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

A close-up

Lost the Collective reconstructs the rituals that developed in response to suicides among members of the Bolshevik Party and demonstrates how these practices helped to promote a particular vision of Soviet individuals and society.

Although suicide in Russia was decriminalized in 1917, it remained an act of transgression under the Bolsheviks.  Killing oneself violated the party’s code of ethics.  It signified the triumph of egoistic impulses over the collectivist spirit and became associated with weakness in the face of life’s trials and tribulations.  In other words, suicide functioned as the alter image of the ideal Bolshevik, who remained optimistic, embraced struggle, and realized himself through the collective.  Most egregiously, by committing suicide a Bolshevik essentially treated his life as his own, an attitude that violated the party’s prohibition against private property.

Acts of suicide by party members were thus regarded as a kind of sin that revealed the impure soul of the individual.  Indeed, one of the most interesting facets of the Bolshevik Party’s reactions documented in the book involves the recasting of religious ideas and practices in secular terms.  Instead of violating God the creator, suicides were seen as violating society, which had given birth to them and had the ultimate say over whether they lived or died.  As punishment for their misdeeds, party members who killed themselves were publicly condemned and denied funeral escorts or burial in sacred places.  In some instances they were even expelled posthumously from the party.  Such acts symbolically separated the sick individual from the healthy members.  They echoed ecclesiastical laws that forbade the internment of suicides in hallowed ground or stripped the suicide of his or her rights.

The Bolsheviks also reconstructed the suicide’s story through ideologically tinged narratives.  Investigators looked above all for the telltale signs that indicated the party member’s moral and political downfall.  The reading of decadent literature, drinking and debauchery, frequenting politically suspicious places, or abandoning interest in party work, were all read as signs of alienation from the collective.

One suicide’s comrades, for example, attributed his act to excessive womanizing.  This mixing of sex and politics was particularly prevalent in the Red Army.  In a modern version of the tale of Adam and Eve, the petit bourgeois woman was cast as a temptress who distracted the party member from his duties by placing the fulfillment of her material needs above the needs of the socialist cause.  Torn by guilt and weakened by isolation from the collective the man killed himself as a way out of his dilemma.  In the hands of the Bolsheviks, suicide became a marker of the ongoing struggle between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution.

This is what ultimately troubled the Bolsheviks about suicide.  Each act suggested the incomplete state of the revolution.  Until that moment an unhealthy element among their ranks had been masked or gone undetected by others.  The collective rituals that the Bolsheviks constructed around suicide fostered a negative attitude toward self-destruction as an illegitimate response to personal difficulties.  They also intensified practices aimed at exposing and diagnosing a person’s inner thoughts and feelings.  The end goal was a system that would reveal suicidal individuals before they made themselves—and their political degeneration—known in the most horrific manner.