The sailors at the Kronstadt naval base had long been a source of radical dissent. Mutinies had taken place during the 1905 Revolution and played an important role in persuading Nicholas II to issue his October Manifesto. The Kronstadt sailors were also active in the overthrow of Tsar in the February Revolution. A large number of the sailors were Bolsheviks and during the October Revolution they took control of the cruiser, Aurora, and sailed it up the River Neva and opened fire on the Winter Palace.
According to Bertram D. Wolfe: "They jailed their officers without trial in the same hell holes that had been used to discipline them, and drowned or bloodily lynched many. Leon Trotsky later claimed: "The most hateful of the officers were shoved under the ice, of course while still alive... Bloody acts of retribution were as inevitable as the recoil of a gun."
By 1921 the Kronstadt sailors had become disillusioned with the Bolshevik government. They were angry about the lack of democracy and the policy of War Communism. On 28th February, 1921, the crew of the battleship, Petropavlovsk, passed a resolution calling for a return of full political freedoms. On 4th March they issued the following statement: "Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you."
Eugene Lyons, the author of Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet (1967), pointed out: "The hundreds of large and small uprisings throughout the country are too numerous to list, let alone describe here. The most dramatic of them, in Kronstadt, epitomizes most of them. What gave it a dimension of supreme drama was the fact that the sailors of Kronstadt, an island naval fortress near Petrograd, on the Gulf of Finland, had been one of the main supports of the putsch. Now Kronstadt became the symbol of the bankruptcy of the Revolution. The sailors on the battleships and in the naval garrisons were in the final analysis peasants and workers in uniform."
Lenin denounced the Kronstadt Uprising as a plot instigated by the White Army and their European supporters. On 6th March, Leon Trotsky announced that he was going to order the Red Army to attack the Kronstadt sailors. Some observers claimed that many of the victims would die shouting, "Long live the Communist International!" and "Long live the Constituent Assembly!"
It was not until the 17th March that government forces were able to take control of Kronstadt. An estimated 8,000 people (sailors and civilians) left Kronstadt and went to live in Finland. Official figures suggest that 527 people were killed and 4,127 were wounded. Historians who have studied the uprising believe that the total number of casualties was much higher than this. According to Victor Serge over 500 sailors at Kronstadt were executed for their part in the rebellion.
Nikolai Sukhanov reminded Leon Trotsky that three years previously he had told the people of Petrograd: "We shall conduct the work of the Petrograd Soviet in a spirit of lawfulness and of full freedom for all parties. The hand of the Presidium will never lend itself to the suppression of the minority." Trotsky lapsed into silence for a while, then said wistfully: "Those were good days."
In a large house in the main street I found the headquarters of the Kronstadt Soviet. With some little misgiving I passed by the sentries and asked to see the President. I was taken into a room, where I saw a young man with a red badge on his coat looking through some papers, who appeared to be a student. He had long hair and dreamy eyes, with a far-off look of an idealist. This was the elected President of the Kronstadt Workers', Soldiers' and Sailors Soviet.
"Be seated," he said. "I suppose you have come down here from Petrograd to see if all the stories about our terror are true. You will probably have observed that there is nothing extraordinary going on here; we are simply putting this place into order after the tyranny and chaos of the late Tsarist regime. The workmen, soldiers and sailors here find that they can do this job better by themselves than by leaving it to people who call themselves democrats, but are really friends of the old regime. That is why we have declared the Kronstadt Soviet the supreme authority in the island."
"The soldiers and sailors were treated on this island like dogs. They were worked from early morning till late at night. They were not allowed any recreations for fear that they would associate for political purposes. Nowhere could you study the slavery system of capitalist imperialism better than here. For the smallest misdemeanor a man was put in chains, and if he was found with a Socialist pamphlet in his possession he was shot."
I was taken to a prison on the south side of the island, where were kept the former military police, gendarmes, police spies and provocateurs of fallen Tsarism. The quarters were very bad, and many of the cells had no windows at all.
I met a Major-General, formerly in command of the fortress artillery of Kronstadt. He stood in his shirt-sleeves - no medalled tunic decorated his breast any more. His red-striped trousers of Prussian blue bore signs of three months' wear in confinement. Sheepishly he looked at me, as if uncertain whether it was dignified for him to tell his troubles to a stray foreigner.
"I wish they would bring some indictment against us," he said at length, "for to sit here for three months and not to know what our fate is to be is rather hard." "And I sat here, not three months, but three years," broke in the sailor guard who was taking us round, "and I didn't know what was going to happen to me, although my only offence was that I had been distributing a pamphlet on the life of Karl Marx."
