The Kronstadt rebellion was an unsuccessful uprising of Soviet sailors, led by Stepan Petrichenko, against the government of the early Russian SFSR.
The rebellion took place in the first weeks of March, 1921 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, now Saint Petersburg 35 miles away. The rebellion served notice to Lenin that the level of discontent in the country was rising, as the Kronstadt sailors had been loyal to the regime. The Red Army brutally suppressed the rebellion, however in its wake, the policy of War Communism was replaced by the New Economic Policy.
Causes of the Rebellion
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 fled Russia. Some left with General Wrangel through the Far East; others left 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.
During the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik government instituted a policy of War Communism. The goals of the Bolsheviks in implementing war communism are a matter of dispute. Some commentators, including a number of Bolsheviks, have argued that its sole purpose was to win the war. Other commentators, such as the historian Richard Pipes, have argued that War communism was actually an attempt to immediately implement communist economics and that the Bolshevik leaders expected an immediate and large scale increase in economic output.
War communism aggravated many hardships experienced by the population as a result of the war. Peasants refused to co-operate in producing food, as the government took away far too much of it. Workers began migrating from the cities to the countryside, where the chances to feed oneself were higher, thus further decreasing the possibility of the fair trade of industrial goods for food and worsening the plight of the remaining urban population. Between 1918 and 1920, Petrograd lost 75 percent of its population; Moscow lost 50 percent.
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 U.S. dollar, which had been two rubles in 1914, rose to 1,200 in 1920. A black market emerged in Russia, despite the threat of the martial law against profiteering. The ruble collapsed and was replaced by a system of bartering and, by 1921, heavy industry had fallen to output levels of 20 percent of those in 1913. Ninety percent of all wages were “paid with goods” (payment in form of goods, rather than money). Seventy percent of locomotives were in need of repair and the food requisitioning, combined with the effects of seven years of war and a severe drought, contributed to a famine that caused between 3 and 10 million deaths.
As a result, a series of workers’ strikes and peasants’ rebellions, such as the Tambov rebellion rolled over the country. The turning point was the Kronstadt rebellion at the naval base in early March, 1921. The rebellion had a startling effect on Lenin, because the Kronstadt sailors had been among the strongest supporters of the Bolsheviks. After the end of the civil war the policy of War Communism was replaced with the New Economic Policy.
Demands Are Issued
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:
- 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.
- 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 organizations.
- 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.
- 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 organizations.
- 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 the place of the political sections 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 equalization 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 labor.
- 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 authorized provided it does not utilize wage labor.
Of the 15 demands, only two were related to what Marxists term the “petty-bourgeoisie,” the reasonably wealthy peasantry and artisans. These demanded “full freedom of action” for all peasants and artisans who did not hire labor. 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 Baltic Fleet 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, and whose right-wing had refused to support the Bolsheviks; the “Black Hundreds” were a reactionary, indeed proto-fascist, force dating back to before the revolution which attacked Jews, labor militants and radicals, among others).
Lenin’s suspicion of an international conspiracy linked up with the Kronstadt events has been supported by the discovery of a handwritten memorandum preserved in the Columbia University Russian Archive, dated 1921 and marked ‘Top Secret.’ The 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. Its title is ‘Memorandum on the Question of Organizing an Uprising in Kronstadt.’
The memorandum was part of a collection of documents written by an organization called the National Centre, which originated at the beginning in 1918 as a self identified ‘underground organization 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 a 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 of 1921 by an agent of the National Centre in Finland.
Others, however, dispute these allegations included noted historian Paul Averich. This includes evidence that the memorandum was unsigned.
However, reading 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 of 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.” [quoted by Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, 235, 240]
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 behavior 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 were not the machinations of emigre conspirators and foreign intelligence agents but the wave of peasant risings throughout the country and the labour disturbances in neighboring Petorgrad. And as the revolt unfolded, it followed the pattern of earlier outbursts against the central government from 1905 through the Civil War.” [quoted by Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, 111-112]
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 nor 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 unawares again. Avrich also notes that the revolt “caught the emigres off balance” and that “[n]othing … had been done to implement the Secret Memorandum, and the warnings of the author were fully borne out.” [Avrich, 212-123]
Suppression of the Revolt
The Petrograd workers were under martial law and could offer little support to Kronstadt. 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. 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. Although there are no reliable figures for the rebels’ battle losses, historians estimate that thousands were executed in the days following the revolt, and a like number were jailed, many in the Solovki labor camp. A large number of more fortunate rebels managed to escape to Finland. (These people caused the first major refugee problem for the newly-independent state of Finland.) Official Soviet figures claim approximately 1000 rebels were killed, 2000 wounded, 2500 captured, and 8000 defected to Finland, while the Red Army lost 527 killed and 3285 wounded.
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. Official Soviet figures estimate 1,000 rebels killed in battle. 6,000 to 8,000 rebels fled to Finland. Prisoners range from 2,300 to 6,528. 1,050 to 1,272 were freed. 750 to 1,486 sentenced to a five year forced labor. 1,200 to 2,168 executed. Refugees in Finland were pardoned through an amnesty too. Among the refugees was Petrichenko himself, who lived in Finland as a refugee until the year 1945. After the World War II, he was returned to Soviet Union after being enlisted in the GPU. Later in the same year, he died on a prison camp in Soviet Union over charges of espionage.
