Deaths at Two O’Clock

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Lost to the Collective: Suicide and the Promise of Soviet Socialism, 1921-29 by Kenneth Pinnow
    Cornell, 276 pp, £32.95, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 8014 4766 2

Say you are killing yourself in the name of the Russian intelligentsia, and you will die

like a hero. That one shot will awaken the sleeping conscience of this country … Your name will become a household word. Your death will be the topic of the day. Your picture will be in all the papers … The Russian intelligentsia will gather about your coffin. The cream of the nation carry you through the streets.

Nikolai Robertovich Erdman’s play The Suicide, written in 1928, satirises the contemporary preoccupation with suicide as a political message. Citizen Podsekalnikov is an ordinary man, out of work and demoralised by having to live off his wife. But when his suicide plans become known, people flock to his apartment, begging him to kill himself in their name – in the name of the intelligentsia, of ‘social aliens’, of the clergy. Initially, Podsekalnikov doesn’t have a political motive, but he catches on quickly:

I am about to die. Who is to blame? Our leaders, dear comrades, they are the ones. Go to one of our dear leaders and ask him: what have you done for Podsekalnikov? He won’t answer you that question, comrades, because he doesn’t even know that there is a Podsekalnikov in the Soviet Union.

One can understand the censors’ nervousness about putting on the play, which, despite lukewarm encouragement from Stalin, was pulled from production at the Meyerhold Theatre on the eve of its premiere in the autumn of 1932. This was probably just as well, since Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, killed herself a few weeks later.

Suicide was a highly politicised topic in late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. In the 1880s, and again in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, Russians believed their country – or at least its main cities – had been engulfed in an ‘epidemic of suicide’, especially among the young. In the 1880s, educated opinion, always ready to blame any malaise on the government, saw the supposed suicide epidemic as a social pathology – ‘degeneration’ was the word most often used. Newspapers gave generous coverage to suicides, and Dostoevsky was among their fascinated readers. After the failure of the 1905 Revolution, the public attributed the wave of suicides to disappointed hopes of revolutionary change. Suicide became the symbol of everything that was wrong with Russia’s governance.

Within the revolutionary movement, any suicides that could be directly linked to state repression – prison suicides were the prime example – were seen as heroic acts of defiance, with the dead joining the roll of revolutionary martyrs. ‘Terrorists’ – the term seems to have been coined by the People’s Will, the wing of the Populist revolutionary party responsible for the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – considered the taking of another life justified insofar as they were offering up their own: a philosophy not so different from that of present-day suicide bombers, except for the fact that the Russian public, unlike the contemporary Western one, at least partly accepted the justification. As Marxists, the Bolsheviks were against terrorism on principle, but emotionally they were not unresponsive to the notion of a life for a life. Lenin’s elder brother, Alexander Ulyanov, had been executed for an attempt on the life of Alexander III in 1887.

Kenneth Pinnow is not concerned with suicide as a political gesture: what interests him more is suicide as a subject of disciplinary expertise, particularly medical, and suicide monitoring as an aspect of the modern state’s effort to mould the population. Pinnow was part of the cohort of young historians of the Soviet Union trained at Columbia in the 1990s who, influenced by Stephen Kotkin, first brought Foucault to Soviet history.

Psychologists, specialists in forensic medicine and statisticians – all those in Russia who studied the phenomenon of suicide in the first decade of the 20th century – complained of the lack of state support for their scientific endeavours. The imperial Russian state was ‘backward’, in the experts’ view, not least because of its indifference to their own profession-building efforts. It was modern for a country to have rising suicide rates, and even more modern to make them the subject of systematic scientific investigation à la Durkheim, whose pioneering study of suicide had been published in 1897 and was soon translated into Russian. The experts’ assumption – that Russia was uniquely predisposed to suicide because of its backward, despotic government – was soon tested: as the statisticians quickly established, Russian suicide rates were actually quite low compared with other countries. Happily for modern science, however, the capital cities – Moscow and Petrograd/Leningrad – had quite respectably high suicide rates both before and after the Revolution.

