Why did the Bolsheviks not grant the democratic demands of the Kronstadt sailors?

Please note the following work was written between September 2004 and August 2006. You may quote from it but I would ask that you credit the author and publish a link to this page.
Why did the Bolsheviks not grant the democratic demands of the Kronstadt sailors?

Keith Shilson



Section 1: Background

Section 2: What happened in Kronstadt and what were the sailors’ demands?

Section 3: Who were the Kronstadt sailors?

Section 4: Why did the Bolsheviks not grant their demands and why did the uprising need to be suppressed?



Bibliography and Internet Resources

Why did the Bolsheviks[1] not grant the democratic demands of the Kronstadt sailors?


In March 1921 the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base rose up against the Bolshevik government in Russia demanding more freedom and democracy in the fledgling socialist state. In the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik Party had seized state power on behalf of the working class with the slogan “All power to the soviets!” and promising it was the beginning of the self-emancipation of the working class. So what had happened to the revolution, that just three and a half years later a group of sailors previously loyal, and indeed integral, to the revolution felt the need to rise up demanding more freedom and more ‘power’ to the soviets?

Moreover, far from granting all the sailors demands, the Bolsheviks decided to suppress the uprising in a bloody battle reminiscent of one of the more violent episodes of the Civil War. Why would a revolutionary socialist party purporting to believe in freedom and proletarian democracy wish to silence their apparently left-wing critics in such a merciless way?

Was it because, as some have said, the Bolsheviks were inherently authoritarian from the start? Or had the Bolsheviks given up their original ideals in an attempt to hold on to power for its own sake? Was this the beginning of an inevitable slide into bureaucratic elitism? Or was the uprising a plot led by a former Tsarist general, as the Bolsheviks claimed? Was a certain amount of restriction of democracy necessary to defend the revolution? Would a granting of all of the demands of the Kronstadt sailors have meant the end of the revolution?

In order to answer these questions it will be necessary to begin by looking at the general situation in Russia at the time so as to understand why the uprising occurred. It will also be necessary to examine precisely what these sailors were demanding. Then it will be necessary to examine the make-up of the Kronstadt naval base to determine whether or not they were the same sailors that Trotsky had described in 1917 as the ‘pride and glory’ of the revolution. This will help us to decide whether they represented the most radical sections of the working class, or some other group within society. Finally it will be necessary to determine the nature and scale of the uprising, whether or not it had popular support, what might have resulted had the Bolsheviks not suppressed the uprising but allowed it to spread and what might have happened had the Bolsheviks granted all of their demands. The purpose here is not to make a value judgement about whether the Bolsheviks made the right decision or not, but to determine why they followed the path they did and whether it constitutes a continuation of their original ideas or a break from them.

This is important because there is a debate among historians around this issue. Some argue there is a continuation of Bolshevik policy from October 1917, if not before, until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, and that the policies pursued by Lenin led almost inevitably to those pursued by Stalin. The corollary of this view is that as the Soviet Union as a political project has failed, then the ideas upon which it was based, Marxism, have also failed. Others argue a genuine workers’ and peasants’ state was created in 1917 that began to degenerate due to circumstances beyond the Bolsheviks’ control and that was betrayed by Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ in the early 1930s. In order to make a judgement on this question it is vital to have an understanding of the issues surrounding the Kronstadt uprising of 1921.

The suppression of the uprising has also been used to suggest that Marxism is inherently authoritarian and that Marxists are intolerant of ‘libertarian’ socialists and anarchists. This argument is then used to suggest that if the Bolsheviks were prepared to do anything to prevent anyone from challenging their authority in order to stay in power, then there is no way that anarchists and Marxists can work together today. Again, the basis of this argument lies in having a clear, and honest, understanding of the events of March 1921.[2] It is hoped that the exploration of the issues surrounding the uprising will throw light on these broader questions.

Section 1: Background

By the end of 1920, after nearly seven years of world war, revolution, Allied intervention and civil war, the Soviet government had regained control of most of its territory and Russia was returning to peace. The blockade imposed by the Allied powers was at an end and peace had been made with Poland, the Baltic States and Russia’s southern neighbours, including the Turks. However, this had left Russia diseased, starving and bankrupt.[3] Large sections of Russian industry had been destroyed and agriculture was also disrupted.[4] There was also widespread famine. This was largely caused by the destruction of the White and imperialist armies and their economic blockade, which was only lifted in 1920. The working class numbered less than half what it had before and this was even more marked in the major cities. Many of the largest factories were forced to close, including the Putilov works, which had been central to the revolution.[5]

War Communism, an economic policy that included forcible grain requisitioning, had been necessary for the survival of the workers in the towns and the Red Army during the Civil War. However there were now calls to abandon it in order to appease the peasantry in the countryside, some of whom were involved in uprisings following the removal of the White threat. [6] Antonov led a peasant uprising in the Tambov province and Nestor Makhno had an army in Ukraine.

