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The Guardian (UK)
June 10, 2003
Crime writer's Pushkin steals 30,000 prize
John Ezard

A 63-year-old Oxford don won Britain's richest non-fiction prize yesterday with the first book he has written on his own subject: Russian literature. TJ Binyon took the 30,000 Samuel Johnson award with his biography, widely described as masterly, of the poet Pushkin.

A 5/1 outsider at William Hill, he beat the 6/4 favourite, Claire Tomalin's already prize-laden biography of Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self.

Until this year Binyon, a senior research fellow of Wadham College, had published books only on his other expert subject - crime: two novels and a study of the role of the detective in fiction. He is crime reviewer for the London Evening Standard.

He has, however, spent a period in the former Soviet Union, and has taught Russian literature at Leeds University.

He learned that his book had beaten five others, including another heavyweight work on Russia, at a ceremony at the Savoy hotel, in London. The chairman of the judges, Michael Portillo, said: "TJ Binyon's biography of Pushkin is the product of the author's years of dedication to his subject.

"While Pushkin does not translate well into English, Binyon has undertaken a massive task to reveal his genius to us and has written a gripping and intimate account of his life and death."

The Guardian review said it fulfilled its aim to "free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth".

The other biography tipped as a possible winner was Nelson: Love and Fame, an acclaimed first book by Edgar Vincent, a 69-year-old former naval officer. The rest of the shortlist was: Natasha's Dance: a cultural history of Russia, by Orlando Figes; The Devil that Danced, by Aminatta Forna; and Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation, by Olivia Judson, also a first book.

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