Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History

2023 Citation Recipient

Alexander Martin

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: Alexander Martin, University of Notre Dame
Title: From the Holy Roman Empire to the Land of the Tsars: One Family’s Odyssey, 1768-1870 (Oxford University Press)

In this original and gripping book, Alexander Martin tells the fascinating story of Johannes Rosenstrauch, a German merchant in Russia who witnessed Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow, and the world in which he lived and traveled. The product of deep detective work in archives of Russia, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, Martin’s use of sources and other historical works is masterful. The inner life of Rosenstrauch that Martin reconstructs is that of a barber and actor in the Holy Roman Empire frustrated by the restrictions of the early modern social system. Influenced by the liberating ideas of the Enlightenment, he seized the opportunity to remake himself in Russia. He helped the tsarist state rebuild after the Napoleonic War, became a prominent merchant in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and spent his final years as a religious figure in Odessa. The book also paints a rich tapestry of the world in which Rosenstrauch lived and shows how he experienced and helped to shape the defining movements of 18th and 19th century Europe—empire, mobility, rising capitalism, revolution and conservatism, and individualism. Martin’s brilliant microhistory also reminds us how the histories of Russia and Central and Western Europe have for centuries been interconnected for so many individuals.

Honorable Mention: Andy Bruno, Northern Illinois University
Title: Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy (Cambridge University Press)

This beautifully written and generously illustrated book explores the manifold repercussions—local, national, and international—of a major meteorite crash in a remote Siberian forest. Bruno addresses the event as a kind of mystery, open to a wide range of interpretations that reflected the worldviews of those who witnessed or contemplated it. His subjects include the Evenki, local indigenous people who observed the event, and Leonid Kulik, a scientist whose quest to understand it brought the event to the attention not only of scientists but also the tabloid press, which transformed it into a matter of widespread fascination. There followed a range of popularizers, scientific experts, fiction writers, filmmakers, and, from the late fifties onwards, youthful volunteers who undertook expeditions to the site, and, finally, foreign scientists who took advantage of the new openness of Perestroika. Examining the interactions of humans with the natural world over the course of roughly a century, Bruno masterfully weaves together scientific and environmental with Russian and Soviet social, cultural, even gender history and then, in a timely concluding chapter, contemplates the implications for our own human future.

Honorable Mention: Marina Mogilner, University of Illinois at Chicago
Title: A Race for the Future: Scientific Visions of Modern Russian Jewishness (Harvard University Press)

A brilliant book in a series of brilliant books on race in Russia, Mogilner’s deeply researched study of the views of Jewish anthropologists in the late tsarist empire explores the paradoxical case of Jewish intellectuals buying into and propagating racial theories that bolstered their distinctiveness. At the turn of the twentieth century, in an empire where nationality and nationalism were gaining salience, Russian Jews turned to biology, rather than culture, to ground their claim to distinct nationhood. Mogilner’s work makes a strong case for racial, even racist, thinking in late imperial Russia, reversing older views that such approaches were either absent or marginal. The book demonstrates that Russian ethnographers and public intellectuals moved in the opposite direction from their colleagues in the United States, whose research was undermining the racial assumptions of the times. Mogilner extends her study across the revolutionary divide into the Soviet period and shows the persistence of the racial paradigm through the 1920s, with Soviets adopting the eugenic approaches popular in the West until they switched directions in the following decade when racism was identified with fascism. Her work demonstrates how a search for a viable future in the chaos of modernity might employ science and lead to unanticipated dead ends.