In Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd, historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa offers a new perspective on the revolutionary year from March 1917 to March 1918 by examining a frightening rise in violent crime that threatened the daily life of ordinary citizens in the capital city. Through the lens of crime, police behavior, judiciary ineptitude, and public response, Hasegawa demonstrates how the breakdown of political and social institutions paralyzed the city and paved the way for the rise of a new kind of authoritarianism. Below, Hasegawa introduces his study of the violent, chaotic lived experience of the revolution, and considers some of its relevance for our world today.
The catastrophic social breakdown of Petrograd, capital city of the Russian Empire, during the Russian Revolution of 1917 is an important aspect of the revolution that has been overlooked. There was euphoric excitement after the February Revolution, with people expecting immediate improvements to their lives. But life only got worse, and the city soon became paralyzed. Provision of electricity and water dwindled and soon stopped. Garbage piled up in the streets and courtyards, uncollected. The city stank so bad that newspapers commented that even an elephant would faint. Worst of all, basic food became scarcer. People had to stand for hours in long queues for a mere loaf of bread. Horses starved to death, and warnings were posted against their consumption. Dogs disappeared, ending up in people’s stomachs. Consequently, epidemics spread, filling the hospitals.
As horrible as this all was, the most frightening change in daily life was the sharp rise of crime, especially violent crime. The Tsar was gone, and the tsarist police were also annihilated. The newly created municipal police force was inexperienced and untrained, and infiltrated by former criminals. Pickpockets became muggers. Robbers became murderers. Faith in daily exchange suffered, as people believed that merchants were taking advantage of shortages and economic decline to soak a population already suffering from rationing and deprivation.
The old court system also became paralyzed, and the 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 daily complaints. The prison system broke down, leading to the mass escape of criminals back onto streets already riddled with crime.
Longing for the 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 perpetrators, even petty thieves. They surrounded them there on the spot, beat them, sometimes even tearing them from limb to limb. They paraded them through the streets by tying them on carts, or threw them into the canals and rivers to enjoy watching them drown.
This brutal violence is, in my view, 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.
But Lenin spoke too soon, because things went from bad to worse under the Bolsheviks. Both crime and mob justice grew in frequency and cruelty. Moreover, under the Bolsheviks a new element of mob violence was added: alcohol pogroms. Mobs attacked wine and vodka cellars in November and December. The most violent and notorious raid took place in the wine cellar of the Winter Palace, where many drowned to death. A Bolshevik high official helplessly observed that the Bolshevik power was drowning in a sea of wine and vodka.