I pointed out to the sailor that the prison accommodation was unfit for a human being. He answered, "Well, I sat here all that time because of these gentlemen, and I think that if they had known they were going to sit here they would have made better prisons!"
(1) Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and the peasants. The new elections should be by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda.
(2) Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and the Left Socialist parties.
(3) The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organizations.
(4) The organization, at the latest on 10th 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 for all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to workers and peasant organizations.
(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 the place of the political sections, 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 equalization 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 of 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.
Just like other White Guard insurrections, the mutiny of General Kozlovsky and the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk has been organised by Entente spies. The French counter espionage is mixed up in the whole affair. History is repeating itself. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who have their headquarters in Paris, are preparing the ground for an insurrection against the Soviet power.
Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you.
I order all those who have raised a hand against the Socialist Fatherland, immediately to lay down their weapons. Those who resist will be disarmed and put at the disposal of the Soviet Command. The arrested commissars and other representatives of the Government must be freed immediately. Only those who surrender unconditionally will be able to count on the clemency of the Soviet Republic.
At the beginning of the operation the second battalion had refused to march. With much difficulty and thanks to the presence of communists, it was persuaded to venture on the ice. As soon as it reached the first south battery, a company of the 2nd battalion surrendered. The officers had to return alone.
Two or three days more and the Baltic Sea would have been ice-free and the war vessels of the foreign imperialists could have entered the ports of Kronstadt and Petrograd. Had we then been compelled to surrender Petrograd, it would have opened the road to Moscow, for there are virtually no defensive points between Petrograd and Moscow.
7th March, 1921: Distant rumbling reaches my ears as I cross the Nevsky. It sounds again, stronger and nearer, as if rolling toward me. All at once I realize the artillery is being fired. It is 6 p.m. Kronstadt has been attacked! My heart is numb with despair; something has died within me.
17th March, 1921: Kronstadt has fallen today. Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in its streets. Summary execution of prisoners and hostages continues.
30th September, 1921: One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under the foot. The revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness. The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed. I have decided to leave Russia.
The final assault was unleashed by Tukhacevsky on 17 March, and culminated in a daring victory over the impediment of the ice. Lacking any qualified officers, the Kronstadt sailors did not know how to employ their artillery; there was, it is true, a former officer named Kozlovsky among them, but he did little and exercised no authority. Some of te rebels managed to reach Finland. Others put up a furious resistance, fort to fort and street to street; they stood and were shot crying, "Long live the world revolution! Hundreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd and handed to the Cheka; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony. Those defeated sailors belonged body and soul to the Revolution; they had voiced the suffering and the will of the Russian people. This protracted massacre was either supervised or permitted by Dzerzhinsky.
Your evaluation of te Kronstadt Uprising of 1921 is basically incorrect. The best, most sacrificing sailors were completely withdrawn from Kronstadt and played an important role at the fronts and in the local Soviets throughout the country. What remained was the grey mass with big pretensions, but without political education and unprepared for revolutionary sacrifice. The country was starving. The Kronstadters demanded privileges. The uprising was dictated by a desire to get privileged food rations.
No less erroneous is your estimate of Makhno. In himself he was a mixture of fanatic and adventurer. He became the concentration of the very tendencies which brought about the Kronstadt Uprising. Makhno created a cavalry of peasants who supplied their own horses. They were not downtrodden village poor whom the October Revolution first awakened, but the strong and well-fed peasants who were afraid of losing what they had.
The anarchist ideas of Makhno (the ignoring of the State, non-recognition of the central power) corresponded to the spirit of the kulak cavalry as nothing else could. I should add that the hatred of the city and the city worker on the part of the followers of Makhno was complemented by the militant anti-Semitism.
The truth of the matter is that I personally did not participate in the least in the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, nor in the repressions following the suppression. In my eyes this very fact is of no political significance. I was a member of the government, I considered the quelling of the rebellion necessary and therefore bear responsibility for the suppression.
Concerning the repressions, as far as I remember, Dzerzhinsky had personal charge of them and Dzerhinsky could not tolerate anyone's interference with his functions (and property so). Whether there were any needless victims I do not know. On this score I trust Dzerzhinsky more than his belated critics. Victor Serge's conclusions on this score - from third hand - have no value in my eyes. But I am ready to recognize that civil war is no school of humanism. Idealists and pacifists always accused the revolution of "excesses". But the main point is that "excesses" flow from the very nature of the revolution which in itself is but an "excess" of history.
