Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History

2018 Citation Recipient


Lynne Viola

The 2018 Reginald Zelnik Book Prize in History was awarded to Lynne Viola for Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine (Oxford University Press)

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine by Lynne Viola is an outstanding piece of historical scholarship. The book focuses on the secret trials of NKVD officers who carried out the purges in Ukraine in the late 1930s. What makes this such a surreal story is that the NKVD officers on trial were the very same officials who extracted false confessions from their victims and now found the very same tactics used against them. All of the men on trial were charged with violating socialist legality, and Viola does a masterful job of explaining why this charge was used against these men at this point in time and how they tried to defend themselves. Using the NKVD files from these trials, she is able to reconstruct in detail what went on in the NKVD prisons as the perpetrators themselves became the targets of state violence. Her narrative is all that more compelling because she allows the NKVD officers to speak for themselves, revealing the horror of what went on during those interrogations and the venality of the men and women involved.

Demonstrating her prodigious skills as an historian, she sifts through the often contradictory evidence to provide an astonishingly detailed picture of the inner workings of the secret police. Viola’s thoughtful analysis of the purge of NKVD provides important insights not only into the history of the Great Terror and the Soviet Union, but also into the global history of state violence.

Honorable Mention: Alexis Peri

Title: The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad (Harvard University Press)

Alexis Peri offers a fresh and poignant examination of one of the most eulogized and mythologized episodes of Soviet history: the Leningrad Siege of 1941-3. Peri has unearthed a remarkable body of sources—diaries of 125 Leningraders trapped in the city and coming to terms with the intense challenges of daily life. Peri’s analysis combines the deft touch of an excellent scholar with the empathy of a faraway observer who can hardly imagine the tragedies experienced in the USSR’s second city. Amid horror, and all-too-rare periods of calm, relief or even happiness, diary writers constructed selves that were “unstable, fragmented, and often unknown, even to them.” Peri sees confusion and chaos but also a degree of personal control among these authors, whose loyalty to friends, family and country did not necessarily equate to acquiescence or approval of Communist rule. We see how the effects of immense physical and psychological damage at once test the human spirit to its limits and allow the simple written word to become a personal triumph and a testament to history.