Fonds 1778 - Harold Gordon Skilling fonds

Identity area

Reference code

UTA 1778


Harold Gordon Skilling fonds


  • 1828-2001 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

33.02 m of textual and graphic records, sound recordings, moving images and artifacts (193 boxes + oversized folders)

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

Harold Gordon Skilling (February 12, 1912 – March 2, 2001) was born in Toronto to Alice and William Skilling, and was the youngest of four boys.

In 1925, Skilling registered at Harbord Collegiate Institute where he excelled academically and became involved with several extracurricular activities, such as serving as president of the Literary Society, the associate editor of the Harbord Review, the battalion commander of the cadet corps, and playing basketball on the junior team. Skilling managed to graduate with twelve firsts in twelve subjects and was also awarded the Gundy-Doran scholarship in Canadian history, which helped to secure funding for future studies at the University of Toronto.

Skilling went on to study at University College at the University of Toronto. Here, too, he excelled academically and was first in his class in all years except his final year. He was likewise still involved with extracurricular activities, including the University College Literary and Athletic Society (of which he became president in his final year), associate editor of the Varsity, the Historical Club, pledged to the Psi Upsilon fraternity, and continued with studying the piano at the Toronto Conservatory of Music.

Skilling credits his time at the University of Toronto as bringing about significant changes in his way of thinking. He had begun to move away from the religious faith of his childhood and become increasingly supportive of socialism. A hitchhiking trip through North America during the summer of 1933 helped to crystallize his politics as he saw the effects of the Depression first hand. Returning to school in the fall of 1933, Skilling helped to organize and became the president of a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) club at the University of Toronto. As his interest in politics grew, he became increasingly interested in and committed to Marxism. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1934.

In the autumn of 1934, Skilling left for Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he studied at Christ Church College and focused on interdisciplinary studies of philosophy, politics, and economics, as well as modern history and international relations. Skilling took this as an opportunity to travel throughout England and Europe. During the summer of 1935, Skilling made his first visit to Central Europe and the Jugoslavia [Yugoslavia]. Beginning in Vienna, he took a boat along the Danube through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, and travelled further to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Croatia. This would be his first introduction to the complex ethnic, cultural, and political landscape of the region.

Back in England, Skilling was first introduced to Sally Bright on November 2, 1935. Bright was an accomplished scholar herself, and studied sociology and economics at Barnard College in New York City and was studying at the London School of Economics when she was introduced to Skilling. They were married in Prague on October 16, 1937.

Skilling received a Masters degree from Oxford in 1936, and soon after decided to focus his studies on Central and Eastern European studies with a primary interest in Czechoslovakia. He moved to London to pursue a doctorate under the guidance of R.W. Seton-Watson at the University of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Skilling focused on studying the Czech language and researching Czech history, and began work on his doctoral thesis in May, 1938. Skilling’s doctoral thesis was completed and approved in 1940. It was recommended for publication by the examiners, however, due to wartime pressure, this did not occur.

Increasing tensions throughout Europe—including the Spanish Civil War, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and increasing German aggression—strengthened Skilling’s commitment to socialism and convinced him to join the Communist party in 1937. He secured work at the Czechoslovak Broadcasting Corporation in May, 1938, which allowed him to witness firsthand the troubling events in Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. After further travels throughout Europe, Skilling and his wife returned to England only one month before war broke out.

In July 1940, Skilling and Sally returned to Canada, and Skilling took up an assistant position at the United College in Winnipeg, followed by a position as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1941, and, in 1947, a position at Dartmouth College, where he and his family remained for the next twelve years. Skilling began work in 1946 to revise his doctoral thesis and to extend it to include the period up to 1914 with the intention of eventually publishing the finished work. The new title for the revised thesis is “The Czech-German Conflict in Bohemia, 1867-1914.” Skilling worked on the revision up until at least the 1970s, when it was rejected for publication by the University of Toronto Press. Throughout these years, he also travelled regularly to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1958, he accepted a position of head of the Department of Political Science and Economics and a full professorship at the University of Toronto, and in 1962 became the Director of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES)—a position that he held until 1974. Through his involvement with CREES, Professor Skilling worked to develop exchange programs with the Soviet Union.

