It is a frequent mistake of historians and commentators to suppose that "the mob is the people" - the mob, which engages in sporadic, illegal violence on the streets, is usually made up of the debris of all social classes. It was the alliance between mob and capital which had driven forward European imperialism, and it was the mob, acting from below (not directed from above by their "masters"), which carried out what was really the start of the Red Terror in Russia after the Bolshevik coup d'état1 of October 1917. The Terror was directed against the burzhui.
The Marxist intelligentsia apart (many of the intelligentsia were afraid of the mob, Lenin included), the new 'citizens' of Russia had their own ideas about who their enemies were. Burzhui simply denoted a "class enemy", but had no specific class connotation (although the roots in bourgeois are obvious). It was a term of abuse which might be applied to the propertied classes, the aristocracy, Jews, the gentry or the well-dressed ("German dressed", it was sometimes said - this carrying particular weight because rumours of treasonous collaboration by the Romanovs with the Germans had plagued them in their final days). The peasantry would call the urban proletariat burzhui because they suspected them of hoarding manufactured goods, and the urban proletariat would call the peasantry burzhui because they suspected them of hoarding food. Name-calling aside, the actual action engaged in by revolutionaries is very instructive.
Cheka (actually Vecheka) was the first Soviet state security organisation2, but was very decentralised in the months following the coup. This is what defeats the idea that the revolutionary violence was directed from above - it was, essentially, the result of latent social forces, plus socialist agitation. The peasantry were especially prone to revolutionary violence, and of the most savage forms. Maxim Gorky, famed author, publisher and anti-Bolshevik, who opposed revolutionary violence, frequently blamed violence in the towns on the influx of peasants into the cities. His distrust of the Russian people and fear of their violent nature was recorded, for instance in his newspaper Novaia zhihn on October 18th -
All the dark instincts of the crowd irratated by the disintegration of life and by the lies and filth of politics will flare up and fume, poisoning us with anger, hate and revenge; people will kill one another, unable to suppress their own animal stupidity. An unorganised crowd, hardly understanding what it wants, will crawl out into the street, and, using this crowd as a cover, adventurers, thieves, and professional murderers will begin to 'create the history of the Russian Revolution'
We are not interested here particularly in his conclusions (valid though they are), but in some of his earlier statements. As lawlessness spread throughout Russia during 1917, as hyperinflation kicked in and the economic crisis deepened3, the mob began to become increasingly violent towards the burzhui. One expression of this were mob trials and lynchings (Gorky claimed to count 10,000 instances of mob 'justice') which were taking on an increasingly class-motivated nature. Anyone seen as 'privlidged' was liable to be seen as a burzhui and could not count themselves safe. The Bolsheviks institutionalised "revolutionary violence" through People's Courts - where, just as in the old Peasant justice system, a person's social standing and wealth was taken into account. A man whom had struck another might be executed if his hands were found to be soft (ie. he did not engage in manual labour - this led to wealthy people soaking their hands in alcohol to appear to be workers), whereas a murderer might get away with it if he were poor and he had stolen from someone seen as a burzhui. Such subjectivity under the guise of 'law' was really little else than lawlessness.
To the peasantry, the most obvious burzhui were gentry landlords. In a country the size of Russia, their behaviour was of course varied. But what was particularly striking was the action taken in areas where Bolshevised soldiers returned from the front. They encouraged the local villagers to expropriate property violently, working towards the old peasant ideal of volia (freedom, land, bread, self-rule). Burzhui landowners were murdered, driven from their homes, and brutally tortured. In other areas they were allowed to retain small estates and work on them as peasants did (generally, the right to labour on land was seen as a 'basic human right' by the peasantry). The point is it was all subjective, and localised - Lenin's official land reform decrees ordered the expropriation of all the gentry's property, but in some areas this was not carried through. Later, as the Cheka became more centralised, the purge of kulaks (people with private land, literally "capitalist peasant" to a Bolshevik) began.
Cheka's earlier action against burzhuis was driven by such local grievances and desires for revenge. Indeed, the desire for revenge seemed to run very deep in the psyche of the "oppressed classes", and the Bolsheviks were quick to institutionalise that as well. They made owners of large manors share them with the homeless and put burzhuis to work shovelling snow and litter. This wasn't of any economic benefit - it was a naked act of revenge by the proletariat, who wanted to see the burzhuis work. Gorky wrote -
I am especially distrustful of a Russian when he gets power into his hands. Not long ago a slave, he becomes the most unbridled despot as soon as he has the chance to become his neighbour's master.
This was a good characterisation of the small local action carried out against the burzhui and perhaps of the revolution as a whole. As Soviet power was established in localities, revolutionary violence necessarily followed. What Gorky called the "dark instincts" of the Russian people was given expression, and when the Bolsheviks realised they could use this to their own advantage, they were quick to do. The Cheka system in 1917 - 1918 (it was centralised in 1918) was random, corrupt, and spontaneous. Through their rampant destruction of wealth and the suffering they inflicted on the burzhuis, the Russian peasantry and proletariat showed the true, naked evil of class ideologies in its full light. That this would later be institutionalised and directed from above in a well co-ordinated manner was the cause of a great deal of human misery in the last century.
1. The Russian October Revolution of 1917 was not, in contrast to the Russian Febuary Revolution of 1917 and Soviet propaganda afterwards notwithstanding, a social revolution. It was, in strict accordance with Bolshevik tradition, a (rather badly executed) seizure of power by a group of armed individuals. Most of the citizenry of Petrograd were unaware of what was going on in the Winter Palace.
2. Cheka's evolution into the KGB can be traced roughly as follows - in 1918 it became part of the NKVD (Narodnij Kommisariat Vnutrennih Del), which took over state security (as opposed to internal policing) in July 1934 from the OGPU (Obed'enniy Gosudarstvennoi Politicheskii Upravlennie). In 1946 the NKVD became the MVD (Ministerstvo Vnutrennih Del) whereas its state security functions were given to the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti) in 1954.
3. The absence of the mass of the workers, even some Bolshevised ones, from the insurrection of October can be explained through fear for their jobs in a time of economic crisis - they remembered past reprisals for agitation.