1917-1921: Kronstadt Sailors fought for freedom

By 1917 the town’s industrial workforce had swelled to 17,000. This powder keg finally blew as a full-scale insurrection ripped through Kronstadt in February 1917. The February Revolution replaced the Tsar’s rule with a Provisional Government, which dispatched the liberal Victor Pepeliaev to run Kronstadt. But the sailors had already set up the Committee of the National Movement as the new revolutionary body. And their soviet—or council—was democratising the fleet in the face of Pepeliaev’s protestations. Through intense debates Bolshevik workers and sailors won it to opposing the ongoing war—and later to supporting the party’s slogan of “All power to the soviets”. Their soviet defied the Provisional Government by declaring itself the “sole power” in the city on 30 May. This prompted revolutionary Leon Trotsky to praise Kronstadt as the “pride and glory of the revolution”.

The Kronstadt rebellion involved a major unsuccessful uprising against the Bolsheviks in March 1921, during the later years of the Russian Civil War. Led by Stepan Petrichenko and bringing together Soviet sailors, soldiers, and civilians, the rebellion was one of the reasons for Vladimir Lenin’s and the Communist Party’s decision to loosen its control of the Russian economy by implementing the New Economic Policy (NEP) from March 1921.

The rebellion originated in Kronstadt, a naval fortress on Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland that served as the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet and as a guardpost for the approaches to Petrograd, 55 kilometres (34 mi) away. The Red Army crushed the rebellion after a 12-day military campaign, resulting in several thousand deaths.

Lenin regarded the crisis as the most critical his regime had yet faced, “undoubtedly more dangerous than Denikin, Yudenich, and Kolchak combined”.

By 1921, the Bolsheviks were winning the Russian Civil War and foreign troops were beginning to withdraw, yet Bolshevik leaders continued to keep tight control of the economy through the policy of War Communism. After years of economic crises caused by World War I and the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik economy started to collapse. Industrial output had fallen dramatically. It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 was 20 percent of the pre-World War I level, with many crucial items suffering an even more drastic decline. Production of cotton, for example, had fallen to 5 percent and iron to 2 percent of the pre-war level, and this coincided with droughts in 1920 and 1921 and the Russian famine of 1921. Discontent grew among the Russian populace, particularly the peasantry, who felt disadvantaged by Communist grain requisitioning (prodrazvyorstka, forced seizure of large portions of the peasants’ grain crop used to feed urban dwellers). They resisted by refusing to till their land. In February 1921, more than 100 peasant uprisings took place. The workers in Petrograd were also involved in a series of strikes, caused by the reduction of bread rations by one third over a ten-day period.

Petropavlovsk resolution

On February 26, delegates from the Kronstadt naval base visited Petrograd to investigate the situation. On February 28, in response to the delegates’ report of heavy-handed Bolshevik repression of strikes in Petrograd, the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting, which approved a resolution raising 15 demands.

  1. Immediate new elections to the Soviets; the present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and peasants. The new elections should be held by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda for all workers and peasants before the elections.
  2. Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties.
  3. The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant associations.
  4. The organisation, at the latest on 10 March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.
  5. The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organisations.
  6. The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons and concentration camps.
  7. The abolition of all political sections in the armed forces; no political party should have privileges for the propagation of its ideas, or receive State subsidies to this end. In place of the political section, various cultural groups should be set up, deriving resources from the State.
  8. The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside.
  9. The equalisation of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs.
  10. The abolition of Party combat detachments in all military groups; the abolition of Party guards in factories and enterprises. If guards are required, they should be nominated, taking into account the views of the workers.
  11. The granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour.
  12. We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.
  13. We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.
  14. We demand the institution of mobile workers’ control groups.
  15. We demand that handicraft production be authorised, provided it does not utilise wage labour.

On March 1, a general meeting of the garrison was held, attended also by Mikhail Kalinin and Commissar of the Soviet Baltic Fleet Nikolai Kuzmin, who made speeches for the Government, threatening harsh repression if the requests were not withdrawn. The general meeting passed a resolution including the fifteen demands given above. On March 2, a conference of sailor, soldier and worker organization delegates, after hearing speeches by Kuzmin and Vasiliev, President of the Kronstadt Executive Committee, arrested these two and approved the formation of a Provisional Revolutionary Committee.

