Citations for Past Winners of the USC Book Prize

 2016

Stephen Lovell for Russia in the Microphone Age: A History of Soviet Radio, 1919-1970 (Oxford University Press)

Stephen Lovell’s Russia in the Microphone Age: A History of Soviet Radio, 1919-1970 is the first full history of Soviet radio in English. Based on substantial original research in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhnii Novgorod. Russia in the Microphone Age explores the institutional, technological, and ideological parameters of a cultural institution that helped shape the history of the Soviet Union. A vanguard of experimentation and technological utopianism in the 1920s, converted into an oracle of Stalinism in the 1930s, radio played its part in the trials and triumphs of Soviet history, from polar expeditions and show trials, to the Second World War, to the launch of Sputnik and Gagarin’s first flight, before finally ceding its primacy to television in the 1970s. Privileging the social and cultural dimensions of radio (reception, impact, content) while grounded in thorough archival research that includes journals, memoirs, party records, and the like, Russia in the Microphone Age provides a “media-based approach to Soviet history” – that is to say, a study that traces the development of a technology alongside with its implementation and reception, and never reduces that technology to the status of a mere “handmaiden” of Soviet ideology. The result is a pioneering treatment of broadcasting as an integral part of Soviet culture from its early days in the 1920s until the dawn of the television age. As Lovell puts it, “living in Bolshevik Russia not only felt and looked different, it sounded different.” (10) Lovell’s excellent study underscores the double-sided nature of Soviet radio, from its transmission of the voice of power (Stalin, the Party), on the one hand, to bringing home the “voice of the people” (censored, controlled, but nevertheless present), on the other. This history proceeds from the first wireless transmission of the human voice on 27 February 1919 broadcast from Nizhnii Novgorod, to loudspeakers in Moscow delivering “spoken newspapers” in the 1920s, to the home “tochka” or “tarelka” that brought the show trials to the listeners all over the Soviet Union, to Levitan’s voice from the front that unified the country during WWII, to finally, the short wave receivers that allowed those same listeners to replace Soviet broadcasts with the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. In Lovell’s study, radio takes its rightful place within the larger framework of sound production and reproduction, alongside the telegraph, telephone, gramophone, cinema, and the like. Russia in the Microphone Age reshapes our understanding of Soviet history by foregrounding the orality of Soviet culture and its cultural reception.

Honorable Mention

Alice Lovejoy for Army Film and the Avant-Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military (Indiana University Press)

Alice Lovejoy’s Army Film and the Avant-Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military throws light on a remarkable collection of films made between the 1930s and the late 1960s that were mostly shelved after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Lovejoy’s sophisticated analysis of this corpus of films would have constituted an important accomplishment in itself. However, Army Film and The Avant-Garde does much more: it inserts these films within the history of the Czech New Wave, of Eastern European Socialist Realism, and of international documentary in such thought-provoking ways that scholars in these major fields in film studies will be challenged and enriched by Lovejoy’s work. For instance, through her focus on the military studio, Lovejoy “locates some of the New Wave’s roots in instructional filmmaking,” thus “shedding light on the Czechoslovak film miracle of the 1960s, underlining its deep and systematic links to governmental and industrial media practices.” (8-9) As a result, she is able to show how “moments in the chronology of East European cinema and media history that are traditionally seen as caesurae in fact represent points of continuity” (10). Well versed in the history and theory of cinema, Lovejoy is singularly able to show us the larger stakes of her unique archive in ways that point toward an “international history of postwar documentary.” Such an ambitious history undermines old Cold War dichotomies and instead highlights “common roots and similarities between nonfiction film East and West;” it also powerfully rearticulates the relationships between cinema and the state as “institutional actors with multiple dimensions.” Few books thread archival work and theoretical argumentation as rigorously and productively as Army Film. Congratulations on a solidly grounded, ambitious book!

 2015

 

Rachel Feldhay Brenner for The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers’ Diaries from Warsaw, 1939-1945 (Northwestern University Press)  

Rachel Feldhay Brenner has written a remarkable book that significantly deepens our understanding of the nature of witnessing and the experience of Polish writers confronted with the events of the Holocaust—in this case, the establishment, deportation, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ethics of Witnessing focuses on the wartime diaries of five major Polish intellectuals—Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Maria Dąbrowska, Aurelia Wyleżyńska, Zofia Nałkowska, and Stanisław Rembek—who recorded the Occupation and the unfolding of the Jewish genocide, sometimes from the perspective of empathy, horror, and dismay, and sometimes, through the lens of a disengaged and distant observer, as if the catastrophe that was taking place nearby, and which could be “seen, heard, and smelled,” could be intellectualized but not felt. The five diaries represent the only wartime diaries known to have been kept by writers in Warsaw, and together, they provide a lens into the moral and ethical crisis of bearing witness to terror. As Brenner points out, no Polish writer, no matter how disassociated from the Ghetto and the Holocaust they imagined themselves to be, emerged on the other side of war unscathed by the events to which they had born witness. Their diaries and postwar writings speak to the trauma of watching the destruction of the modern self—grounded in humanistic values.