Kronstadt was the proudest bastion of the Bolshevik Revolution. The sailors of the island fortress off Petrograd had marched against Kerensky in July 1917 and had stormed the Winter Palace in November to install Lenin in power. Later, when Red Petrograd was threatened by General Yudenich, the Kronstadt sailors had rallied to the defence of the Soviet regime.
On 1 March 1921, the sailors of Kronstadt revolted against Lenin. Mass meetings of 15,000 men from various ships and garrisons passed resolutions demanding immediate new elections to the Soviet by secret ballot; freedom of speech and the press for all left-wing Socialist parties; freedom of assembly for trade unions and peasant organizations; abolition of Communist political agencies in the Army and Navy; immediate withdrawal of all grain requisitioning squads, and re-establishment of a free market for the peasants.
The Kronstadt revolt came as the climax of a series of rebellions, disturbances and protests embracing large areas of Russia. As a result of "War Communism", Russia in March 1921 was on the verge of economic collapse and new civil war in which foreign intervention played no part. The White Armies had been decisively defeated in the autumn of 1919, and were no longer a factor after the capture and execution of Kolchak and the departure of Denikin early in 1920.
The hundreds of large and small uprisings throughout the country are too numerous to list, let alone describe here. The most dramatic of them, in Kronstadt, epitomizes most of them. What gave it a dimension of supreme drama was the fact that the sailors of Kronstadt, an island naval fortress near Petrograd, on the Gulf of Finland, had been one of the main supports of the putsch. Now Kronstadt became the symbol of the bankruptcy of the Revolution. In the sycophantic writings about the glorious "new Russia," Kronstadt, if mentioned at all, is covered up with a few official lies.
The sailors on the battleships and in the naval garrisons were in the final analysis peasants and workers in uniform. Soon enough they shared the disillusionment of the country at large. It was in the local Soviet and in the Kronstadt Communist Party that the spirit of insurgence first found expression, then spread to the naval and civilian population. Kremlin history, then and since, has attempted to dismiss the rebellion as the work of monarchists and emigre capitalists. But it was in the first place an insurrection within the Bolshevik elite itself. Many of the victims would die shouting, "Long live the Communist International!" and "Long live the Constituent Assembly!"
The tragedy began with a mass meeting of fifteen hundred sailors and workers on March 1, 1921. Though Lenin had sent several of his best people - among them - Mikhail Kalinin, well-liked because of his peasant origin and personality - to take part in the proceedings, they could not stave off a resolution condemning the regime. "The present Soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants," it charged, and went on to ask for "new elections by secret ballot, the pre-election campaign to have full freedom of agitation." The sailors demanded freedom of speech, press, and assembly, liberation of political prisoners, restoration of the peasants' right to the products of their labor - in short, fulfillment of the Bolshevik promises.
Four days later the Kronstadt sailors formed a small committee composed chiefly of communists, which assumed control of the town, the fortress, the ships. A brutally-worded ultimatum by Trotsky as War Commissar, approved by Lenin, called for "unconditional surrender" or the "mutineers" would be shot "like partridges." When the committee refused to yield, Trotsky assigned Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the same General Tukhachevsky who was destined to be killed by Stalin, to take Kronstadt by force. Hundreds of Petrograd workers crossed the ice -the gulf is still frozen at that time of the year - to join the menaced Kronstadters.
Tukhachevsky marched on the naval town with sixty thousand picked troops. Tough Cheka forces were deployed in the rear, ready to shoot army men who might flinch from attacking the heroes of the Revolution. One regiment, in fact, did mutiny, and was whipped back into line. The siege began with an aerial bombardment at 6:45 p.m. on March 6, followed by an artillery barrage. The sailors answered with fire from the fort and from their ships. Then the Red Army advanced across the ice. At several points the ice gave way and hundreds were drowned. In the final days the town was conquered street by street.
Tukhachevsky later declared that in all his years of war and civil war, he bad not witnessed carnage such as he overseered at Kronstadt. "It was not a battle," he said, "it was an inferno. ... The sailors fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the might for such rage. Each house had to be taken by storm."
On March 17, Tukhachevsky could report to the War Commissar that the job was finished. Kronstadt was a place of death. Eighteen thousand of the rebels, it was estimated, had been killed; thousands of government troops died. Hundreds were arrested and shot in the ensuing "pacification."
The massacre of the sailors signalized the rupture of the last natural bond between the regime and the sons of the people. What remained was a thing alien and hated and cancerous. The totalitarian state had triumphed. Russia was a nation occupied by an internal enemy.