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Kronstadt rebellion

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Red Army troops attack Kronstadt

The Kronstadt rebellion was an unsuccessful uprising of Soviet sailors against the government of the early Russian SFSR. It proved to be the last major rebellion against Bolshevik rule.

The rebellion took place in the first weeks of March, 1921 in Kronstadt, a naval fortress on Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland. Traditionally, Kronstadt has served as the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet and as a guardpost for the approaches to Saint Petersburg (later Petrograd, then Leningrad, and then St. Petersburg again, as it is now) thirty-five miles away.

At the end of the Civil War, Soviet 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 bloodless October Revolution, epidemics, starvation, fighting, executions, and the general economic and societal breakdown had taken some twenty million lives. Another million persons had left Russia - with General Wrangel, through the Far East, or in numerous other ways - in order to escape the ravages of the war or to escape one or more of the warring factions. A large proportion of the emigres were educated and skilled.

War Communism might have saved the Soviet government during the Civil War, but the nation's economy was left in ruins. With private industry and trade proscribed and the newly-constructed (and unstable) 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% 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%, and iron to 2%, of the prewar level. The peasants responded to requisitioning by refusing to till their land. By 1921 cultivated land had shrunk to some 62% of the prewar area, and the harvest yield was only 37% 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.

This unbearable situation led to uprisings in the countryside, such as the Tambov rebellion, and to strikes and violent unrest in the factories. In urban areas, a wave of spontaneous strikes occurred, and in late February a near general strike broke out in Petrograd. On February 26, in response to these events in Petrograd, the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting and agreed to send a delegation to the city to investigate and report back on the ongoing strike movement. On their return two days later, the delegates informed their fellow sailors of the strikes, with which they had full sympathy, and the government repression directed against them. Those present at this meeting on the Petropavlovsk then approved a resolution which raised fifteen demands:

1. Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and 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 for the Left Socialist parties.
3. The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organisations.
4. The organisation, at the latest on 10th March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, solders and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.
5. 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.
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 equalisation 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 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.
12. We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.
13. We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.
14. We demand the institution of mobile workers' control groups.
15. We demand that handicraft production be authorised provided it does not utilise wage labour.

Of the fifteen 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 labour. Like the Petrograd workers, the Kronstadt sailors demanded the equalisation of wages and the end of roadblock detachments which restricted both travel and the ability of workers to bring food into the city.

Finally, in March 1921, the Kronstadt naval base, celebrated by the Communists as one of the sources of the October Revolution, rose in rebellion against Bolshevik rule. The sailors and other Kronstadt rebels demanded free Soviets and the summoning of a constituent assembly. The Bolshevik Government responded with an ultimatum on March 2. 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, indeed proto-fascist, force dating back to before the revolution which attacked Jews, labour militants and radicals, among others). They also argued that the revolt had been organised by ex-Tsarist officers led by ex-General Kozlovsky (ironically, he had been placed in the fortress as a military specialist by Trotsky). This was the official line throughout 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. After 10 days of continuous attacks, during which many Red Army units were forced onto the ice at gunpoint and during which some had actually joined the rebellion, the Kronstadt revolt was crushed by the Red Army, numbering some 50,000 troops under command of Mikhail Tukhachevsky. 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 sent to Siberian labor camps. A large number of more fortunate rebels managed to escape to Finland. Ironically, the day after the surrender of Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.

Although Red Army units ruthlessly suppressed the uprising, the general dissatisfaction with Bolshevik rule 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 War Communism with his New Economic Policy.

Further reading

  • Kronstadt, 1917-1921: The fate of a Soviet democracy, Israel Getzler ISBN 0521894425 , Cambridge University Press
  • A History of Russia, N.V. Riasanovsky ISBN 0195153944 , Oxford University Press (USA)
  • The Russian Revolution, W.H.Chamberlin ISBN 0691008167 , Princeton University Press

External links and references



Kronstadt Uprising was also an anarcho-punk band from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, UK during the 1980s.

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