On the surface it may have appeared that Communism had been achieved quicker than anyone could have imagined. In reality there was none of the highly organised production and abundance of goods and services that Communism promised. War Communism did abolish economic inequality, but by making poverty universal, not by giving everyone a higher standard of living. In the long term this exacerbated the massive economic decline Russia was facing. Peasants were not making a surplus, the towns were not being fed and so they became depopulated. Workers went back to the countryside or stayed behind and produced very little.[7] Even among those who stayed, many returned to their village on an occasional basis. This caused unrest to spread from the countryside to the towns and into the army and navy.

This situation was compounded in early 1921 when the winter became unusually severe. This highlighted the lack of warm clothing, footwear and fuel and led to people dying of cold and disease as well as starvation. This in turn exacerbated the problem of dangerously low levels of industrial productivity.[8]

Lenin, although tempted to end War Communism as early as November 1920, resisted due to the risk of the Civil War restarting, as the White General Wrangel’s army was known to be regrouping in nearby Turkey. Indeed, War Communism was entrenched, the area of land under cultivation being extended, although the Bolsheviks stopped short of collectivisation of agriculture.[9]

Section 2: What happened in Kronstadt and what were the sailors’ demands?
Kronstadt is a fortified city on an island in the Gulf of Finland about 20 miles west of Petrograd. In 1921 it had a population of around 50,000. It was also home to the Kronstadt naval base, the main base of the Baltic fleet. There were around 25,000 members of the navy crews and soldiers of the garrison. From the end of November to the end of March or beginning of April the Gulf of Finland freezes over.[10]

On 15th February 1921, a resolution was passed at the Second Conference of Baltic Fleet Communists calling for political decentralisation and more control for the local party committees. Shortly after, the Kronstadt sailors heard about the strikes in Petrograd along with false rumours of executions of strike leaders and decided to send a delegation to Petrograd to determine the truth. The delegation returned the next day with reports of factories surrounded by troops and the sailors met and discussed a new resolution. Two high-ranking Bolshevik officials tried to calm the situation down but the resolution was passed. The Bolsheviks saw the resolution as a challenge to their authority. The demands in themselves were not particularly extreme, and indeed the Bolsheviks had already agreed to do some of the things they demanded. It was the claim that ‘the present soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants’ and the call for new elections to the soviets that the Bolsheviks could not allow. Although for the sailors themselves it was seen as a demand for the fulfilment of the promises of October 1917, for the Bolsheviks it was seen as a proclamation of counter-revolution.[11]

The next day a conference was held to elect a new Kronstadt Soviet. The majority of the delegates were non-party, but a significant minority, maybe as many as a third, were Bolsheviks. Before the conference got to the elections, three Bolshevik officials were arrested, a clear act of mutiny and then, due to a rumour that Red Army troops were on their way to attack the naval base, the conference decided to establish a Provisional Revolutionary Committee to run the city until the new Soviet could be elected. As there was no time to hold elections, the five men that were presiding over the conference became the committee. So the rumours of atrocities being carried out in Petrograd had begun the uprising (in reality the strikes had long since ended) and false rumours that they were under imminent Bolshevik attack had spurred the Kronstadt sailors into taking the irreversible step into insurrection. The new committee immediately sent troops to occupy all the strategic points in order to secure the island; there was no resistance.[12]

At a special session of the Petrograd Soviet on 4th March a resolution was passed that called upon the Kronstadt sailors to end the uprising in favour of the Kronstadt Soviet. It said ‘Either you are with us against the common enemy, or you will perish in shame and disgrace together with the counter-revolutionaries’. The following day, Trotsky issued an ultimatum demanding that the sailors give up immediately or be met with armed force. ‘Only those who do so can count on the mercy of the Soviet Republic’, he said.[13]

At 6:45am on 7th March Bolshevik artillery opened fire on Kronstadt and the Kronstadt base returned fire with its own artillery. By the end of 18th March, after eleven days of fierce fighting, Kronstadt was back in Bolshevik hands. Losses were heavy on both sides, but particularly on the Red Army side. The American consul in Viborg estimated about 10,000 Red Army casualties dead, wounded or missing. Among the dead were 15 delegated from the Tenth Party Congress, which met during the uprising, that had left to help their comrades.[14]

