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


I strongly believe that the study of history is as much a dialogue with the present as with the past.  My interests in Soviet responses to suicide are inextricably bound with my interests in our society’s attempts to deal with uncertainty and death.  Despite many changes in our technology and our thinking, suicide today remains a riddle.  It still haunts the survivors.  It still creates a vacuum of meaning that demands filling.  It still raises fundamental questions about human agency and responsibility.  And it still functions as a catalyst for analyzing our politics, our relationships, and our selves.  Moreover, I believe that many of the same anxieties and aspirations that animated the Soviets in their explorations continue to shape the work of our governments, researchers, and community organizations.

My sense of continuity with the past is periodically reaffirmed by stories in the media.  For example, a few years ago a group of researchers announced that they had found a possible genetic marker for major depression and suicidal behavior.  With this announcement came the promise of preventing suicides through the early identification of at-risk individuals and the development of improved drug treatments.  Both are certainly laudable goals.  But the research reminded me of Soviet experts’ frustrated attempts to identify the root causes of suicide in the body and of their unshakable belief that the eradication of suicide was a matter of better technologies and greater knowledge.

Viewed broadly, the story of Soviet suicide asks us to reflect upon our medicalized understandings of life and own faith in policy makers and experts.  Like the Soviets, many of us have a hard time dealing with uncertainty and desire ever more clarity in the face of an increasingly complex and fast-paced world.  Moreover, many of us retain an unspoken belief in the power of the sciences to eventually overcome the murkiness of human nature, which then promises a greater degree of control over fate. While recognizing that the Soviet experience represents a particular expression of these assumptions and desires, Lost to the Collective poses the fundamental question of whether such control is possible or even desirable.

© Kenneth Pinnow