New Great War Episode: The Kronstadt Rebellion

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s February 1921, and at the important Russian naval base of Kronstadt, thousands of sailors have risen in a revolt against the Bolshevik regime, which plans on striking back and taking the fortress by storm – it’s the Kronstadt Rebellion. https://youtu.be/oZVvs1NWk7o

By the end of 1920, Bolshevik leaders could feel relieved after years of civil war: the counter-revolutionary Whites had been defeated, the peace treaty with Poland was on its way, and there were some improvements in relations with the Allied powers. But that didn’t mean that the Russian Civil War was over: disease and famine swept the land, the countryside was in revolt, and Red Navy sailors were very unhappy with the Bolsheviks. In this episode, we’ll take a look at the events surrounding the famous Kronstadt rebellion, which broke out exactly 100 years ago.

Russia in early 1921 was in a state of absolute devastation. The transport system was in ruins, industrial production was a fraction of pre-1917 levels, and agriculture was in crisis. Bolshevik economic policies had mostly made things worse by imposing the War Communism policy of grain seizures, abolishing private trade, and nationalizing industry, even small businesses. They also began early attempts at agricultural collectivization with Planting Committees. Now there is a debate amongst historians as to whether War Communism was a series of improvisations during a time of crisis, or a deliberate policy designed to create a Communist society by forcibly re-organizing the economy.
Whether improvised or by design, for many peasants, this was not the system they had hoped for when they mostly chose to support the Bolsheviks over the Whites during the Civil War. They had wanted control of the land, but that wasn’t quite what they had gotten, as a peasant delegate complained ironically to the 9th Communist Party Congress:

“Everything is just fine—the land is ours but the grain is yours, the water ours but the fish yours, the forests ours but the wood yours.” (Avrich, 164).

Instead, the normal sale and transport of food between the countryside and the cities broke down, and the Bolsheviks cracked down on the black market that sprang up to replace it.
The result, combined with the effects of more than six years of war, was widespread starvation. Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were in Petrograd in 1920 after being deported from the US. Goldman described the crises:

“With the prohibition of trading came the […] detachment of [the Cheka secret police] at every station to confiscate everything brought by private persons to the city. The wretched people, after untold difficulties of obtaining a pass for travel, after days and weeks of exposure at the stations, or on the [train] roofs and platforms, would bring a pood of flour or potatoes, only to have it snatched from them.” (Smele, 201)


From 1917 to 1920, Petrograd’s population fell by more than two thirds, and Moscow’s by almost half (Avrich 24). Desperate citizens hoped that once the war with the Whites was over things would improve, but the winter of 1920-1921 was the harshest yet. Food rations were reduced, and then delayed for weeks, while groups favoured by the Bolsheviks, like party members, got more than their share. The collapse of transportation also meant that there was nothing to burn for to heat homes or run the factories, and some had to shut for lack of coal. These conditions were perfect for diseases like typhus and cholera, which added to the mounting death toll.

So Russians were starving, freezing, and dying even after the Bolsheviks had taken control. It wasn’t long before even those who had supported the Bolsheviks began to turn against them.

One of the Bolsheviks’ most unpopular moves was taking power away from the popular councils , or soviets, and concentrating it exclusively in the party. They also suppressed other leftist groups like the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, as well as trade unions. Workers had been the Bolsheviks’ main bastion of support since 1917, but now they connected the hunger and cold they experienced to Bolshevik policies, so they took political action. In February 1921, strikes broke out in Petrograd and Moscow. The striking workers not only demanded better living conditions, but also political changes like free trade, the release of political prisoners, and the end of War Communism. Some demonstrators even called for free elections of the soviets, or the return of the pre- October Revolution parliament.
In Moscow, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin addressed a crowd of metal workers, and asked them rhetorically if they’d rather have the Whites running the country. One of workers answered him: “I don’t care who comes along – Whites, Blacks, or the Devil himself – just as long as you clear out!” (Avrich, 36)

The situation was getting serious, as the Petrograd Cheka reported: “Many provocative rumours are circulating, to the effect that Soviet rule will fall this spring.” (Наумов, Косаковский, 26)

The Bolshevik authorities sent in Red Army troops and the Cheka arrested thousands, especially from other leftist groups like the Mensheviks. But they also tried to calm the workers by giving them emergency rations, and allowing private trade. These measures put a stop to the strikes in Petrograd and Moscow, but were too late to stop the storm that was brewing at the important Red Navy base at Kronstadt, not far from Petrograd.