In short, the Kronstadt sailors wanted to overthrow the Bolshevik ‘dictatorship’ and establish ‘Soviet democracy’. They wanted ‘free elections to independent Soviets’ and a better deal for the peasantry as the first step towards final emancipation and the ‘Third Revolution’.[15] According to Avrich, the Kronstadt sailors felt the excitement of 1917 had passed and their hopes had been dashed and replaced by despair at the ‘nightmare rule’ of centralised dictatorship; the very thing they had been fighting to destroy. They felt democracy had been abandoned in favour of Communist dictatorship and once the White threat had receded, they believed they were the ones to renew the hopes of 1917.[16] Liebman describes the essential elements of their programme as including ‘restoration of liberties, an end to the monopoly of power held by the Communists, restoration of all rights to the anarchists, the ‘Left Socialist Parties’ and the trade unions, and fresh elections, by secret ballot. Freedom of enterprise should, they declared, be given back to the peasants and craftsmen’.[17]

The Kronstadt program was an attempt to end War Communism. The sailors blamed the government for all the country’s problems. No blame was given to the Civil War, to the intervention and blockade of the Western powers, or the difficulties of famine and disease. ‘Communist rule has reduced all of Russia to unprecedented poverty, hunger, cold, and other privations… The Communist betrayers have reduced you all to this’. On 8th March, the sailors changed their slogan from ‘All power to the soviets but not the parties’ to encouraging people to join their ‘third revolution’. The sailors were primarily concerned with the needs of the peasants and small producers and were less interested in the difficulties of major industry.[18]

Section 3: Who were the Kronstadt sailors?

In discussing the uprising, much is made of the fact that ‘Red Kronstadt’ had been in 1917, in Trotsky’s words, the ‘pride and glory’ of the revolution. In May 1917, after the February Revolution the Kronstadt naval base formed a ‘red republic’ that refused to obey the Provisional Government. In July of the same year, Kronstadt sailors were at the forefront of impatient calls on the Bolsheviks to lead an armed insurrection despite the Bolsheviks protestations that the time was not right. In August 1917, when General Kornilov tried to carry out a right-wing coup, despite their own instincts to leave Kerensky to it, the Kronstadt sailors went to Trotsky and accepted his advice to join Kerensky in defeating Kornilov before re-directing their anger once more against Kerensky. And the sailors also played a major role in the October seizure of power.[19] But who were the Kronstadt sailors of 1921 and can this provide us with clues as to the reason for the uprising? Were they ‘good Communists’ and class-conscious representatives of the most radical sections of the working class?

By 1921, it seems Kronstadt was ‘strongly influenced by the mood of the peasantry’ and indeed many of them were peasants.[20] Yasinsky, a Bolshevik Party lecturer went to Kronstadt in the autumn of 1920 and described the new recruits as being ‘straight from the plough’ and many of them ‘including a few party members, were politically illiterate, worlds removed from the highly politicised veteran Kronstadt sailors who had deeply impressed him’. Indeed six months prior to the uprising in March 1921, 50% of those at the base were peasants, 40% were workers and 10% were intellectuals. The Bolshevik Party as a whole in 1921 was 28.7% peasants, 41% workers, 30.8% white-collar workers and others. So the percentage of peasants in the party in Kronstadt was much higher than in the country as a whole.[21]

The sailors had also recently been granted leave for the first time since the civil war. Many went back to their villages and saw for themselves the situation the peasantry were in, faced with grain requisitioning. Naturally they were influenced by the opinions of their peasant families. Petrichenko, who was later to lead the uprising, said, ‘When we returned home our parents asked us why we fought for the oppressors. That set us thinking'. Petrichenko tried to join the Whites but was turned down, as he had once been a member of the Communist Party. Desertions went up enormously and by 1921 the navy was ‘falling apart’. So the link with the peasantry was one reason for the rebellion. But there were other elements in the make-up of the sailors that exacerbated the situation.[22]

Firstly, it can be argued, the evidence suggests that Kronstadt had always been ultra-left. The above examples during 1917 bear this out. Another example is in 1918 when many Kronstadt sailors sided with the left communists and some joined the left SRs when the peace treaty with Germany was signed.[23] Yet another example is the resistance shown by sailors when ‘military specialists’ replaced the election of sailors’ committees during the civil war.[24] Secondly, it is clear that the influence of the Bolsheviks had declined due to the death of a large number of their best militants during the Civil War.[25] Thirdly, according to Avrich, there was a ‘spirit of anarchism’ within Kronstadt at the time of the uprising. Anarchists were agitating, calling for many of the things the Kronstadt sailors soon came to demand and in general ‘the influence of anarchist ideas was much in evidence among the insurgents’.[26]

