Robert Chenciner (Academic Visitor) 1945 – 2021

Robert Chenciner, remembered by RESC Director Roy Allison

Bob Chenciner (SAM 1987-2017, SCR Member 2017-2019; AV 2018-2021) who passed away on 30 October, after an illness of some months, was one of the college’s longest-standing senior members, whose colourful interests and learned scholarship livened up countless college dinners and seminars. He had a particularly close association with the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre (RESC), as an authority on the eastern Caucasus – a region he first visited in 1983, driven by an interest in its textiles and material cultures. He wore his knowledge lightly, yet surprised many with his extraordinary contacts, deep understanding, and amusing stories and anecdotes about places hardly known even to fellows of RESC.

Bob’s interests in culture and the fine arts expanded to the history, ethnography, religions, customary law and refugee issues, as well as local languages of the eastern Caucasus. He had a special commitment to the republic of Dagestan in the Russian North Caucasus, worked with local ethnographers for over thirty years, and wrote the standard scholarly text on the republic, Daghestan: Tradition and Survival (1997). Just this year he completed a major co-authored successor volume, Dagestan: History, Ethnography and Identity, now, sadly, to be published posthumously by Routledge. Other titles offer a flavour of Bob’s diverse, perhaps esoteric corpus of work: Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan, 2006 – which made the Bookseller Magazine shortlist for the oddest book title of the year – and Dragons, Padlocks and Tamerlane’s Balls – A Material-Cultural Memoir of Textiles, Art, Metals and Myths, 2013. Yet Bob also had a very different side – immersing himself deeply in real world problems and injustices. From 2000 till this year he wrote amazingly over 1100 full Country Expert reports, mainly for UK Asylum Tribunals. These covered asylum seekers of every imaginable ethnicity, in complex cases from all the states of the former USSR. He also assisted the work of the Dutch Refugee Council, acted as an OSCE election monitor and lectured widely for practitioner audiences.

Bob thrived in the internationalist atmosphere of St Antony’s and the diversity of its membership. Perhaps he felt it was something of a living expression of the multinational Dagestan to which he had committed so much of his life. He felt the hall was the social hub of the college and indeed made his own generous contribution to the experience of dining in college, both for students and High Table diners, by lending three large and valuable Dagestani carpets with striking, colourful patterns. These adorned one wall of the hall for many years before the Hilda Besse Building refurbishment.  Bob’s lively and erudite presence in college is fondly remembered and will be missed.

Roy Allison, Director, Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre 

Read Robert’s Obituary written by Louisa Chenciner, published in The Guardian, 24 December 2021

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