Thursday, March 02, 2017

The Kronstadt Rebellion

“The Kronstadt Commune, called by Paul Avrich ‘a lost revolutionary utopia,’ was established at the very outset of the revolution in 1917 on the island naval base in the Gulf of Finland. Virtually independent from 1917 to 1921 and strongly pro-Bolshevik in the early years, Kronstadt had a population of about 50,000—half of it military personnel (largely sailors of Ukrainian peasant background). Egalitarianism, compensatory justice, equity, and grass-roots democracy took on active meaning in this little republic in the Baltic. Communes of 40-60 people were formed where intellectuals, workers, and sailors of all ages toiled side by side in urban garden plots and were rewarded according to labor or special need. Housing and building space was distributed according to family size. Sailors (who got ‘special’ rations on the mainland) shared their portions equally with all the rest—including Bolshevik prisoners taken during the fighting of 1921! Kronstadt was one of the most vivid utopian socialist experiments to surface in the Revolution.” — Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989): 55.

“Kronstadt is of great historic significance. It sounded the death knell Bolshevism with its Party dictatorship, mad centralization, Tcheka terrorism and bureaucratic castes. It struck into the very heart of Communist autocracy. At the same time it shocked the intelligent and honest minds of Europe and America into a critical examination of Bolshevik theories and practices. It exploded the Bolshevik myth of the Communist State being the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.’ It proved that the Communist Party dictatorship and the Russian Revolution are opposites, contradictory and mutually exclusive. It demonstrated that the Bolshevik regime is unmitigated tyranny and reaction, and that the Communist State is itself the most potent and dangerous counter-revolution.

Kronstadt fell. But it fell victorious in its idealism and moral purity, its generosity and higher humanity. Kronstadt was superb. It justly prided itself on not having shed the blood of its enemies, the Communists within its midst. It had no executions. The untutored, unpolished sailors, rough in manner and speech, were too noble to follow the Bolshevik example of vengeance: they would not shoot even the hated Commissars. Kronstadt personified the generous, all for-giving spirit of the Slavic soul and the century-old emancipation movement of Russia.

Kronstadt was the first popular and entirely independent attempt at liberation from the yoke of State Socialism—an attempt made directly by the people, by the workers, soldiers and sailors themselves. It was the first step toward the third Revolution which is inevitable and which, let us hope, may bring to long-suffering Russia lasting freedom and peace.” — Alexander Berkman 

“To see the Kronstadt uprising as flowing from the mistakes of War Communism, and to criticize the severity with which the rebels were punished – this is by no means to agree with the anarchists and the social democrats that Kronstadt ‘exposes the fundamentally anti-democratic and totalitarian nature of Bolshevism.’ I think Kronstadt was a bad mistake, but a mistake explained and, to some extent, justified by the terrible social and economic difficulties of those early years of the revolution. (Incidentally, the book which more than any other I have read convinced me of the necessity for many of the stern and undemocratic measures taken by the Bolsheviks in these years was, oddly enough Victor Serge’s L’an Une de la Révolution Russe, a really excellent history which deserves to be issued in an English edition.) It seems to me a serious error to defend Kronstadt – and many other actions taken by the Bolsheviks in those early years – as a normal mode of behavior for a revolutionary party. I am in favor of less defense, less polemicizing against all critics on this subject, and more willingness to examine the whole affair dispassionately and objectively with a view to extracting whatever historical lessons it may hold as to what seems to me to be a key problem for all revolutionaries today: how to maintain the maximum degree of working-class democracy after the revolution has been made.” — Dwight McDonald, “Kronstadt Again,” New International, Vol. 5 - No.10, October 1939: 315-316.

Quoting from my Verso Radical Diary: “In response to famine and the Bolshevik repression of strikes, a group of sailors, soldiers, and civilians launched the Kronstadt Rebellion against the Soviet government. ‘This unrest shows clearly enough that the party has lost the faith of the working masses.’”—Petropavlovsk Resolution and Demands 

The following is from the Wikipedia entry on the rebellion, sans hyperlinks and notes:
“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 guard post for the approaches to Petrograd, 55 kilometres (34 mi) away. The rebellion was crushed by the Red Army after a 12-day military campaign, resulting in several thousand deaths. 

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. 

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:

  • 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. 
  • Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties. 
  • The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant associations. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons and concentration camps. 
  • 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. 
  • The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside. 
  • The equalisation of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution. 
  • We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution. 
  • We demand the institution of mobile workers’ control groups. 
  • 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. 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 amid false rumours of immediate attack, approved 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. 

[….] 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, 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.” [….] 

Recommended Reading:

  • Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt, 1921. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970. 
  • Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 
  • Lenin, V.I. and Leon Trotsky. Kronstadt. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979. 
  • Serge, Victor (Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis, tr.) Memoirs of a Revolutionary. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012 (first published in French by Editions du Seuil, 1951). 
  • Thorndycraft, Lynne. The Kronstadt Uprising of 1921. Seattle, WA: Left Bank Books, 1975 (pamphlet). 
See too the page, Kronstadt,” at the Marxist Internet Archive. 


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