2021 Gold Medal Winner: Lynne Viola

Video: Lynne Viola - Gold Medal - 2021 Impact Awards


Lynna Viola:

My motivation in terms of my work has mainly been that I want to know how things are done. I want to know the mechanisms, so I want to know the mechanisms, for example, of repression. How did the Soviet state lead these mass campaigns of repression in the 1930s? How did they get people to go along with these terrible policies? So I'm very much an archival rat and enjoy working in archives and just finding out the mechanism of how things work. Winning this award certainly humbles me. I also find it a bit shocking, because in the humanities it's so hard to measure impact, but it certainly is the crowning achievement of my career.

A hint of Lynne Viola’s future extraordinary academic achievement was evident early in her career, when she earned the a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003). Her long list of prestigious national and international awards since includes the Canada Council for the Arts’ Molson Prize (2018), the Killam Prize (2019) and the Royal Society of Canada’s Pierre Chauveau Medal (2019).

Yet, the University of Toronto professor says receiving such honours is never routine for her: “It always shocks me and makes me feel unworthy, to be honest. But at the same time I am very thankful.”

Thankful also captures the sentiments of the many who have been positively influenced by Viola’s trailblazing research into 20th-century Russian political and social history. Glowing tributes and accolades from some of North America’s foremost academics abound for her studies on Stalinism, and for her groundbreaking archival research into Soviet repression. Her nominators for the Gold Medal describe her as “quite simply the single greatest living authority in the world on collectivization and the Soviet peasantry, and a leading scholar on Stalinism more generally.”

Viola’s research, carried out in partnership with Russian and Ukrainian scholars, unearthed previously secret records that exposed the dynamics and scope of state repression during the violent campaigns of the 1930s under Josef Stalin, which resulted in the forced displacement of millions of people to special settlements and labour camps, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Her publications have chronicled support for the regime from industrial workers, as well as massive peasant resistance, focusing particularly on gender, rurality and violence, as well as police enforcers. Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial, her latest book (2017), has garnered worldwide praise and numerous prizes.

Viola’s research has demonstrated the real-life impacts of these atrocities, ensuring that this tragic chapter in authoritarian history can never again be buried by repressive regimes, and that the historical truths stay in the public domain forever. The resulting specialized knowledge has been invaluable to countless students and PhD candidates Viola has taught and mentored over the years, many of whom now hold Russian and East European history positions across Canada and abroad.

An American-born, dual citizen and grateful Canadian, Viola began her academic career studying toward an undergraduate degree in psychology. Keenly interested in Russian history since reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment in high school, Viola attributes the book with first hooking her on Russia. But, she believed she could only pursue the subject area if she could learn Russian. After mastering the language, Viola went on to author five books and 30 articles, in addition to editing or co-editing another 18 books on Stalin era topics.

Viola arrived at the right time in history itself to make the greatest impact in her field.

“I was very lucky, as the archives began to open during perestroika, and I’m in my element working in archives,” she says. “I was involved in a project in the ’90s with a group of renowned Russian historians—veterans of WWII, reformers from the Khrushchev era, and agrarian historians—who were determined to publish classified documents to prevent another dictator from falsifying history.”

Viola has spent her distinguished career at the University of Toronto, considered, not coincidentally, to be a world leader in Russian studies. She is especially grateful for SSHRC’s support of her research over the years. She believes the agency’s support gives Canadian scholars a leg up globally.

“There is nothing else like this in North America or most of the world,” she says. “I think SSHRC is a magnificent institution.”

Viola says support for the humanities is vital to ensuring open societies.

“If you want to maintain a democracy, you need the humanities,” she says.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship, as well as the highest achievements resulting from a SSHRC fellowship awarded.

SSHRC’s highest honour, the prestigious Gold Medal is given to individuals whose sustained leadership, dedication and originality of thought have inspired students and colleagues alike.

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