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British historian Daniel Beer has won the 2017 Cundill History Prize, which comes with the richest purse – not just in Canada, but anywhere – for a single non-fiction work in English.

Administered by McGill University and now in its tenth year, the Cundill Prize annually rewards writing that best exemplifies historical scholarship, originality, accessibility and literary prowess as determined by a jury of distinguished writers and historians. For his winning title, The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, Beer takes home the top prize of $75,000 (U.S.), while runnersup Christopher Goscha, the Montreal-based author behind Vietnam: A New History, and Walter Scheidel, who wrote The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, each receive $10,000.

Taking its name from the semi-autobiographical Dostoevsky novel about a 19th-century Siberian penal camp, Beer's book illuminates what life was like for those banished to that "vast prison without a roof" in the period leading up to Revolution, turning hitherto unexplored resources into a chronicle that reads like the greats of Russian tragedy.

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We all know the clichéd image of Siberia, but Beer's book makes it "absolutely tangible, powerful and real in an almost hallucinatory way," said juror Roy Foster, emeritus professor at Oxford University, "because he goes into the detail of small stories as well as the big picture. It's a story of endurance and oppression and torture, really, with a panoramic scope."

"It is a great long way from the regional archives of Siberia to the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal," Beer commented from the gala. "I am deeply humbled and honoured by this prize. I am thrilled to have my work honoured alongside the work of so many great authors, and I'm enormously grateful to the Cundill Foundation and the Cundill History Prize for their generosity and support for the endeavour of history writing."

University of Toronto professor and jury chair Margaret MacMillan calls Beer's ability "a gift" – to do "good history" in the broad scale, but also to bring life to voices and experiences from the ground, frozen as it is. "He gives you a sense both of the regime as well as the individuals who were caught up in it," she said. "It's not sentimental, it's not maudlin at all, but it shows you the horrors of that world." And therein lies its tremendous emotional power.

"I think history, funnily enough, is getting more important in the 21st century rather than less," MacMillan said, thinking about the significance of an honour like the Cundill prize. "We're all making comparisons with the past, we're worrying about the future, we're wondering if history can be any help – and I think it can. Anything that encourages people to read the best history is a good thing."

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