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McGill University awards Cundill History Prize to Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain

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This year McGill University in Montreal chose to award journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Applebaum the 2013 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature for her book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. The prestigious award also comes with one of the largest book award monetary prizes, $75,000 and $10,000 USD each for the two runner-ups, who are given the "Recognition of Excellence" prizes. The university presented the winner and the two other finalists their awards on Wednesday evening, Nov. 20, 2013 at a gala dinner at Toronto's Shangri-La Hotel. The prize awards books that have a "profound literary, social and academic impact in the area of history."

The book award's winner Anne Applebaum is a journalist and columnist with The Washington Post, and a Pulitzer Prize winner author, winning the 2004 prize in general non-fiction for her book Gulag: A History (Doubleday, 2003). Her Cundill prize winning book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 (Allen Lane – Penguin Books , 2012) is about Josef Stalin influencing other East European countries to join Communism, and the "daily life" for those living in those converted regimes. Iron Curtain was also shortlisted for PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award and a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and was listed on several non-fiction best books of 2012 lists. She is presently the director of the Project on Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute in London.

The university held the awards ceremony and gala dinner on Wednesday Nov. 20 in Toronto at the Shangri-La Hotel, the event was "invitation only" and with Jeffrey Simpson, the national affairs columnist at The Globe and Mail and an award winning author himself serving as the evening's host.

McGill's Faculty of Art's Dean Christopher Manfredi spoke at the awards ceremony introducing the winner; "Every year, it gives me enormous pleasure to see the calibre of submissions that pass before the Cundill selection committee." Manfredi praised Applebaum's caliber of writing; "I can truly say that Anne Applebaum is a deserving winner, chosen from amongst a field of high-quality works."

Applebaum expressed to the audience her excitement and appreciation for being awarded this prestigious history award; "I know it's hard to believe - even the most successful and well-reviewed history books rarely make much money for their authors. It takes years and years to research and write a book like the ones that have been recognized by the Cundill Prize committee… So it's wonderful that there is now a prize which focuses especially on well-written history, which is one of the most difficult and time-consuming literary forms that exists. And it's wonderful that there is real prize money attached."

Applebaum who focuses on the Soviet Union and the history of Communism also discussed the book's subject matter and what inspired her to write on that topic during her award acceptance remarks; "I've been fascinated by the history of communism ever since, as a student, I spent a month studying Russian in Leningrad. To go to the Soviet Union at that time, before glasnost, felt like walking into a mirror: everything was backwards. Even the colors had vanished, replaced by black and white. Two decades later, I began to ask myself: if it was so absurd, how did it get built in the first place? How did the grim Russia I saw in the 1980s come to be? How did it spread its system into the heart of central Europe? What was the appeal of Soviet-style communism, if any? That line of thinking led me to the research which led to this book."

In addition to Applebaum receiving her award at the ceremony the two runner-ups were also present to be honored with their "Recognition of Excellence" prizes; Christopher Clark for his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914 (Harper Collins, 2013) and Fredrik Logevall for his book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (Random House, 2012). Each received $10,000 in award money. Clark is a "professor of modern European history and a fellow of St. Catharine's College at the University of Cambridge," and his book The Sleepwalkers is about the events that led to World War I. Logevall is the "John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and professor of history at Cornell University," and his book Pulitzer Prize winning Embers of War is about the events that brought the United States to be involved in Vietnam and the Vietnam war.

The Cundill Prize in Historical Literature is now in its sixth year, with the first award given in 2008 and is named after its creator and endower F. Peter Cundill, a McGill graduate, Bachelor of Commerce, 1960, who died in 2011. Cundhill created the award to "encourage the writing of history for a general audience." Cundill was a financial investor whose interest in history stemmed from his own time at McGill, where he failed a history exam. Upon creating the award, Cundill expressed the relation between his investment work and history; "I am an investment researcher of finance and I think there is an analogy between the two disciplines - both study the past to understand the present and predict the future."

The award is run by McGill's Dean of the Faculty of Arts and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). The Cundill Prize awards the largest amount of money of any history book prize, and McGill describes it as "the world's most important international nonfiction historical literature prize." This year saw 166 history book submissions to chose from and narrow down to the shortlist. The six shortlist finalists, two honorable mentions, and the winner and two runner-ups are chosen by an "independent committee" that is composed of different judges each year.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are academic & universities news, particularly history & library news.



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