The suicide rate seems to have dropped during the war years between 1914 and 1921, though in the absence of systematic monitoring, one can’t be sure. But in the 1920s the experts resumed their work, now with more secure professional status and support from the modernising Soviet state, which in its early years was deeply committed to data collection and statistics. Two groups of experts were particularly active in the investigation of suicide: forensic medical researchers and statisticians. Forensic medicine was one of the professions that flourished as never before in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The general trend, among criminologists too, was to emphasise the social; as Iakov Leibovich, a former gynaecologist from Odessa who was now the country’s chief medical examiner, put it, the expert in forensic medicine had become ‘a sociologist’. On the initiative of Leibovich and others, the Department of Forensic Medicine (part of the People’s Commissariat of Public Health) organised surveys of suicide, circulating questionnaires to doctors and forensic medical practitioners requesting medical details, descriptions of what had happened, testimony on the subject’s character and mood and so on. Suicide was no longer a crime as it had been before 1917, but it could still reach the courts, since it was an offence, in the USSR and elsewhere, to drive a minor or dependant to take their own life or assist in such a suicide.

The new discipline of ‘moral statistics’ (named for the French statistique morale) soon claimed suicide as its own. The rubric also covered prostitution, abortion, alcoholism, youth homelessness and crime. Mikhail Gernet, an academic who had taught at Moscow University and worked at Vladimir Bekhterev’s Psychoneurological Institute before the Revolution, was the leading figure here. Like Leibovich, he seems to have been neither a Marxist nor a Party member, but his career prospered under the Soviet regime: he helped found the State Institute for the Study of Crime and the Criminal and was the head of the Central Statistical Administration’s Department of Moral Statistics. Gernet also collected suicide data, imposing stricter reporting procedures on local statistical agencies. His publication of the national suicide statistics for 1922-25 was regarded by his peers as a distinctively Soviet scientific achievement (modern, systematic, publishing what had previously been hidden). But Gernet always wanted his work to be seen as part of international scholarship as well, labelling his tables in French as well as Russian. This was a time when ‘Soviet’, ‘international’ and ‘modern’ could be seen as mutually reinforcing concepts.

The Communist Party, the Komsomol and the Red Army were concerned with suicide too. The Red Army’s Political Administration, which regularly investigated the suicides of soldiers and officers under the general heading ‘extraordinary events’ (chrezvychainye proisshestviia or ChP), left a remarkably rich set of suicide data for the 1920s and 1930s, now held in the RGVA archive in Moscow (which, in contrast to other Soviet military archives, has been open since the early 1990s). The Red Army’s political commissars had a different approach to suicide from the experts: as Communists, ‘workers on the ideological front’, they didn’t see themselves as scientists, and had no stake in the concept of modernity or objectivity – they were gathering data on behalf of the Party and security organs as well as the military authorities, not for publication. Their aim was to monitor the mood of the soldiers and they investigated individual suicides both in order to understand the political, social and material problems that might have given rise to them, and to mobilise the collective to prevent further suicide attempts. As with today’s ubiquitous grief counsellors, their job was to help the local collective deal with the tragedy and draw the right political and moral lessons from it.

In the mid-1920s, Russian society was once again in the grip of what was thought to be an epidemic of suicide. Even with the help of the experts’ data-gathering it is difficult to be sure about this, but suicide was certainly a preoccupation of the press, and its resurgence (or perceived resurgence) was a matter of high concern to the Party. If in the bad old days suicide had been an individual response to unbearable repression and lack of hope for the future, why was it still prevalent after the Revolution? Was it, as many Communists feared, a sign of disillusionment and of the Revolution’s degeneration, an indication that the earlier optimism and sense of revolutionary purpose were waning? But then whose fault was that? The Stalinist leadership, oppositionists suggested. On the contrary, the Stalinists argued, the oppositionists’ own frondisme and undermining of Party unity were to blame. A string of literary and political suicides in the mid-1920s sparked passionate discussion in the Party, the Komsomol and among the intelligentsia. The suicide of the poet Sergei Esenin in 1925 was thought to have inspired a whole slew of copycat suicides by young people: hence the term eseninshchina as a shorthand for suicidal impulses and disillusion among the young. Five years later, Mayakovsky – unlike Esenin, a political activist – killed himself, probably mainly for personal reasons, though many contemporaries believed his persecution by the militant young Communists of RAPP, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, played its part.