The Government responded with an ultimatum the same day, which insinuated that the revolt had “undoubtedly been prepared by French counter-intelligence” and that the Petropavlovsk resolution was an “SR-Black Hundred” resolution. SR stood for Social Revolutionaries, a socialist party whose right wing had refused to support the Bolsheviks. The Black Hundreds were an ultranationalist paramilitary organization in late Tsarist Russia, whose members had opposed any retreat from Tsarist autocracy. After the October Revolution, “Black Hundreds” became a term of abuse for real and imagined anti-communists.

The Bolshevik government began its attack on Kronstadt on March 7. Some 60,000 troops under command of Mikhail Tukhachevsky took part in the attack. The workers of Petrograd were under martial law. There was a hurry to gain control of the fortress before the thawing of the frozen bay, as it would have made it impregnable for the land army.

On March 17, Bolshevik forces entered the city of Kronstadt after having suffered over 10,000 fatalities. On March 19, the Bolshevik forces took full control of the city of Kronstadt after having suffered fatalities ranging from 527 to 1,412 (or higher if the toll from the first assault is included). The day after the surrender of Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune.

Although there are no reliable figures for rebel battle losses, historians estimate that from 1,200–2,168 persons were executed after the revolt and a similar number were jailed, many in the Solovki prison camp. Official Soviet figures claim approximately 1,000 rebels were killed, 2,000 wounded and from 2,300–6,528 captured, with 6,000–8,000 defecting to Finland, while the Red Army lost 527 killed and 3,285 wounded. Later on, 1,050–1,272 prisoners were freed and 750–1,486 sentenced to five years’ forced labour. More fortunate rebels were those who escaped to Finland, their large number causing the first big refugee problem for the newly independent state.

The Soviet government later provided the refugees in Finland with amnesty; among those was Petrichenko, who lived in Finland and worked as a spy for the Soviet Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie (GPU). He was arrested by the Finnish authorities in 1941 and was expelled to the Soviet Union in 1944. Some months after his return, he was arrested on espionage charges and sentenced to ten years in prison, and died at Vladimir prison in 1947.

Although Red Army units suppressed the uprising, dissatisfaction with the state of affairs could not have been more forcefully expressed. Vladimir Lenin stated that Kronstadt “lit up reality like a lightning flash”. Against this background of discontent, Lenin concluded that world revolution was not imminent; in the spring of 1921 he replaced War Communism with his New Economic Policy.

Claims that the Kronstadt uprising was instigated by foreign and counter-revolutionary forces extended beyond the March 2 government ultimatum. The anarchist Emma Goldman, who was in Petrograd at the time of the rebellion, described in a retrospective account from 1938 how “the news in the Paris Press about the Kronstadt uprising two weeks before it happened had been stressed in the [official press] campaign against the sailors as proof positive that they had been tools of the Imperialist gang and that rebellion had actually been hatched in Paris. It was too obvious that this yarn was used only to discredit the Kronstadters in the eyes of the workers.”

In 1970 the historian Paul Avrich published a comprehensive history of the rebellion including analysis of “evidence of the involvement of anti-Bolshevik émigré groups.” An appendix to Avrich’s history included a document titled Memorandum on the Question of Organizing an Uprising in Kronstadt, the original of which was located in “the Russian Archive of Columbia University” (today called the Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian & East European Culture). Avrich says this memorandum was probably written between January and early February 1921 by an agent of an exile opposition group called the National Centre in Finland. The “Memorandum” has become a touchstone in debates about the rebellion.

