Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History

2015 Citation Recipient

Agnès Nilufer Kefeli

The Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History, established in 2009 and sponsored by the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is awarded annually for an outstanding monograph published on Russia, Eastern Europe, or Eurasia in the field of history in the previous calendar year.

Winner: Agnès Nilufer Kefeli
Title: Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy (Cornell University Press)

Agnès Kefeli poses the fascinating question of how communities, of originally animist belief, migrated back and forth between Islam and Orthodox Christianity over several generations, and how the two religions “struggled” over these people, with and without assistance of state authorities. The account is multi-layered, based in deep and knowledgeable reading, but the exposition always lucid. Kefeli does not reduce. The key elements in play are: ethnic or proto-ethnic identity (very local but also a growing regional one), the operations of missionaries, the acts of high state officials (Catherine the Great in particular), and then, in unpredictable but intellectually intriguing development, faith based in knowledge, and knowledge requiring but also advancing literacy. The symbiotic character of that last relation is especially interesting.

As the story develops the various characters themselves adapt. Apostatizing villagers “use” literacy to study and sometimes misrepresent instruments of the state that might serve them; unofficial Islamic missionaries make their teaching coincide with valued aspects of local identity; and Orthodox counterparts become more serious about their own faith and how to transmit its messages in order to compete. Among Kefeli’s intriguing discoveries is the critical role of Muslim women in preserving and spreading the message of Islam in Tatar communities.

Kefeli maintains a sense of complexity while also projecting some basic messages about the central question of “apostasy”, and makes the success of Islam understandable, while not permitting readers to accept any of many simplifications that may be in currency about that faith. The author knows her theology and history quite intimately, and her subject is both manageable and expansive.

Honorable Mention: Willard Sunderland
Title: The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Cornell University Press)

In this beautifully written and masterfully conceived book, Willard Sunderland has wrought a remarkable reconstruction of the imperial lives of Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (1885-1921), a Baltic German military officer who sought to restore the Romanov and Qing Empires. Sunderland recasts the so-called “mad Baron” as a representative type in the Russian Empire’s last decades, an “imperial cosmopolitan” whose political logic derived considerably from his geographic odyssey from Graz, Austria, to the Baltic Provinces, St. Petersburg, Manchuria, the Far East, Prussia, Mongolia, Siberia, and elsewhere. To read the book is to understand the insufficiently appreciated, yet destructively consequential, role that such imperial cosmopolitans played in the violent unravelling of the Russian empire’s political structures—and, in turn, how that process shaped, and was shaped by, the other empires on which the Romanov empire bordered.