Book on Pushkin wins £30,000 non-fiction prize

An elegant and compassionate account of the life of Russia's greatest poet has won author T J Binyon the £30,000 BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize. Pushkin: A Biography was praised by the Samuel Johnson judges, who included Rosie Boycott, broadcaster and former editor of The Independent, the Conservative MP, Michael Portillo and the historian, Andrew Roberts, for its "perfectly-judged pace, elegant wit, exacting scholarship and deep compassion".

The 133 entries in this year's competition came from an international field of authors, all writing in English. The judges short-listed six titles from a long list of 18. Binyon's work is the first full-length and authoritative biography of Pushkin since 1937. The author's knowledge of his subject was shaped by a time living in the Soviet Union and his lectures on Russian literature at Oxford University.

Pushkin was also included in the short-listed entry by Orlando Figes, titled Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. As well as describing the splendour of 18th-century St Petersburg, Figes acknowledged the power of Stalinist propaganda. A professor of history at Birkbeack College, University of London, Figes won the Wolfson History Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, for his 1997 work, A People's Tragedy.

The biographer, Claire Tomalin, traced the life of Britain's most celebrated diarist in Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award 2002. Tomalin looked beyond Pepys's diaries to his youth, describing a schoolboy who rejoiced when Charles I died. That boy went on to become a royalist, assistingwith the restoration to the throne of Charles II.

Aminatta Forna, the London-based broadcaster, was nominated for her "passionate and vivid" account of an African childhood. The Devil That Danced On The Water: A Daughter's Memoir, detailed Forna's experience of the upheavals of post-colonial Africa, her dissident father's stance against tyranny and her journey into exile in Britain.

The most off-the-wall title on the shortlist was Olivia Judson's Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex. Judson created a racy agony aunt, Dr Tatiana, to explain natural history.

First-time author Edgar Vincent, who served in the Royal Navy before becoming a management consultant, made extensive use of primary sources for his short-listed biography Nelson: Love and Fame.

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