Those debates started at the time of the rebellion. Because Leon Trotsky was in charge of the Red Army forces that suppressed the uprising, with the backing of Lenin, the question of whether the suppression was justified became a point of contention on the revolutionary left, in debates between anarchists and Leninist Marxists about the character of the Soviet state and Leninist politics, and more particularly in debates between anarchists and Trotsky and his followers. It remains so to this day. On the pro-Leninist side of those debates, the memorandum published by Avrich is treated as a “smoking gun” showing foreign and counter-revolutionary conspiracy behind the rebellion, for example in an article from 1990 by a Trotskyist writer, Abbie Bakan. Bakan says “[t]he document includes remarkably detailed information about the resources, personnel, arms and plans of the Kronstadt rebellion. It also details plans regarding White army and French government support for the Kronstadt sailors’ March rebellion.”

Bakan says the National Centre originated in 1918 as a self-described “underground organization formed in Russia for the struggle against the Bolsheviks.” After being infiltrated by the Bolshevik Cheka secret police, the group suffered the arrest and execution of many of its central members, and was forced to reconstitute itself in exile. Bakan links the National Centre to the White army General Wrangel, who had evacuated an army of seventy or eighty thousand troops to Turkey in late 1920. However, Avrich says that the “Memorandum” probably was composed by a National Centre agent in Finland. Avrich reaches a different conclusion as to the meaning of the “Memorandum”:

[R]eading the document quickly shows that Kronstadt was not a product of a White conspiracy but rather that the White “National Centre” aimed to try and use a spontaneous “uprising” it thought was likely to “erupt there in the coming spring” for its own ends. The report notes that “among the sailors, numerous and unmistakable signs of mass dissatisfaction with the existing order can be noticed.” Indeed, the “Memorandum” states that “one must not forget that even if the French Command and the Russian anti-Bolshevik organisations do not take part in the preparation and direction of the uprising, a revolt in Kronstadt will take place all the same during the coming spring, but after a brief period of success it will be doomed to failure.”

Avrich rejects the idea that the “Memorandum” explains the revolt:

Nothing has come to light to show that the Secret Memorandum was ever put into practice or that any links had existed between the emigres and the sailors before the revolt. On the contrary, the rising bore the earmarks of spontaneity… there was little in the behaviour of the rebels to suggest any careful advance preparation. Had there been a prearranged plan, surely the sailors would have waited a few weeks longer for the ice to melt… The rebels, moreover, allowed Kalinin (a leading Communist) to return to Petrograd, though he would have made a valuable hostage. Further, no attempt was made to take the offensive… Significant too, is the large number of Communists who took part in the movement.(…)
The Sailors needed no outside encouragement to raise the banner of insurrection… Kronstadt was clearly ripe for a rebellion. What set it off was not the machination of emigre conspirators and foreign intelligence agents but the wave of peasant risings throughout the country and the labour disturbances in neighboring Petrograd. And as the revolt unfolded, it followed the pattern of earlier outbursts against the central government from 1905 through the Civil War.” 

Moreover, whether the Memorandum played a part in the revolt can be seen from the reactions of the White “National Centre” to the uprising. Firstly, they failed to deliver aid to the rebels or to get French aid to them. Secondly, Professor Grimm, the chief agent of the National Centre in Helsingfors and General Wrangel’s official representative in Finland, stated to a colleague after the revolt had been crushed that if a new outbreak should occur then their group must not be caught unaware again. Avrich also notes that the revolt “caught the emigres off balance” and that “nothing… had been done to implement the Secret Memorandum, and the warnings of the author were fully borne out.” 

(A 2003 bibliography by a historian of the Russian Civil War characterizes Avrich’s history as “the only full-length, scholarly, non-partisan account of the genesis, course and repression of the rebellion to have appeared in English.”)

A contentious debate is over the composition of the garrison of sailors at Kronstadt. Some proclaim they were a different group, others proclaim they were the same revolutionary sailors of 1917. Emma Goldman criticized Leon Trotsky for his role in the suppression of the rebellion, arguing that it made his later criticism of Stalinism hypocritical. Trotsky responded that Goldman’s criticisms were mainly perfunctory, and that they ignored the differing social composition between the pro-Bolshevik Kronstadt Uprising of 1917 and the mainly “petty bourgeois” Kronstadt Uprising of 1921.

