Robert Chenciner

ILPA documents

Samantha Knights QC pays tribute to Robert Chenciner, scholar, ethnographer and expert witness for cases from Russia, former Soviet states, Albania, and Mongolia.

Robert Chenciner

Robert Chenciner, who has died aged 76, was a prolific and much-loved expert witness for refugee and immigration cases, who, since 2001, wrote well over a thousand reports for tribunals and other courts in the UK, US, the Netherlands and elsewhere. He was one of the leading scholars and writers on ethnography and material culture in the Caucasus, Russia, Albania and Mongolia. He was a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College Oxford since 1987 and an Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dagestan Scientific Centre since 1990. He was listed on the UK EIN list of country experts, since its inception in 1995, and on the Dutch Refugee Council list since 2008.

Chenciner was an avid traveller in these regions: a gregarious and born raconteur with a profound sense of humour. He drew people to him wherever he went, as he travelled in search of textiles and folk art and for his scholarly research which formed the backbone of his meticulous expert reports with their detailed and extensive source material. His visits to Dagestan, Chechnya, North Ossetia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia stemmed from 1983. Then, as now, many parts of the north Caucasus were off limits to outsiders. His expertise represented a complex combination of skills gained over half a century. Once instructed, he was never forgotten.

In the last year alone, he wrote some 40 independent reports including asylum appeals on grounds of human rights abuses connected with racism, corruption, organised crime, politics, religion and the Russian-Chechen and other inter-ethnic conflicts. Applicants, including several of mixed ethnicity, came from Russia, Georgia, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Crimea, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Armenia and Central Asian countries. His final report was submitted a few weeks before his death.

Chenciner was a prodigious writer and authored and co-authored over 12 books including Dagestan: Tradition and Survival (1997), Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade (2011), Kaitag: Daghestani Silk Embroidery (2007), and Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoonboxes of Dagestan (2006). He finished the manuscript of a further book on Dagestan in the last months of his life, which will be published posthumously.

He lectured widely including at the Defence College Sandhurst, NATA and broadcasted programmes about the Chechen situation on the BBC World Service. He translated and analysed the Russian-Chechen peace agreements. He was familiar with the history, ethnography, religions, customary and tribal laws of these regions, as well as their refugee situation and economic conditions. His contacts were numerous and ranged from tribal chiefs, high level government contacts and academics the world over. His north Caucasus reports benefitted inter alia from discussions with his long standing co-author Dr Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov, senior researcher at the Daghestan Filial of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2005 he chaired a seminar at Exeter College Oxford with Akhmed Zakhaev, a Chechen leader and ex FSB/KGB agent Lt Col Aleksandr Litvinenko. These are just some examples of his wide networks and invitations to speak.

I met Chenciner by chance over two decades ago on a train in London returning from a Ukraine trip and long before I started practising in the area of refugee and immigration law. His foot prevented the last Heathrow Express of the day from leaving and we tumbled into the carriage and struck up conversation. My new acquaintance seemed to know a lot about the country, and indeed a lot about all sorts of things – particularly esoteric ones. He spoke seamlessly about Chernobyl, Cyrillic script, blinis and pelmeni. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship I had with him and his family which took us to Russia, Azerbaijan, but most often to respective houses in London.

By the time I met him, Chenciner was fully ensconced in his role as an expert witness which he seamlessly combined with his other academic work. He once opened the door to me announcing that he had written 53 Albanian blood feud cases. I had the great privilege later of working with him on one particularly memorable case involving two Ukrainian clients who had been trafficked into prostitution in the UK. My very experienced instructing solicitor was tearing her hair out over what she described as his impossibly convoluted written expert report. I read it and we managed to extract the relevant material (about 15 pages) from 40 pages of fascinating but collateral information. When Chenciner presented himself at the Bradford Tribunal as our expert, he charmed the judge with a perfect combination of encyclopaedic knowledge of Khakov criminal gangs, and amusing asides on the day’s cricket which he had been listening to on the train journey up whilst I pored over the papers. His expertise won the case.

On a trip to Azerbaijan in 2003, as election monitors for the OSCE, he introduced me to his lifelong friend, a tribal head chief, linguist, and fellow anthropologist from Dagestan – Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov (or Khan as he was known). Over many cups of tea, hours waiting for elections to take place, and much red wine, the two of them told tales of life in the Soviet Union and beyond. Various others came to pay their respects to him on the trip including the directors of the Museum of Baku. The elections were merely the backdrop to a trip with far greater focus for Chenciner. A few years later the Baku wooden spoon boxes formed an important part of the Pushkin House exhibition he curated with John Cornall.

If you ever dropped in to Chenciner’s London home, Lloyd Square, you would be invited into the kitchen and plied with all sorts of treats – delicious coffee, wonderful flat Turkish breads, local cheeses, honey from Armenia, and a glass of whatever was open. And then the conversation began and might end up high up a mountain in the Altai or in the foothills of Elbruz. Evenings spent with him, his beloved wife and daughters Marian, Louisa and Bella were the best kind – foods of all kinds, conversations that flowed, and filled with love. If he had taught the world just one thing it would have been passion for the obscure, but he ended up teaching the world a million more.

10 December 2021

Document Date
Tuesday December 21, 2021