Posted by: mydarkestplaces | June 15, 2013

Suicide in dire circumstances

As discussed previously, I’m writing a book about Stalin. Right now I’m caught up principally in the Great Purges of 1937-38. Robert Conquest‘s The Great Terror, often perceived as one of the preeminent books on the Purges under Stalin, is what I’ve been slowly making my way through in small bites before going to work in the mornings.

To oversimplify a pretty horrific five years (1934-39) Stalin in his ever paranoid wisdom was working on getting rid of anyone who he felt threatened by. Men or women – if you were a part of the Party hierarchy you weren’t safe. Particularly if at some point you had spoken out against decisions that Stalin had made or was making. Stalin had a slew of musclemen who weren’t afraid to brutalize and/or murder and/or psychologically terrify anyone Stalin said to. The vast majority of the men and women arrested during this time eventually caved, admitting to whatever “crime” that Stalin wanted them to admit to. As a result the accused quickly found themselves on their way to the GULAGS (that is to say the network of prison labor camps) or the execution block. However, a couple important movers and shakers didn’t get to either place. They ended up dying by their own hand – although speculation abounds that they were assisted along the way.

The question I’m left with is this: You are speciously accused of a crime. You are tortured to within an inch of your life. You are pressured in every inhuman way possible to confess to a crime you didn’t commit. Your family is threatened. Your friends are threatened. You’re told there’s no end in sight to the torture that will be inflicted upon you if you don’t confess. As a result of these insurmountable pressures, there were some men who chose to take their own lives. Maybe they knew they were going to die, and they wanted some agency so they could control the circumstances in which they were dying. Maybe they just steadfastly refused to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. Either way, they took their own lives. But if you were going to be dead anyway, can taking your own life be considered suicide? Frankly, I’m not sure.

Some coffee shop friends say it doesn’t matter, suicide is suicide regardless of the circumstances. But I can’t help but feel Ordzhonikidze and some others took the higher road. I feel the same about terminally ill patients who say, “I don’t want to go out like this.”

In a review I read by E.A. Rees in an academic journal he says, “If the alternative to suicide is being brutally murdered, is it still suicide?” Frankly, I don’t have an easy answer. I don’t think there is an easy answer. Nor should there be when talking about the death of a human being. I’m interested in what you all think. Can you say that someone taking their own life in lieu of being brutally murdered is “suicide”?

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