Kronstadt was a fortified city and naval base on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, designed to protect the former capital. In 1921, more than half its population of 50,000 were sailors or soldiers, and since 1917 they had ben influential supporters of the Bolshevik revolution (Наумов, Косаковский, 8). They’d fought on the Red side against the Whites and had a reputation as, in the words of Leon Trotsky “the glory and pride of the revolution.” (Smele 200) But now, the men were angry, as sailor Stepan Petrichenko
explained:

“For years, the happenings at home while we were at the front or at sea were concealed by the Bolshevik censorship. When we returned home our parents asked us why we fought for the oppressors. That [got] us thinking." (Avrich, 67)

Between August 1920 and March 1921, the local branch of the Communist Party lost half its organizers, and in January 1921 alone about 5000 sailors quit the party. (Avrich, 69)
On February 26, a delegation of sailors from Kronstadt visited Petrograd to learn more about the ongoing strikes. Two days later, they’d returned to base and reported their findings. The result was the Petropavlovsk Resolution, named after one of the warships anchored in Kronstadt. The sailors called for: new elections for the soviets; freedom of speech for all anarchists and socialists; the liberation of anarchist and socialist political prisoners; freedom of assembly, including for unions; the abolition of War Communism; and equal rations for all workers. (Smele 203) A few days later, the sailors summed up their position in a document entitled What We Are Fighting For:

“In carrying out the October Revolution, the working class was hoping to throw off the yoke of oppression. Yet that revolution resulted in even greater enslavement […]. The power of the police–gendarme monarchism fell into the hands of the conquering Communists, who instead of freedom gave the working people the constant fear of ending up in a Cheka dungeon, the horrors of which have [far] surpassed those of a tsarist gendarme prison.” (Smele, 203)


The sailors’ demands show that they were against the Bolshevik dictatorship but not against Bolshevik rule in principle – they were still socialist and pro-Soviet. But their declaration that the current situation did not express the will of the people was a direct challenge to Bolshevik power in that it called on them to honor their own constitution.

So the sailors of Kronstadt, once the scions of revolution, had now fired a shot across the bows of the Bolshevik authorities – and they weren’t about to stop at resolutions.

On March 1, 1921, the sailors of the Baltic Fleet assembled for a general meeting. They approved the Petropavlovsk resolution, and shouted down government representatives, including Premier Mikhail KalInin and Baltic Fleet Commissar Nikolai KuzmIn. The sailors also detained Kuzmin, and elected a Provisional Revolutionary Committee the next day. The Committee was led by Stepan Petrichenko, who summed up the movement’s objective:

“Our revolt was an elemental movement to get rid of Bolshevik oppression; once that is done, the will of the people will manifest itself.” (Avrich, 95)

On March 2, the Committee occupied all strategic points in Kronstadt, including the Cheka headquarters. All warships and coastal batteries in the town recognized the Committee’s authority – even a general, Aleksandr Koslovskii. The rebellion had begun. 


The Bolshevik government in Moscow responded with a series of ultimatums demanding the release of party members and an end to the revolt. They also tried to discredit the revolt by calling it a mutiny, so they wouldn’t have to admit that workers and sailors had turned against them. The Bolsheviks also publicly accused the rebels of collaborating with agents of the Whites and the French, which wasn’t true. The sailors fired back in a declaration to the people:

“Our enemies are trying to deceive you. They say that the Kronstadt rebellion was organized by Mensheviks, S[ocial] R[evolutionaries], Entente spies, and tsarist generals. They say we’re led from Paris. Nonsense! If our rebellion were made in Paris, then the moon was made in Berlin.” (Avrich, 98)


