Violence against the Collective Self and the Problem of Social Integration in Early Bolshevik Russia
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 653-677

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Violence against the Collective Self and the Problem of Social Integration in Early Bolshevik Russia*

Kenneth M. Pinnow

The categories used by the Bolshevik Party to study suicide look very similar to our own and do not differ greatly from the work of other Europeans during the early 20th century. Its investigators broke down the numbers according to such personal indicators as class, sex, age, occupation, and marital status; such environmental determinants as date, time, and season; and such causal factors as unrequited love, fear of punishment, incurable illness, degenerative conditions, material want, family squabbles, and the ubiquitous "disappointment with life." 1 Like their contemporaries elsewhere, they believed that suicide was an entry point into a deeper understanding of the individual and his relationship to society. As a consequence, the facts of Soviet suicide (as with so many other aspects of Soviet society and social knowledge) appear easily transposable to our sociological framework of interpretation, seemingly affording us a clear window into ennui, anomie, and other facets of subjective experience under socialism. 2

The historian of suicide, however, faces certain interpretative challenges in trying to discern the meaning of suicide under the Soviet regime. Namely, our conceptual categories of analysis are not fully applicable to a regime where the boundaries between the "individual" and "society" were blurred. Any historical study of suicide must confront the problem of how the Bolsheviks conceptualized the self when dealing with instances of this phenomenon among their ranks. [End Page 653] It clearly was not the autonomous liberal self, but rather an individualized "social body" that was understood through and against the larger collective (kollektiv). The direct application of such analytical categories as the "individual" and "society" is therefore problematic and demands a different approach to the sources. 3

This article contends that suicide, as a form of violence committed against the self, is best used to examine the way that the individual and society - and the relationship between them - were constructed within Bolshevik Party discourse during the 1920s. Instead of using suicide to measure socialization, resistance, and other structural processes that have occupied social historians, it uses suicide to explore how the Bolsheviks themselves conceptualized human relationships and sought to transform the quality of subjective experience. In this respect, my approach builds upon the work of scholars who have emphasized the historically and culturally contingent nature of suicide's significance. 4 The aim here is to uncover the ways that the Bolsheviks put the idea of social integration into practice and to demonstrate that official responses to suicide must be interpreted within the context of the regime's efforts to build a collectivist social order.

My investigation suggests that within Bolshevik discourse the individual was understood to be the collective's greatest resource and its greatest threat. The act of suicide violated conceptions of the kollektiv as a space where the individual would have the opportunity to achieve genuine self-fulfillment as a member of the group. Party investigators and theoreticians argued that a person could not commit suicide because the self belonged not to him, but to the collective. Acts of self-destruction therefore did harm to the group as well as to the individual. In response, both the civilian and military wings of the Bolshevik Party used the language and methods of social investigation, gathering statistics and other types of information about suicide, in the belief that these data were telling of social integration and organizational well-being. They also encouraged a number of distinct practices around the suicide, all of which aimed at integrating the remaining individuals more strongly within the collective. Central to these practices were the joint creation of a "collective opinion" and the promotion of mutual surveillance as a means of fostering communal relations, strengthening both group and individual accountability, and preventing future acts of suicide. [End Page 654]

Suicide as Symbol of Social (Dis)Integration

The cultural meaning of suicide reflects broader understandings of...