Friederike Kind-Kovács for Written Here, Published There: How Underground Literature Crossed the Iron Curtain (Central European University Press)  

Friederike Kind-Kovács’s Written Here, Published There represents a monograph on a topic many of us may seem to know. Yet her account is innovative and brilliant in that it provides a high-resolution picture of a phenomenon that has actually been in need of being revisited. The author presents a detailed analysis that amounts to a revision of our understanding of the Iron Curtain in the domain of culture. Her carefully researched material shows that the Iron Curtain was not so iron-clad as it claimed to be. The author documents and analyzes the flow of cultural material, including underground literature that was constantly crossing the Iron Curtain. The scope and details of this analysis is truly monumental. Virtually all relevant geographic domains are analyzed, including the former GDR. Kind-Kovács’s narrative begins with the late 1950s, including the celebrated case of Doctor Zhivago, moves step by step to the late 1980s and beyond, to the first wave of reflections that occurred in the 1990s. Significantly, her monograph goes well beyond a chronicle—it is conceptually innovative and nuanced. The author pursues the methodology of a histoire croisée, tracking networks that crossed the Curtain. Among her conceptual concerns is the bridging of gaps between samizdat and tamizdat, the immediacy of human rights, and eventually the emergence of a culture that connects the continent like no other event, leading to a transnational intellectual community with its attendant social practices, debates, and discourses. In the end, Kind-Kovács convincingly challenges the assumption that tamizdat was just a publishing project.

2014

Jane T. Costlow for Heart-Pine Russia: Walking and Writing the Nineteenth-Century Forest (Cornell University Press)

This profound, moving, and fully realized study treats the human relationship to the Northern European Russian forest within the complex cultural context of the nineteenth century and the Silver Age.  The Russian forest is a physical landscape and an important economic resource, and as such, Costlow knows it well.  But she also shows us the Russian forest as a potent cultural and symbolic site.  Costlow opens up the Russian forest to her readers as an imaginary and mythic geography figuring in both pagan and Russian Orthodox traditions, vital to Russian peasant culture, folklore, and local knowledge.  And the Russian forest has been no less important as the beloved object of artistic representation in Russian literature and fine arts.  Costlow argues persuasively that the forest is central to Russian national and spiritual identity.

Costlow deftly incorporates many different artistic and social discourses in a book that will be compelling to anyone interested in eco-criticism and cultural space.  She offers rich readings of fiction and artistic images, juxtaposing these with writings from “thick journals” and other forms of public discourse, personal accounts, and scientific environmental materials.  While Costlow’s study features major figures such as writers Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, and painters Ivan Shishkin and Ilya Repin, she also gives us lesser known but equally important voices such as Pavel Mel’nikov, Vladimir Korolenko, Mikhail Nesterov, and Dmitri Kaigorodov, the last a forester and natural historian who wrote for a broad public.  Her book’s strongly written introduction and conclusion also sample works of literature, art, and film from Soviet and even post-Soviet times.

A professor of Environmental Studies as well as a Russian literary scholar, Costlow has made a major contribution to the field of Slavic with her pathbreaking and deeply insightful study.

2013

Jan Plamper for The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (Yale University Press)

As the title term “alchemy” suggests, the Stalin cult cohered as a cultural formation out of a mysterious yet powerful combination of elements, the whole much greater than the sum of its individual parts. How might we reconstruct the emergence of this cult to identify the social, cultural, and political forces that generated the enduring mythic image of the beloved leader? Plamper’s original and intellectually ambitious interdisciplinary study takes on this daunting task and succeeds admirably, uncovering a complex set of cultural processes at work across the 1920s-50s. Plamper considers the workings of collective imagination in a deft fusion of documentary research and creative insight.

Plamper’s book is striking in its conception and design -- a bipartite structure that investigates both products (Part One) and production (Part Two), crisscrossing time and space. This structure allows him to show how a variety of “cult products” -- songs, poems, plays, films, posters, portraits, and sculpture -- saturated the vast public space of Soviet Union with rhetoric, images, and artefacts, and reached beyond into the world at large. He also identifies the actors, institutions, and practices that put the mechanisms of cult production into motion and kept them humming. A forceful and engaging writer, Plamper weaves in comparative consideration of personality cults from other historical periods and cultures, which he illuminates with an impressive command of the theoretical and critical literature from inside and outside our field. Plamper’s study will be influential across a wide range of readership.