The revolt had the Bolsheviks worried. They were already dealing with peasant revolts in the provinces, but if they lost the workers and military rank and file, they might lose their grip on power. In fact, some historians have seen the rebellion as the starting point of a third phase of the revolution pitting peasants and workers against the Bolshevik dictatorship. The Bolsheviks declared martial law, detained the Kronstadt delegation that had come to Petrograd, and took rebel family members in other parts of the country hostage. They also began planning an attack on Kronstadt. Communist party members, volunteers, officer cadets, and Cheka troops were all mobilized and prepared to crush the rebellion alongside the Red 7th Army.


The Kronstadt sailors were divided about what to do. General Koslovskii and other military specialists wanted to send a force to land near Petrograd to seize more weapons, and link up with sympathetic army units to march on Petrograd. They also urged the Committee to prepare for defence, by freeing the two battleships in the harbour from the ice so they could have clear fields of fire, which would also stop the Red Army from marching across the ice to attack the town. But the Committee refused.


According to some historians, at this early stage they still saw themselves more as a political and social reform pressure group than a military rebellion. (Avrich 111) Instead, they hoped the Bolsheviks would not attack before the ice melted, and for the workers of Petrograd to rise up. Commissar for War Trotsky though, was not willing to wait. He issued an ultimatum demanding the surrender of the rebels, and warning them he was ready to suppress them by force. The committee was not impressed:

“The […] [Workers’] Revolution has risen and will sweep from the face of Soviet Russia the vile slanderers and tyrants with all their corruption—and your clemency, Mr. Trotsky, will not be needed.” (Avrich, 145)

So the sailors of Kronstadt had declared open revolt against the Bolsheviks in Moscow, but were hesitant about armed conflict. On March 7, the crisis turned bloody as the Bolsheviks struck first.

Under the command of the battle-tested General Mikhail Tukhachevskii, the Reds had assembled a force of about 10,000 men, 85 guns, and 96 machine guns The 25,000 Kronstadt sailors had 280 guns, 33 machine guns, and could also use some of the guns on the two battleships frozen in the harbour ice (Smele 205). Tukhachevskii was worried that the ice would soon melt, which would leave Kronstadt an island fortress, so he wanted to act quickly, despite the problems he was facing. For one, his troops were suffering from low morale. They were tired after years of fighting the Whites, and since most of them were peasants, some sympathized with the rebels. Another problem was the tactical situation. To attack Kronstadt’s fortifications, the Red troops would have to first cross the open ice of the Gulf of Finland, which exposed them to the defenders’ fire with no cover whatsoever.
All the same, the Red Army attacked on the morning of March 7. After a short artillery duel made difficult by the fog and falling snow, the infantry began to move across the ice. The
defenders opened up from behind the fortifications, and the attackers hesitated. Shells opened up huge holes in the ice which swallowed up dozens of Red soldiers. Some units refused to continue the advance, and retreated in spite of the Cheka blocking detachments behind them. The first assault on the fortress had failed.


After this victory the Kronstadt Revolutionary Committee put out a call to the Russian population in the hopes of gaining support:

”The workers and peasants steadfastly march forward, leaving behind them both the Constituent Assembly, with its bourgeois regime, and the dictatorship of the Communist party, with its Cheka and its state capitalism, [and] whose hangman's noose encircles the necks of the laboring masses and threatens to strangle them to death. . . . Here in Kronstadt has been laid the first stone of the third revolution, striking the last fetters from the laboring masses and opening a broad new road for socialist creativity.” (Avrich, 166-167)


But the labouring masses of the country did not rise up with Kronstadt – in fact the strikes in Petrograd had stopped after food rations had been distributed. The Tenth Party Congress in Moscow also voted to end War Communism and replace the grain seizures with a tax in kind, the beginning of the more liberal New Economic Policy meant to calm the workers and peasants. The Bolsheviks were also preparing militarily -- more carefully this time -- for another assault on the island. Tukhachevskii now had between 20,000 and 35,000 troops, and more heavy weapons at the ready (Smele 205). Meanwhile, the rebels’ position was deteriorating. They were short on food, fuel, medicine, and ammunition. Their morale was shattered, since it had become clear that the workers in Petrograd and the rest of the country were not heeding their call to rise up. They had, in the words of one sailor, sold out “for a pound of meat.”

