- Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017
xi + 351 pp., $29.95 (cloth)
Since 1917 itself, Russia's year of revolutions has been regarded and represented as an annus mirabilis or annus horribilis, depending on one's viewpoint, with few variations in between. This study aspires to a portrait, from the bottom up, of this state and society in extremis. Rather than focus on high politics or ideology, the author, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, is more interested in the day-to-day tribulations resulting from this war-torn state's chaotic transition from tsarist regime to two quite different revolutionary regimes. The hrst, in February, saw a battle of competing class interests that largely helped defer the revolutionary future, while the second, in October, saw the rise of a radically Manichaean polity of more urgent intent. How, this work asks, do a state and a society in chaos react to that crisis over time? What social and political forms does the chaos take? How does a self-professed revolutionary state, its rationale predicated upon popular liberation from former repressions, police its still undehned "revolutionary" society? The author's chosen focus is an interesting one—namely, the rampant criminality that engulfed Petrograd in 1917, partly in response to the dislocations and lawlessness emanating from the First World War but also in reaction to the new spaces for individual and group activity opened up by two fledgling revolutionary regimes.
Scanning contemporary newspaper columns for evidence of criminal acts and social blight, Hasegawa paints a chastening picture of catastrophic social collapse in Petrograd in 1917, including the near-disappearance of basic transportation, sanitation, and supply services and terrible shortages of daily living necessities. Accompanying all this was an epidemic of violence of all kinds, including burglaries, muggings, rapes, and, in the absence of a coherent judicial response from the state to this rampant criminality, a resort to mob violence, or "mob justice" (samosud), as the author terms it throughout. A seminal place in this monograph is accorded the underresearched role of "wine pogroms," the widespread looting of St. Petersburg's wine cellars well into January 1918. While it is unclear how typical Petrograd's experience was in Russia at this time, and the author chooses to focus on this city alone, it is a harrowing account. Most intriguing in this study is the way in which this chaos became a proving ground for new experiments in the control of public order in novel regimes, in the articulation and realization of revolutionary state concerns and desires, and in the day-to-day administration of justice (and the forms that justice takes in such regimes). In some ways hamstrung by their own revolutionary aspirations, the leaders of the post-February regime sought to undo some of the social and judicial inequities and arbitrariness of the tsarist regime by dismantling its judicial and police organs. Both revolutionary regimes tried to combat the rampant criminality on the fly, so to speak, and the year after February 1917 witnessed a dizzying procession of competing institutions of public order. Only after the July Days, argues the author, was there a turn [End Page 181] away from revolutionary aspirations, a turn exemplified by waves of new arrests and the return of the death penalty. It was a turn also from the post-February urge to decentralize to a post-July—and especially post-October—urge to centralize. The city duma, the Committee of Public Safety, the city militia, Red Guards, the Military Revolutionary Committee, workers' militias, housing committees, district soviets, cheka units, temporary courts, army and naval courts, revolutionary tribunals, and courts of justice were all sometime players in a fascinating tale of competing authorities under extreme conditions. Hasegawa's work is a fascinating picture of the liminal state of Russia in 1917, and offers texture to the Bolsheviks' public pleasure at having survived the first three months after October—longer than the Paris Commune, as they eagerly pointed out.
This is something of an old-school social...