An Anarchist FAQ - What was the Kronstadt Rebellion?
- Why is the Kronstadt rebellion important?
- What was the context of the Kronstadt revolt?
- What was the Kronstadt Programme?
- Did the Kronstadt rebellion reflect "the exasperation of the peasantry"?
- What lies did the Bolsheviks spread about Kronstadt?
- Was the Kronstadt revolt a White plot?
- What was the real relationship of Kronstadt to the Whites?
- Did the rebellion involve new sailors?
- Was Kronstadt different politically?
- Why did the Petrograd workers not support Kronstadt?
- Were the Whites a threat during the Kronstadt revolt?
- Was the country too exhausted to allow soviet democracy?
- Was there a real alternative to Kronstadt's "third revolution"?
- How do modern day Trotskyists misrepresent Kronstadt?
- What does Kronstadt tell us about Bolshevism?
The Kronstadt rebellion took place in the first weeks of March, 1921. Kronstadt was (and is) a naval fortress on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Traditionally, it has served as the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet and to guard the approaches to the city of St. Petersburg (which during the first world war was re-named Petrograd, then later Leningrad, and is now St. Petersburg again) thirty-five miles away.
The Kronstadt sailors had been in the vanguard of the revolutionary events of 1905 and 1917. In 1917, Trotsky called them the "pride and glory of the Russian Revolution." The inhabitants of Kronstadt had been early supporters and practitioners of soviet power, forming a free commune in 1917 which was relatively independent of the authorities. In the words of Israel Getzler, an expert on Kronstadt, "it was in its commune-like self-government that Red Kronstadt really came into its own, realising the radical, democratic and egalitarian aspirations of its garrison and working people, their insatiable appetite for social recognition, political activity and public debate, their pent up yearning for education, integration and community. Almost overnight, the ship's crews, the naval and military units and the workers created and practised a direct democracy of base assemblies and committees." [Kronstadt 1917-1921, p. 248] In the centre of the fortress an enormous public square served as a popular forum holding as many as 30,000 persons. The Kronstadters "proved convincingly the capacity of ordinary people to use their 'heads, too' in governing themselves, and managing Russia's largest navel base and fortress." [Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 250]
The Russian Civil War had ended in Western Russia in November 1920 with the defeat of General Wrangel in the Crimea. All across Russia popular protests were erupting in the countryside and in the towns and cities. Peasant uprisings were occurring against the Communist Party policy of grain requisitioning (a policy the Bolsheviks and their argued had been thrust upon them by the circumstances but which involved extensive, barbaric and counter-productive repression). In urban areas, a wave of spontaneous strikes occurred and in late February a near general strike broke out in Petrograd.
On February 26th, in response to these events in Petrograd, the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting and agreed to send a delegation to the city to investigate and report back on the ongoing strike movement. On their turn two days later, the delegates informed their fellow sailors of the strikes (with which they had full sympathy with) and the government repression directed against them. Those present at this meeting on the Petropavlovsk then approved a resolution which raised 15 demands which included free elections to the soviets, freedom of speech, press, assembly and organisation to workers, peasants, anarchists and left-socialists (see section 3 for full details). Of the 15 demands, only two were related to what Marxists like to term the "petty-bourgeoisie" (the peasantry and artisans) and these demanded "full freedom of action" for all peasants and artisans who did not hire labour. Like the Petrograd workers, the Kronstadt sailors demanded the equalisation of wages and the end of roadblock detachments restricting travel and the ability of workers to bring food into the city.
A mass meeting of fifteen to sixteen thousand people was held in Anchor Square on March 1st and what has became known as the Petropavlovsk resolution was passed after the "fact-finding" delegation had made its report. Only two Bolshevik officials voted against the resolution. At this meeting it was decided to send another delegation to Petrograd to explain to the strikers and the city garrison of the demands of Kronstadt and to request that non-partisan delegates be sent by the Petrograd workers to Kronstadt to learn first-hand what was happening there. This delegation of thirty members was arrested by the Bolshevik government.
As the term of office of the Kronstadt soviet was about to expire, the mass meeting also decided to call a "Conference of Delegates" for March 2nd. This was to discuss the manner in which the new soviet elections would be held. This conference consisted of two delegates from the ship's crews, army units, the docks, workshops, trade unions and Soviet institutions. This meeting of 303 delegates endorsed the Petropavlovsk resolution and elected a five-person "Provisional Revolutionary Committee" (this was enlarged to 15 members two days later by another conference of delegates). This committee was charged with organising the defence of Kronstadt, a move decided upon in part by the threats of the Bolshevik officials there and the groundless rumour that the Bolsheviks had dispatched forces to attack the meeting. Red Kronstadt had turned against the Communist government and raised the slogan of the 1917 revolution "All Power to the Soviets", to which was added "and not to parties." They termed this revolt the "Third Revolution" and would complete the work of the first two Russian Revolutions in 1917 by instituting a true toilers republic based on freely elected, self-managed, soviets.