It is worth also mentioning two more features of the Kronstadt sailors that help to explain their actions. The Kronstadt sailors described themselves as internationalists and yet they seemed to have little concern for the worldwide revolutionary movement. They concentrated their interest on the Russian people, particularly the peasantry and demonstrated a certain amount of Slavic nationalism. They belonged to the Russian tradition of ‘populism’, popular hatred for the government as an ‘evil’ force pitted against the ‘good’ people, which manifests itself as a tradition of ‘spontaneous revolt against bureaucratic despotism’, which dates back to the ‘Cossack and peasant revolts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’.[27] As in tsarist days, they attacked not the leader himself, ‘whom they venerated as their anointed father’ (Lenin received little criticism), but his ‘corrupt and scheming advisers’ (in this case Trotsky and Zinoviev).[28] Avrich argues that this is a typical example of ‘the ancient legend of the benevolent tsar as a helpless captive of his treacherous boyars’.[29]

Avrich also believes there was a certain amount of anti-Semitism within the Baltic fleet. Trotsky and Zinoviev, often referred to as Bronstein and Apfelbaum, were attacked by a Petrograd sailor at the time of the Kronstadt uprising as being part of a ‘privileged class’ within the ‘first Jewish Republic’. The sailor asserts that these kinds of beliefs were widespread. Indeed Vershinin, from the Revolutionary Committee, came out onto the ice on the 8th March and said to representatives from the Red Army, ‘join with us to beat the Jews. It’s their cursed domination that we workers and peasants have had to endure’.[30]

So it seems that the Kronstadt sailors were predominantly Russian and Ukrainian peasants, influenced by peasant concerns, ultra-left or anarchist ideas, and a certain amount of Populism and anti-Semitism. There were also peasants from Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Finland at Kronstadt. This meant they had no natural affinity to the revolution and the Soviet system and indeed some where openly hostile to it. Some may have come from areas were Makhno was active and some of those may have even fought against the reds in the past.[31]

Section 4: Why did the Bolsheviks not grant their demands and why did the uprising need to be suppressed?
In order to understand why the Bolsheviks did not grant the Kronstadt sailors demands for ‘soviets without parties’ it is necessary to examine what is likely to have been the outcome of such a course of action.

Avrich argues that the Russian revolutionary tradition contained two opposing elements. The first centralisation and distrust of mass spontaneity, favoured by Lenin, the second decentralised self-rule, favoured by the anarchists and peasants. The Bolsheviks were prepared to compromise in the early days and adopted peasant-friendly slogans (such as ‘land to the peasants!’) After world war, revolution and civil war, however, the Bolsheviks favoured centralisation to move the revolution forward and avoid social chaos. Kronstadt was an expression of the second element coming into conflict with the first element, Avrich argues. He goes on to say that Lenin believed given self-rule, the workers and peasants would either accept partial reforms, or give in to reaction. Therefore, they needed to be led by a revolutionary vanguard.[32]

Deutscher puts it slightly differently. He says, ‘If the Bolsheviks had now permitted free elections to the Soviets, they would almost certainly have been swept from power’.[33] The Bolsheviks were aware of this and hung on to power, not for its own sake, but because they knew that no other party could defend the gains of the revolution. Had the Mensheviks or SRs come to power, it would almost certainly have meant the end of the revolution, or at least the White Armies would have gained the confidence to re-start the Civil War. Moreover, it was likely that no one party would have an overall majority, neither Mensheviks, SRs, liberals nor the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists calling for a ‘Third Revolution’. Neither the liberals nor the anarchists had either serious organisation or a political programme.[34]

So were the Kronstadt sailors part of a wider movement? Although the uprising came after a series of short strikes centred on nearby Petrograd, the motivation of the Kronstadt sailors had much more in common with the peasantry than with the disaffection among the remaining working class in the towns. The Kronstadt uprising had essentially the same roots as the peasant rebellions against grain requisitioning. Antonov in Tambov province and Makhno in Ukraine led localised revolts with little outside support and no ‘articulated political programme’, so the only possible beneficiaries of these risings against the Reds would have been the Whites.[35] Moreover, the Kronstadt sailors’ appeals to the Petrograd workers had met with little or no response, they had no nation-wide organisation and no other peasant insurrection had the same demands. The moderate socialists were very weak and so the realisation of ‘soviets without parties’ would have only helped the Whites.[36]

So what of the original Bolshevik claim that the Kronstadt sailors were counter-revolutionary mutineers led by a White general in league with émigrés in France and the International Red Cross. Deutscher argues that this appears to be groundless. He also argues, however, that the Bolsheviks had spent so long battling with the Whites during the Civil War that it was almost impossible for them to believe that they did not have a hand in the uprising. Indeed the White press abroad had hinted at it and this made it seem even more likely to the Bolsheviks.[37]

