W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize

2021 Recipient

Pey-yi Chu

The Life of Permafrost: A History of Frozen Earth in Russian and Soviet Science

The W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize, established in 2004 and sponsored by Mary Lincoln, is awarded annually for an author’s first published monograph or scholarly synthesis that is of exceptional merit and lasting significance for the understanding of Russia’s past, published in the previous year.

Co-Winner: Pey-yi Chu
Title: The Life of Permafrost: A History of Frozen Earth in Russian and Soviet Science (University of Toronto Press).

In The Life of Permafrost, Pey-yi Chu constructs a dialectical metaphor of life stages to narrate the history of permafrost. This book expertly and clearly explicates a deep and sustained tension in whether permafrost is best defined as a physical substance/structure or as part of a systems approach (something that occurs in a zone in which particular conditions are met). Chu skillfully traces the scientific, personal, institutional, and political conflicts that shaped the scientific controversy over permafrost from its first scientific, albeit ambiguous, description in an 1843 treatise by Karl Ernst von Baer, to the decision, by Soviet and American scientists engaged in international cooperation during the 1950s, to avoid unresolved scientific questions and continue to refer to this phenomenon as vechnaia merzlota or permafrost, despite the weaknesses of this term (it is neither frost nor permanent). Ultimately, Chu’s analysis shows that the sustained controversies were not merely a historical consequence of Baer’s nomenclature, nor merely a question of semantics, nor contingencies of politics, personalities, or ideological dictates, although all of the above contributed to the unresolved problems in the scientific discourse. The Life of Permafrost presents a model for how historians can connect historical research to relevant contemporary issues. Analyzing permafrost turns out to depend on a range of critical yet typically tacit assumptions on matters such as “what one understands the purpose of science to be’ and ‘how one regards the human life span as a reference point in the naming of Nature’s phenomena.” Further, this creative history evokes reflection about nuance. Even academics, prone to fetishize nuance, recognize that to teach and to communicate always requires some element of simplification and essentialization. The troubled history of permafrost gives pause without offering up pat answers to the question of what amount of nuance is appropriate under which circumstances.

Co-Winner: Greg Afinogenov