Tsuyoshi Hasegawa


On his book Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd

Cover Interview of November 26, 2017

In a nutshell

The story of the Russian Revolution has more often been told from the perspective of the active participants in the revolution, whether they were the leaders of political groups or social groups who actively participated in the revolutionary process. Rarely has it been told from the perspective of ordinary people who were swept up in the process of revolutionary change. This book examines how the revolution affected ordinary people and, in turn, how their reaction influenced the course of events.

There was euphoric excitement after the February Revolution. Having acquired freedom and equality, people expected life to improve immediately. But life only got worse. Electricity and the water supply dwindled, and soon stopped. Garbage piled up in the streets and courtyards, uncollected. The city stunk so bad that newspapers commented that even an elephant would faint. Worst of all, basic food became scarce. People stood for hours in long queues for a mere loaf of bread. Horses, dead from starvation, lay strewn about in the city’s major streets, and signs were posted not to eat dead horses. Dogs disappeared, ending up in people’s stomachs. Epidemics spread, and hospitals were overwhelmed.

As horrible as this all was, the most frightening change was the sharp rise of crime, especially violent crime. The tsar was gone and with the tsar the tsarist police was also annihilated. The newly created municipal police, inexperienced and untrained, was infiltrated by former criminals. Pickpockets became muggers. Robbers became murderers. People believed that merchants were taking advantage of shortages and the economic decline to the detriment of a population already suffering from rationing and deprivation. An ugly specter of anti-Semitism reared its head in the mob justice against merchants.

The old court system was paralyzed, and temporary new courts passed erratic verdicts without solid legal basis. Soon, even the temporary courts were abolished, leaving the citizens nowhere to go to lodge their complaints. Likewise, the prison system broke down, leading to mass escapes and returning criminals to the streets.

How did people react to all this?

Longing for order and security that political authorities could not provide, people took the law into their own hands. Crowds turned to mob justice. When witnessing a crime, people attempted to catch the thieves, even petty thieves, then surrounded the perpetrators, and there on the spot, beat them up, kicked them, sometimes even tearing their limbs, or shot them point-blank, or paraded them through the streets, tied them to carts, and then often ended the punishment by throwing them into the canals and rivers to enjoy watching them drown.

Mob justice was not merely an expression of rage against criminals and speculators. This was an expression of the frustration and anger of ordinary people felt about deteriorating life in general. This brutal violence is one of the most prominent, frightening, and often ignored aspects of the Russian Revolution. The revolution brought out the worst of human emotions—hatred, cruelty, brutality, and vengeance.

It is important to recognize that the Bolsheviks approved and often encouraged this breakdown of social order. Lenin in fact thought mob justice was the expression of justifiable popular anger against the bourgeois order.

When they came to power, the Bolsheviks were blissfully ignorant about the necessity to maintain public order. Carried away with their utopian vision, they assumed that all they had to do was to dismantle the old bourgeois militia and replace it with proletarian universal militia. But things went from bad to worse under the Bolsheviks. Both crime and mob justice grew in size and cruelty. Moreover, under the Bolsheviks, a new element of mob violence was added: alcohol pogroms. Mobs began to attack wine and vodka cellars in November and December. The most violent raid took place in the wine cellars of the Winter Palace, where the cellars turned into a sea of wine. Many were drowned to death. A Bolshevik high official helplessly observed that the Bolshevik power was drowning in a sea of wine and vodka.

To deal with this unprecedented social breakdown, the Bolsheviks resorted to draconian measures. The Red Guards were ordered to shoot and kill any criminals on the spot. This stop-gap measure proved no deterrence to criminals. Having exhausted all measures to create a new proletarian police system, the Bolsheviks finally proclaimed all common crimes be identified as political counterrevolutionary acts to be dealt with by the Cheka—an extralegal secret police without any institutional checks. The Bolsheviks’ dealing with crime, mob justice, and alcohol pogroms thus became one of the most important steps toward the establishment of the totalitarian state.