Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History

2017 Citation Recipient

Aileen Kelly

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: Aileen Kelly
Title: The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen (Harvard University Press)

Aileen M. Kelly’s pathbreaking book stuns readers with a new answer to an old question: who was Alexander Herzen? Other historians have provided in influential assessments of Herzen and his contribution to Russian intellectual life. While taking that scholarship seriously, Kelly provides a deeper and richer portrait of one of Russia’s leading thinkers and philosophers, and one that encompasses the entire span of Herzen’s life. In this exhaustively researched and beautifully written study, Kelly obliges us to jettison the conventional ways in which we have understood his thought and integrated its development into our narratives of nineteenth-century Russian history. Instead of the Herzen who, in dialogue with Western European systems of thought, devised a peasant socialism based on a utopian vision and historical teleology, Kelly reveals a thinker whose knowledge of scientific method, proto-Darwinian, and Darwinian ideas of evolution caused him to understand history as the contingent unfolding of chance events. The result is a Herzen who, in an intellectual age of systems-building on the right and the left, above all championed a method of thinking grounded in reality, and, furthermore, free will. Herzen was an opponent, rather than a creative assimilator, of intellectual systems of any kind. Kelly has produced this authoritative recasting of Herzen by placing her mastery of Russian and European intellectual history in the service of a narrative that emphasizes, in stunning parallel to her subject’s intellectual stance, the “concatenation of contingencies” in which Herzen made the philosophical, historical, and political choices that he did. A model of erudition and iconoclasm, the book is also written in elegant prose supremely accessible to readers who are not specialists in the field. The result is a study that will allow Herzen’s intellectual dilemmas, and decisions, to have the contemporary resonance that they deserve.

Honorable Mention: Mark Bassin
Title: The Gumilev Mystique: Biopolitics, Eurasianism, and the Construction of Community in Modern Russia (Cornell University Press)

Mark Bassin has written a deeply researched and erudite study of the thought of Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev (1912-1992), known to most of us as the son of Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. Lev Nikolaevich was not only an important thinker in his own right, but, in his creative synthesis of a specific genre of Eurasianist ideas, the generator of an intellectual system whose components have great resonance in post-Soviet Russia, including with Vladimir Putin. Bassin excavates Gumilev’s “Eurasianist” ideas in a narrative that elaborates with great skill on their origins, development, and reception, taking us from the Silver Age to the post-Soviet present. His painstaking research has unearthed the personal networks that allowed Gumilev to re-enter Soviet academic life after his return from the camps, and that also caused his ideas to be disseminated as broadly as they were during the Soviet period. To read this book is to possess a greater understanding of how certain Eurasianist ideas were poised, by the end of the Soviet period, to have the post-Soviet influence that they have had. The prodigious effort that Bassin brought to the book—so evident on every page—is all the more impressive given that their one meeting in 1980 did not, from the author’s perspective, go well. It also required supreme intellectual dedication to write an authoritative study of a thinker known as an anti-Semite and disdainful of empirical rigor.