Skilling’s position at the University of Toronto allowed him ample time for travel and research. In 1961-62 while on sabbatical, Skilling moved his family to Vienna as he travelled through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Four years later, in 1966, he returned to the Soviet Union to discuss an exchange program. During the summer of 1967 Skilling visited Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland. He returned to Czechoslovakia in May 1968 to witness the Prague Spring and again in the autumn of the same year. In 1969 Skilling again visited Czechoslovakia as well as Yugoslavia in order to gain insight into Yugoslav attitudes toward the events in Prague in the previous year. He would return to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union several more times throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as well as travelling extensively throughout North America for conferences and to give lectures. Professor Skilling also became increasingly active in advocating for human rights in Eastern Europe during this time.

In 1981, Skilling stopped teaching and was awarded the rank of professor emeritus. Several other honours soon followed: in 1981, Skilling was awarded the Innis-Gérin medal from the Royal Society of Canada and was made a life member of the Canadian Association of Slavists (CAS) and of the Czechoslovak Society of Science and Art (SVU); in 1982, the University of Toronto awarded Skilling with an honorary LL.D; in 1985 he was awarded the Masaryk Award from the Czechoslovak Association of Canada; in 1987 the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies honoured Skilling for his distinguished contributions to Slavic studies (he had also been elected to the board in 1981); and in 1992, on Skilling’s 80th birthday, President Havel awarded him with the Order of the While Lion—the highest honour for non-citizens. Several other honours and awards followed, some of which are listed below in Series 3.

Professor Skilling passed away on March 2, 2001 at his home in Toronto at the age of 89.

Archival history

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Content and structure area

Scope and content

Personal records of Gordon Skilling, Professor of Political Science and a specialist in East European (especially Czechoslovak) studies. Fonds consists of 18 accessions:

B1983-0013: Records of conferences and meetings attended; drafts of and correspondence regarding articles written; correspondence relating to the writing of "Communism, National and International" and "Governments of Communist East Europe"; personal files (1961-1979) and correspondence (1974-1983); lecture notes as visiting professor, Columbia University, 1952 (9 boxes, 1952-1983).

B1984-0044: Lecture notes on international politics and international organization, University of Wisconsin and Dartmouth College (1941-1959); files for courses on Soviet politics at Dartmouth College and the University of Toronto; lecture notes for courses on Eastern Europe and comparative communism at the University of Toronto; lecture notes by Hazard at Columbia University (1949-1950). (20 boxes, 1941-1984).

B1985-0029: Addresses, radio scripts, correspondence, lecture notes; files on the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (1980-1981); files relating to the publication of "Interest Groups in Soviet Politics" (1971). (6 boxes, 1937-1982).

B1987-0064: Correspondence, articles, reports, and related material on East European studies at the University of Toronto and elsewhere, including a study of the U.S. Helsinki Watch project prepared by the Ford Foundation (4 boxes, 1977-1986)

B1987-0083: Addresses; correspondence with students, 1970-1986, and on the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto, 1980; course outlines in political science, 1960-1980 (2 boxes, 1958-1986).

B1988-0007: Records documenting Skilling's expertise relating to East European studies with particular emphasis on Czechoslovakia and his role in the the Centre for Russian and East European Studies. Contains addresses and speeches; manuscripts and publications including related correspondence and reviews (books included are "Czechoslovakia's Interruped Revolution", "Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia", and "The Czech Renaissance in the Nineteenth Century"); lecture notes; subject files, mainly of associations; sound recording, video and photographs; University of Toronto administrative files including the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, the Department of Polical Economy, Committee on International Studies as well as the Centre for International Studies (3 boxes, 1945-1986)

B1989-0030: Addresses, articles, correspondence, minutes of meetings and financial files documenting Gordon Skilling's activities as a specialist in East European studies, with particular emphasis on Czechoslovakia (4 boxes, 1965-1989).

B1989-0045: Bibliography on communism in Czechoslovakia and the history of the Czech Communist Party, 1918-1958; files pertaining to Gordon Skilling's publications, "Charter 77 Documents", "Socialist Opposition in Czechoslovakia" (proposed), and "Samidzat and Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe" (1988), including correspondence with Jan Kavan (5 boxes, ca. 1958-1988).

