To and from Russia with love

Driving a dog-sleigh on the frozen Tunguska River, North East Siberia, 1992.
Driving a dog-sleigh on the frozen Tunguska River, North East Siberia, 1992.

Being followed and questioned by the Soviet Union’s military service, the KGB, is among Dr Alan Wood’s numerous memorable moments of his many visits to Russia.

Now 71 and retired from his role as a senior lecturer in Russian history at Lancaster University, Dr Wood is still devoting his time to the study of the country, its history, culture and politics.

Overlooking Lake Baikal, Eastern Siberia, 1986.

Overlooking Lake Baikal, Eastern Siberia, 1986.

Dr Wood was educated at High Pavement Grammar School in Nottingham, where he secured a state scholarship in classics, which he went on to study at Oxford University in 1961, before switching subjects to mediaeval and modern Russian language and literature.

He said: “I was reasonably good at languages and there was a mystique about Russia.

“It was the height of the Cold War and my cousin had been in Russia during his National Service.

“Once I started studying it I was hooked.”

Dr Alan Wood.

Dr Alan Wood.

It was during his time at Oxford that Dr Wood first visited Russia, attending a student language course in Moscow in August 1964 at the age of 21.

After graduating in 1965, Dr Wood was appointed as a lecturer at Hull University, and moved from there to Lancaster in 1971, where he remained until he took early retirement in 2005, apart from a brief spell as Visiting Professor at Portland State University, Oregon, USA.

He speaks fluent Russian and has visited the country 45 times, conducting research at a number of universities and archives in about 30 different cities, cities and settlements from St Petersburg to Vladivostok.

Throughout that time, apart from his historical research and publications, Dr Wood has been a close observer of Russian life and politics, from the time immediately before Khrushchev was removed from office in 1964, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and up to the present day.

He has dozens of published articles on subjects ranging from early times to the immediate past, as well as seven books.

The last of these, Russia’s Frozen Frontier, is the culmination of his special research interest in the history of Siberia, for which he received a doctorate.

He also founded the Sibirica journal, the only journal exclusively on the study of Siberian history, and started up a national conference on Siberia.

The great grandfather, who lives in Halton, said: “My first visit was to Moscow on an intensive language course in 1964.

“I didn’t go again until 1967, when I was teaching at Hull and went for a month.

“Then in 1968 I went for three months of research in Leningrad and Moscow. It was then that I started looking more at the research and history side of things rather than the language.”

It was also during this visit that Dr Wood found himself the subject of undercover surveillance by the KGB, after being spotted drinking in a bar with a friend and two Russian girls.

He was taken in for questioning, and was also followed on a daily basis as he went about his business.

For family reasons, Dr Wood didn’t return to Russia for about eight years, his next trip coming in the mid-1970s.

He said: “I had started to become more interested in the history of Siberia, and that’s been my main interest ever since.”

By the end of the 1970s Dr Wood had started visiting Russia on a more regular basis for conferences or research.

He said: “After Stalin died in 1953 it became more common for English people to visit Russia.

“I have seen a lot of changes, but not always for the better.

“The first time my wife Iris went with me she was amazed by the cleanliness and how polite people were.

“But in later years she was shocked by the number of beggars on the streets.

“A much more stark differences developed between rich and poor after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

“There was a growth in the number of oligarchs, from the selling off of state-owned businesses to the rich.

“Crime became more blatant – there was a lot more begging and poverty.

“Around a third of the pupulation is now below the poverty line.

“It’s a much more divided society than it was when I first started going; there are a lot more tensions.

“But Putin is extremely popular – he brought back a lot of Russian prestige.”

Dr Wood’s biggest passion is Siberia, a huge region which crosses eight time zones.

He said: “Siberia is still the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, but people regard it as a bit of a wasteland.

“There’s a lot of ignorance about Siberia, even in Russia itself.

“It’s a vibrant place and very multi-cultural, with a thriving economy, and it’s developing all the time.”