The Communist Government responded with an ultimatum on March 2nd. This asserted that the revolt had "undoubtedly been prepared by French counterintelligence" and that the Petropavlovsk resolution was a "SR-Black Hundred" resolution (SR stood for "Social Revolutionaries", a party with a traditional peasant base and whose right-wing had sided with White forces; the "Black Hundreds" were a reactionary, indeed proto-fascist, force dating back to before the revolution which attacked Jews, labour militants, radicals and so on). They argued that the revolt had been organised by an ex-Tsarist officers led by ex-General Kozlovsky (who had, ironically, been placed in the fortress as a military specialist by Trotsky). This was the official line through-out the revolt.
During the revolt, Kronstadt started to re-organise itself from the bottom up. The trade union committees were re-elected and a Council of Trade Unions formed. The Conference of Delegates met regularly to discuss issues relating to the interests of Kronstadt and the struggle against the Bolshevik government (specifically on March 2nd, 4th and 11th). Rank and file Communists left the party in droves, expressing support for the revolt and its aim of "all power to the soviets and not to parties." About 300 Communists were arrested and treated humanly in prison (in comparison, at least 780 Communists left the party in protest of the actions it was taking against Kronstadt and its general role in the revolution). Significantly, up to one-third of the delegates elected to Kronstadt's rebel conference of March 2nd were Communists. [Avrich, Op. Cit., pp. 184-7 and p. 81]
The Kronstadt revolt was a non-violent one, but from the start the attitude of the authorities was not one of serious negotiation but rather one of delivering an ultimatum: either come to your senses or suffer the consequences. Indeed, the Bolsheviks issued the threat that they would shoot the rebels "like partridges" and took the families of the sailors hostage in Petrograd. Towards the end of the revolt Trotsky sanctioned the use of chemical warfare against the rebels and if they had not been crushed, a gas attack would have carried out. [Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p. 146 and pp. 211-2] No real attempt was made to settle the revolt peacefully. While there was at least three to four weeks before the ice was due to melt after the March 2nd "Conference of Delegates" meeting which marked the real start of the revolt, the Bolsheviks started military operations at 6.45pm on March 7th.
There were possible means for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. On March 5th, two days before the bombardment of Kronstadt had begun, anarchists led by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman offered themselves as intermediates to facilitate negotiations between the rebels and the government (anarchist influence had been strong in Kronstadt in 1917). [Emma Goldman, Living My Life, vol. 2, pp. 882-3] This was ignored by the Bolsheviks. Years later, the Bolshevik Victor Serge (and eye-witness to the events) acknowledged that "[e]ven when the fighting had started, it would have been easy to avoid the worst: it was only necessary to accept the mediation offered by the anarchists (notably Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman) who had contact with the insurgents. For reasons of prestige and through an excess of authoritarianism, the Central Committee refused this course." [The Serge-Trotsky Papers, p. 164]
Another possible solution, namely the Petrograd Soviet suggestion of March 6th that a delegation of party and non-party members of the Soviet visit Kronstadt was not pursued by the government. The rebels, unsurprisingly enough, had reservations about the real status of the non-party delegates and asked that the elections to the delegation take place within the factories, with observers from Kronstadt present (in itself a very reasonable request). Nothing came of this (unsurprisingly, as such a delegation would have reported the truth that Kronstadt was a popular revolt of working people so exposing Bolshevik lies and making the planned armed attack more difficult). A delegation "sent by Kronstadt to explain the issues to the Petrograd Soviet and people was in the prisons of the Cheka." [Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 127] According to Serge, "right from the first moment, at a time when it was easy to mitigate the conflict, the Bolshevik leaders had no intention of using anything but forcible methods." [Ibid.] This is confirmed by latter research. The refusal to pursue these possible means of resolving the crisis peacefully is explained by the fact that the decision to attack Kronstadt had already been made. Basing himself on documents from the Soviet Archives, historian Israel Getzler states that "[b]y 5 March, if not earlier, the Soviet leaders had decided to crush Kronstadt. Thus, in a cable to . . . [a] member of the Council of Labour and Defence, on that day, Trotsky insisted that 'only the seizure of Kronstadt will put an end to the political crisis in Petrograd.' On the same day, acting as chairman of the RVSR [the Revolutionary Military Council of the Army and Navy of the Republic], he ordered the reformation and mobilisation of the Seventh Army 'to suppress the uprising in Kronstadt,' and appointed General Mikhail Tukhachevskii as its commander changed with suppressing the uprising in Kronstadt 'in the shortest possible time.'" ["The Communist Leaders' Role in the Kronstadt Tragedy of 1921 in the Light of Recently Published Archival Documents", Revolutionary Russia, pp. 24-44, Vol. 15, No. 1, June 2002, p. 32]
As Alexander Berkman noted, the Communist government would "make no concessions to the proletariat, while at the same time they were offering to compromise with the capitalists of Europe and America." [Berkman, The Russian Tragedy, p. 62] While happy to negotiate and compromise with foreign governments, they treated the workers and peasants of Kronstadt (like that of the rest of Russia) as the class enemy (indeed, at the time, Lenin was publicly worrying whether the revolt was a White plot to sink these negotiations!).
