Lynne Viola awarded prestigious Killiam Prize for humanities research

May 6, 2019 by U of T News

She has revealed knowledge about Stalinist Russia that was previously kept hidden. He has mapped our genes and given us a better understanding of autism.

Historian Lynne Viola and geneticist Stephen Scherer have not only made profound discoveries – their research has changed the entire landscape of their respective fields. The Canada Council for the Arts, the country’s public arts funder, is recognizing their lifetime contributions with Killam Prizes, the organization’s top annual award.

Viola, one of the world’s leading scholars on Stalinist Russia, is being awarded the prize in the humanities. Scherer, a leading genomic researcher, is being awarded one in health sciences. Viola and Scherer, both University Professors and fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, join a group of about 7,000 Killam laureates.

Lynne Viola sees Stalinist Russia, and its oppressive violence, “as a cube.”

Viola, a professor in the department of history, organized her extensive study of the period from a variety of different perspectives, or sides – each one helping to inform our overall understanding of the brutal regime.

“I wanted to look at violence from different angles to get a sense of the spectrum of responses and policy on terror through the '30s, and turning it around in different ways,” said Viola, who has published four definitive books on the topic.  

Viola's first book, 1987's The Best Sons of the Fatherland, focused on the supporters of Stalin’s regime. Her second book, 1996's Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, looked at state government resisters. Her third book, The Unknown Gulag, published in 2007, looked at Stalin’s victims and their fates. Finally, her most recent work – 2017’s Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial – looked at those who implemented Stalin’s Great Terror, a campaign of political repression from 1936 to 1938.

Rich in detail and filled with primary sources, including from the KGB archives, Viola's research seeks to contextualize a period the Soviet government sought to hide from the public. She called the work “painstaking.”

“My last three books have been about using the voices of these people,” said Viola, who won the Molson Prize in 2018.  “I tried to use their voices to tell the story, particularly in terms of that second book, Peasant Rebels.

I wanted these peasants to have a say. I wanted them to present their side of the story.”

Since her days as a graduate student, Viola has worked to create a richer, more nuanced understanding of Soviet history – and push it in a more scholarly direction. When the Soviet archives became available in the 1990s, Viola was among the first researchers to seize the moment. 

Viola’s most recent book about Stalinist perpetrators was based on Ukraine’s former KGB archives, which became available following a 2014 revolution that saw the country’s incumbent president ousted. Viola sees the work as completing the full circle of perspectives from that period.

“I certainly feel like we have a really good sense of the early 1930s and a better sense of the late 1930s,” she said.

She added that she views the archives as a “kind of a back door into the Great Terror, so that we can literally accompany these perpetrators into the execution room, the interrogation room and find out the mechanisms of how the Great Terror worked.”

Viola hopes her scholarship has opened the door for others – especially in the Kiev archives, where researchers will likely be sifting through documents for years to come.

“It’s really a great recognition of the humanities,” she said of winning the Killam Prize. “It was an absolute honour.”

“The scholarship of Professors Viola and Scherer are changing our understandings of their fields, leading to a healthier and safer world,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “The University of Toronto congratulates them for this significant award, recognizing their outstanding careers.”

The council awards $100,000 Killam Prizes in five categories each year, including engineering, natural sciences and social sciences. The Killam Trust, which administers the award, also names researchers to a two-year Killam Fellowship that supports outstanding scholars on groundbreaking projects.

Since 2010, U of T faculty have won 13 Killam Prizes, accounting for more than a quarter of those awarded to Canadian researchers. In the past five years, U of T has had winners in all five Killam Prize categories – including double wins in each of engineering, health sciences and humanities.

“U of T’s researchers and their findings are resonating widely, inside and outside of the classroom,” Goel said.

U of T researchers awarded Killam Prizes for contributions to humanities, health sciences

See the 2019 Killam Winners in Groundbreaking Research