The aim of the uprising was not to aid the Whites, but the Kronstadt sailors were being utopian and this would have been the result. The Whites themselves knew this. They had predicted the uprising and were raising money for its defence and planning to re-enter the war and Russia via Kronstadt in the event of victory. Petrichenko, the leader of the uprising, contacted the Whites and accepted their offer of help. After their defeat, Petrichenko joined forces with Wrangel in recruiting for a counter-revolutionary army. Petrichenko even suggested using the slogan ‘Soviets without parties’, but only as ‘a convenient political manoeuvre’. After the Bolsheviks had been defeated the slogan ‘would be shelved and a temporary military dictatorship installed’ to prevent anarchy from engulfing the country.[38]

The question remains, were the Kronstadt sailors in contact with the Whites prior to the uprising? As Avrich says, ‘There is undeniable evidence…that the Revolutionary Committee entered into an agreement with the [Whites] after the rebellion was suppressed…and one cannot rule out the possibility that this was the continuation of a longstanding relationship’.[39] However he goes on to argue that although ‘White Guards’, émigrés in France and the Russian Red Cross in Finland supported the uprising both ideologically and materially (or at least attempted to), this is not the same as saying that these individuals and groups plotted to make the uprising happen in the first place. The Kronstadt uprising does appear to have been a genuinely spontaneous one and the sailors, via the Revolutionary Committee, do seem to have been directing it alone throughout. According to Avrich, there is no evidence of any émigré group influencing their decisions or of any collusion with the former Tsarist generals at Kronstadt. Only when supplies were running out do they seem to have turned to others for help.[40] Victor Serge said of the Kronstadt sailors, ‘They wanted to release a pacifying tempest, but all they could actually have done was to open the way to counter-revolution… Insurgent Kronstadt was not counter-revolution, but its victory would have led – without any shadow of a doubt – to the counter-revolution.’[41]

So was suppression the only choice the Bolsheviks had? The Bolsheviks were immediately aware that if they allowed the insurrection to continue, it might spark risings throughout the country. This might lead to renewed intervention from outside.[42] For Lenin, the Kronstadt uprising was more dangerous than the White threat because the Kronstadt sailors revolted in the name of the soviets. If this roused the masses, however misguidedly, it could spread like wildfire. If successful it would have meant an end to Soviet authority and led to the political break-up of Russia, a period of chaos directed against the new regime. Before long another centralised regime would have appeared but this time a regime of the right, not the left. Thus, for Lenin, the only option was to suppress the uprising and re-instate Bolshevism in Kronstadt.[43] This also had to be done quickly for if the Bolsheviks had waited any longer the ice in the Gulf of Finland would have melted allowing support to come from the White, or even Allied, armies, which could have meant counter-revolutionary defeat for the Soviet regime.[44]

It may be helpful to examine the question of the move from War Communism to the New Economic Policy (NEP). It has already been mentioned that the peasants were not making a surplus, the towns lacked food and so they became depopulated. Workers went back to the countryside or stayed behind and produced very little. So the government needed to find a way to encourage the peasantry to make a surplus. But to do this, they needed to find a way to get the workers to produce tools. There were really only two options. One was to apply more force to both the peasantry and the workers to increase production. This found its form with Trotsky’s idea of the militarisation of labour, recruiting people to armies of labour in the same way they had been recruited to actual armies fighting in the civil war. The second option was to replace forced requisitioning with a tax in kind and allow peasants to sell, and make profit on, any surplus they produced. This would create a surplus to feed the towns and the state industries should then revive.[45]

At first, Trotsky, moving from the Commissariat of War to the Commissariat of Labour Duty, put idle regiments to work in factories as Labour Armies. Soon, however, it became clear that militarisation of labour would not work and so Trotsky began to argue for the second option. This was not put into practice as the NEP for over a year. In the meantime, Trotsky continued to use force to ensure that production did not stop completely. This made the Bolsheviks unpopular with a majority of the working class, as well as the peasantry, for the first time since 1917. This gave more confidence to the Mensheviks, SRs and anarchists to speak out against Bolshevik policies, as well as those within the Bolshevik Party itself.[46]

