Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History

2020 Citation Recipient


Brendan McGeever

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: Kate Brown

Title: Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (W.W. Norton & Co.)

In this meticulously researched and passionately argued study, Kate Brown explores the longterm medical and environmental effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She weaves tales of ordinary people who struggled to mitigate the effects of government inaction with revelations about an intransigent Soviet bureaucracy too frightened to take risks during Gorbachev’s rise to power and his still fragile experiment with glasnost. But Manual for Survival is no simple screed against the Soviet state’s tendency toward self-preservation. Rather, Brown exposes a multi-layered international cover-up led by scientists, physicians, and politicians unable to look past their mental models about the efficacy of nuclear power to fully comprehend the disaster unfolding before them or who sought to protect their own horrific records of nuclear testing and its impact on their own populations. Kate Brown taps her extensive network of professional contacts and deploys her intrepid sleuthing skills to access unexamined documents and tell a story whose implications extend well past the explosion of a single reactor and into questions about our global preparation for future nuclear debacles.

Winner: Brendan McGeever

Title: Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution (Cambridge University Press)

Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution is a strikingly original and deeply researched study that speaks to pressing issues of political identity past and present. Set during the Civil War, a period of large-scale pogroms against the Russian Jewish population, the book traces the shift in Bolshevik policy from neglect of anti-Semitism to active and effective opposition. McGeever deftly explores the Party’s dilemma about how to build support among peasants and workers who frequently conflated brutal anti-Jewish violence with class struggle. He analyzes not only the well-known anti-Semitic violence of the White army but the smaller, less familiar “Red pogroms,” showing that the Soviet response to anti-Semitism was not the result of its internationalist or universalizing ideals, but rather pressure applied by young, non-Bolshevik Jewish socialists, or “racialized outsiders,” who joined the new socialist government. McGeever brings to bear on Russian history a global literature on colonialism, racial violence, and racism to demonstrate how social movements and states respond to demands for justice made by oppressed minorities. He has produced a brilliant, timely, politically astute book that offers many lessons to broad transnational social movements today.

Honorable Mention: Isolde Thyrêt

Title: Saint-Making in Early Modern Russia: Religious Tradition and Innovation in the Cult of Nil Stolobenskii (New Academia)

In Saint-Making in Early Modern Russia, Isolde Thyrêt combines dogged and thorough research with broad cultural contexts to create a compelling and innovative account of the process of sanctification in early modern Russia. By focusing on the cult of a single saint, Nil Stolobenskii of the Lake Seliger region, Thyrêt examines the mechanisms by which saints’ cults were forged from the local level, facilitated by “impresarios,” and wending their way up to national sanctification. This is an original exploration of the very different mechanisms of saint-making from the extremely hierarchical and codified processes in the Catholic Church. The study successfully combines textual analysis with liturgy and art history, and unites serious scholarship with clear and engaging writing. Thyrêt’s book is a major contribution to a new and vibrant picture of early modern Russian religious culture.