Ralph Russell was born on 21st May 1918 in Hammerton in North Yorkshire. He joined the Communist Party at the age of 16, when he was a scholarship boy at Chigwell School in Essex. He was soon involved in public activity in Loughton and Woodford, and took part in the great 1934 anti-fascist demonstration against Oswald Mosley’s BUF rally in Hyde Park. Inspired by Dimitrov’s defiance of the Nazis and his report to the 7th Congress of the Communist International, Ralph set high standards of Communist behaviour; he was highly critical of comrades, especially leading Party members, when he thought they were not living up to these standards.
In 1937, Ralph went to St John’s College, Cambridge, to read, firstly, classics and then geography. He soon became a leader of the student party branch and became a major figure in the student communist movement. Ralph was commissioned in 1941 and posted to India the following year. He spent the rest of the war on the Burma front.
He took his degree within days of the fall of France in June 1940. He was at once called up and wanted to remain in the ranks, but reluctantly accepted the Party’s policy that servicemen who had the opportunity of training as officers should do so. He spent almost exactly six years in the army, of which three and a half, from March 1942 to August 1945, were spent in India on attachment to the Indian Army.
Unusually for a British officer, Ralph learned Urdu so that he could communicate fully with the Indian soldiers under his command. This interest in local culture was to shape the rest of his life as he achieved considerable fluency at the level of everyday communication. But it was not primarily to meet the requirements of Indian army life that motivated him to learn Urdu well. Going beyond merely learning the complex and different Urdu script, by reading Urdu translations of some of the Marxist-Leninist classics, Ralph acquired a knowledge of the literary language, albeit one with a rather specialised vocabulary.
As a Communist, Ralph wanted to meet the needs of the people but he went to extraordinary lengths to achieve his aims. He saw his role in the army, in the aim of connecting with the people, to instil some degree of political consciousness in the local troops, Despite the army’s propensity to deliberately only select illiterate recruits, so that they would be less questioning, by the end of his time, he had a group of Indian soldiers them who read Communist literature and contributed money from their very meagre pay to the Communist Party of India. He made contact with Indian communists, and among others met the leaders, P C Joshi and E M S Namboodiripad.
Released from the army in 1946, Ralph studied Urdu language and literature at the School of Oriental & African Studies in London. As a leader of Marxist study groups he’d discovered that he was a gifted teacher, so on completing his course he remained at SOAS as a lecturer and later Reader until he retired in 1981. He became one of the world’s foremost Urdu scholars; his translations and other writings have been widely acclaimed. He made extensive visits to India and Pakistan in 1958, 1969 and 1973 and developed new types of teaching materials for students at SOAS, and in the wider community, as well as campaigning for the teaching of Urdu in Britain.
Colleagues believe that he was never made a Professor because of his political views and trade union activity. SOAS was one of the most reactionary higher education establishments in Britain, and Ralph led the fight, which was partly successful, to bring its hiring practices and working conditions into line with other colleges. The momentous events of 1968 had an aftermath in SOAS, with a long battle with the SOAS establishment ensuing.
He was on the staff of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, from 1949 to 1981, and headed the Urdu department for all but the first year. He himself wrote that, throughout this time his personal relations with colleagues was always amicable but his relations with the SOAS establishment “although amicable in tone, have always been sharply critical. I waged a continuing battle with the establishment from about 1968 and it was still continuing when I retired in 1981.”
A detailed account of this was published by the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy in 1973, entitled “Oriental Despotism: A Report on the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London”. When, on the 28th June 2007, SOAS organized in his honour a celebration of his life, the report was reprinted for the occasion!
Ralph was opposed to the Communist Party’s defence of the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, but he stayed in the Party until the CPGB was dissolved. To the end of his life he called himself a Communist, though he didn’t join the re-founded Communist Party of Britain or any other party. Even so, Ralph was content to call himself a Communist to the end, “despite the traumatic experiences from 1946 onwards of the corruption and eventual collapse of the communist movement and the Soviet Union”, as he put it.
From 1946 onwards, he was awarded a studentship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He took a degree in Urdu with Sanskrit as a subsidiary subject in 1949 and was at once offered and accepted a lectureship. From November 1949 to October 1950, he went on study leave in India and Pakistan, spending most of his time at Aligarh Muslim University but also visiting other centres of Urdu both in India and Pakistan. During that time, he became fluent in the Urdu of educated speakers and made the acquaintance of many of the major Urdu scholars and writers of that time.
That year also marked the beginning of a forty-year close friendship and collaboration with Khurshidul Islam. From 1953 to 1956 he joined Ralph as ‘overseas lecturer’ at SOAS and they formed the plan of working jointly to produce a series of books which would introduce the best of Urdu literature to the English-speaking world. This was to be done both by translation and by interpretative studies of the literature. Their first joint publication was `Three Mughal Poets’.
During his years of teaching at SOAS, Ralph devoted a lot of time to developing teaching materials. He published himself a course designed to meet the needs of his university students in 1980, under the title `Essential Urdu’, with a number of accompanying cassettes, and he also published `A Primer of Urdu Verse Metre’. (1981).
In 1980-82, he published `A New Course in Urdu and Spoken Hindi’, which has the subtitle, “for learners in Britain”, indicating that it was designed for adults who wished to communicate with Urdu-speaking immigrants and their children but had no time in the first instance to acquire more than the everyday spoken language.
This course book was the product of a period dating from about two years before his early retirement in 1981 when he sought to meet the different needs of a non-university audience. The Urdu teaching then being provided was “horrifyingly inadequate”, he wrote, and he went himself to teach courses in, among other places, Waltham Forest, Birmingham, Blackburn, Chorley and Sheffield. The campaign for the introduction of Urdu into the school curriculum had some success.
By his old age, Ralph Russell had become, in effect the leading scholar of Urdu in the world outside of the Indian sub-continent. His remarkable story was told from the earliest days in the first volume of an autobiography `Findings, Keepings – Life, Communism and Everything’ (published by Shola Books (2001) and also available in Urdu and Panjabi). This tells his story up to 1946; the second volume was in the press when he died on 14th September 2008 at the age of 90; he left notes for a third volume.