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Reviewed by:
  • Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia
  • Mark D. Steinberg
Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia. By Susan K. Morrissey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xv plus 384 pp. $99.00 Hardback).

Susan Morrissey's study of the Russian encounter with suicide from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century is an exemplary model of social-historical scholarship-extensively researched, situated in both comparative and particular historical contexts, interpretively wide-ranging. Her approach resembles other important recent studies that examine a salient social "problem" as tellingly linked to deep currents in social, cultural, and political life. In Russian historiography, these include studies of "hooliganism" (Joan Neuberger, 1993), sex Laura Engelstein, 1994), homosexuality (Dan Healey, 2001), corporal punishment (Abby Schrader, 2002), and public leisure (Louise McReynolds, 2003), [End Page 242] and forthcoming studies of murder (McReynolds) and funerals (Thomas Trice). Like these works, Morrissey is able to examine and interpret, through the revealing lens of the particular, much of Russia's modern experience.

The analyzed object here is less suicides themselves than situated interpretations and responses to suicide. What lay behind these often heart-wrenching individual narratives of self-slaughter remains unavoidably obscure to us, though Morrissey offers some suggestive readings of suicides' efforts to speak through death. But it is precisely the persistent incomprehensibility of suicide that so compelled contemporaries to interpret and control it. In a phrase Morrissey uses repeatedly-echoing other scholars of suicide, including the literary historian Irina Paperno, whose 1997 book on suicide in mid-nineteenth-century Russia is an important influence (though Morrissey disputes many of Paperno's particular arguments)-a great deal of meaning was "inscribed upon the body of the suicide."

Few major themes of Russian history-or, for that matter, of the history of modern Western society-are not somehow tied up with suicide: modernity and modernization, self and subjectivity, and power (both domination and resistance) are major interpretive leitmotifs in this study, but so are related questions of class and status, the public sphere and civil society, the cultural values of honor and dignity, religion and the sacred, secularism, science, freedom and happiness, literature and society, time (especially progress and decline), the body, emotions (notably modern "boredom"), and the will. At times Morrissey only seems to gesture to key interpretive themes and to recent scholarship and theory-such phrases as, for example, "contested meanings" (160 and passim), how power is always "dialogic" and "negotiated" (e.g., 129), or "locating gender and ethnic hierarchies in the body" (125) can sound clichéd. But most often, interpretive and theoretical categories are used effectively to probe the meanings of the rich empirical evidence and to elaborate the larger significance practices and discourses.

The sources used here suggest both Morrissey's embracive methodology and the deep and extensive empirical work grounding her arguments: archives of state, police, law, and church; archives of individual writers and jurists; professional journals in law, medicine, and public health; law codes; statistics; ethnographic documents; "thick journals" and books; popular magazines; literature; and sampled newspapers ranging from high-minded dailies on both the political Left and Right to mass-circulation "boulevard" papers.

Because of Morrissey's ambitious embrace of so many interpretive themes-and so many major topics in Russian history, ranging from the westernizing reforms of the eighteenth century to the effects of the 1905 revolution, from gender and the family to revolutionary terrorism-it is difficult to summarize her main arguments. I will, however, highlight a few leitmotifs in her interpretation (which I found generally convincing) of how suicide was made meaningful. First, meaning itself was unstable. Not only did attitudes change over time, but there was no cultural consensus-suicide was always a touchstone for social debate and conflict, and thus a reminder of how fractured and contested Russian life was. Human agency was a major point of discord. For many, suicide was an expression of autonomy and sovereignty, an affirmation of the self, even a heroic protest against life as it is; but many others saw in suicide the determinations [End Page 243] of physiology or social environments, interpreting suicide as a deformed self, as a symptom of illness and abnormality, requiring...


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