The revolt was isolated and received no external support. The Petrograd workers were under martial law and could little or no action to support Kronstadt (assuming they refused to believe the Bolshevik lies about the uprising). The Communist government started to attack Kronstadt on March 7th. The first assault was a failure. "After the Gulf had swallowed its first victims," Paul Avrich records, "some of the Red soldiers, including a body of Peterhof kursanty, began to defect to the insurgents. Others refused to advance, in spite of threats from the machine gunners at the rear who had orders to shoot any wavers. The commissar of the northern group reported that his troops wanted to send a delegation to Kronstadt to find out the insurgents' demands." [Avrich, Op. Cit., pp. 153-4] After 10 days of constant attacks the Kronstadt revolt was crushed by the Red Army. On March 17th, the final assault occurred. Again, the Bolsheviks had to force their troops to fight. On the night of 16-17 March, for example, "the extraordinary troika of Aleksei Nikolaev had arrested over 100 so-called instigators, 74 of whom he had publicly shot." [Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 35] Once the Bolshevik forces finally entered the city of Kronstadt "the attacking troops took revenge for their fallen comrades in an orgy of bloodletting." [Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 211] The next day, as an irony of history, the Bolsheviks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.
The repression did not end there. According to Serge, the "defeated sailors belonged body and sole to the Revolution; they had voiced the suffering and the will of the Russian people" yet "[h]undreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony" (particularly as they were "prisoners of war . . . and the Government had for a long time promised an amnesty to its opponents on condition that they offered their support"). "This protracted massacre was either supervised or permitted by Dzerzhinsky" (the head of the Cheka). The "responsibilities of the Bolshevik Central Committee had been simply enormous" and "the subsequent repression . . . needlessly barbarous." [Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 131 and p. 348]
The Soviet forces suffered over 10,000 casualties storming Kronstadt. There are no reliable figures for the rebels loses or how many were later shot by the Cheka or sent to prison camps. The figures that exist are fragmentary. Immediately after the defeat of the revolt, 4,836 Kronstadt sailors were arrested and deported to the Crimea and the Caucasus. When Lenin heard of this on the 19th of April, he expressed great misgivings about it and they were finally sent to forced labour camps in the Archangelsk, Vologda and Murmansk regions. Eight thousand sailors, soldiers and civilians escaped over the ice to Finland. The crews of the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol fought to the bitter end, as did the cadets of the mechanics school, the torpedo detachment and the communications unit. A statistical communiqu頯f the Special Section of the Extraordinary Troikas of 1st May stated that 6,528 rebels had been arrested, of whom 2,168 had been shot (33%), 1,955 had been sentenced to forced labour (of whom 1,486 received a five year sentence), and 1,272 were released. A statistical review of the revolt made in 1935-6 listed the number arrested as 10,026 and stated that it had "not been possible to establish accurately the number of the repressed." The families of the rebels were deported, with Siberia considered as "undoubtedly the only suitable region" for them. Significantly, one of the members of the troika judging the rebels complained that they had to rely exclusively on information provided by the Special Section of the Vecheka as "neither commissars nor local Communists provided any material." [Israel Getzler, "The Communist Leaders' Role in the Kronstadt Tragedy of 1921 in the Light of Recently Published Archival Documents", Revolutionary Russia, pp. 24-44, Vol. 15, No. 1, June 2002, pp. 35-7]
After the revolt had been put down, the Bolshevik government reorganised the fortress. While it had attacked the revolt in the name of defending "Soviet Power" Kronstadt's newly appointed military commander "abolish[ed] the [Kronstadt] soviet altogether" and ran the fortress "with the assistance of a revolutionary troika" (i.e. an appointed three man committee). [Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 244] Kronstadt's newspaper was renamed Krasnyi Kronshtadt (from Izvestiia) and stated in an editorial that the "fundamental features" of Kronstadt's restored "dictatorship of the proletariat" during its "initial phases" were "[r]estrictions on political liberty, terror, military centralism and discipline and the direction of all means and resources towards the creation of an offensive and defensive state apparatus." [quoted by Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 245] The victors quickly started to eliminate all traces of the revolt. Anchor square became "Revolutionary Square" and the rebel battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol were renamed the Marat and the Paris Commune, respectively.
