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Remembering Herbert J. Ellison (October 3, 1929–October 9, 2012)

From Richard J. Ellings, President


One of NBR’s founding board members passed away October 9, 2012, after a long illness. Many of you knew Herb and what an extraordinary person he was. I want to recount for you very briefly his professional life and what he did for NBR. Herb was a rare scholar who reached the top of his academic field of Russian history and engaged in public issues and the public in every effective way. Already a tenured professor at the University of Washington more than forty years ago, he had a regular television program on Channel Nine here in Seattle, in which he examined the Soviet Union and Cold War. In the mid-1980s he moved back to Washington, D.C., to direct the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He was a fabulous speaker, a popular professor, and mentor to many graduate students for many decades at the UW, where he was a leader. He was also a close colleague and friend of Ken Pyle.

Herb worked with Ken and me and others in conceiving NBR; he established Russian and Eurasian studies at NBR; and in our first few years of operation brought to us major project ideas, funding, management, and student interns. He served on the NBR board of directors from its founding in 1989 to 2010. He traveled constantly on NBR programs of his making, often to exotic places.

Here’s one indication of his nose for what really matters in the world and for his undaunted approach to life: He convinced a major foundation to fund a 3-year NBR project that did no less than organize senior people from the US, China, Russia, Japan, Korea, and Central Asia to observe first hand, and analyze, the building of new nations and the development of interactions among all of the nations and proto-nations that made up Eurasia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Here’s another indication: At the very same time, with NBR playing an important role, he produced an influential and award winning, four-part PBS/BBC documentary series that explained the Cold War from its origins to its end—entirely through extraordinary interviews of about a hundred senior communist leaders in Russia, Europe, and China, and through amazing communist documents that his team unearthed in Russian archives that opened briefly in the early 1990s. Having met him through his membership on NBR’s board, George Russell convinced Herb to lead the Russell 20-20 group to Russia in the mid-1990s. Some years later George helped establish a center at UW in Herb’s name.

I’ve just touched the surface, but I hope you have a sense of his remarkable life. Some of you know Alberta, who remains the wonderful and engaged person she has always been. She and Herb marked their 60th wedding anniversary this June.


Herbert J. Ellison at the 2010 dedication of the Brigitte M. Gort-Allen Garden.



Herb and Alberta Ellison with Meredith Miller, Matthew Hayes, and William Colton at NBR’s 2009 20th Anniversary Gala.