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Serge N. Leliavsky (1891-1963)
1963 An Appreciation by Herbert Addison.
"THOSE of us who had known Dr. Leliavsky for many years were grateful for the admirable obituary you published on August 9 last. It was so comprehensive and full of understanding that it seemed to leave little more to be said. But, perhaps, I may offer a word or two on some of the questions you pose. Why did this tri-lingual writer choose to publish his works in the English language? Certainly he made rapid progress in the use of the language. When I first saw him in 1924 a memorable meeting in the little provincial town of Medinet el Fayum, south of Cairo he had only been in Egypt for three or four years, yet already he was on the staff of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, where the English language was commonly used at that time. In 1926, on the academic staff of the Royal School of Engineering, he was called upon to lecture in English.
But probably what chiefly impressed him were the majestic civil engineering projects going forward in the Nile Valley then and in succeeding years: the Sennar Dam and the Gezira irrigation scheme, the second heightening of the Aswan Low Dam, the construction of the Nag Hammadi barrage, the Gebel Awlia Dam, the Mohammed Ali barrages.... Besides working himself on some of these schemes, he would frequently meet the British engineers who were co-operating with Egyptian and European engineers in bringing the projects in orderly 'progression to fruition.
It was doubtless under this inspiration that there arose in his mind the vision of writing a monumental technical treatise which would embody all that he had learned in Russia and in Egypt. At any rate by 1932 he was already in touch with publishers in London and had committed himself to writing such a book. It was these publishers who, for thirty years afterwards, had to display those qualities of patience and forbearance to which you refer: qualities that a genius demands of all who minister to his needs. Since the unpredictable author was allowed to let his plan mature at his own rate, it was only in 1952 that copy began to arrive in London, and then still further tribulations beset the publishers. Alterations followed upon alterations: vast quantities of illustrations had to be arranged; while any suggestions for improvements or simplifications aroused the author's fierce resistance. But in the end, everyone triumphed: the three flawlessly-produced volumes of Irrigation and Hydraulic Design represented a magnum opus indeed.
As for Leliavsky's distmcttve style, which your obituary rightly mentions, I had myself the best opportunities of savouring it. Although often his expositions would sweep to literary and historic heights rarely to be found in technical works, yet there were occasional turns of phrase that might jar on readers accustomed only to more pedestrian language. So would I, the publishers enquired, do a little unobtrustve editing? While very willingly doing so, I found that I could help by breaking down some of the author's immensely long and convoluted sentences into shorter ones sentences, shall we say, that I could understand myself. When talking about these emendations later on with Leliavsky at his home near Cairo - very much the home of a cultivated European - he did not protest, except to say "But you see, I think in long sentences".
It was probably a disappointment to Leliavsky that he never secured British citizenship, as he certainly hoped to do. But having previously been granted Egyptian nationality, doubtless the problems of further change were insuperable. On the other hand his doctorate was an Egyptian one: so whatever opinionated opposition his Egyptian colleagues had had to endure in earlier days, by the time they had been absorbed into Cairo University they were very willing to recognise Leliavsky's genius.
Genius? The Russian scientific genius? Did he share it with Boris Bakhmeteff who went to the United States, and Gregory Tschebotarieff who followed him there via the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo, and other Russian emigre engineers? But there was immense industry also: Leliavsky used to tell me how, even in Imperial Russia, the engineering training was much more rigorous than it was in Great Britain. Are these, then, the sort of questions that could profitably be studied in the liberal studies departments of our own colleges of technology?"
"WE have to record with very deep regret the death in Egypt of Dr. Serge N. Leliavsky on July 24.