That, in a nutshell, was the Kronstadt revolt. Obviously we cannot cover all the details and we recommend readers to consult the books and articles we list at the end of this section for fuller accounts of the events. However, that presents the key points in the rebellion. Now we must analyse the revolt and indicate why it is so important in evaluating Bolshevism in both practice and as a revolutionary theory.
In the sections which follow, we indicate why the revolt is so important (section 1) and place it in historical context (section 2). We then present and discuss the Kronstadt demands, indicating their sources in working class rebellion and radicalism (see sections 3 and 4). We indicate the lies the Bolsheviks said about the rebellion at the time ( section 5), whether it was, in fact, a White plot ( section 6) and indicate the revolts real relationship to the Whites (section 7). We also disprove Trotskyist assertions that the sailors in 1921 were different from those in 1917 (section 8) or that their political perspectives had fundamentally changed (section 9). We indicate that state coercion and repression was the significant in why the Kronstadt revolt did not spread to the Petrograd workers (section 10). Then we discuss the possibility of White intervention during and after the revolt (section 11). We follow this with a discussion of arguments that the country was too exhausted to allow soviet democracy (section 12) or that soviet democracy would have resulted in the defeat of the revolution (section 13). In the process, we will also show the depths to which supporters of Leninism will sink to defend their heroes (in particular, see section 14). Lastly, we discuss what the Kronstadt revolt tells us about Leninism (section 15)
As we will hope to prove, Kronstadt was a popular uprising from below by the same sailors, soldiers and workers that made the 1917 October revolution. The Bolshevik repression of the revolt can be justified in terms of defending the state power of the Bolsheviks but it cannot be defended in terms of socialist theory. Indeed, it indicates that Bolshevism is a flawed political theory which cannot create a socialist society but only a state capitalist regime based on party dictatorship. This is what Kronstadt shows above all else: given a choice between workers' power and party power, Bolshevism will destroy the former to ensure the latter (see section 15 in particular). In this, Kronstadt is no isolated event (as we indicate in section 2).
There are many essential resources on the revolt available. The best in depth studies of the revolt are Paul Avrich's Kronstadt 1921 and Israel Getzler's Kronstadt 1917-1921. Anarchist works include Ida Mett's The Kronstadt Uprising (by far the best), Alexander Berkman's The Kronstadt Rebellion (which is a good introduction and included in his The Russian Tragedy), Voline's The Unknown Revolution has a good chapter on Kronstadt (and quotes extensively from the Kronstadters' paper Izvestiia) and volume two of Daniel Guerin's No Gods, No Masters has an excellent section on the rebellion which includes a lengthy extract from Emma Goldman's autobiography Living my Life on the events as well as extracts from the Kronstadters' paper. Anton Ciliga's (a libertarian socialist/Marxist) Kronstadt Revolt is also a good introduction to the issues relating to the uprising. Eye-witness accounts include chapters in Berkman's The Bolshevik Myth as well as Goldman's My Disillusionment in Russia. Goldman's autobiography Living My Life also has useful material on the events.
For the Leninist analysis, the anthology Kronstadt contains Lenin and Trotsky's articles on the revolt plus supplementary essays refuting anarchist accounts. This work is recommended for those seeking the official Trotskyist version of events as it contains all the relevant documents by the Bolshevik leaders. Emma Goldman's Trotsky Protests Too Much is a great reply to Trotsky's comments and one of his followers contained in this work. Victor Serge was another eye-witness to the Kronstadt revolt. An individualist anarchist turned Bolshevik, his Memoirs of a Revolutionary is worth looking at to discover why he supported what the Bolsheviks did, albeit reluctantly.