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Reginald George Arthur de Bray (1912–1993)

by Sasha Grishin

Emeritus Professor Reginald George Arthur de Bray passed away on 29 May 1993. Internationally he was regarded as one of the great Slavists of his time, whose study of the Slavonic languages formed the core curriculum in academic institutions throughout the world. He was one of the few Slavists who was equally known and respected in Oxford, Harvard and the Sorbonne, as in Moscow, Belgrade and Sofia.

Reginald de Bray was born in St Petersburg in Russia in 1912. His family moved to England and he attended Hillstone School in Great Malvern and then specialised in Classics at Marlborough College. He went to Lausanne to study French and commenced his studies at Oriel College at Oxford. Before the age of 30, he attained proficiency in a number of languages. These included French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Slovenian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Ukrainian, as well as of course, Greek and Latin. It was small wonder that when the war broke out he was employed by the Postal Censorship Service in the Uncommon Languages Department. Later in the war he was employed by the BBC European Service. In London he was appointed as lecturer in Comparative Slavonic Philology at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London.

In 1955 he accepted a Lectureship in Russian in the newly formed department of Russian Language and Literature under the inspiring leadership of Nina Christesen at the University of Melbourne, to where he shifted with his wife Agnese. In Melbourne were born their two children, Sergei and Helen. In 1963 Reginald de Bray became the Foundation Professor of Russian at Monash University and three years later was appointed to the first chair of Russian language at the University of London. Then, as a great coup for this university, in 1971 he accepted the Chair of Russian and built up the Department of Slavonic Languages at the ANU. He remained in this post until he retired as Emeritus Professor in 1977. So much for the dry outline of the academic career of this most remarkable man.

Growing up in Melbourne, I was totally oblivious to many of the scholarly achievements of Reginald de Bray. I knew that he was a university academic because his seminal publication Guide to the Slavonic Languages, first published in 1951 and then re-issued in numerous editions, was one of the thickest books in the house. As a child, I always thought of him as a man of encyclopaedic knowledge, particularly in an area like botany, where he would take me out into his fabulous garden and would tell me the names of every plant - their common names, their Latin names, their characteristics.

He had a great passion for the Australian bush, particularly the native plants and birds, and I sometimes think that it was this passion for the bush which stopped him from severing his ties with Australia.

He was also an accomplished musician and as an oboe player was a concert class performer. He published several anthologies of poetry which were his own translations from a number of Slavonic languages; more rarely some of his own verse was published.

When Reginald de Bray was accepted into the Holy Russian Orthodox Church, he took the name in God of Cyril and was known to most of his Russian friends as Kyril Georgievich. The choice of St Cyril was a very deliberate one, for he is the saint who is known as the Enlightener of the Slavs, the one who devised the Cyrillic alphabet and who gave literacy to an oral tradition. Reginald de Bray was like a modern day St Cyril—he was a man of learning, wisdom and of enormous spiritual generosity. He took on tasks which other scholars regarded as too vast, like the comparative philology of all the Slav languages, or his most recent project, a comprehensive Macedonian-English dictionary. He was a shy and modest man, but one who knew from the beginning that a scholar has a mission in life and that he must make his own way across the field of life.

Reginald de Bray had a deep love and extensive knowledge of Slav literatures. As I recall, he loved to recite one poem more than any other, Pushkin's The Prophet. I conclude with the final stanza of that poem. In this stanza it is the voice of the Lord which addresses the prophet and the scholar: "Arise, O prophet, see and hear, be filled with My will, go forth over land and sea, and set the hearts of men on fire with your Word." In a way, this is what Reginald de Bray did with his life.

Original publication

Citation details

Sasha Grishin, 'de Bray, Reginald George Arthur (1912–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


St Petersburg, Russia


29 May, 1993 (aged ~ 81)

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