At the Tenth Party Congress civil war policies were abandoned in favour of the NEP. Lenin said, ‘We know that so long as there is no revolution in other countries, only agreement with the peasantry can save the socialist revolution in Russia’. As the revolution had not yet spread to the West, Lenin knew that there had to be an alliance between the Russian workers and peasants if there was any chance that the revolution could survive until such time that their were further European revolutions. The idea was to use the market to assist economic recovery. ‘Market relations were legalised, most importantly the sale of grain. Peasants were to be subject to a tax in kind in place of requisitioning. They would be able to buy what little was being produced even if prices rose. Recovery might then get under way’.[47] At the same time the ‘labour armies’ were disbanded and the trade unions were granted a certain amount of autonomy. This brought to an end all unrest in the countryside, the factories and within the armed forces. Kronstadt was not responsible for the NEP, although it may have hastened its implementation. Lenin described the Kronstadt events as ‘like a flash of lightning which threw more of a glare upon reality than anything else’.[48] The basic outline of the NEP had been formulated several weeks before the uprising had begun and a meeting of the Politburo on 8th February had discussed Lenin’s plans to replace forced requisitioning with a tax in kind. On 24th February detailed plans were passed to the Central Committee for inclusion on the agenda for the 10th Party Congress.[49]

It is necessary to look at the position of the Workers’ Opposition and whether there is any connection with the Kronstadt sailors. The Workers’ Opposition was an internal faction within the Bolshevik Party that protested against the militarisation of labour, the introduction of ‘specialists’ into the military and industry and the decline of democracy within the Soviet state. In this sense they had much in common with the Kronstadt sailors. However, the Kronstadt sailors were more closely aligned with the peasantry, whereas the Workers’ Opposition was made up of factory workers and urban intellectuals and had little interest in peasant concerns. Moreover, the Workers’ Opposition wanted to maintain the Bolsheviks in power, did not want to bring other parties into the Soviets and campaigned for internal party reform. Shlyapnikov and Kollontai, representatives of the Workers’ Opposition at the Tenth Party Congress made it clear that they had no connection with the events at Kronstadt and described it as ‘petty-bourgeois anarchist spontaneity’. Members of the Workers’ Opposition were also among the first to volunteer to go to Kronstadt to suppress the uprising.[50]

Trotsky himself argued, seventeen years later, in an echo of Lenin’s comments of 15th March 1921,[51] that the Kronstadt uprising was in fact counter-revolutionary in itself, as it was a struggle between classes for the ‘overthrow of the proletarian dictatorship’.[52] In Kronstadt, he argued, there were always three elements: the proletariat, led initially by the Bolshevik Party, the reactionary ‘petty-bourgeois’ peasants and ‘the intermediate majority, mainly peasant in origin’. There was a struggle, he continues, between the first two groups for influence over the latter. In 1917, the proletariat had been in the ascendancy. During the Civil War, however, Kronstadt detachments had been used constantly, leaving the base depopulated and ‘denuded of all revolutionary forces’. Those that remained were demoralised and dressed in ‘showy bell-bottom pants and sporty haircuts’.[53]

For Trotsky, the Kronstadt uprising was ‘an armed reaction of the petty bourgeoisie against the hardships of social revolution and the severity of the proletarian dictatorship’. ‘Soviets without Communists’, he argues, would have meant SR-anarchist Soviets, which would in turn have led to the ‘capitalist restoration’. So regardless of what caused it, the Kronstadt uprising was ‘in its very essence a mortal danger to the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and thus counter-revolutionary. He goes on to say that those who support the Kronstadt uprising oppose the dictatorship of the proletariat and therefore the revolution itself. This is because a revolution without such a dictatorship could only occur with an incredibly high development of the forces of production; and if this were present, then the dictatorship would be largely unnecessary.[54] So for Trotsky, the Kronstadt sailors were anti-proletarian and ultimately counter-revolutionary.


In 1921, Russia was in crisis. Fourteen imperialist armies had recently invaded the country in support of a White army that wanted to defeat the new socialist state and return the country to tyranny, exploitation and oppression. The Bolshevik government had won the Civil War, but the forces of reaction were still looking for an excuse to re-invade. The country was also in economic ruin: industrial production had slumped and the working class had been decimated. Peasant producers, recently given land, wanted to retain their produce and to sell it for profit. War Communism had sustained the soldiers and workers during the Civil War but it had also created unrest in the countryside. The necessary concessions to the peasantry meant a further decrease in the power and confidence of the working class.

In this climate the Kronstadt sailors revolted against the Bolshevik government. The majority of the sailors were recent recruits from a peasant background, the militant working class sailors of earlier times having been killed or gone elsewhere. This meant many of them had reactionary ideas, not least of which was anti-Semitism. Their calls for more freedom and democracy masked a primary concern with ending grain requisitioning for the peasantry in the countryside. In these circumstances, the Bolsheviks felt they had no alternative but to suppress the uprising.

