What was the meaning of suicide in the Soviet Union in the formative decade of the 1920s? In this ambitious, yet not always very readable study, Kenneth M. Pinnow examines the ways in which the Soviet leadership responded to the phenomenon of suicide. Suicide increasingly became the focal point for the development of Bolshevik concepts of selfhood, personality and human relationship and above all Soviet attempts to construct the collective. Suicide, perhaps the most individual human act, was a potential threat to the Soviet collective. As Pinnow shows, "the collective's greatest resource and greatest threat was the individual" (251). For Pinnow, the study of state responses towards suicide can serve as a window to previously understudied aspects of Soviet society "for examining the overlapping spheres of governmental action toward both individuals and society during the 1920s." Pinnow therefore implicitly follows the example of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim who in his 1897 classic study used suicide as a vehicle to analyse more general patterns and problems of society.
Pinnow concentrates on suicide discourses and hardly discusses individual suicides. His analysis of scientific and political discourses would have been even stronger if he had examined their impact on individual suicides in some more detail. Suicide ran counter to Soviet concepts of individuality and society and therefore had to be fought and ultimately overcome in the new Soviet society populated by the New Man and the New Woman. Doctors, statisticians and officials thus worked hard towards preventing suicides, prompted by their belief that they could shape society, including moral norms and traditional values, through [End Page 1241] political and scientific measures in what Pinnow rather inelegantly calls "the Soviet social science state." Society, Pinnow underlines emphatically, was not a static given for the Soviet leadership. Rather, the Soviet leadership saw society as something that could be shaped and reshaped through governmental action.
For Pinnow, the Soviet Union of the 1920s was the first state which "fully embraced the statistical conception of the population, and, accordingly, the potential of modern governmental practices to achieve a legible and integrated social order" (13-14). The 1920s were therefore a testing decade of modernity, perhaps more so than in other European countries. After exciting public debates on suicide during the 1920s, suicide discourses vanished from the public sphere in the 1930s under Stalin because suicide was increasingly seen as an illegitimate act, representing something going amiss in the increasingly consolidated Soviet society. Some comparative outlook to other European dictatorships, especially to Nazi Germany, would have been helpful. Pinnow relates his findings to a longer trajectory of suicide in Russian history and draws upon Susan Morrissey's work on suicide in Imperial Russia that questions linear progressions of suicide discourses from the traditional to the progressive. In traditional European societies, heavily if not entirely informed by Christian views, suicide is a taboo, penalised by both church and state, whereas in 'modern', allegedly 'secular' societies, suicide is considered to be a fundamental human right. Yet, in Russia, both the traditional and the 'progressive' views continued to coexist with each other throughout the 1920s and beyond. This hybrid status of suicide in the 1920s shows that Bolshevik attempts to transform collective and individual mentalities still had not fully impacted on the Soviet society that was still in the making. All in all, Pinnow's fine study advances our understanding of Soviet policy towards the collective in the 1920s and makes us rethink this crucial decade's significance.