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The Petrograd Crime Wave That Helped Create the Soviet Union

A post-tsar spate of murders enabled the rise of the Bolsheviks. Today, it underscores the failures of the Russian Revolution.
The Petrograd Crime Wave That Helped Create the Soviet Union

Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd, by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Belknap/Harvard University Press, October 2017, 368 pages

Around midnight on April 16, 1917, from the balcony of an upscale apartment in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, Russia), a semi-nude woman stood blood-soaked and screamed for help into the streets below. The apartment belonged to two socialites, Margarita Sezakh-Kulero, a French nightclub singer, and her friend Maria Popova, who regularly entertained other members of high society. Upon entering the apartment, militiamen discovered a dead servant lying in a pool of blood from a slashed throat, and Popova’s lifeless body in the dining room. The women were attacked and robbed by two men who were regulars at Kulero’s nightclub after being invited into the apartment. They killed the two and stole valuables worth up to 30,000 rubles.

The scene was a turning point in post-revolutionary Petrograd, as crime intensified after the February Revolution and began to impact even privileged parts of the city. One of the perpetrators, Baron G.E. von Shrippen, was a revolutionary folk hero of sorts, as he had previously become famous for robbing a millionaire. He evolved into a brutal murderer who even took the life of a lower-class servant—and a prime example of the pervasive criminality that was gripping Petrograd after the fall of the tsar.

The new scholarship that has emerged with the since-passed centennial of the Russian Revolution has been broad in scope, and focused mainly on politics, major events, and key players such as Stalin and Lenin. Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd, by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, takes a different route, detailing meticulously the social history of crime in Petrograd in the months between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, the latter of which would see the rise of the Bolsheviks. Hasegawa’s book is a great reminder of the ways in which revolutionary fervor often betrays its own cause and makes life worse for those caught in the crosswinds.

It’s not that crime was nonexistent in Petrograd prior to the February Revolution: in fact the city ran against the trend of decreasing crime in other European urban centers in the years leading up to 1917. Rising social tension, urbanization, industrialization, and the gradual weakening of the tsarist state contributed to a rising criminal element in the city. “Opportunities for criminality were everywhere, and thieves roamed in broad daylight,” Hasegawa writes. But before World War I, it was still the safest of Russia’s large cities. This would not last, as continually rising crime would contribute to a social decay that would consume the entire city after the events of the February Revolution.

After Tsar Nicholas II was ousted in February 1917, a provisional government that lacked any real capacity to enforce law and order was installed, and crime began to skyrocket in the months after. During April 1917, there were 190 thefts in Petrograd. By August, that number had risen to 1,277 (after that there was a slight decrease). Robberies, which involve not only a taking of property but also a threat of assault or an actual assault, rose from eight to 43 between April and October. From March to October, there was an average of 18 murders a month, with October being particularly violent with 53. The revolution also sparked widespread drunkenness, gambling, disease from increased prostitution, and narcotic use beyond traditional medical purposes.

There were a number of factors that worked in tandem to create these conditions of rampant crime. The Provisional Government developed a power sharing agreement with the Petrograd soviet (a city council) that rendered it ineffective at providing basic services and law enforcement. The tsarist police force and all aspects of the legal system that had previously provided order were abolished, and the lack of monopolized control over the new police force prevented the Provisional Government from being able to ensure law and order. There were no functioning courts from which people could seek redress. Economic crises caused food and housing shortages, contributing to regular instances of mob justice for thieves and merchants who served as scapegoats for the poor conditions.

Ultimately, what changed, according to Hasegawa, was that with “the destruction of the old regime, cultural values and social institutions underwent profound change…New values based on equality and freedom were supposed to replace the old ways,” but no one could agree what exactly those things meant. With diminished state capacity in law enforcement, “naked coercion became the only means to settle conflict.”

Hasegawa draws on the founder of sociology, Emile Durkheim, to explain these changes. Petrograd was in a condition of anomie, or normlessness, that arises from a breakdown in what Durkheim called organic solidarity. Organic solidarity are the systems of belief held in common by people of complex, modern societies characterized by the division of labor and social differentiation. It enables interdependence in an increasingly individualized world. The political and economic crises that fed the crime wave caused a breakdown in norms and significantly altered the body of conventions that had previously governed social relations. The meta rules of living together that had previously allowed for peaceful coexistence were no longer relevant. The revolution swept all of that away.

In the end, this is what fed the rise of the Bolsheviks and their peculiar brand of totalitarianism. Inheriting a failed state after the October Revolution, they violently reasserted monopoly power, created a brutal secret police, and eliminated political opponents. This is not to suggest the Bolsheviks would have never ascended to power and become the repressive regime they did in the absence of these poor social conditions, but the crime wave did contribute to this new style of authoritarianism.

Hasegawa’s book is essential reading, as it further exposes the false promise of utopia. There is still an unacceptable number of intellectuals who embrace the goals of the Russian Revolution, insisting it was hijacked by ambitious thugs. But even before the rise of the Bolsheviks, the revolution did not catapult the average Russian into a workers’ paradise. It plunged them into a violent, dystopian hell.

Jerrod A. Laber is a writer living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate and Free Society Fellow, and a contributor to the Washington Examiner.



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