The Bolsheviks felt that they needed to act for three main reasons. Firstly, the very fact that the rebels were calling themselves the ‘Provisional Revolutionary Committee’, combined with the fact that they claimed ‘the present soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants’ questioned the legitimacy of the government and laid down a challenge to the Bolsheviks. Secondly, the actions of the Kronstadt sailors also created the possibility that the recent peasant revolts and workers’ strikes could escalate and cause a general crisis. Thirdly, it raised the fear of counter-revolution, an ever-present threat to the Bolsheviks for so many years, to even higher levels. Even if it was clear later that the uprising had little to do with the Whites, at the time it seemed to everyone to fit the familiar pattern of a White General, supplied and supported from outside the country. The Bolsheviks were concerned that a White Army gaining access to Kronstadt to use as a base for invading Petrograd would re-open the Civil War at a time when the country was exhausted and the result might be the collapse of the Soviet regime. Lenin explained to the Tenth Party Congress that the uprising might become ‘a step, a ladder, a bridge’ to the Whites taking power. It was in this sense that the Bolsheviks considered the Kronstadt sailors to be counter-revolutionary. The Bolsheviks also had to act quickly. Had the ice melted before the uprising had been defeated, the likelihood of the success of the counter-revolution would have dramatically increased.[55] Victor Serge supported the Bolsheviks even though he thought the Kronstadt sailors were correct in their criticisms of the regime, as he felt that the alternative, a return to ‘anti-proletarian dictatorship’, was far worse.[56]

For Avrich, it is possible to argue that the rebels’ cause was understandable, even just, while at the same time arguing that the Bolsheviks had no alternative but to subdue it.[57] Trotsky described the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising as a ‘tragic necessity’,[58] and this is certainly the case. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that the suppression of Kronstadt demonstrates that the policies of Stalin already existed in embryo, nor that the Bolsheviks had an inherent authoritarianism rendering them intolerant of ‘libertarian’ socialists or anarchists. Victor Serge put it thus:

‘It is often said that ‘the germ of Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolsheviks also contained many other germs – a mass of other germs – and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse – and which he may have carried with him since birth – is this very sensible?’[59]

Appendix (from Kronstadt Izvestiia #1, http://libcom.org/library/kronstadt-izvestiia)


Having heard the report of the crew representatives, sent to the City of Petrograd by the General Meeting of ship’s crews for clarification of the situation there, we resolve:

1.      In view of the fact that the present Soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants, to immediately hold new elections to the Soviets by secret ballot, with freedom of pre-election agitation for all workers and peasants.

2.      Freedom of speech and press for workers and peasants, anarchists and left socialist parties.

3.      Freedom of assembly of both trade unions and peasant associations.

4.      To convene not later than March 10th, 1921 a non-party Conference of workers, soldiers and sailors of the City of Petrograd, of Kronstadt, and of Petrograd province.

5.      To free all political prisoners of socialist parties, and also all workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors imprisoned in connection with worker and peasant movements.

6.      To elect a Commission for the review of the cases of those held in prisons and concentration camps.

7.      To abolish all POLITOTDELS, since no single party should be able to have such privileges for the propaganda of its ideas and receive from the state the means for these ends. In their place must be established locally elected cultural-educational commissions, for which the state must provide resources.

8.      To immediately remove all anti-smuggling roadblock detachments.

9.      To equalise the rations of all labourers, with the exception of those in work injurious to health.

10.  To abolish the Communist fighting detachments in all military units, and also the various guards kept in factories and plants by the communists, and if such guards or detachments are needed, they can be chosen in military units from the companies, and in factories and plants by the discretion of the workers.

11.  To give the peasants full control over their own land, to do as they wish. And also to keep cattle, which must be maintained and managed by their own strength, that is, without using hired labour.

12.  We appeal to all military units, and also to the comrade cadets to lend their support to our resolution.

13.  We demand that all resolutions be widely publicised in the press.

14.  To appoint a travelling bureau for control.

15.  To allow free handicraft manufacture by personal labour.

The resolution was passed by the Brigade Meeting unanimously with two abstentions.

