W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize

2021 Citation Recipient


Pey-yi Chu

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
Title: Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power (Harvard University Press).

In this erudite history, Greg Afinogenov traces the history of Russo-China relations from the seventeenth century to the annexation of the Amur region by Russia in the mid-nineteenth century through the lens of knowledge production. In a borderland region where Russia’s military means to project power was quite limited, intelligence about the environment and the Chinese speakers who inhabited it assumed a special significance. Using the conceptual framework of “knowledge regime,” which highlights the contingency of network theory while accounting for the role of state institutions, Afinogenov guides us through a rich ecosystem of knowledge production in which some intelligence was promoted while other secrets died on the vine. Alongside the intelligence reports that diplomats transmitted and the hybrid texts produced by seventeenth-century “authors,” Afinogenov shows us how institutions such as the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission and private economic entrepreneurs generated knowledge that often reflected their own agendas and priorities. By retracing the careers of lowly clerks, students, priests, diplomats, nobles, military men, spies, and grifters through various institutions, Spies and Scholars demonstrates that the creation of knowledge occurred within a variety of social hierarchies and institutions. Personalities and institutional logics are often in tension in this history that charts the ultimate ascendancy of academic over bureaucratic knowledge. Afinogenov effectively remaps our understanding of intelligence (produced by bureaucratic institutions of state) and knowledge (which came to reside in academic institutions) in a compellingly conceptualized, crisply narrated history that ought to join a list of seminal works on empire in the Russian context. His simultaneous command of small details, local events and the global context of geopolitical competition make it a rewarding read and impressive scholarly achievement.