As Hasegawa notes in his fascinating book, approaches to the history of the October 1917 revolution in Russia have evolved over time. Social history eventually supplanted political history, but then gave way to history “across the divide”, which welds the events that took place before and after the revolution. Hasegawa takes the social history approach and focuses on less studied elements of Russian society. Engelstein’s book, on the other hand, is quite an example of the “across the gap” approach.
The story of the October Revolution, argues Hasegawa, is inextricably linked with the collapse of law and order that followed the dissolution of the Tsarist police force after the February Revolution. In Petrograd, all forms of crime have increased. The quality of life also deteriorated, as the police were responsible for a wide range of public services, from health inspections and garbage collection to issuance of permits. Within months, as law and order crumbled, self-defense and mob violence took hold. The collapse, according to Hasegawa, greatly encouraged the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, notably 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 like another hammer destroying the old system, until it threatened their own position. Then they reacted with a brutality that set a precedent for what was to follow in the decades to come.
Engelstein, in this culmination of his life’s work, examines the October Revolution with extraordinary breadth and depth. It 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 expands the frame to capture what was happening outside of major Russian cities, with entire chapters. devoted to Finland, Ukraine, Volyn (which included parts of present-day Belarus, Poland and Ukraine) and the Baltic region. At its deepest, the book penetrates the deep subsoil of this story. Whatever the revolution in early 1917 was, it expressed a popular desire for democracy, even though different social segments held divergent views on democratic rule. The October Revolution closed this door. Whether or not one regards Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ commitment to social and economic justice as genuine, their most important legacy was a new authoritarian state which they pursued with unwavering determination. Violence is the author. Engelstein develops these themes with great subtlety.