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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in