B1991-0037: Manuscripts, correspondence, addresses, lectures, conference files, subject files, greeting cards and index cards documenting Gordon Skilling's teaching and research interests in East European affairs, with particular reference to events in Czechoslovakia (6 boxes, 1949-1991).

B1993-0028: Diaries, notebooks, personal and research correspondence, manuscripts, articles, press clippings and photoprints relating to Dr. Skillings trips to Eastern Europe, his personal life and his research and writings. Included is research material for: "Samizdat and Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe" (20 boxes, 1934-1988).

B1994-0011: Correspondence, addresses, lecture notes, minutes of meetings, memoranda, reports, manuscripts, publications, notes and press clippings documenting Professor Skilling's interest in Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia, and his association with the Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Royal Society of Canada. Also includes consultant files, foreign language clippings and collected papers on Czechoslovak history and politics (7 boxes, 1927-1993).

B1999-0017: Personal records of Gordon Skilling, relating primarily to the Czech Republic, including professional and private correspondence with colleagues and friends, including Vilem Precan (1969-1996); drafts of his "Memoirs of a Canadian" and articles, with covering correspondence; addresses; conference papers, photographs (13 boxes, 1969-1997).

B2000-0027: Personal records of H.G. Skilling, relating primarily to his interest in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. Includes early correspondence with his wife Sally, correspondence with friends and associates in Czechoslovakia, grant applications, itineraries, subject files relating to human rights groups, publishers and the medal that he received from the Royal Society. The records also include a printout of Skilling's autobiography entitled "The Education of a Canadian: My Life as a Scholar and Activist" (5 boxes, 1936-1999).

B2001-0017: Records documenting the history of the family of Harold Gordon Skilling, including his wife, Sara (Sally) and his own life and career. Sous-fonds I: Skilling family. Documents Gordon's father, William Watt, his uncle, Ernest (a Shriner), and his brothers Donald and William, who fought in World War I (Donald was killed in action). Sous-fonds II: Sara (Sally) Bright Skilling. Her education in the United States, her travels with Gordon in eastern Europe in the 1960s and her skill in entertaining. Sous-fonds III: Harold Gordon Skilling. Focuses on his research and writing of books on T. G. Masaryk and Alice Masaryk, on his travels, especially in Eastern Europe, and on the seminars he held in his residence during the last years of his life. These records consist primarily of correpondence (personal and professional, including with Vilem Precan (1993-2000) and Vaclav Havel), diaries, drafts of books and articles, reviews, addresses, index cards, scrap books, and photo albums (64 boxes, 1828-2001).

B2002-0020: Bibliographic references and research notes on index cards, with some accompanying notes, compiled by Professor Gordon Skilling for his book, 'Czecholslovakia's Interrupted Revolution', along with three boxes of other notes and references relating to Samizdat and dissent, Charter '77, Czechoslovak history and Czech-German relations (14 boxes, n.d. - ca. 1985)

B2002-0024: Personal records of H. Gordon Skilling, consisting of: Masaryk medal awarded by the Czechoslovak Association of Canada, 1985; certificate, case and medallion relating to honorary degree awarded by Charles University, Prague, 1990; Komensky medal awarded by Komensky University, Bratislava, 1990; certificate and medal for the Order of the White Lion, Third Class, Czechoslovakia's highest honour for non-citizens, awarded by President Vaclav Havel on Professor Skilling's 80th birthday, 28 February 1992 (3 boxes and 1 folder, 1985-1992).

B2009-0032: Correspondence, research notes, manuscripts etc. of Prof. Gordon Skillling relating to his career as professor of political science. Includes files for Josef Pekar, Czech politics, etc. (1 box, 1985-1987).

B2012-0005: Further personal records of Gordon Skilling, Professor of Political Science and a specialist in East European (especially Czechoslovak) studies, consisting of research notes for and drafts of his doctoral thesis, 'The German-Czech national conflict in Bohemia, 1779-1873', with subsequent revisions; correspondence with scholars in East European studies, publishers, and editors. Also address books, 88th birthday greetings, slides and photographs, and medals. (12 boxes and medals, 1917-1997).

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  • Czech
  • English

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