Soviet Suicide, the Soviet Individual, Soviet Society

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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.

“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.”

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.

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.

“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.”


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
Kenneth M. Pinnow Lost to the Collective: Suicide and the Promise of Soviet Socialism, 1921-1929 Cornell University Press 288 pages, 9 ¼ x 6 ¼ inches ISBN 978 0801447662

Kenneth M. Pinnow is Associate Professor of History at Allegheny College, Meadville, PA, where he teaches courses on Russian/Soviet history and the history of medicine. He is currently working on a study of early Soviet criminology and the construction of interdisciplinary knowledge.

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March 12, 2010