2017 WAYNE S. VUCINICH BOOK PRIZE
The Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize, sponsored by the Association for Slavic Studies, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) and the Stanford University Center for Russian and East European Studies, is awarded annually for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences published in English in the United States in the previous calendar year.
The 2017 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize was awarded to Benjamin Peters for How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet (MIT Press)
Benjamin Peters’ richly insightful monograph, How Not to Network a Nation, is one of those gems of Cold War history that has lain buried beneath the crusts of time, and that only a scholar with Peters’ intellectual curiosity, methodological rigour and sheer determination to peer into the least propitious nooks and crannies of the Soviet past could have unearthed. In it, he traces the history of OGAS, the failed and now forgotten Soviet precursor to the Internet. He does so through an astute comparison with its better-known and more celebrated American cousin, ARPANET. Drawing on previously unknown archival sources and fascinating interviews with those involved in the design of the two systems, Peters provides a counterintuitive, but compelling, account of their respective fates, inverting established Cold War platitudes: that of US capitalism as inherently dynamic, individualistic and inventive and Soviet communist society as invariably state-shackled and stunted. For it turns out that while ARPANET benefited from strong state management, OGAS floundered when loose central control allowed damaging rivalries to stymie its progress. In fact, Peters accomplishes a stunning double reversal: not only was ARPANET centrally driven, but it was for that very reason more successful; likewise, it was precisely because the Soviet OGAS system relied on internal competition (according to our own stereotypes, a good thing that allows talent to flourish), that it failed.
By applying a multidisciplinary framework to a seemingly anachronistic topic of marginal interest, Peters extracts revelations of considerable (and, indeed, contemporary) importance across a range of areas (the inner workings of the Soviet state, the distinctive features of Soviet science, the history of the digital revolution, and the logic of networks). The first chapter in which he offers a “global history of cybernetics” is by itself of enormous value. His discussion of McCulloch’s “heterarchy” (“multiple competing regimes of evaluation”) is another highlight, as is his analysis of the tolkachi, the “pushers” who mediated informally between the Soviet state and individual production managers. Written in an engagingly wistful tone and with lapidary elegance, Peters’ How Not to Network a Nation is a worthy winner of this year’s Vucinich Prize.
Honorable Mention: Martha Lampland
Title: The Value of Labor: The Science of Commodification in Hungary, 1920–1956 (University of Chicago Press)
The Value of Labor provides a sophisticated interdisciplinary analysis of how scientific debates about measuring and evaluating labor evolved in Hungary between 1920 and 1956. Narrated in chronological fashion, Lampland’s analysis undercuts the typical periodization of this period, suggesting that the communist takeover was not a fundamental break in how work came to be evaluated and rewarded. Lampland identifies and analyzes significant continuities in how economists in various state institutions defined the contribution of the workforce, suggesting that ideological shifts were less important for shaping some economic policies in 20th-century Hungary than common concerns with modernization, efficiency, and overall economic growth. Lampland’s micro-level examination of how workplace rationalization actually takes place sheds new light on both the constraints faced by communist modernizers and the problems inherent in assigning value to labor.