2006 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize

The 2006 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize was awarded to Francine Hirsch, Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union, published by Cornell University Press.

In this detailed and ground-breaking study, Francine Hirsch offers readers remarkable insight into the debates and practices that informed the formation of the multi-national Soviet state. In a departure from traditional attentions to political leaders and ideologies, Hirsch shifts the terms of debate to those scholars, policy-specialists, and activists whose direct participation in the struggles to identify, delimit, and promote the peoples of the fledgling USSR had profound impacts on communities across the country. From her analysis of the constitution of early Soviet borders (some of the best work done on nationality policy in the 1920s) to her path-breaking study of the politics and consequences of census-taking, Hirsch hardly leaves a single canonic argument unaddressed. Hirsch calls attention to the Soviet Union’s appropriations of European colonial thought, while a distinctive emphasis on a proletarian pluralism nonetheless emerges in close attention to everyday practicalities of events such as the mounting of museum exhibitions and public performances. More than just a social history of the formation of the Soviet Union, the book is simultaneously a history of science in the clearest sense of the term and a wide-ranging interdisciplinary investigation into an early socialist governmentality that welcomed scientists of all stripes into its service. Empire of Nations is a superb contribution to the history of the Soviet Union and to Slavic Studies more generally.

Honorable Mention

Christina Kiaer, Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University, for Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, published by the MIT Press.

Christine Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions is a richly-researched excursion into the saturated field of Constructivism that manages the ultimate hat trick: to say something new. She takes us beyond the established categorical path of Groys, humanizing the Constructivists by placing them more squarely in the material and philosophical contradictions of NEP. Using Benjamin to mediate between artistic innovation (cast as “revolutionary”) and the new consumer appetites legitimized by NEP, she enters sympathetically into the unique atmosphere of the 1920s, when artists were evolving their stripped-down, idealist-materialist aesthetics of design and world-recreation. The book thus becomes a gripping account of utopian aspiration and historical improvisation rather than a retrospective analysis of ultimate failure. Kiaer most acutely poses topics that are almost never explored. She untangles the seeming oxymoron of “constructivist advertising” and lays bare, through the example of Rodchenko, this central dialectical pivot in early Soviet history, showing how planners made peace with ways of extracting surplus value and delivering it through commodity spectacle. Kiaer does all this in a book so luminously written and gorgeously illustrated that Sovietologists, art historians, and students of modern culture of all stripes will find it a treat to open and impossible to put down.