Kenneth M. Pinnow

 

On his book Lost to the Collective: Suicide and the Promise of Soviet Socialism, 1921-1929

Cover Interview of March 12, 2010

In a nutshell

Lost to the Collective is an exploration into both the history of suicide and the elusive promises of Soviet socialism and the modern social sciences.

Suicide unsettled the Soviets because it raised practical and theoretical questions about the individual and challenged the regime’s transformational aspirations. To them it represented unbridled individualism and a remnant of bourgeois life whose continued presence threatened the revolutionary project. To contain and eventually eliminate this social disease the Soviet state sanctioned a variety of scientific and political efforts that sought to clarify, categorize, and control self-destruction. These included forensic-medical investigations into the body, nationwide statistical mappings of society, and a distinctive set of political practices that treated suicide as a sickness that was above all ideological.

Suicide was therefore much more than an existential drama during the formative years of the Soviet Union.  It became deeply implicated in the broader project of creating new types of men and women to populate the socialist order.  It became a medium for debating politics and the course of the Bolshevik Revolution.  It opened up a space for imagining the ideal relationship between individuals and society.  It was a tool for evaluating social health.  And it functioned as a catalyst for promoting new social bonds and self-identities.

In talking about Soviet suicide my book tells the larger story of the modern social sciences and their implication in the Soviet project.  The Soviet Union can be read more broadly as a social science state that was seeking to overcome the alienating effects of modern life.  Viewed through the lens of suicide the Soviet Union no longer appears simply as a product of Marxist ideology but also the product of modern beliefs in expertise and broadly shared understandings of government.

Suicide continued to haunt the Soviets, even after the regime proclaimed its disappearance in the 1930s.  Ironically, their very attempts to control suicide actually deepened anxiety.  Almost obsessive explorations into the human body and body politic constantly revealed new pockets of disease and exposed the Soviets’ inability to access the individual soul and see into the population.  In this sense, Lost to the Collective asks us to consider Soviet socialism—given its intense concern with the individual and its quest to build an integrated society—as part of the broader history of the search for human unity.