Kenneth M. Pinnow


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

Cover Interview of March 11, 2010

The wide angle

I first became interested in the problem of Soviet suicide after reading a footnote about a dramatic spike in suicides among Bolsheviks (or Communists) during the 1920s. Such an outburst of despair among the faithful was both jarring and puzzling. It clashed sharply with the triumphal and expectant image of the Bolshevik Revolution. Further investigation confirmed the trend and revealed that concerns about rising levels of suicide extended beyond the Bolshevik Party.  In fact, I found that the debates about suicide reflected widespread anxieties about moral, physical, and ideological health, particularly among Soviet youth.  This spurred me to continue my research and to refine my approach.

Suicide is an ideal object for studying social, political, and cultural change. In the last few decades a growing number of scholars have made the history of suicide into something of an academic subfield. Some of these researchers have attempted to reconstruct patterns of suicide in order to measure the social effects of industrialization, urbanization, and other historical processes. Others have pursued a cultural studies approach in order to reconstruct belief systems and everyday life among men and women.

These investigations emphasize the fact that suicide cannot be treated as a static phenomenon across time and space.  Despite its universality, self-destruction has meant and continues to mean different things to different people.  As one scholar puts it, the act creates a “black hole” of meaning that begs to be filled in by others.  The historian’s job is to understand the way that a society ascribes meaning to the act, the ideas and forces that shape this process, and in turn how these beliefs and practices influence the thoughts and actions of individuals.

In Lost to the Collective, suicide is treated as a problem of government.  This approach reflects my training in the history of medicine and my broader interest in the history of statistics and the social sciences.  It also came from reflecting on my sources.  The very fact that I could write such a book is evidence of the Soviet regime’s definition of self-destruction as a public matter that demanded the attention of scientific and political experts.  In addition to published materials, the archives contain “top secret” political reports, statistical data, forensic-medical protocols, and the results of official investigations.  The history captured in these materials provides a window into the Soviets’ unrelenting efforts to access the individual soul as well as the social environment.

There is a degree of universality to the Soviet experiment of the 1920s. The way the Soviets responded to suicide looks very familiar to us even today.  Their assumptions, language, and methods were not unlike those of social scientists in Europe and the United States.  In contrast to the Russian autocracy, the Soviet regime opened up enormous possibilities for the application of these practices to the population.  My book emphasizes the fact that the modern social sciences were not only compatible with Bolshevik dictatorship but also an essential feature of the revolutionary project.  The theories of Emile Durkheim and other European moral statisticians were as relevant as those of Karl Marx.

Lost to the Collective also highlights the distinctive features of Soviet social exploration.  Soviet studies of suicide were infused by revolutionary politics.  They were not simply about capturing objective information but also about transforming lived experience.  This melding of intentions is best captured in the work of investigators inside the Red Army.

Concerned primarily with ideological health, Bolshevik Party officials and Red Army political instructors routinely gathered information about all facets of life, including each and every act of suicide.  As a form of epidemiology, these data provided the political leadership with the ability to trace patterns of suicide, speculate about causes, and identify pockets of disease within the military population.  However, it also made the prevention of suicides a function of total transparency or what I call “mutual surveillance.”  This meant that Soviet citizenship was premised on the willingness to open up oneself to scrutiny and in turn to keep an eye on others.  In this way, suicidal and other deviant individuals would be identified before they acted on their impulses and threatened the social order.

The centrality of the individual thus emerges as a core theme of the book.  Although the Soviets rejected liberal ideas of autonomy, suicide raised troubling questions about individual agency and reinforced the country’s incomplete transition to a collectivist society.  Medical investigations into the brains and glands of suicides were part of an effort to break down the personality in the hopes of reconstructing it along different lines.  Similarly, the growing insistence that officers and party activists devote more attention to the lives of individual members recognized individuality while seeking to contain it.  By intruding into the Soviets’ revolutionary dreams, suicide reinforced a key truth: the individual was at once the collective’s greatest resource and its greatest threat.