Looting the looters

Orlando Figes

  • The Russian City between Tradition and Modernity, 1850-1900 by Daniel Brower
    California, 253 pp, £18.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 520 06764 9
  • St Petersburg between the Revolutions. Workers and Revolutionaries: June 1907-February 1917 by Robert McKean
    Yale, 606 pp, £27.50, June 1990, ISBN 0 300 04791 6

When the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace on the night of 25 October 1917, they discovered one of the largest wine cellars ever known to the world. During the following days, crowds went on a drunken rampage through St Petersburg. Shops were looted, and well-to-do houses robbed. Sometimes their owners were tortured or killed for sport. Mikhail Uritsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders of the October uprising, was dragged from his sleigh, stripped naked, and left to continue his journey on foot as he returned one snowy night from a meeting with Lenin. With his warm overcoat, his pince-nez and his Jewish intellectual looks he had been mistaken for a bourgeois – a boorzhooi.

The Bolsheviks tried in vain to stem the anarchy by sealing off the liquor supply. They appointed a Commissar of the Winter Palace, who was constantly drunk on the job. They posted guards around the palace, who licensed themselves to sell off the antique bottles of Château d’Yquem 1847. They tried to destroy the offending treasure, to transfer it to Bolshevik headquarters, and even to ship it to Sweden. But their efforts came to nothing. The violence continued until the alcohol ran out with the old year, and the capital woke up with the biggest hangover in history.

There were similar scenes of violence and vengeance in other cities throughout Russia, as law and order broke down in the autumn of 1917. The well-dressed, the chauffeur-driven, the foreign-looking, and the bespectacled all fell victim to the crowd. General Denikin, the anti-Bolshevik leader, found himself among them as he fled to the Don: ‘Now I was simply a boorzhooi, who was shoved and cursed, sometimes with malice, sometimes just in passing ... I saw a boundless hatred of ideas and of people, of everything that was socially or intellectually higher than the crowd, of everything which bore the slightest trace of abundance, even of immediate objects, which were the signs of some culture strange or inaccessible to the crowd. This feeling expressed hatred accumulated over the centuries, the bitterness of three years of war, and the hysteria generated by the revolutionary leaders.’ Lenin’s slogan ‘Loot the looters!’ encouraged but did not create this hatred and envy. The poor derived their own satisfaction from the process of destroying and despoiling the rich, regardless of whether it brought any improvement in their own lot. One might even say the origins and emotional source of the Bolshevik terror were found in this ‘plebeian terror’, in the desire to rob and expropriate ‘the rich’, which the Bolsheviks then used to strengthen their power.

Historians are still a long way from coming to grips with the roots of this plebeian violence and its relation to Bolshevik political fortunes. One problem is their own tendency to think of the revolutionary crowd in terms of stereotypes, mostly derived from the long-established notion that the Revolution carried on the tradition of ‘anarchic’ peasant riots, buntarstvo, stretching back to the 17th century. Liberal and conservative historians, for example, have frequently adopted the language of propertied Russians, who saw the crowds of 1917 as ‘dark’, ‘elemental’, ‘anarchic’ and ‘hooligan’, incapable of anything but destruction, and easily manipulated by the Bolsheviks, who used the chaos to stage their coup d’état. Others have followed the Mensheviks in connecting the rise of Bolshevism with the rapid influx of peasant proletarians into the cities during the industrial boom of 1909-1916: uprooted from their villages, and suddenly exposed to the new and disturbing ways of industrial capitalism, they were seen by the Mensheviks as ‘primitive’, ‘hot-headed’, ‘impulsive’ and ‘disorganised’, all of which made them susceptible to the militancy of Bolshevik propaganda.

Some of these stereotypes appear in Daniel Brower’s book. Its great virtue is that it seeks the roots of this labour violence, not just in the matrix of industrial relations (the Marxists’ tired refrain), but also in the broader context of urban development, with the problems it created of housing, transportation, sanitation and social control. The revolutionary crisis in Russia was, above all, a crisis of urban breakdown. Despite a liberal reform of the franchise in 1870, Russia’s town halls continued to be run by small self-interested circles of wealthy merchants and patricians, who stalled urgent social expenditures to keep taxes low. By the turn of the century, the working-class districts of Russia’s great cities looked more like Bombay than Berlin. Poor and overcrowded housing, unpaved streets, open drains and cesspools, polluted ponds and rivers, rubbish-dumping on public squares, lack of controls on the location of factories and a public kept ignorant about basic hygiene, gave Petersburg one of the highest death-rates in Europe, with a cholera epidemic, on average, one year in every three between 1830 and 1910. Brower is a little reluctant to apportion blame to Petersburg’s rulers. He might have pointed out, for example, that nothing was done to relieve the housing crisis by building low-rent suburban housing with a cheap transport system, largely because of political pressure from the owners of high-rent accommodation. Or, again, that it was only after the capital’s water had become a national scandal as a result of the cholera epidemic in 1908-09 that proposals were considered to build a water pipeline to Lake Lagoda, 35 kilometres away. The Revolution came before the project was finished.

