UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Professor Michael Arthur Branch, CMG, 1940-2019

29 August 2019

Professor Michael Branch

The School is sad to announce the death on 17th June 2019 of Michael Branch, Director of SSEES from 1980 to 2001 and Professor of Finnish.

Michael’s association with the School lasted for more than 40 years, from his arrival as an undergraduate in 1959 to his retirement in 2001 after he had secured the School’s new place in UCL. His academic achievements as a scholar of Finnish were matched by his many achievements as Director, during which he steered the School successfully through a period of remarkable change both institutionally and in its region of study. Professor Michael Worton, Vice Provost of UCL at the time of the School’s entry to UCL, said of him:

“One of the things of which I am proudest in my years as Vice-Provost is the merger between UCL and SSEES that Michael Branch and I negotiated in the late 1990s. It was a joy and a privilege to negotiate with Michael, who had a clear vision of what he felt SSEES could – and should – become, and who, crucially, was at one and the same time a committed and highly articulate champion of SSEES and a lucid analyst of how it urgently needed to change. In all our complex negotiations, Michael was a model of integrity, whose word could, I knew, always be trusted and who would always deliver on what he promised.

Significantly, SSEES kept every one of the promises that it made to UCL and UCL kept every one of the promises that it made to SSEES. The result was that SSEES has gone from strength to strength on every front since 1999 and UCL has benefited massively from SSEES’s membership which has transformed UCL as a global university. UCL owes a huge debt to Michael Branch and his far-sighted vision, his academic ambition and integrity and his consummate professionalism.”

A gifted linguist at school, Michael had been expected to study Modern Languages at Oxford. A summer visit to Finland in 1958 sparked his interest in Finno-Ugrian languages, and he chose instead to study at SSEES, registering in 1959 for a BA in Hungarian Language and Literature with Swedish as a subsidiary. He followed this with a PhD in 1967 entitled The development of A.J. Sjögren as a scholar and the role he played in developing Finnish studies as an academic subject. An appointment as assistant lecturer and then lecturer in Hungarian and Finno-Ugrian Studies followed. In 1972 he relinquished that post to accept a newly created lectureship in Finnish Language and Literature. Five years later he was promoted to Reader, becoming Professor of Finnish in 1980. Also in that year, Michael was appointed as Director of SSEES, a role he held alongside his academic duties until he retired in 2001.

As a visionary and enthusiastic teacher, Michael is credited with establishing the Finnish degrees at SSEES, building them from virtually nothing. His dedication and considerable achievements won him the respect of Finnish university authorities who, in consultation with him, established and strengthened academic ties with English universities. The Finnish government also took advice from Michael on their overseas cultural policy and, from 1971 he was able to secure from the Finnish Ministry of Education the secondment to SSEES of a Finnish lector paid for by the Finnish authorities.

Michael’s published work is held in equal high standing. Based on research begun for his PhD, he is credited with having written the definitive monograph on Sjögren (1973). He edited and authored several publications on the Kalevala and verse folklore. The Finnish Folk Poetry Epic (1977), completed through collaboration with, Matti Kuusi and Keith Bosley, is an extensive work on the original notes on Kalevala-metre narrative poetry published in both Finnish and English. The Great Bear (1993) is a verse folklore anthology edited by Michael with Lauri Honko and Senni Timonen. It provides a broad thematic cross-section of the oral poetry of the Finno-Ugric peoples. In addition, Michael wrote numerous articles on the languages and cultures of the Finno-Ugric peoples.

As Director of SSEES, Michael worked tirelessly to build up the strengths of the School and continuously assert its importance as the leading source of expertise on Russia and Eastern Europe. After the fall of communism, Michael recognised the importance of forging and maintaining strong academic and governmental links with each country of the former Communist bloc. His determination and diplomacy resulted in a number of formal agreements which brought numerous scholars from the region to the School on teaching and research fellowships, greatly to their benefit and that of the School. Among highlights of his period as Director were visits by President Lennart Meri of Estonia and Vaclav Havel, the newly elected President of Czechoslovakia.

Michael’s many achievements are attested by a long list of memberships, awards and honours. He was elected member of the Finno-Ugrian Society Helsinki (1973), Finnish Literature Society Helsinki (1974), and Portham Society Turku (1975). He received the Centenary Medal of the Finnish Literature Society (1977) and the third Kalevala Society Award (2008); was appointed a Commander of the Finnish Order of the Lion (1980), the Polish Order of Merit (1992), the Estonian Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana (2000) and Officer of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas (2002).   He held an honorary degree from the University of Oulu (1983) and was elected a Fellow of UCL. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2000 Michael was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.

Michael’s well deserved retirement was marred by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He died peacefully after a long illness, leaving three daughters: Jane, Ann and Jean and 8 grandchildren. His wife of 43 years, Ritva-Riitta Hannele, predeceased him in 2016.