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Suicide: a Russian Phenomenon

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Submitted By mesther
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The 19th century was a time of great political and social upheaval in Russia. Beginning with the abolition of serfdom in 1861, Russia experienced the age of the Great Reforms, leading to a complete overhaul of the country’s social and political climate. This age of restless transformation led to the realization of a new cultural phenomenon: suicide. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina supports the notion that a national suicide “epidemic”, as the journalists of the time interpreted the statistics, was a by-product of the decomposing societal and moral order produced by the inception of material progress. Furthermore, Anna Karenina mirrors the “cultural institution” of suicide that erupted in the 1860’s and offers a realistic, albeit fictional, representation of the suicide phenomenon regarding both peasants and nobles. Leo Tolstoy, through use of railroads as a symbol in Anna Karenina, shared views similar with his contemporaries on the negative impact of material progress on the mental health of Russian society. Approximately 30 years before the reforms of the 1860’s, an Englishman who traveled to St. Petersburg, Thomas Raikes, Esq., commented that Russians had not yet experienced the progress of civilization that accounted for the misery leading to suicide. At the time, Russians were not yet privy to the amount of responsibility over their social and political conditions as they would be when the reforms took place, therefore they still lived free of the passion and anguish which reforms promised to bring. But, progress could not be avoided and neither could the culture of suicide that followed it. Progress unveiled all the inadequacies of life to the Russian people, leading to their thirst for “more” that ultimately went unquenched. Leo Tolstoy, heavily influenced by his reading of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son, believed the rapid growth of railroads symbolized the age of progress responsible for the people’s impending demise. Thus, it is unsurprising that Tolstoy utilized a train to derail the lives of two victims, an unnamed peasant, an apparent accident and his main character, Anna, a tragic suicide. His contemporaries from all sects of Russian society, ranging from the Minister of Finance to the Rector of the Riga Theological seminary, shared his view that railroads were symbolic of Russia’s spiral to spiritual devastation. Russia’s spirit, previously preserved by the seclusion that Slavophils coveted, could no longer be conserved due to the ease of travel, and therefore development of civilization, for which railroads held responsibility. Near the beginning of the novel when a peasant is crushed by a train, Anna deems it a “bad omen”, suggesting the railroad as a symbolic means of death. This foreshadowing is on point, since it is Anna’s own weapon of choice for her suicide. The railroad is what brought Anna to Moscow and to Vronsky, in accordance with the concept of a railroad as a means of travel and progress not just physically, but also mentally, opening Anna to the personal unhappiness in her family and romantic life. The reality of her sorrows that the railroad helped reveal to Anna is what led to her suicide by means of train, showing that the railroad represented both the power of progress to expose reasons for one to be dissatisfied with his life, and that the impact of this realization is horrible enough to constitute a reason for suicide. Another indicator of progress that influenced a culture of suicide was the press and although it wasn’t transparently stated in Anna Karenina, it played an important role in Russian society. Newspapers in Russia, aided by increased literacy rates and relaxed censorship, influenced the cultural significance of suicide by making it socially relevant via constant reporting and sensationalizing of the stories. The use of statistics and newspaper reporting combined influenced the Russian public to believe that their society was undergoing an “epidemic” of suicides. A triple suicide that occurred on March 4, 1910, exemplified the presses’ hand in publicizing suicide to the point of normalizing it. Newspapers all over the country wrote about the triple suicide, often differing in their rendition of the events. The inconsistency between newspapers’ coverage on suicides was common and shows how the media was more focused on compelling and dramatic storytelling rather than factual reporting. Furthermore, the suicide notes of the three girls in the aforementioned case were published. The publication of suicide notes, which would be considered incredibly callous and ludicrous today, was commonplace in Russia beginning in the 1860’s, showing once again how the press emphasized the importance of suicide and endorsed the nation-wide discussion about it. In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy does not mention the press in this context, but the fact that three of his main characters contemplate suicide and one completes it, is reflective of the so-called epidemic and society’s fixation on it. Tolstoy, himself preoccupied with suicide, deliberately used suicide as a tool to examine the human condition in an era when many Russians were debating this hot topic.
In addition to reflecting 19th century Russian society’s preoccupation with suicide in Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote a realistic account of the motives for suicide among the nobility. Material progress in Russian society ingrained a new level of egoism in the upper classes that led them to feel dissatisfied with their present lives and to constantly hunger for more personal pleasure than they previously desired. Anna and Levin both fell victim to the same contagious egoism. Despite a happy family life, Levin felt empty from his inability to find purpose in life. As a result, he hid rope to prevent from hanging himself. With all his basic human needs met, Levin lost himself in a deep philosophical turmoil a peasant probably never would have even considered. His deep theoretical musings paralleled closely the philosophies of the time, specifically nihilism. Nihilism argues that life has no value and was the creed upon which conservatives blamed Russia’s growing suicide rate. For those who did commit suicide, nihilism may have taken two different roles. For some, nihilism