Pushkin House Book Prize: 2023 Winner Announced
By Grace Briggs-Jones
The Pushkin House Book Prize 2023 held its award ceremony in June, where the winner won £10,000. The books shortlisted for the award this year illustrate the valuable contribution that academics make to our understanding of Russia’s complex culture, history and people, particularly during the war the war on Ukraine which began in February 2022. The titles on this year’s shortlist cover a wide range of insightful topics and shed light on the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war, post-Soviet societal tensions and their complicated relationship with the West; illicit gay relationships and friendships in Russia during fin-de-siècle; the illegal Soviet campaign that almost led to the extinction of endangered whale populations; a comprehensive study of Soviet tobacco habits; in-depth analysis of the Russian worldview of the current war in Ukraine; and the cultural perils of bringing Sesame Street to Russia. The judges sure had their work cut out for them with this list!
On the shortlist is Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia by Natasha Lance Rogoff. A wonderfully entertaining and often moving account packed full of unforgettable vignettes, this book deftly illuminates the challenge of bringing the American cultural values of Sesame Street to an intransigent post-Soviet Russia. This is more than just a story of a children’s show; it explores Russia’s people, their culture, and their relationship with the West that remains relevant even today. This is a captivating account of a young female television producer’s adventures and a definite must read.
Forensically analysing the causes of the Russo-Ukrainian war and asking the crucial question why Vladimir Putin gambled everything on a successful invasion is Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine by Owen Matthews. Delivering a rigorously researched and unputdownable account of the first six months of the conflict, this book has a panoramic view and is an authoritative, unmissable record of a conflict that shocked – and continues to shock – Europe to its core. The Financial Times calls it “a vivid and revealing first draft of history” and The Telegraph praises the book as “a remarkable achievement, with Matthew’s expert eye like an all-seeing drone.” This book is a page-turner and has set a “painfully high benchmark for those who follow” (The Times) making it clear why this book was shortlisted.
Hailed as “timely, original and highly readable” by Edward Lucas, Jade McGlynn’s Russia’s War has a place on the shortlist. This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the attitudes of the Russian people to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. With extensive and fascinating reportage drawn from interviews and media analysis, McGlynn explores the nefarious methods that the Kremlin uses to massage public opinion. Delving into the grievances, lies and half-truths that pervade the Russian worldview, this book exposes the complicity of the Russians who have invested too deeply in the Kremlin’s alternative narratives of the invasion and ongoing war. “An important read for anyone interested in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” (Timothy M. Frye) this book should be on your TBR (to be read) list.
Places of Tenderness and Heat: The Queer Milieu of Fin-de-Siècle St Petersburg by Olga Petri is a unique volume that yields fascinating insights into how moral attitudes, public spaces and urban modernity all shaped queer sociability in turn-of-the-century St Petersburg. Holding a place on the shortlist, this book is an ambitious record of the dynamic negotiation of illicit male homosexual sex, friendship, and cruising, uncovering a historically fascinating urban milieu – a place that often unintentionally facilitated queer encounters. Petri draws on explicitly recorded incidents that led to prosecution or medical treatment, but also investigates the encounters that escaped bureaucratic surveillance and suppression. Those who have an interest in urban studies and queer men’s history in Russia should grab a copy of this brilliant book!
Enriched by colour reproductions of tobacco advertisements, packs, and anti-smoking propaganda, Cigarettes and Soviet: Smoking in the USSR by Tricia Starks has found a place on the shortlist. Providing a comprehensive study of the Soviet tobacco habit, Starks examines the contradictions inherent in a mass smoking society espousing a virulent anti-tobacco message. “Enlightening and thought-provoking” (Toward Freedom) this book challenges interpretations of how tobacco use rose in the past and what leads to mass use today. A definitive study, this book should take a place on your bookshelf.
The last place on the shortlist went to Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling by Ryan Tucker Jones. An authoritative and revelatory history of Soviet whaling, this book explores how endangered whale populations were brought to the brink of extinction by Soviet practices yet were saved by the discoveries made by the very same whalers. Hailed as “a game-changer” by Jason M. Colby, this book tells an important story with Jones compellingly describing the ultimate scientific irony: today’s cetacean studies benefitted from Soviet whaling. Giving the reader the inside story, this book is a must read.
The winner is Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine by Owen Matthews. A huge congratulations to Matthews and a big well done to the other authors who made this incredible shortlist.