As Hasegawa notes in his compelling book, approaches to the history of Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 have evolved over time. Social history eventually supplanted political history, but then gave way to history “across the divide,” which welds together the events that took place before and after the revolution. Hasegawa adopts the social-history approach and focuses on less studied elements of Russian society. Engelstein’s book, meanwhile, is very much an example of the “across the divide” approach.
The story of the October Revolution, Hasegawa argues, is thoroughly bound up with the collapse of law and order that followed the dissolution of the tsarist police after the February Revolution. In Petrograd, all forms of crime soared. Quality of life also deteriorated, because the police had been responsible for a wide range of public services, from sanitary inspections and garbage collection to issuing permits. Within months, as public order collapsed, vigilantism and mob violence took over. The breakdown, according to Hasegawa, greatly abetted the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, not least by leaving the public indifferent to the outcome of the revolution. Once in power, the Bolsheviks did little to restore public safety, treating the disorder as another hammer wrecking the old system—until it threatened their own position. Then, they reacted with a brutality that set a precedent for what would follow in the decades ahead.
Engelstein, in this culmination of her life’s work, examines the October Revolution in extraordinary breadth and depth. She places it in the context of the powerful currents generated by the collapse of the Russian empire and the ravages of World War I, and also broadens the frame to capture what was happening outside the major Russian cities, with whole chapters devoted to Finland, Ukraine, Volhynia (which included parts of present-day Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine), and the Baltic region. At its most profound, the book penetrates the deep subterrain of this history. Whatever else the revolution was when it began in early 1917, it expressed a popular desire for democracy, even if different social segments had diverging views of democratic rule. The October Revolution closed that door. Regardless of whether one sees Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ commitment to social and economic justice as genuine, their most important legacy was a new authoritarian state that they pursued with single-minded determination. Violence was its author. Engelstein develops these themes with great subtlety.