Within the Party, the old tradition of treating a political suicide with respect retained much of its force in the 1920s, even though the authorities tried to combat it. Party and Komsomol suicides were often linked to expulsion from the Party, or the threat of expulsion, and accusations of having concealed ‘bad’ social origins. Aron Solts of the Party’s Central Control Commission said that Bolsheviks threatened with expulsion should not kill themselves and leave a note declaring that life outside the Party was unthinkable (as some had done): this may have looked like devotion to the Party, but in reality it just showed a lack of courage, an unwillingness to fight for a reversal of the decision. The rhetoric was harsher when the suicide was a prominent member of the opposition whose death seemed intended to make a political point. When the Left Communist Evgeniya Bosh killed herself in 1925, she was denied an official funeral and burial in the Kremlin Wall for her ‘act of indiscipline’. When Adolf Ioffe, a longtime Trotskyist, committed suicide in protest against Trotsky’s expulsion from the Party in 1927, sympathisers praised him as a martyr for the Revolution, but Stalin’s supporters, hinting at his morphine addiction and history of mental illness, denounced him as a proponent of the ‘philosophy of decadence’.

For Pinnow, the intensity of the Soviet investigation of suicides is indicative of the ‘rise of a social science state’, based on scientific expertise, whose aim was the study, control and management of the population. This is an interesting and plausible claim for the decade following the Revolution, but the union of social science and power that Pinnow’s suicide experts probably hoped for never materialised. By the end of the 1920s, the intellectual and artistic world had been thrown into turmoil, as ‘bourgeois experts’ came under suspicion of treason and young outsiders, self-styled ‘proletarians’ with Party cards, assailed establishments in every field. The social sciences were no exception: the ‘modern’ professions of sociology, psychology, criminology, demography and statistics suffered tremendous setbacks: they lost control of institutes and journals, and were no longer able to publish or even gather data. In many cultural and scholarly fields, the ‘bourgeois’ experts, duly chastened, made a comeback after a few years, but not in the social sciences, where the Cultural Revolution inaugurated a 40-year hiatus in the kind of modern, internationally oriented work that had flourished in the 1920s. It was not until Khrushchev’s Thaw that social scientists emerged from their boltholes in departments of philosophy, planning, economics and the like and re-established their disciplines.

When the professional experts quit the field, suicide monitoring was left in the hands of the Party practitioners, who were not qualified in any professional discipline. Pinnow calls them experts ‘in the care of the political self’, but this is just wordplay, a trick to avoid the problem this turn of events causes for his argument. It is paradoxical, to say the least, to call a state that has just banished its social scientists a ‘social science state’. However, there is no doubt that Stalinism and surveillance went hand in hand. Suicide monitoring in its post-expert phase demonstrated the strange mixture of paternalist care and vicious abuse that the Stalinist state offered all its citizens. This is a story that Pinnow tells only sketchily in his 20-page epilogue on ‘Suicide and Stalinism’. It is worth a closer look, both because it is interesting in itself and as an outcome that might suggest a different reading of the 1920s from Pinnow’s.

Judging by the RGVA archive, suicide rates rose in the early 1930s, as did the intensity of their investigation by OGPU, the Red Army and the Party. The rise in suicides is probably attributable both to the social disruption of the period, and to the fact that large numbers of people were being expelled from the Party and Komsomol, losing their government jobs, or being branded ‘social aliens’ during the Cultural Revolution. Even more than in the 1920s, suicide notes tended to blame the regime or its officials and express disillusionment or despair at being cast out. But in the early 1930s, investigators did not make too much of this, perhaps recognising that invoking a political grievance could simply be a way of ennobling the act. Many suicides, in fact, appear to have occurred when private misery was combined with some public disaster like being accused of kulak connections. Humiliation by the authorities and/or fellow workers is a recurring motif. Sometimes, officials or co-workers who mistreated the suicide were held partly to blame for the death. Often, investigators blamed the local collective (army unit, workplace and so on) for failing to see that one of its members needed help and support.

