Serhii Plokhy Wins the UK’s Baillie Gifford Nonfiction Prize

In News by Porter Anderson

‘It is the cleanest energy as long as nothing happens,’ says author Serhii Plokhy of nuclear power, as he wins the Baillie Gifford for ‘Chernobyl.’

Author Serhii Plokhy is the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction winner. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize, Belinda Lawley

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Dirtiest Energy in the World’
Known until 2015 as the Samuel Johnson Prize, the UK’s Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction is open to authors of any nationality and covers all nonfiction in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography, and the arts.

At an award ceremony this evening in London, the American author Serhii Plokhy has been named the recipient of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction for his account of the 1986 nuclear-reactor catastrophe in Soviet Ukraine.

Carrying a purse of £30,000 (US$39,157), the award is among the leading literary honors in the UK and is named for the asset management firm that sponsors it.

In an awards program interview, Plokhy is quoted, saying, “We have to be super careful with nuclear energy, because it was introduced into the world as the cleanest energy possible.

“Today with global warming there is again another attempt to bring it back as a solution to the problems that we have today with climate, and the lesson that I learned from looking at Chernobyl is that, yes, it is the cleanest energy as long as nothing happens.

“Once it happens it is the dirtiest energy in the world.”

At Wednesday’s (November 14) award ceremony in London, juror Anne-Marie Imafidon, right, speaks with an associate. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize, Belinda Lawley

”We Have To Be Super Careful’

Plokhy was raised, reportedly, some 310 miles away from the site of the nuclear accident, and used previously unrevealed source material to recreate stories of people involved in the effort to contain the disaster.

Published in mid-May as Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Penguin’s Allen Lane in the UK, the book was released at the same time in the States by Hachette’s Basic Books as  Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.

UK cover design, Allen Lane

The reactor explosion at Chernobyl would expose not only technical failures but also economic and managerial fault lines in the then-crumbling Soviet political system.

Plokhy is the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute.

He’s a remarkably prolific writer,  publishing at least 10 books in the past, from a “study in iconography,” Tsars and Cossacks from Harvard University Press (2003) to Yalta: The Prize of Peace with Penguin’s Viking (2010) and The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union with Basic Books (2015). He has taught in Canada and Ukraine as well as in the United States,s and he has published in English, Russian, and Ukrainian.

In naming him the winner, the Gifford’s jury chair Fiametto Rocco, culture critic with The Economist, is quoted, saying, “Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl is an unprecedented retelling of a familiar disaster. It’s a horror story—of political cynicism and scientific ignorance—in which the world was saved only by heroism and luck.

“This extraordinary account leaves you wondering: could the narrowly missed nuclear Armageddon of Chernobyl happen again, with even worse consequences?”

Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Baillie Gifford Prize chair, speaks with shortlisted author Hannah Fry. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize, Belinda Lawley

‘Extremely Relevant’

US cover design, Basic Books

Rocco’s fellow jurors for this year’s prize are journalist Stephen Bush; historian Susan Brigden; mathematician Anne-Marie Imafidon, MBE; and philosopher Nigel Warburton.

Speaking for the prize’s eponymous sponsor Baillie Gifford, partner Mark Urquhart, in a prepared quote, says, “This cautionary tale feels extremely relevant to a world grappling with global energy issues and deserves to be widely read.

“The quality of the shortlist must have made this an extremely hard decision for the judging panel with many fine works of non fiction proving again the strength of the genre.”

That shortlist, in addition to Plokhy’s book, comprised:

  • Hello World: How to be Human in The Age of The Machine, Hannah Fry (Doubleday)
  • The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre (Viking)
  • Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee (Canongate Books)
  • Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, Stephen R Platt (Atlantic)
  • She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity, Carl Zimmer (Picador)

In addition to the £30,000 purse for the winner, the program awards each shortlisted author with £1,000.


More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing industry awards is here, and on nonfiction is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.