He was born to a Jewish family in Petrograd – as it was then called – on 24 November 1915. His father, Jacob Novakovsky, had been briefly a deputy minister in the Provisional Government of 1917, and he had thought it prudent, in view of his Menshevik background, to leave Russia. In 1923, he brought his family to London where Alec was brought up. He attended King Alfred School and then went on to the London School of Economics where he graduated in 1936. During the war he served in the Royal Signals, and only just escaped capture in 1940 by leaving on one of the last ships from Bordeaux. Subsequently, as he was bi-lingual in English and Russian, he was transferred to Intelligence and ended the war as a major. From 1948 to 1958, he was a civil servant in the Board of Trade where he was concerned with the dismantling of some of the controls left over from the planned wartime economy – useful experience in view of his later interests. During this period he was borrowed for a time by the Foreign Office and sent to Moscow as Temporary First Secretary in 1956. He also spent a short time in Glasgow at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies which had been founded by (Sir) Alec Cairncross, Hon FRSE. In 1958 he returned to academic life as a Reader at LSE.