The case of Polina Sitnikova (not one of Pinnow’s, though it comes from the same military archive) is a good example of what one might call the benign monitoring style of the early 1930s. Born in Riga in 1900, Polina joined the Communist Party at 18 and fought in the Civil War. In the early 1930s, like many other Communists of lower-class background and incomplete secondary education, she was sent as a vydvizhenka (affirmative action beneficiary) to study at the Air Force Academy in Moscow. Crippled in a plane crash, suffering from tuberculosis, she wasn’t physically strong and the work was hard for her. She was married to an older man (said to be her uncle) and had a young daughter, cared for by a live-in nanny, with whom she spent little time. Her work and Party duties consumed her. Her suicide note, dated 14 October 1932, stated that she was dying for lack of ‘strength to continue the fight to correct the general line of the Party’. This wasn’t explained, but a group of students at the academy who were bullying her evidently had a lot to do with it. A commission appointed to investigate her death produced a file of more than 40 pages, including interviews with family members, the nanny, friends and fellow students. It concluded that this was basically a non-political suicide, despite the note. Polina was touchy, ill and unhappy at the academy, and perhaps the comrades were not always tactful enough. Ignoring her vague accusations of deviation from the Party line, the inquiry found nobody to blame for her death.

In an intriguingly analogous case, another female student, also a Communist and Civil War veteran, committed suicide in Moscow just a month later. She too had a daughter to whom she seemed indifferent and a live-in nanny; she too suffered from persistent ill-health and tiredness. Her husband, although not as attentive as Polina’s, was an older man whom she’d known as a child and probably once called ‘uncle’. Though her parents were workers, she’d been better educated than Polina and found her studies at the Industrial Academy less difficult. There was no indication of taunting on the part of fellow students. Her name was Nadezhda Allilueva, and her husband was Joseph Stalin.

Unlike other suicides of the time, Allilueva’s was not publicly announced as such. As a result, the Party cell of the Industrial Academy had no occasion to appoint the usual commission to investigate the circumstances of her death, or interview colleagues, friends and family members. But one can imagine the report they might have produced. Doctors would have testified to a variety of physical problems including migraine, heart problems, arthritis, depression and perhaps schizophrenia. Family members and household attendants would have described her wild mood swings and tendency to jealousy, while friends would have conveyed her passionate commitment to her studies. The immediate occasion of the suicide, the commission would have established, appeared to be an irrational outburst of jealousy against her husband at a party. The commission would surely have concluded that nobody was to blame for the death, though it might well have issued a mild rebuke to the husband for lack of tact and a reprimand to her brother Pavel for having given her the pistol, a present from Berlin, which was so small as to seem almost a toy. One can also imagine a concluding note to the Party cell of the Industrial Academy urging them to investigate ‘rightism’ among students, which could have contributed to the death.

Given that Stalin set the tone of Soviet political culture, it’s hard to avoid attributing significance going beyond the personal to Allilueva’s suicide (barely mentioned in Pinnow’s book). There were, of course, other pressing matters – the impending famine, for example – that might have been responsible for his increasingly tough approach to social problems. In any case, the Party line on suicide became harsher as the 1930s wore on. The Russian political historian Oleg Khlevniuk told the story of this shift in a book published in 1992 that Pinnow makes little use of. With the approach of the Great Purges, surveillance of suicide took on a different character. It became accusatory, paranoid and vicious. The suicide of prominent Party members was now seen as a political act, an explicit or implicit condemnation of the state; accordingly, official rhetoric branded it cowardly and contemptible. When Mikhail Tomsky, a former trade unionist and leader of the Right Opposition, was named by the former Left Oppositionist Grigory Zinoviev in his testimony at the first of the Moscow show trials that ushered in the Great Purges, he killed himself and left a note to Stalin declaring his innocence. His note was ignored, and Pravda announced – in a phrase that would become formulaic – that he had killed himself after being ‘led astray by his ties with counter-revolutionary Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorists’. When the Moscow Party official Furer left a suicide note protesting against the unjust arrest of a friend and colleague, Stalin remarked that such a person commits suicide only ‘because he is afraid that everything will be revealed and … does not want to witness his own public disgrace.’ Suicide, he added, is one of the ‘easiest ways to spit one last time on the Party’. By 1937, the political suicide was someone who had unmasked himself as an enemy of the people.

Pinnow’s central hypothesis about the social science state fits only part of his data, as he must know. The experts fell out of the picture in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s, and, despite high expectations after the Revolution, the Soviet social science state never existed. Still, he has extracted some memorable nuggets of information from Leibovich’s and Gernet’s surveys. That women were more inclined to kill themselves after being emancipated by the Revolution perhaps makes sense, but who would have thought that the most popular time to kill oneself in Russia in the 1920s was two o’clock on a summer afternoon? Not that you want to take that as gospel. Another contemporary survey found that most suicides occurred, like Allilueva’s, in the darkness of Russia’s long, cold winter.