More questionable is Brower’s central thesis that most of the labour unrest resulting from such problems of urbanisation was reflected in ‘pre-industrial’ forms of collective violence – riots, anti-semitic pogroms, gang-fights and looting – intended, like the protests of Hobsbawm’s ‘primitive rebels’, to attract the attention of the authorities and obtain redress for specific grievances rather than challenge the existing political and social order. This is a controversial proposition, since it calls into question the assumption of Marxist historians that the industrial strike, organised by the socialist parties, represented the mainstream of the labour movement from the 1890s. Brower may be right about the strikes (the statistics aren’t good enough to prove it either way), but I wonder whether his approach to the problem of labour violence isn’t merely a reworking of the old buntarstvo stereotype – the notion of ‘dark’ and ‘primitive’ peasant migrants, ‘torn’ from their native soil, and driven to destructive violence by the alienation of urban-industrial life – when much of the evidence suggests that, on the contrary, impoverished peasant migrants eagerly travelled to jobs in the city, where they played a relatively minor role in labour violence. Brower is trapped in the myth: for there was surely no such thing as ‘rural’ (or – for that matter – ‘urban’) violence outside the definitions of those in the propertied classes who saw themselves as ‘civilised’ and ‘respectable’, and regarded the ‘mob’ as ‘rough’ and ‘anarchic’.

Nor were ‘hooliganism’, drunken riots, looting and pogroms merely transitional problems of early industrial urbanisation, as Brower suggests. They became a regular, evolving feature of Russian urban life until the Revolution and beyond. As workers became acquainted with urban-industrial conditions, they developed new forms of violence – and adapted old ones – to use against factory officials, rent collectors, bailiffs, policemen and other figures of authority. The common workers’ practice in 1917 of ‘carting out’ their factory bosses in a wheelbarrow and dumping them into a cesspool is a good illustration of the way they adapted traditional forms of violence. Collective violence became an integral element of the organised labour movement.

Robert McKean’s study focuses on the years between 1907 and 1917, a crucial period in the rise of labour militancy, when workers concentrated their protest efforts on strikes, and the socialist parties competed among themselves for influence over the organised labour movement. The large existing literature on this subject has dwelt, perhaps too narrowly, on the need to explain two parallel shifts towards the left between 1912 and 1914: first, the growth of Bolshevik influence within the trade unions and on the labour delegation to the Duma, at the expense of the Mensheviks; and second, the increasingly violent and political nature of the strike movement, culminating in the Petersburg general strike of July 1914, which, according to some, brought the autocracy to its knees.

McKean dismisses the Mensheviks’ explanation for this, derived from the buntarstvo theory and adopted by many historians since: that the rapid influx into the cities of young, unskilled and impulsive peasant workers during the industrial boom created a receptive audience for Bolshevik propaganda. It was, on the contrary, McKean argues, the skilled and established ‘cadre’ workers, in small workshops as well as big factories, who looked to the Bolsheviks for more militant leadership, as urban conditions deteriorated under the pressure of mass immigration, and employers, with government backing, dug in their heels to resist the strikers’ demands: ‘Bolshevik militance, revolutionism à outrance, their more apposite and forceful articulation of workers’ interests and their defence and sponsorship of all and every stoppage became increasingly attractive to angry, disillusioned cadres.’ At the same time he argues persuasively against the notion that militant strikes and the rise of Bolshevik influence presented a revolutionary threat to the regime in 1914. The strikes were a symptom of the industrial boom and increased working-class confidence, rather than the expression of a crisis of capitalism itself, and failed to attract support either in the provinces or from the liberal intelligentsia, which would have been essential if they were to bring down the autocracy, as the events of February 1917 were to prove. The Bolsheviks, despite their victory over the Mensheviks, remained too weak and divided to exploit the strike wave. Government repressions in the wake of the 1905 Revolution had driven the Party into exile or underground, where they remained, largely unknown, until 1917. The trade unions themselves were unstable organisations, incorporating only a small section of the skilled workforce. As for the majority of workers, they read the boulevard press with its gaudy and bawdy stories, rather than the dull and earnest Pravda. Once war broke out, they became patriots, and buried their grievances.

Historians need to look much more closely at the impact of the First World War on Russian society, for it provides the key to the political crisis and mounting labour violence which erupted onto the streets of Petersburg in February 1917. McKean outlines the major factors – the rapid influx of migrants into the cities; the growing shortages of housing, food and fuel; inflation; declining real wages for the unskilled; and a more stringent regime in the factories – which led to the resumption of militant strikes in 1915-1916. These problems were not new, but an intensification of the strains produced by the industrial boom which began in 1909, so one wonders whether they are sufficient to explain the quite extraordinary violence of 1917. The political rifts between the regime and society caused by the incompetent handling of the war on the part of the Tsar and his bureaucracy, the Rasputin affair, and the belief that the Court and Government were riddled with German agents are obviously relevant. Yet the psychological impact of the war has yet to be studied as a factor in the Revolution, in the way that historians of Fascism or Nazism have seen in the war the roots of the violence that stood at the heart of those movements. As the mild-mannered Victor Chernov, Minister for Agriculture in the Provisional Government, recognised, ‘the war brought out the brutishness of people’:

It wiped out the value of human life – both of one’s own and of others. It hardened people not to care about the death of millions. The right to spill blood and take away life ceased to be a tragic problem. Here was the new breed of sadists in power.

This taste for violence did not need the Bolsheviks to give it expression. Many more people were killed or wounded in violent attacks by the crowd during February (often miscalled the ‘bloodless revolution’) than during October. But the Bolshevik terror could only have taken place as an epilogue to the barbarism of 1914-1918. Chernov again: ‘The moral nature of the Bolshevik Revolution was inherited from the war in which it was born.’