contributed to their hopelessness due to a lack of purpose in life. For others, suicide was a means to control their own destiny. For followers of positivism, a philosophy based on sensory experience in rejection of intuitive knowledge and often linked with nihilist thought, suicide was a way to liberate themselves from the earth and fear of death in an exercise of free will. Levin struggled with his thoughts, ingrained in the aforementioned philosophies, and may have killed himself if he had not found faith in religion at the end of the novel, which he realized was the key to most of his family and friends’ livelihood and contentment in life. The “morbid overgrowth of individual interests and passions” that Levin experienced is what counted for the increasing rates of suicide.The same lethal combination of progress and wealth that led Levin to question his purpose in life allowed Anna to recognize her discontentment in her loveless marriage and the passion Vronsky offered. Anna’s life was void of financial troubles, and therefore her problems became those of excess. Her type of despair was a luxury; losing one’s self worth and ultimately life due to a complicated love affair was exemplary of a noble’s insatiable desire for continued personal stimulation when all of life’s basic necessities were fulfilled. When all of Anna’s desires were granted, including her wish to break ties with Karenin and to live openly with Vronsky, Dolly envied her for what appeared to be a near-perfect life. Yet, despite Anna’s temporary happiness in the “perfection” Dolly witnessed, Anna begins to feel unfulfilled once again. Vronsky experiences the same conflict when traveling abroad with Anna, realizing that his “desire for desires” is what really fulfilled him, not the fruition of these desires, reiterating the nobility’s impossibility for happiness because of their constant thirst for more. This inability to ever reach contentment, combined with Anna’s severance from society, is what was responsible for her death. The same motives were apparent in many suicides in Russia after the 1860’s, as an excision from the social organism caused individuals to lose their strength and liveliness (Anna’s case precisely) and resort to suicide. Progress opened doors to desire that darkened the lives of the wealthy as they craved more materialistic sources of pleasure.
The lower class’s reasons for suicide differed starkly from that of their richer counterparts in both the novel and in reality. The Great Reforms, most notably with the elimination of serfdom, made way for a new age of peasant life filled with instability and struggle. Progress led to a sweep of changes for peasants that despite their freedom also brought unemployment, hunger, illness, etc. Thus, it is only fitting that the peasant in Tolstoy’s literary work died under a train, a clear symbol of progress hurting the less fortunate. Although the peasant guard’s train-imposed death is quickly judged an accident, the expression “flung himself!” is heard among the crowd, implying this may have been a purposeful act of suicide. Whether or not this was a suicide, the meaning is clear: a peasant trying to provide for a huge impoverished family is killed by the icon of progress. Peasants had trouble meeting their basic needs; therefore poverty was the culprit behind their suicides, rather than the flamboyant problems of the rich. In Anna Karenina, peasants found purpose in life by feeding their bellies with food and/or their soul with faith in God, as a muzhik explains to Levin. Clearly, peasants were too busy finding a means to feed themselves to sit around and ponder nihilist or populist theory. Many of them rested their faith in God and the perseverance of the soul in order to find meaning in their lives, precluding suicide as caused by an unfulfilled soul. Unlike the rich who killed themselves from unsatisfied desires, the poor ended their lives from inability to satisfy their basic human needs.
Suicide in Anna Karenina emulated 19th century Russia’s social trends. In both the novel and the reality, suicide played an important role borne out of the negative side effects of progress. For the nobility, this progress led to the soul’s bottomless pit, insatiable and constantly yearning for more pleasure. For the poor, this same progress constructed a disease of poverty and unmet physical needs vital to survival. Either way, the press took these stories and publicized them in a way that made suicide into a widely discussed topic in Russian society; therefore, it is unsurprising that suicide played a large role in the plot line of the novel. In consequence, Anna Karenina clearly depicted the suicide phenomenon that swept 19th century Russia.

Works Cited

Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia. N.p.: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Paperno, Irina. Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky's Russia. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts. New York, NY: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

[ 1 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 204.
[ 2 ]. Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy, 273.
[ 3 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 65.
[ 4 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 212.
[ 5 ]. Paperno, Irina. Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky's Russia, 3.
[ 6 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 201.
[ 7 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 209.
[ 8 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 798.
[ 9 ]. Paperno, Irina. Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky's Russia, 75.
[ 10 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 202.
[ 11 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 94.
[ 12 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 786.
[ 13 ]. Paperno, Irina. Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky's Russia, 82.
[ 14 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 612.
[ 15 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 465.
[ 16 ]. Paperno, Irina. Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky's Russia, 83.
[ 17 ]. Morrissey, Susan K. Suicide and Civilization in Late Imperial Russia, 209.
[ 18 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 64.
[ 19 ]. Paperno, Irina. Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky's Russia, 80.
[ 20 ]. Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 794.

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