by the East India Company to train future imperial officials. Johnston returned to Canada to study at the University of Toronto, where he completed a BA in History in 1959. There was a brief stint in Ottawa as a communications officer with the National Research Council, but after two years in the civil service, he won admission to Yale University's graduate school with a Woodrow Wilson scholarship. In New Haven, Johnston specialised in Russian diplomatic history, studying, with, among others, Firuz Kazemzadeh, Frederic Barghoorn and Harry Rudin. He completed his thesis, "The Russian Provisional Government and Eastern Europe, March-November 1917," in 1966 under the supervision of Ivo Lederer.

Johnston's first job was at the newly founded University of Calgary, where he taught for three years. In 1969, he moved closer to home to take up a position at McMaster. Tenured in 1972 and promoted to full professor in 1988, Johnston would remain in Hamilton into his retirement, in 1999 as dean. While he would publish two monographs, including his revised dissertation, teaching was clearly Johnston's passion. His students tended to concur. One of them once wrote, "[...] I regard you as one of the last outposts of the old school of no-nonsense education where teachers taught and students learned and learning was something to be approached with excitement and just perhaps, a bit of reverence." Johnston's lectures proved so popular that on one occasion, when he was in charge of one of two sections of the first-year modern Europe survey, his department's chair jokingly admonished him. Pointing out that Johnston had 150 in his class, while only 30 had enrolled in the other, he asked him to, "alter your classroom personality and scare the wits out of 50 of the dullest during 'drop and add' . …

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