17th March 1921 the Kronstadt Tragedy

Red Army troops charge on Kronstadt

On this day in 1921 after two weeks of siege, a rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base fell to Soviet government forces. Anarchist and sometime Bolshevik-ally Victor Serge described the events as, ‘Seventeen dreadful days, more dreadful than anything I had known in Russia.’ On 7th March, Trotsky as commissar for war had offered the rebel garrison an ultimatum to unconditionally surrender or prepare for assault. The ultimatum was ignored, and the Red Army turned on its own navy. 1,000 rebels were killed outright, 6,000 more captured –some to be summarily executed although many were later freed – and 8,000 more fled to Finland and were subsequently pardoned under a general amnesty. Before the revolt, Kronstadt had acquired a special status in Soviet mythology as the home of those revolutionary sailors whose mutiny had ignited the 1905 revolution, and whose signal shot from the cruiser Aurora had begun the October Revolution in 1917. However, after the suppression of the revolt, the name of Kronstadt was to take on a new significance – and to this day it still constitutes a fault-line between Anarchists and Trotskyists, ironically otherwise united as the opponents and victims of Stalinism.

How did it come to pass that the Bolsheviks turned their guns on these former icons? Civil war had begun even before the revolution with former Czarist generals organizing White armies, but when the Bolshevik government withdrew from the war with Germany the allied powers all sent expeditionary forces to intervene against the new regime. On top of this, long-frustrated nationalisms fractured the former Russian empire into a patchwork of regional warlords. Successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution produced famines, and war damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.

Against all the odds – literally fighting on all fronts – after five years the infant Bolshevik regime emerged with a precarious victory. But not without a heavy price: The government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with the rapid nationalization of all industry and, most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. A period of ‘Red Terror’ curtailed civil liberties and suppressed political opposition.  In cities that had supported the Bolsheviks there were protests against food shortages and rationing, whilst in the countryside there were peasant revolts at the policy of forced requisition – enacted in order to feed the cities. At the start of March 1921, in support of rationing protests in Petrograd, a mass meeting of the sailors’ garrison at Kronstadt voted to agree a fifteen-point manifesto of political reforms that would restore some of the pre-civil war freedoms and undo much of the War Communism policy.

A rebellion at the strategically vital base – with its garrison in a complex of forts and the ships of the Baltic Fleet frozen in the winter ice – presented the government with a political and military crisis. Lenin claimed that the rebellion amounted to a counter-revolutionary plot that could allow the British and French navies access to Petrograd. Victor Serge, although sympathetic to the rebels’ manifesto, at the time essentially took the same view and so reluctantly supported the government’s position: “…insurgent Kronstadt was not counter-revolutionary, but its victory would have led inexorably to the counter-revolution.”

The rank and file Kronstadt rebels were certainly not ‘counter-revolutionaries’ although amongst their leaders Admiral Dmitriev and General Koslowsky were both openly reactionary and hostile to the Left. However Lenin’s much-derided claim that the rising was inspired by counter-revolutionaries has in fact been supported by evidence only available after the fall of the Soviet Union that reveals how former Czarist ministers and the French prime minister tried to provide support and funds for the rebellion.

The rebels were not necessarily anarchists either, although anarchists subsequently came to champion their cause and saw the crushing of the rebellion as the ultimate Bolshevik betrayal of the revolutionary ideal. In fact Victor Serge was not the only anarchist to be found on the side of the government; the anarcho-syndicalist ‘Workers’ Opposition’ faction even joined the government assault against the garrison. There was actually far from unanimous support for the rebels even within the Kronstadt base – some ships-crews declared against the mutiny and civilian dockyard workers secured parts of the base for the government.

Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Many of the rebel sailors of 1921 were not actually the same revolutionary icons of 1905 and 1917 – that generation had been diluted when many amongst them had volunteered in the early stages of the civil war. Their places were taken by conscripts from peasant backgrounds who opposed the Bolsheviks’ policies in the countryside. Victor Serge even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. These reforms replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.

Although defense or denunciation of the Bolsheviks at Kronstadt has become almost an act of faith amongst the various tribes of the Left today, these inconvenient truths suggest that the facts were more complex if no less tragic than the polemics permit.

The ambiguity of Kronstadt is personified by the extraordinary story of one of the better-known mutineers – Stepan Petrichenko. The peasant/sailor from the Ukraine was originally an anarcho-syndicalist who later joined the Bolsheviks. After the defeat of the rebellion he fled over the ice to Finland. There he was an opponent of the far-right regime and even worked as an agent for Stalin’s GPU. When the Soviets invaded in the Winter War of 1940 he was arrested and deported by the Finns to the Soviet Union, where he subsequently died in prison.

[Written by journeyman]

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3 Responses to 17th March 1921 – the Kronstadt Tragedy

  1. Kieran says:

    Excellent explanation. Having just read Emma Goldman’s version of events my own understanding was (as you’d imagine) rather onesided. I would still argue tho that the significance of Kronstadt is the Revolution’s betrayal of the proletariat.

  2. Peter Collins says:

    Agreed, Kieran, though things are complicated. There’s an eerie sort of parallel with the May days of 1937 during the Spanish Civil War and the suppression of POUM and other ‘Trotskyists’ and of anarchists amid crazy accusastions of counter-revolution and collusion with Franco.

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