|Part of Russian Civil War|
Red Army troops attack Kronstadt.
|Soviet Baltic Fleet sailors
Red Army soldiers
Armed citizens of Kronstadt
|Stepan Petrichenko||Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky|
|c. first 11,000, second assault: 17,961||c. first assault: 10,073, second assault: 25,000 to 30,000|
|Casualties and losses|
|c. 1,000 killed in battle and 1,200 to 2,168 executed||second assault 527–1,412, a much higher number if we include the first assault.|
The Kronstadt rebellion was an unsuccessful uprising of Soviet sailors, soldiers and civilians led by Stepan Petrichenko against the government of the early Russian SFSR in March 1921 during a period of left-wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks.
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 Saint Petersburg, former Petrograd, 35 miles away.
At the end of the Civil War, Bolshevik Russia was exhausted and ruined. The droughts of 1920 and 1921 and the frightful famine during the latter year added the final chapter to the disaster. In the years following the October Revolution, epidemics, starvation, fighting, executions, and the general economic and social breakdown, worsened by the Allied military intervention and the civil war had taken many lives. Another million people had left Russia — with General Wrangel, through the Far East, or in numerous other ways — either to escape the ravages of the war or because they had supported one of the defeated sides. A large proportion of the émigrés were educated and skilled.
The economic policy war communism assisted the Soviet government in achieving victories in the Civil War, but it damaged the nation's economy. With private industry and trade proscribed and the newly-constructed state unable to adequately perform these functions, much of the Russian economy ground to a standstill. It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories fell in 1921 to 20 percent of the pre-World War I level, with many crucial items experiencing an even more drastic decline. Production of cotton, for example, fell to 5 percent, and iron to 2 percent, of the prewar level. The peasants responded to requisitioning by refusing to till their land. By 1921 cultivated land had shrunk to some 62 percent of the prewar area, and the harvest yield was only 37 percent of normal. The number of horses declined from 35 million in 1916 to 24 million in 1920, and cattle fell from 58 to 37 million during the same span. The exchange rate of the US dollar, which had been two rubles in 1914, rose to 1,200 in 1920.
On February 26, delegates from the Kronstadt sailors visited Petrograd to investigate the situation. On February 28, in response to the delegates' report of heavy-handed Bolshevik repression of strikes in Petrograd (claims which might have been inaccurate or exaggerated), the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting which approved a resolution raising fifteen demands:
These demanded "full freedom of action" for all peasants and artisans who did not hire labour. Like the Petrograd workers, the Kronstadt sailors demanded the equalization of wages and the end of roadblock detachments which restricted both travel and the ability of workers to bring food into the city.
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 15 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 incorrect rumors of immediate attack approved formation of a Provisional Revolutionary Committee. The Government responded with an ultimatum the same day. This asserted that the revolt had "undoubtedly been prepared by French counterintelligence" and that the Petropavlovsk resolution was a "SR-Black Hundred" resolution. SR stood for Social Revolutionaries, a democratic socialist party that had been dominant in the soviets before the return of Lenin, whose right-wing had refused to support the Bolsheviks. The Black Hundreds were a reactionary proto-fascist force dating back to before the revolution which attacked Jews, labour militants and radicals, among others.
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 Petrograd workers were under martial law and could offer little support to Kronstadt. There was a hurry to gain control of the fortress before the melting of the bay as it would have made it impregnable for the land army. Many Red Army units were forced onto the ice at gunpoint and some actually joined the rebellion. On March 17, the Bolshevik forces finally 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 fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.
Although there are no reliable figures for the rebels' battle losses, historians estimate that 1,200 to 2,168 were executed in the days following the revolt, and a like number were jailed, many in the Solovki prison camp. Official Soviet figures claim approximately 1,000 rebels were killed, 2,000 wounded, between 2,300 to 6,528 captured, and 6,000 to 8,000 defected to Finland, while the Red Army lost 527 killed and 3285 wounded. Later on, 1,050 to 1,272 prisoners were freed. 750 to 1,486 sentenced to a five year forced labor. More fortunate rebels managed to escape to Finland, whose large number caused the first major refugee problem for the newly-independent state. Later, the refugees in Finland were pardoned through an amnesty. Among them was Petrichenko himself, who lived in Finland and worked as a spy for the Soviet 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. He died in Vladimir prison in 1947.
Although Red Army units suppressed the uprising, the general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs could not have been more forcefully expressed. Lenin himself stated that Kronstadt "lit up reality like a lightning flash". Against this background of discontent, Lenin concluded that world revolution was not imminent and proceeded in the spring of 1921 to replace the War Communism with his New Economic Policy.
The anarchist Emma Goldman, who was in Petrograd at the time of the rebellion, mentions in her account that "[t]he news in the Paris Press about the Kronstadt uprising two weeks before it happened had been stressed in the 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." Lenin's suspicion of an international conspiracy linked up with the Kronstadt events has been also supported by the discovery of a handwritten memorandum preserved in the Russian Archive of Columbia University, dated 1921 and marked 'Top Secret'. The document is titled Memorandum on the Question of Organizing an Uprising in Kronstadt and 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".
The memorandum was part of a collection of documents written by National Centre, which originated first in 1918 as a self-claimed 'underground organisation formed in Russia for the struggle against the Bolsheviks'. After suffering military defeat and the arrest of many of its central members, the group reconstituted itself in exile by late 1920. General Wrangel, with his trained army of tens of thousands ready and waiting, was their principal military base of support. This memorandum was written between January and early February 1921 by an agent of the National Centre in Finland.
Others dispute these allegations, including noted anarchist historian Paul Avrich. This includes evidence that the memorandum was unsigned.
Avrich rejects the idea that the "Memorandum" explains the revolt:
US Senator Joseph I. France was the first US politician to visit Russia after the Revolution and an advocate of cordial relations with the Soviet Union, and he had spent time in Russia negotiating with Lenin and other Russian officials to secure the release of Marguerite Harrison, a US spy. He attracted controversy by accusing Colonel Edward W. Ryan of the American Red Cross of fomenting the Kronstadt rebellion.
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 it 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:
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 an 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."
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 it to some to subsequent former-communists—including himself: "What counts decisively is the 'Kronstadt.' Until its advent, one may 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). Writers who subsequently picked up the term have included Whittaker Chambers, Clark Kerr, David Edgar, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Norman Podhoretz.