Alexis P. Vlasto


Alexis Peter Vlasto was a Slavonic scholar at Cambridge University. During World War ll he led the team at Bletchley Park that broke the Japanese Army Air Force codes, significantly affecting the ability of the Allies to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific. Born in Liverpool, 27 November 1915, he became Lecturer in Slavonic Studies at Cambridge 1954-83 and a Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1969-2000. He married in 1945 Jill Medway (who died 1968). He died in Cambridge on 20 July 2000, leaving a son and a daughter.

By Christopher Long

See Vlasto Genealogy

See Family History Items

© The Independent 22 August 2000
The Tuesday Review

Picture caption: Vlasto: a 'college man'.

Alexis Vlasto

The contemporary world of higher education, dominated as it is by Research Assessment Exercises and Teaching Quality Audits, has little room for academics like Alexis Vlasto. Strongly opposed to the belief that a long list of publications was an indicator of academic excellence, Vlasto was a scholar who worked on two particular projects for many years before producing definitive works in his particular discipline – Slavonic studies.

The son of a family of Greek shipping agents, Vlasto was born in Liverpool in 1915. He was educated at Eton College and then, in 1937, came up to King's College, Cambridge, to read for a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages. Those who taught him saw that his natural reserve, somewhat laconic character and quiet temperament belied a keen mind and an aptitude for languages.

His sharp intelligence and linguistic skills were the two main factors that led to Vlasto's being recruited in 1939 for war service at Bletchley Park. The usual path from Cambridge to Bletchley was via a six-month language course in Bedford but Vlasto seems to have arrived there by another route. Once there, however, his sense of humour, his wisdom and his gracious spirit endeared him to all those with whom he served. As the leader of the Japanese Army Air Force section Vlasto worked alongside Maurice Wiles, George Ashworth, Mervyn Jones, Elsie Hart and others on the task of breaking the Japanese Army Air Force 3366 code.

It was during his time at Bletchley that he renewed acquaintance with Jill Medway whom he had met before the war through the Cambridge University Music Society. They were married in 1945 and returned to Cambridge – Jill to direct studies in music for Girton and Newnham colleges and Vlasto to begin work on his PhD research. Jill died in 1968.

Following the end of the Second World War, Vlasto was offered a Research Fellowship at King's. He took his PhD in 1953 and became a university lecturer in the Department of Slavonic Studies the following year – a post he was to hold until his retirement in 1983. Following the publication of his first major work, The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom (1968), a pioneering book which provides a critical account of the development of the peoples of Eastern Europe, Vlasto was elected to a Fellowship at Selwyn College in 1969.

He remained a Fellow of Selwyn until his death and, during his more active years on the Fellowship, served as the College Librarian (1974-83) and the Garden Steward (1975-83). He was ideally suited for both of these tasks as they reflected two of his great passions – the pursuit of knowledge and a love of plants.

He produced his second major work in 1986, The Linguistic History of Russia. This work reflects his interest in philology – his principal teaching field – and is an authoritative survey of the development of modern Russian. An excellent reference work, it is still used as a teaching resource today.

Vlasto was an amateur musician in his youth (he played the oboe as an undergraduate in the Cambridge University Music Society Orchestra) and his interest in music was seen in his keen support of the College Chapel Choir and the College Music Society; but it is for his botanical interests that he will long be remembered both within Selwyn College and the university. His first particular botanical interest lay in the study of the rare plants of the then Yugoslavia: an interest that was to prove invaluable to both the University Botanic Garden and gardens world-wide.

In 1966 Vlasto collected seed from a very little-known Balkan endemic plant, Silene viscariopsis.The seed, which had been gathered from the plant's locus classicus, was donated to the University Botanic Garden in July of that year and was then sown in the autumn. The plants produced from the seed were distributed to gardens throughout the world and, in addition, the knowledge gained from the cultivation of these plants proved to be the catalyst for a detailed study of the Silene viscariopsis by a group of Cambridge undergraduates in 1976.

The study was something of a pioneer project in field research on endangered species in Europe and was exactly the kind of outcome that Vlasto greatly appreciated, as it produced accurate information of great value to the development of the science of botany.

In later years he turned his attention more in the direction of bulbous plants and the garden of his home in Cambridge was a plantsman's paradise. Towards the end of his life he decided to donate his extensive bulb collection, containing many species of Fritillaria and South African bulbs, to the University Botanic Garden and he was happy to see the bulbs safely delivered to the garden shortly before his death.

It is much to be regretted that the demands of modern academic life mean that there is less and less space for academics like Alexis Vlasto. Very much a 'college man', he appreciated the routine, the fellowship and the breadth of discourse that were so much a part of the collegiate life of an academic. He knew that the opportunity to benefit from such a way of life was a great privilege and was not slow to confess that it was one that he enjoyed greatly.

Alexis Vlasto was a man who combined the ability to be infuriatingly impractical at times with a warm and generous heart in friendship. He leaves two children, Dominic and Alixandrina.


Alexis Peter Vlasto, Slavonic scholar: born Liverpool 27 November 1915; Lecturer in Slavonic Studies, Cambridge University 1954-83; Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1969-2000; married 1945 Jill Medway (died 1968; one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 20 July 2000.

Alexis Vlasto – by Owen Chadwick
Address at the memorial service for Alexis Vlasto, 2000.

