Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Crime In Revolutionary Russia

– A Critical Review of Crime, Police and Mob Justice in Petrograd During the Russian Revolutions of 1917 by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa
(This piece is taken from Wade, R. ed. (2004) Revolutionary Russia: New Approaches, Routledge: New York pg 46-71)

I recently read this piece, given it’s the only piece I’ve ever really come across to discuss crime during the Russia Revolution. Before I begin talking about it’s content there are some points I wish to make about how this piece is written.

Firstly, the writer seems to me to clearly be a bourgoise academic and the whole thrust of his piece is about what the Provisional Government did wrong to lose control of crime between February and October. Thus his essay is mostly about how the October revolution could have been be prevented. Second, the writer is clearly not a criminologist. Otherwise he wouldn’t have made assumptions like, for example, that the police massively reduce crime.

Third are the sources the writer used. There are two main ones, one of which is what he terms ‘the boulevard papers’, which from his description seems to be today’s tabloids – which to me is like looking at The Sun or The Daily Mail and expecting to get an accurate picture of crime in Britain! (or for my readers in the US substitute this for Fox News and you get the picture) The other is the diary of the ex-head of the tsarist secret police. At times he does concede that these may be biased slightly, but for most of the piece he takes these sources at face value.

So what does this writer say? His main thesis is that after the February revolution crime soared and the Provisional Government handicapped the criminal justice system so that they couldn’t do anything about it. This in turn led to the development of mob justice in parts of Petrograd as well as strengthening the workers militias and Red Guards role in resolving disputes and contributed to societal breakdown that led to the October revolution.

The evidence the author presents to suggest crime rates soared does seem fairly plausible, although we have to be cautious about it for two reasons. Firstly, the figures the writer presents seem to show an increase in crime (likely to be precipitated by food shortages etc.), although he fails to note that an increase in crimes reported might just mean that people are reporting crimes more often rather than there being more crime. Given the huge social changes occurring people may have felt more confident that something might be done if they reported crime to the newly created militias than the old tsarist police. I would speculate that both reporting and actual crime were increasing together though.

Secondly, the papers he uses as sources would no doubt report such things as expropriations as thefts or robberies. No doubt there would be, as the author suggests, some who may use this as an excuse to rob people, but then the lack of redistribution of wealth in Russia was one of the failings of the Provisional Government (who due to representing the interests of capitalists weren’t exactly going to expropriate themselves).

He then goes on to argue how the criminal justice system was handicapped by the Provisional Government (particularly Kerensky). Firstly the writer criticises the policies towards prisons, were the government replaced the tsarist prison guards and wardens, and then released or reduced the sentences of a large number of prisoners, which they say led to the release of large numbers of criminals on to the streets. Whilst I agree that security at prisons was pathetic, it is hardly suprising given the conditions in Russia at that time which necessitated crap pay and conditions for all workers. Secondly he criticises the replacement of the old tsarist courts with a multi-class temporary court (which featured a magistrate, a workers representative and a peasant representative) and also the ineffectiveness of the militia in preventing crime which the writer puts down to lack of training as police officers, which later the Ministry of Justice attempted to face by instituting a Criminal Militia made up of former members of the tsarist police’s Criminal Division.

The whole thrust of the writers argument is that the destruction of the tsarist criminal justice system was unnecessary and made it ineffective. However, I would argue that it did not go far enough. The attempts at class compromise throughout it, such as the multi-class temporary courts and city militias, moreover there was a lack of democracy too in some of these bodies that were controlled directly by the Ministry of Justice. Indeed, due to deteriorating working conditions and pay, amongst other things city militia units sought affiliation to the Petrograd Soviet! The more democratic workers militia organised and controlled by the Soviets was much more effective, particularly in working class areas.

The writer then goes on to describe the acts of mob justice that occur in Petrograd, many of them horrific with lynchings for just petty offences. In the main it was the middle classes and lumpenproletariat that took part in such acts. I agree with the author that the Provisional Government failed these people, but I’d argue that it was always going to due to its class conciliation. The working class organisations should have orientated themselves to draw in the support of these layers (at least at a passive level) behind them. The writer also discusses some attempts at crime prevention in terms of making housing more secure from occupiers organising a watch and pass system to get in (lower classes) to some residents hiring ex-soldiers to guard their premises (upper classes). Unbelievably, the Petrograd City Administration spent more time arming these private guards than their own militia – possibly I would suggest because the feared they would lose control of the militia (as they did) to the soviets.

Finally the writer discusses who were the in the main the victims of crime. Using the papers as sources he reports that it was the middle classes and lower class outside the organised proletariat. However, he notes that as these papers were orientated towards those classes they were bound to report these more. Moreover, I would add these papers were probably anti-revolutionary and in particular anti-working class and their reporting would also be biased because of that.

In conclusion, this is a useful piece because of the content it discusses, but quite biased and it needs to be used very carefully.


Jim Jay said...

Goo dpost, I've never read anything on this before.

Something worth bearing in mind - I think - is what is a crime. I mean, just because something is against the law does not necessarily mean something bad is occuring - and vice versa, not everything legal is a good thing.

So to give the example of robberies... starving people feeding themselves is a good thing. It may or may not lead to a more unsafe environment but should be seen as a social act, not an anti-social one.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

"So to give the example of robberies... starving people feeding themselves is a good thing. It may or may not lead to a more unsafe environment but should be seen as a social act, not an anti-social one."

Exactly - i was trying to get this point across in the article, although to my knowledge in a period of revolution what usually happens regarding food is that the masses tend to go after hoarders, open up their warehouses and then proceed to sell the stockpiled produce at a fair price and pay for it rather than take it - a famous example is the sans cullottes in the French revolution of 1789

Jim Jay said...

I think you're right - although there should be a caveat here. Revolutions take many forms and shapes - and also change over time.

So in Indonesia when they over threw Suharto the police organised the looting of shops - making people queue, rationing the amount people could take to ensure everyone got something and, I believe, it was free rather than paid for.

Obviously the great example is in Dario Fo's play 'Can't pay wont pay' but I don't know if the incidents were based on a true story or not.

Renegade Eye said...

Really interesting post.