University of Washington professor Herbert Ellison, who specialized in Soviet history and politics, died Oct. 9 at age 83.

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During the height of the Cold War, University of Washington professor Herbert Ellison was the man people turned to for help deciphering what was happening behind the Iron Curtain.

Professor Ellison, described by his colleagues as one of the world’s leading figures in Soviet and post-Soviet studies, died Oct. 9 after a long illness. He was 83.

“Herb was really a scholar for our time, because all through his career, the Cold War was the dominant thing in international affairs,” said Kenneth Pyle, the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and International Studies at the UW. “He made a huge contribution to our understanding of the historic forces that shaped Soviet-American relations.”

Pyle said Professor Ellison was also “a prime reason for the university’s world prominence in international studies.”

Professor Ellison had a gift for using anecdotes to illustrate ideas, making them easy for his students to grasp, Pyle said, and his undergraduate courses on the history of communism and Soviet and Russian history were popular.

He was also generous with his time, both with his students and colleagues, said Resat Kasaba, director of the Jackson School of International Studies. “He always gave the sense that he had all the time in the world,” and was so popular that there was often a long line of students waiting to talk to him during office hours, Kasaba said.

Professor Ellison became intrigued by Russian studies when he took a class in Russian history as an undergraduate at the UW, said his wife, Alberta Ellison: “The Russians were even more interesting in those days than they are now,” she said. He also discovered he was good with languages, and became fluent in Russian, she said.

Professor Ellison wrote his doctoral dissertation while on a Fulbright fellowship at the University of London, and eventually returned to the UW in 1968 and taught for 34 years, retiring in 2002.

He served as director of the Jackson School for five years, and also held leadership positions in many national organizations, including two years as director of the Kennan Institute for advanced Russian studies in Washington, D.C.

Professor Ellison traveled to the Soviet Union and around the world frequently and helped open language programs in Russia during the Cold War so students could go there and learn the language firsthand, Pyle said.

He was also the executive producer and chief consultant for the PBS/BBC television series “Messengers from Moscow,” on the history of the Cold War; and the PBS documentary “Yeltsin,” which was nominated for an Emmy award.

“He was a historian, but he had a keen sense of history’s relation to contemporary politics,” Pyle said.

In addition to his wife Alberta, of Bellevue, he is survived by his daughter Valery Cochran and her husband Keith Cochran of Mercer Island; his daughter Pamela Ellison and her husband Jeff Hoyt of Bellevue; and four grandchildren.

There will be a memorial service Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.