Professor nominated for Charles Taylor Prize

History professor Ana Siljak talks to the Journal about female assassins, terrorism and literary non-fiction

Professor Ana Siljak has been shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction for her book Angel of Vengeance: The ‘Girl Assassin,’ The Govenor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World.
Professor Ana Siljak has been shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction for her book Angel of Vengeance: The ‘Girl Assassin,’ The Govenor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World.

History professor Ana Siljak has spent the last eight years trying to get inside the mind of an assassin.

Luckily, Siljak said she couldn’t identify with her subject.

“I did not have the classic biographer’s syndrome of identifying with Vera. Although, I did live with her for so many years, I never could identify with her. I think her life and my life are too different,” she said. “Nonetheless, I found her absolutely fascinating, I think precisely because I wasn’t like her. There’s a way in which you can be fascinated by your own opposite. You want to know what makes such a person tick. How do you become that kind of person?”

Her first book Angel of Vengeance: The ‘Girl Assassin,’ The Governor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World, was named as a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

The book was one of three that were shortlisted out of 135 submissions from 43 different publishers. “The easiest way I talk about it is that it’s about Russia’s first female assassin or first female terrorist named Vera Zasulich,” Siljak said. “The story begins with the central incident in her life, which was when she concealed a gun under her shawl, walked into the office of the governor of St. Petersburg and shot him point blank in front of witnesses. Then she goes on trial. Her trial becomes—and I’ve discovered this through my research—the “trial of the century” in Russia. The news of what she had done spread through Russia really quickly.”

This is Siljak’s fourth year teaching history at Queen’s. Her area of specialization is Russian history, with an emphasis in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Siljak received her PhD in 1997 from Harvard. Prior to arriving at Queen’s she taught at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

Siljak said the book took her almost a decade to write.

“It was in 2000 that I started really seriously working on it and 2008 was when it was finished, so maybe eight years if you count research to publication.”

Siljak said she didn’t write Angel of Vengeance intending to relate it to modern-day society.

“In one way, it’s not relevant at all. In one way, it really is a story about pre-revolutionary Russia and it’s my favourite subject. For me, when I started this project, the purpose was to show a different perspective on that time and place that most people don’t know much about.”

Siljak said her book took on a different meaning in light of the events of 9/11.

“As much as I’m a historian and as much as I like to focus on the past exclusively, after the year 2001 the word “terrorism” in my documents began to take on a different meaning,” she said. “There, I was quite surprised to find that there are some very interesting similarities between those people and many participants of terrorism in the world today.”

Siljak said, through her research, she found herself becoming fascinated by the motivations behind terrorism.

“I think to say to that terrorism is motivated by hatred is to only understand one part of the story of what terrorism is all about. Definitely, it’s true—at least in my historical sources, that these people are motivated to kill as much as by what they believe is possible in some future world as they are motivated by hating the existing world in all its injustices.”

Siljak said it was learning about Vera that inspired her to write the book.

“I found that story. There was a collection of essays on Russia’s revolutionary women which I read and her story jumped out at me as a sort of puzzle.”

Siljak said she hopes her book, which has been named one of the top 100 non-fiction titles of 2008 by the Globe and Mail, will bring attention to a largely ignored part of Russian history.

“She appeared in so much of the literature and media of the day. It’s amazing that we’ve entirely forgotten about her now.”

The $25,000 award for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction will be presented at noon on Monday at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto.

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