The day after the surrender of Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.
Although Red Army units suppressed the uprising, the general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs could not have been more forcefully expressed. Against this background of discontent, Lenin, who also concluded that world revolution was not imminent, proceeded in the spring of 1921 to replace the War Communism economic policy with his New Economic Policy.
The Anarchist Emma Goldman, who was in Petrograd at the time of the rebellion, criticized Leon Trotsky for his role in the suppression of the rebellion, arguing that this made his later criticism of Stalin’s regime hypocritical. Trotsky, however, responded that Goldman’s criticisms were mainly perfunctory, and ignored the differing social composition between the pro-Bolshevik Kronstadt Uprising of 1917 and the mainly “petty bourgeois” Kronstadt Uprising of 1921.
Composition of the Garrison
Defenders of the Bolshevik policy, such as Abbie Bakan of the Socialist Workers Party, UK, have claimed that the Kronstadt rebels were not the same sailors as those who had been revolutionary heroes in 1917.
However, 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent are likely to have been drafted into the fleet before 1918. Over 80 percent were drawn from Great Russian areas (mainly central Russia and the Volga area), some 10 percent from the Ukraine, and 9 percent 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, defending Bolshevik policy, states 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 percent, 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 percent). 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 percent.”
Supporters of this view claim that the majority of the sailors in the Baltic Fleet stationed at Kronstadt were recent recruits of peasant origin. Stepan Petrichenko, a leader of the Kronstadt uprising of March 1921, 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.”
- Matthew White, Source List and Detailed Death Tolls for the Twentieth Century Hemoclysm. Death Tolls Retrieved July 8, 2008.
- Paul Avrich. Kronstadt, 1921. (Princeton University Press, 2006.
- Ida Mett. The Kronstadt Commune, Originally published in French as La Commune de Cronstadt, (Paris: 1938). excerpt online, Petrograd on the Eve of Kronstadt. blackened.net. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- Scott Zenkatsu Parker, edited by Mary Huey, a Translation with notes from the authors, online, The Truth about Kronstadt University of Michigan. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- Abbie Bakan, “Kronstadt – A Tragic Necessity” (first printed in Socialist Worker Review 136 (November 1990) marxisme.dk. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- The Anarchist FAQ Editorial Collective, What was the Kronstadt Rebellion? infoshop.org your online Anarchist community. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- Orlando Figes. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (New York: Viking Press, 1997), 760.
- Figes, 763.
- Figes, 767.
- Figes, 763.
- Figes, 767.
- Figes, 767.
- Kronstadtin kapina 1921 ja sen perilliset Suomessa (Kronstadt Rebellion 1921 and Its Descendants in Finland) by Erkki Wessmann. (website and book in Finnish only) Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- A. S. Pukhov. Kronshtadtskii miatezh v 1921 g. (Leningrad, OGIZ-Molodaia Gvardiia.) (in Russian)
- Kronstadtin kapina 1921 ja sen perilliset Suomessa (Kronstadt Rebellion 1921 and Its Descendants in Finland) by Erkki Wessmann.
- “Kapinallisen salaisuus” (“The Secret of a Rebel”), Suomen Kuvalehti (a Finnish magazine, online ), issue SK24 (2007): 39, 15.6.2007
- “Trotsky Protests Too Much” by Emma Goldman first published by THE ANARCHIST COMMUNIST FEDERATION. [Glasgow, Scotland, 1938], online “The Emma Goldman Papers,” (Berkeley: University of California) sunsite.berkeley.edu. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- “Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt by Leon Trotsky. marxists.org. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
- Israel Getzler. Kronstadt, 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy. (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 207-208.; Evan Mawdsley. The Russian Revolution and the Baltic Fleet: War and Politics. (London: 1978) and Norman E. Saul. Sailors in Revolt: The Russian Baltic Fleet in 1917. (University Press of Kansas, 1978) present similar evidence.
- Tony Cliff. Lenin: the Revolution Besieged 1923. vol 3 (London: Bookmarks, 1987), 143.
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- Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt, 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Lincoln, W. Bruce, Red Victory: A History Of The Russian Civil War, 1918-1921. New York, Da Capo,  1999.
- Lenin, V.I. and Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt. (translated from the Russian) Pathfinder Press, 2001.
- Lynch, Michael. Reaction and Revolution: The Russian Revolution 1894-1924. London: Murray 2005.
- Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Revolution and the Baltic Fleet: War and Politics. London: 1978. OCLC 59054548
- Mett, Ida. The Kronstadt Commune. (Originally published in French as La Commune de Cronstadt, Paris: 1938.) Montreal: Our Generation Press, 1971. OCLC 694438
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- Saul, Norman E. Sailors in Revolt: The Russian Baltic Fleet in 1917. University Press of Kansas, (1978) 1986.
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- Wessmann, Erkki. Kronstadtin kapina 1921 ja sen perilliset Suomessa (Kronstadt Rebellion 1921 and Its Descendants in Finland), Pilot Kustannus
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 08.04.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.