Dr. Leliavsky was the son of a distinguished Russian hydraulic engineer Nicholas de Leliavsky. He was educated at the Institute of Emperor Alexander I (St. Petersburg). After practical training he became head of the Hydraulic Section of the Lock and Dam Construction Works on the Dnieper Falls. During the Great War of 1914-18 he was responsible, on one occasion, for dislodging a section of the Austrian front in Poland by damning back a river and drowning a whole valley. He left Russia after the Revolution and in 1920 went to Egypt where he began work as a draughtsman. He was so obviously capable that he did not remain a draughtsman for long. Soon he became head of the bridge department, Egyptian State Railways; chief of the design office in the irrigation projects department, Ministry of Public Works; part-time professor of irrigation design, Royal School of Engineering, Giza; and finally, director, design service, reservoirs and Nile barrage department, Ministry of Public Works; he retired from the Egyptian Government service in 1951, and subsequently practised as a consultant.
In addition to his practice, his teaching and research, Dr. Leliavsky found time to do a good deal of writing. He wrote for this journal and for Water Power and made contributions to the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Institution of Civil Engineers of which he was elected a member in 1945, awarded him the Crampton Prize in 1938, and "the Telford Premium in 1948. The American Society of Civil Engineers, of which he was a member, honoured him in 1956 by the award of the Stevens' Premium for that year's outstanding contribution to discussions in its proceedings. He also wrote a number of books some chapters of which were previously published in this journal. They included the three volume Irrigation and Hydraulic Design published by Chapman and Hall Ltd. and Introduction to Fluvial Hydraulics and Uplift in Gravity Dams published by Constable and Co. Ltd.
Dr. Leliavsky first made contact with this journal very soon after the war when an article he submitted was eagerly accepted. He was at that time entitled to call himself Leliavsky Bey. But such dignities were subsequently abolished by the Egyptian Government. Since then we have published a number of articles all of very high merit from his pen. Nearly all related to some aspect of dam design or the flow of water. At first we had some part to play ourselves because his English was somewhat faulty and the expressions he used were sometimes ambiguous and often peculiar. But far from resenting it when his copy was edited he was delighted; and we like to think that it was a consequence of our tutelage that he made very rapid progress in gaining a more complete command of the language. Over the last few years hardly a word has had to be altered. For the small peculiarities which remained and which revealed that he was writing in a tongue other than that native to him gave a liveliness and a special character to his style. He also wrote and spoke Russian fluently it was his native tongue and also French. As a speaker or lecturer in any of the three languages he was outstandingly lucid. He had the remarkable characteristic of being able to render simple and easy to understand subjects which had formerly seemed complex and difficult He could even present mathematics in a manner that made it easy to understand! He had, too, a flair for conveying in print his own enthusiasms.
Dr. Leliavsky had a strong personality and he could be and at times was very outspoken. But we gained the impression that his life had been no easy one, and that he may have had at times to control impulses to speak out critically because the political repercussions would have affected his technical career or that of others he was after all for many years a civil servant. In consequence he was sometimes inclined to suspect that those who opposed his technical views did so for unworthy reasons. Such a man necessarily often made life difficult for his friends. But then it was so very worth while retaining his friendship! For his interests extended far beyond the technical. He had, for example, a remarkable knowledge of European history and delighted to discuss it. He could talk entertainingly on the arts as well as the sciences; he confessed once on arriving at this office that he had spent every evening of the previous week in Paris at the theatre!
His admiration for the English was always high. We once had the privilege of rendering it higher. At the time of the Suez affair Dr. Leliavsky was in this country. He came to us to express his fear of internment; we were soon able to relieve his mind on that score! He then expressed his alarm about money; for the Government had frozen Egyptian funds. On that point, no doubt in company with many others on behalf of other Egyptian citizens in this country, we were able to approach the Government through a Member of Parliament. The very next day the financial regulations were eased. Leliavsky thereafter could never be wholly convinced that the thing had not been done entirely by us and wholly on his behalf!
There is a touching thing about his death. He was very much attached to his wife. No doubt her sudden death from heart failure five days before his own brought on the cerebral haemorrhage that ended his own life. By his death the world has lost not only a fine engineer but also a man of character. Dr. Leliavsky was undoubtedly a man not easy to get on with; but the difficulty only added, amongst those in whom he placed his confidence, to the pleasure and profit that could be drawn from his friendship and his company."
1963 Obituary