Lost to the Collective

Lost to the Collective: Suicide and the Promise of Soviet Socialism, 1921–1929

Kenneth M. Pinnow
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Lost to the Collective
    Book Description:

    As an act of unbridled individualism, suicide confronted the Bolshevik regime with a dilemma that challenged both its theory and its practice and helped give rise to a social science state whose primary purpose was the comprehensive and rational care of the population. Labeled a social illness and represented as a vestige of prerevolutionary culture, suicide in the 1920s raised troubling questions about individual health and agency in a socialist society, provided a catalyst for the development of new social bonds and subjective outlooks, and became a marker of the country's incomplete move toward a collectivist society.

    Determined to eradicate the scourge of self-destruction, the regime created a number of institutions and commissions to identify pockets of disease and foster an integrated social order. The Soviet confrontation with suicide reveals with particular force the regime's anxieties about the relationship between the state and the individual. In Lost to the Collective, Kenneth M. Pinnow suggests the compatibility of the social sciences with Bolshevik dictatorship and highlights their illusory promises of control over the everyday life of groups and individuals.

    The book traces the creation of national statistical studies, the course of medical debates about causation and expert knowledge, and the formation of a distinct set of practices in the Bolshevik Party and Red Army that aimed to identify the suicidal individual and establish his or her significance for the rest of society. Arguing that the Soviet regime represents a particular response to the pressures and challenges of modernity, the book examines Soviet socialism-from its intense concern with the individual to its quest to build an integrated society-as one response to the larger question of human unity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5913-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    In late December 1925, Sergei Esenin, the enfant terrible of early Soviet poetry, used his own blood to pen his final words: “In this life there is nothing new about dying. But then again there is nothing new about living.” He then proceeded to hang himself from the heating pipes of his room in the Leningrad Hotel Angleter. Esenin’s theatrical last act quickly became the topic of much discussion, rumor, and speculation, some of which continue to this day.¹ It set off debates in the Soviet press and within political circles about the role of art and the artist in...

  5. 1 Suicide and Social (Dis) Integration in Revolutionary Russia
    (pp. 23-61)

    Russia experienced a demographic nightmare between 1914 and 1923. All told, some 30 million people are estimated to have perished from a combination of military strife, socioeconomic upheaval, famine, and disease. Countless more were displaced. During the civil war period 1918–21, in particular, Russia’s cities were depopulated as its urban denizens migrated to the countryside in search of food and fuel, a fact that caused deep consternation for the Bolsheviks since it depleted the proletarian social base in whose name the October Revolution of 1917 had been made.¹ Beyond the physical shifts and losses, however, there also lurked the...

  6. 2 Suicide and the Collective Individual in the Bolshevik Party
    (pp. 62-98)

    In March 1925 a group of young communists in Leningrad wrote to Emel‘ian Iaroslavskii, secretary of the Bolshevik Party’s Central Control Commission, for some advice on party ethics. Could he tell them, they asked, whether or not they had acted correctly in expelling the Komsomol member Fedorov for desertion from the party? Fedorov had committed suicide, and their posthumous action against him had been lampooned in the newspaper of the Leningrad Komsomol organization. Now these young people sought clarification, and perhaps some justification, from one of the party’s leading voices on suicide and communist ethics.

    Iaroslavskii replied by letter. He...

  7. 3 Suicide and Social Autopsy
    (pp. 99-139)

    In early 1926, the Komsomolist Grigorii Kopein hanged himself in his dormitory room, leaving behind a note that claimed he had done three stupid things in his life—he was born, he got married, and now he had committed suicide. Outwardly, he appeared an unlikely candidate for suicide from the standpoint of the Bolshevik Party. Although the child of well-to-do peasants (kulaks), he had broken off all relations with his politically suspect parents. He had married recently, was academically successful at the Bukharin workers’ faculty (rabfak), participated frequently in social work, and was especially active in the Komsomol. An investigation...

  8. 4 Markers of Modernity: Moral Statistics and the Making of Soviet Suicide
    (pp. 140-183)

    In his introduction to Nikolai Pavlovich Brukhanskii’s Suicides (1927), Nikolai Aleksandrovich Semashko, head of the People’s Commissariat of Public Health, reiterated the general belief that the revolution had altered patterns of self-destruction in the country. He praised the work not only for its methodology and rich material but also for studying suicides “committed under . . . the Soviet system.” According to Semashko, “new living conditions never before seen in history” were finding expression in the kinds of people who were killing themselves, in the motivations that led them to act on their impulses, and in the “technology” (tekhnika) they...

  9. 5 Suicide and Surveillance: Medicopolitics in the Red Army
    (pp. 184-230)

    In 1914, the Moscow psychiatrist Leonid Alekseevich Prozorov wrote of the enormous potential for surveillance within the Russian army. He argued that the military provided a discrete and ordered population readily accessible to scientific investigation. In particular, he believed that acts of suicide and the complicated psychology behind them could be observed more easily inside the army. “Up to the last minutes of their lives,” wrote Prozorov, “military suicides are normally found in the company of comrades under the vigilant tutelage [opeka] of the command. This presents an opportunity for gathering material about the personality of the soldier or officer...

  10. Epilogue: Suicide and Stalinism
    (pp. 231-252)

    Beginning in 1928–29, the Soviet regime opened up a broad economic and ideological offensive that spelled the end of the New Economic Policy. Together with the collectivization of agriculture, the programs of mass industrialization enshrined in the First Five-Year Plan (1929–34) produced an extremely fluid society that challenged the state’s ability to see and manage the population. About the same time, the Cultural Revolution (1928–31) unleashed a wave of attacks against the remnants of the prerevolutionary professional and intellectual elites, thereby unsettling the governmental and educational apparatuses. The results were dramatic: the countryside was transformed with the...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-266)
  12. Index
    (pp. 267-276)