Defenders of the Bolshevik policy, such as Abbie Bakan, have claimed that the Kronstadt rebels were not the same sailors as those who had been revolutionary heroes in 1917. In response, Israel Getzler presents detailed evidence that the vast majority of the sailors had been in the Navy since 1917:

(…)that the veteran politicized Red sailor still predominated at Kronstadt at the end of 1920 is borne out by the hard statistical data available regarding the crews of the two major battleships, the Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol, both renowned since 1917 for their revolutionary zeal and Bolshevik allegiance. Of 2,028 sailors whose years of enlistment are known, no less than 1,904 or 93.9% were recruited into the navy before and during the 1917 revolution, the largest group, 1,195, having joined in the years 1914-16. Only some 137 sailors or 6.8% were recruited in the years 1918-21, including three who were conscripted in 1921, and they were the only ones who had not been there during the 1917 revolution. As for the sailors of the Baltic Fleet in general (and that included the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol), of those serving on 1 January 1921 at least 75.5% are likely to have been drafted into the fleet before 1918. Over 80% were drawn from Great Russian areas (mainly central Russia and the Volga area), some 10% from the Ukraine, and 9% from Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Poland.
Nor, as has so often been claimed, did new recruits, some 400 of whom Yasinsky had interviewed, arrive in numbers large enough to dilute or even ‘demoralize’ Kronstadt’s Red sailors. As Evan Mawdsley has found, ‘only 1,313 of a planned total of 10,384 recruits had arrived’ by 1 December 1920, and even they seem to have been stationed in the barracks of the Second Baltic Crew in Petrograd.

Tony Cliff defends the Bolshevik policy, stating that “the number of industrial workers in Russia, always a minority, fell from 3 million in 1917 to 1,240,000, a decline of 58.7%, in 1921–22. So was there a decline in the agricultural proletariat, from 2,100,000 in 1917, to 34,000 only two years later (a decline of 98.5%). But the number of peasant households (not individuals which is many times greater) had risen with the parcelization of land from 16.5 million in early 1918 to over 25 million households by 1920, an increase of some 50%.”

According to this view, the majority of the sailors in the Baltic Fleet stationed at Kronstadt were recent recruits of peasant origin. Stepan Petrichenko was himself a Ukrainian peasant. He later acknowledged that many of his fellow mutineers were peasants from the south, who were in sympathy with the peasant opposition movement against the Bolsheviks. In the words of Petrichenko: “When we returned home our parents asked us why we fought for the oppressors. That set us thinking.”

In 1939, Isaac Don Levine introduced Whittaker Chambers to Walter Krivitsky in New York City. First, Krivitsky asked, “Is the Soviet Government a fascist government?” to which Chambers assented, “You are right, and Kronstadt was the turning point.” Chambers explained:

From Kronstadt during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the sailors of the Baltic Fleet had steamed their cruisers to aid the Communists in capturing Petrograd. Their aid had been decisive…. They were the first Communists to realize their mistake and the first to try to correct it. When they saw that Communism meant terror and tyranny, they called for the overthrow of the Communist Government and for a time imperiled it. They were bloodily destroyed or sent into Siberian slavery by Communist troops led in person by the Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, and by Marshal Tukhachevsky, one of whom was later assassinated, the other executed, by the regime they then saved. Krivitsky meant that by the decision to destroy the Kronstadt sailors, and by its cold-blooded action in doing so, Communism had made the choice that changed it from benevolent socialism to malignant fascism.

The 1949 book The God That Failed contains Louis Fischer’s definition of “Kronstadt” as the moment in which communists or fellow travelers decide not just to leave the Communist Party but to oppose it as anti-communists. Editor Richard Crossman said in the book’s introduction: “The Kronstadt rebels called for Soviet power free from Bolshevik dominance” (p. x). After describing the actual Kronstadt rebellion, Fischer spent many pages applying the concept to subsequent former-communists—including himself: “What counts decisively is the ‘Kronstadt’. Until its advent, one might waver emotionally or doubt intellectually or even reject the cause altogether in one’s mind, and yet refuse to attack it. I had no ‘Kronstadt’ for many years.” (p. 204).

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