We remember with gratitude a friend. He was a quiet friend, sometimes very quiet. He preferred few words to many. He was a real person, had no use for oratory, inflation of words or ideas. He was down-to-earth. But this preference for the laconic did not mean that he was dull, or over-reserved, or a wet blanket in conversation. This quietness was a delightful quietness. When he spoke they were the words of a stable minds of character who knew where he stood and brought powerful penetrating common sense into an argument. He also laced the argument with humour, never malicious about persons but not without force, and certainly the humour was one of the delights of his company.

His friendliness could take unusual forms. He not only loved flowers he was expert in flowers and gardening; and liked to share this love and expertise with friends. His own garden was enchanting with rare plants and bulbs – sown not for the sake of their rarity but their beauty. It was fun when as a Fellow of Selwyn he undertook the office of garden steward and we could see the delicate little changes which kept appearing in the college gardens. And to his friends it was even more special. He would appear at their house suddenly, without any warning, bearing a rare plant in his hands, and tell them that this was just what ought to go to beautify their garden. The collection of bulbs was so important that not long before his death he gave it to the Botanic Garden which accepted it with gratitude.

He was a lover of music; music in his home; the college now owns his spinet which he gave us and which once serenaded the Queen Mother from the gallery of Queens' College; he consented to be treasurer of the music society and the society benefited from donations which were anonymous but we were pretty sure of their source. Music had more than a private consequence braces as an undergraduate at King's he played the oboe in the orchestra of CUMS and there met Jill his wife who was herself in that orchestra and then was reading music at Girton. In the Girton College register Alexis is recorded unusually; it is said of Jill that in 1945 she married Squadron-Leader Vlasto; a rare way of referring to the breaker of Japanese codes.

It perfectly fitted his whole personality that he had an academic subject which was difficult, and was bound to attract few but able pupils, where lectures would be delivered to a little group. The postwar group collected by Ekizabeth Hill, a truly eminent group of scholars in the East European languages, fundamental experts like Lucjan Lewitter and our own Fellow Robert Auty and our own Serb diplomat in exile K.S. Pawlovitch, took him abroad as their expert in the history of Russian language; he lectured on the linguistics, but also on the set texts of the eighteenth century and once at least on Old Church Slavonic and sometimes on the early history and philology of the Slavonic peoples. I remember being surprised when in 1970 he gave me a copy of his just published book, The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom: and introduction to the medieval history of the Slavs; for in a total of more than 300 pages only 60 pages concerned Russia. It is history of the Balkans. Thirty years later this is still an important book to historians and will continue to be so.

Inside it there are delicious sidelights on what history is, a scepticism about the overconfidence of historians that they are really sure about what they find. He rebukes what he calls Ranke's crude optimism that he described what actually happened in the past. Vlasto was dealing in misty centuries where the evidence is place-names and saints' lives and unreliable chronicles. He was modest. He said outright that he has ignored certain fields where he did not feel competent and had intruded into others more angelically than foolishly. No historian ever used the phrase more charmingly about where angels fear to tread.

There was a personal interest underlying the book; the tragic history of his own family. The Vlastos were prosperous citizens of the most prosperous and beautiful island in the Aegean, Chios; claiming to be the birthplace of Homer, flourishing under Byzantine rule, then under Genoese, Turkish since 1566 but well-treated by the Ottomans, with a flourishing Greek archbishop and Greek trading links across the Levant. The Vlasto family could not speak about the unspeakable that happened in 1822. The island was caught up willy-nilly in the Greek mainland rebellion against the Turks and though the people of Chios were wholly innocent a savage horde was released against them, males murdered, women and children sold into slavery. Two men named Vlasto were among hostages hung in the market square [two were hostages but only was hanged]. There were fortunate people who slipped over the mountains and were picked up by little Greek ships; and later from Trieste Greek exiles discovered the whereabouts of women slaves and ransomed them. So the family found itself scattered over the ports of Europe, often in shipping, as Alexis was born in Liverpool.

Chios had been a highly cultured society. Western Europe benefited from what the exiles brought. The Greeks lost but Greece won. The martyrdoms enraged western Europe, they were not unconnected with the British fleet destroying the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Navarino and at last enabling the Greek revolt to make an independent Greece.

So when an English historian with a Greek name and descent but an English education turned to the history and language of the Slavs, the coming of Christian faith among the peoples who had moved into the Balkans which were then occupied by a people, the Ottoman Turks of a different faith, the study had a more than academic interest and this background is part of the stature of that book. He must have been conscious of this because of the quotation which he put on the front page of the book. And as we hear remember this dear friend and lovely man before God, I shall finish by reading that quotation which he so carefully selected out of so many. It is from Symeon known as the New Theologian, a monk and mystic who died some forty years before our Norman Conquest:

'The saints who from generation to generation follow by the practice of God's commandments in the steps of those saints who went before ... make as it were a golden chain, each of them being one link, each joined to the preceding one in faith, works, and love; so as to form in the One God a single line which cannot easily be broken.'

What words for a memorial service. To follow in the steps... a golden chain, each one link... in a single line which cannot easily be broken.

See Vlasto Genealogy

See Family History Items

© (2000) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

Home Career Press Print Radio TV & Film 3rd Party Trivia Projects Personal Etcetera Sound Images Index