2012

Andreas Schönle for Architecture of Oblivion: Ruins and Historical Consciousness in Modern Russia (Northern Illinois University Press)

Andreas Schönle's study of Russian responses to ruins is original in its conception and elegant in its execution. The fruit of many years of thought and research, Schönle's book displays impressive erudition and deep thought. He takes a relatively established concept – that of ruins and the historical loss they denote – and pushes it in entirely new and unexpected directions, thinking across distinct media and periods to reveal a surprisingly dominant cultural attitude. With its extended readings of many important texts, Schönle's book is also a model for how to re-think cultural canons in the light of new questions and new interpretive methods. For Schönle, ruins provide a new way to think about "striking gaps and discontinuities in Russia's historical consciousness" and "Russia's complex and ambivalent attitudes toward modernity." For Schönle, ruins are ultimately a site where aesthetics issues an ethical imperative: "To inhabit the ruins is to reconcile oneself with the present's heterogeneity, to recognize its rich texture."

2011

James Loeffler for The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale University Press)

The Most Musical Nation is a primary evaluation, a pervaia lastochka, in the study of the position of Jewish music and musicians within the mosaic of Russian culture during the period ca. 1900-1930. In investigating his subject, Loeffler reinforces the assumption that what is often described as "Russian" Modernism was, in fact, a synthesis of many ethnic ingredients. This fusion imparted a cosmopolitan vision and vital energy to Russian Symbolism and the avant-garde, which were among the most sophisticated movements of 20th century European arts and letters.

Loeffler examines the Jewish cultural experience and Jewish musical presence in late Imperial Russia both in the shtetl and in the metropolitan areas. He emphasizes key achievements of Rubinstein, Engel, Auer, Zimbalist and Elman, and, thereby, establishes an "ethnic" precedent to which so many, later Russian and Soviet musicians of Jewish extraction belonged. But, as Loeffler emphasizes, the Jewish cohort remained an organic part of Russian musical life, moving closely not only with the Russian elders of the Moscow Conservatoire, but also with the Russian prodigies and divas of the time. In placing the Jewish accomplishment within a broader Russian (rossiiskii) context of contemporary artists and composers, Loeffler amalgamates the two forces and implies that Russian music may, in fact, be more a "Eurasian" or even orientalist culture than an embellished borrowing of German, French and Italian conventions.

Of particular interest is the starting-point of many professional Jewish composers and performers, i.e. the domestic folk music of the shtetl and the strong ethnographical bias which this brought to their accomplishments. Ethnic allegiance molded compositions and deportments; cultural difference lay not in national identity, but in the fundamental difference between West and East. Loeffler also demonstrates that Jewish folk music served as both a storehouse of traditional values and as an agent of change: distinctive assets such as the cantonic nuances of the folk song or the bravura of the village fiddler were vital sources of inspiration to professional composers. Loeffler's account of the anthropological expedition through Western Russia and the Ukraine in 1912 is especially informative, describing, how Engel recorded Yiddish songs in the Pale of Settlement, thus saving an entire cultural legacy for posterity.

Loeffler's monograph boasts many such piquant morsels of information, the sum of which makes for an entertaining as well as enlightening narrative. Such episodes and interludes form a vital part of what Loeffler describes as "forgotten stories…. [which] challenge the simple narratives about how Jewish and European cultures developed as a whole." Loeffler's observations constitute a rich and sophisticated appreciation of the most musical nation.

2010

Claudia R. Jensen for Musical Cultures in Seventeenth-Century Russia (Indiana University Press)

Jensen uses a seemingly small topic - the music and musical practices of the upper echelons of the ruling class - to elucidate what she calls "a multiplicity of worlds of Muscovite music making." With music as a focal point, Jensen investigates social and cultural practices in the Muscovite court, in taverns, at weddings, and in other settings. Her research both reveals new sources and casts a new light on familiar historical documents. Her capacious and scrupulous research, and her ability to put her work into a context that draws in even those who are not specialists in her area, make Musical Cultures in Seventeenth-Century Russia a truly outstanding contribution to the field.    

2009

Priscilla Meyer for How the Russians Read the French: Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy (University of Wisconsin Press)

Margaret Beissinger, Bozena Shallcross, and John Bowlt, as members of the Committee for the University of Southern California Book Prize, have examined and discussed the submissions with attention and enthusiasm. True, of the twenty-one books sent, not all were eligible for the award, e.g. two were collections, two were reference books, and one or two seemed very distant from the notion of cultural studies.

However, among the relevant submissions there were some very strong candidates and, as you can imagine, it was difficult to reach a unanimous decision. Some books engaged us by their unusual subjects, some by their innovative methodologies, some by their richness of style, but, in the end, our choice was guided not only by these qualities, but also by the perceived impact of this or that title on our appreciation of Russian culture in general. Among our leading questions were: How does this or that title deepen our understanding of Russian culture? Does it describe, expose, and integrate foreign influences? Does the author manage to connect Russian culture, often seen as isolated and “different”, with the international arena? Finally, does the book strengthen and advance our professional field?

After careful deliberation, we concluded that the following book met these criteria and answered our questions: Priscilla Meyer, How the Russians Read the French: Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Therefore, we are recommending this book to AAASS and proposing that Professor Meyer be the recipient of the 2009 University of Southern California Book Prize.