Tsuyoshi Hasegawa


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

Cover Interview of November 26, 2017

The wide angle

In recent years, we have witnessed the overthrow of authoritarian regimes and the difficulties new regimes have in their transition to liberal democracy. This book provides a clue to understanding this issue.

We can approach this issue from two directions. From the bottom up perspective, the Russian Revolution can be seen as the process of social disintegration into the state of anomie: the state that commonly accepted norms and values that sustained social cohesion disappeared and the social structure that ensured its norms crumbled. Antonio Gramsci stated: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of moribund symptoms appear.”

The old system of hierarchical classifications based on estates, values, and customs associated with the old system were rejected. In its place, the Provisional Government proclaimed new norms based on equality and freedom for all citizens. But various social groups challenged and contested the meaning of freedom and equality, as the age-old differences between political freedom and economic equality sharply divided society. In this cultural confusion the distinction between what was acceptable and what was unacceptable became blurred and confused.

As “culture” became normless, social structure lost the capacity to enforce its norms. The law became ambiguous, the court system malfunctioned, and police became ineffective. As a consequence, violence, not sanctioned by the legitimate authority, became the most effective and favored means to settle disputes.

From the top down perspective, what happened in the Russian Revolution is a clear case of the failed state. According to Max Weber, the state must possess two essential ingredients: monopoly of coercive power and legitimacy. The Provisional Government had neither. It could not monopolize the means of coercion, the military and the police, at the exclusion of private military organizations such as the workers’ militia and the Red Guards. Sharing power with the All-Russian Soviets, it never acquired legitimacy. It was a failed state that could not provide essential service to its citizens.

These aspects provide a key to understanding the difficulties in the transition from authoritarianism to liberal democracy. It is exceedingly difficult for a post-authoritarian regime to restore order out of chaos and establish new norms that assure liberal democracy in the face of new forces that contest advancement of their values and under the pressure of impatient rising expectations. Some kind of coercive power is required to restore a semblance of law and order that might lead to the restoration of authoritarianism that is often worse than the one that the revolution initially toppled. The reassertion of the central state under the Bolsheviks with the use of brutal coercion, without legitimacy, was a tragic consequence of the Russian Revolution.