“Death discarded”: desemantization of death and new understanding of a man in the early USSR 

Sokolova A.D.


Vestnik arheologii, antropologii i etnografii, 2022, ¹ 1 (56)




              page 235243




In this article we explore the evolving concept of death and dying in the Soviet political project. The discursive practices of the new state in the field of death and body disposal have been analyzed based on materials from journalism, fiction, memoirs and diaries, archival data and other sources on the history of the early USSR (1920–1930). It has been shown how the concept of creation of a new world and a new Soviet man, the foundations of which were laid in the materialist Marxist approach, transformed the deep understanding of human nature. Discarding the metaphysical interpretation of the immortal nature of man, the Bolshevik ideology destroyed the established principles of understanding of human mortality, without offering anything new in exchange. Thus, the traditional logic of the practice of dealing with death, which worked as an effective adaptive mechanism for reassembling society in the face of natural loss of its members (A. van Gennep, R. Hertz, Davies D.), was violated. In a situation of confusion caused by the loss of the usual semantics of death and funeral practices, the ideologues of the new government made a number of attempts to build new mechanisms of adaptation. One of them was the project of a new civil funeral ritual, reflected in the journalism of the 1920s, although it did not receive widespread distribution. Another practice was the construction of symbolic immortality through the concept of “life in the memory of descendants” reflected both in the literature of socialist realism and in real practices. However, the concept of “living in the memory of descendants” was relevant only for few members of the new society, who could be referred to as “Soviet heroes”. It was an elite political practice that could hardly act as a reassembly mechanism for the entire society. In this situation, ordinary deaths and funerals were thrown to the periphery, having lost the ideological and practical attention of the state.

Keywords: death, funeral practices, USSR, new man, atheism, materialism.


Funding. The article was prepared in the framework of a research grant funded by the Russian Science Foundation ¹ 19-78-10076.


Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Accepted: 16.12.2021

Article is published: 21.03.2022


Sokolova A.D., N.N. Mikluho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology RAS, Leninsky prosp., 32A, Moscow, 119334, Russian Federation, E-mail: annadsokolova@gmail.com, https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9120-8218