So Kronstadt had resisted one attack, but it was now facing the Red Army alone. And the Bolsheviks would not make the same mistake twice.

The second Red Army offensive against Kronstadt began on March 17. This time there were two attacking groups, the larger in the south and the smaller in the north. After an exchange of artillery fire through the night, the Northern assault group crossed the ice in the early morning darkness and fog. After fierce fighting, they managed to capture all the small forts but one, and reached the city walls.


At the same time, the southern group had launched an assault on the Petrograd Gate, the most vulnerable part of the fortress. They reached the walls, but were driven back by the concentrated fire of the defenders. The Bolshevik forces tried again, and managed to breach the wall north of the gate. They poured into the city, where house-to-house fighting raged.
Just before sundown, Red artillery was moved into the city and brought a devastating weight of fire onto the remaining defenders. Around the same time, the Northern Red force also broke into the town from the northeast. They seized the rebel headquarters, and linked up with the southern group in the city centre. By midnight, the fighting began to die down, and the last holdout forts surrendered the next day. The Kronstadt rebellion had been crushed.

The Battle of Kronstadt had been short but bloody. Historians suspect that Soviet figures of the time are too low, and recent evidence suggests that the Red Army lost up to 2000 dead, while the rebels lost at least the same number (Smele 207). About 8000 sailors were able to escape to Finland after the Committee asked for asylum. Of those who stayed behind, more than 2000 were sentenced to death, about 6500 were sent to Gulags, and 2500 were deported from the city (Наумов, Косаковский, 15).
The Kronstadt Rebellion has gone down as one of the most famous and dramatic episodes of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Although the rebellion had failed, it did have political consequences. Many who had supported the Bolsheviks before, were now disillusioned, like Emma Goldman:

“Kronstadt broke the last thread that held me to the Bolsheviki. The wanton slaughter they had instigated spoke more eloquently against them than aught else. Whatever their pretenses in the past, the Bolsheviki now proved themselves the most pernicious enemies of the Revolution.” (Smele, 208)


To consolidate the Bolshevik hold on power even further, the Tenth Party Congress also banned any fractions or opposition within the Communist Party, which accelerated its centralization and unification.


Even though the Bolsheviks had defeated the rebellion, many took it as a warning sign and enacted important reforms. They loosened their economic policy by ending War Communism and adopted the New Economic Program ahead of schedule. The NEP introduced taxes on surplus, and allowed private trade and small private shops – which was just enough to keep most workers from revolting. Some historians have argued that the Kronstadt rebellion was the catalyst that pushed the Bolsheviks into economic reform – Lenin himself described Kronstadt as a quote “flash that lit up reality better than anything else.”


For many revolutionaries, like anarchist Alexander Berkman, the new reality was bleak indeed:

“Grey are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are forsworn, its ideas stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under foot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness.” (Smele, 208)

But in the spring of 1921, far from Kronstadt, the peasants of Siberia would soon show the spirit of resistance to Bolshevik rule was still alive and well.


SOURCES

  • Наумов В. П., А. А. Косаковский. „Кронштадт 1921. Документы о событиях в Кронштадте весной 1921 г.“ (М.: Международный фонд “Демократия”, 1997)
  • Пирани, Саймон. „Русская революция в отступлении“ (М.: Новый хронограф, 2013)
  • Шубин А.В. „Махно и его время: О Великой революции и Гражданской войне 1917-1922“ гг. в России и на Украинe (М.: ЛИБРОКОМ, 2013)
  • Avrich, Paul. “Kronstadt 1921” ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991)
  • Smele, Jonathan. “The ‘Russian ’Civil Wars 1916-1926” (London: Hurst, 2015).
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