PETRICHENKO, President of the Brigade Meeting

The resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of the entire Kronstadt garrison.
VASILIEV, President

Together with Comrade Kalinin, Vasiliev votes against the resolution.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

·         Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (New Jersey: Princeton Press, 1991)

·         Jean-Jacques Marie, Cronstadt (Paris: Fayard, 2005)

·         Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Trotsky: 1879-1921 (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1976)

·         E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 Volume One (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978)

·         Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy (London: Random House, 1996)

·         James D. White, The Russian Revolution 197-1921 (London: Edward Arnold, 1994)

·         Mike Haynes, Russia, Class and Power 1917-2000 (London: Bookmarks) 2002

·         Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1980)

·         John Rees, with Robert Service, Sam Farber and Robin Blackburn, In Defence of October (London, Chicago and Sydney: Bookmarks, 1997)

·         Izvestiia Vremennogo Revoliutsionnogo Komiteta Matrosov, Krasnoarmeitsev i Rabochikh gor. Kronshtadta [News of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Sailors, Soldiers, and Workers of the City of Kronstadt], 3rd – 16th March 1921, reproduced on http://libcom.org/library/kronstadt-izvestiia

·         Leon Trotsky, 'Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt', The New International, April 1938, reproduced on

·         Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941 (London, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1967)

·         Alexander Berkman, Life of an Anarchist (New York: Seven Stories Press) 2005

·         Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967)

·         Beyond Kronstadt: the Bolsheviks in power (London: Escape, 1997), 8pp.

·         Kronstadt Uprising, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSkronstadt.htm

[1] By the Bolsheviks or the Bolshevik Party I am referring to the Bolshevik faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party known as the Bolsheviks and which was later renamed the Communist Party.
[2] The author Marcel Liebman, writing in 1972, says, ‘more than fifty years after the event, Communists of various allegiances, Trotskyites of different schools, and anarchists of all colours and shades clash over Kronstadt, in controversies that are rarely conducted with honesty, are often rowdy and are always absolutely useless, as the Leninists (of both the ‘Communist’ and the ‘Trotskyist’ kind) endeavour to dodge the real problems, while the ‘anarchists’ fail to present them in other than emotional terms’, Marcel Liebman, 1980, p. 254. These ‘clashes’ still continue today.
[3] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 7-8.
[4] ‘Towards the end of 1920, the coal-mines produced less than one tenth, and the iron- and steel-works less then one twentieth of their pre-war output. The production of consumer goods was about one-quarter of normal. The disaster was made even worse by the destruction of transport. All over the country railway tracks and bridges had been blown up… Inexorably transport was coming to a standstill’, Isaac Deutscher, 1976, p. 488.
[5] John Rees, 1997, pp. 67-68.
[6] Lenin said later, ‘The essence of War Communism was that we actually took from the peasant all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers’. Quoted in Paul Avrich, 1991, p. 9.
[7] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, pp. 489-490.
[8] Paul Avrich, 1991, p 26.
[9] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 19-21.
[10] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 51-54.
[11] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 70-76. The resolution can be found in full in the Appendix.
[12] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 80-86.
[13] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 142-144.
[14] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 152 and 210-211. Even members of the Workers’ Opposition who were calling for many of the same things as the Kronstadt sailors ‘held that the sailors had no right to dictate, hands on triggers, even the justest of demands’, Isaac Deutscher, 1976, p. 513.
[15] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, pp. 510-511.
[16] Paul Avrich, 1991, p 160.
[17] Marcel Liebman, 1980, p. 255.
[18] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 163-168.
[19] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, pp.260, 270 and 281.
[20] John Rees, 1997, p. 72.
[21] John Rees, 1997, p. 73.
[22] John Rees, 1997, p. 74.
[23] John Rees, 1997, p. 74. Putting this another way Avrich argues the Kronstadt sailors were naïve. He says the Kronstadt Soviet seems to have interpreted the Bolshevik slogan ‘All power to the soviets’ quite literally, to mean they had complete autonomy from the centre. Avrich quotes Ivan Flerovsky who believes the Kronstadt sailors in 1917 ‘naïvely believed that the force of their own enthusiasm would suffice to establish the power of the soviets throughout all of Russia’. When this did not happen, they rose again in revolt in 1921, this time with the slogan ‘All power to the local soviets’, Avrich, 1991, pp. 58 - 59.
[24] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 65-66.
[25] John Rees, 1997, p. 74.
[26] ‘On the eve of the insurrection, anarchists distributed leaflets among the sailors and workers… [They] reiterated the familiar anarchist demands for an end to compulsory labour, the restoration of workers’ control, the formation of autonomous partisan bands in place of the Red Army, and the inauguration of a true social revolution, one which would usher in the stateless society of free communes’, Paul Avrich, 1967, p. 229.
[27] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 173-174.
[28] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 176-177. ‘Not so long ago at a discussion meeting about trade unions, [Lenin] said, “I am deathly fed up with this, and apart from my disease I would be glad to quit it all and run away wherever I could.” But his confederates do not let him run away. He is held as their prisoner, and must slander just like they do’, ‘To Live With Wolves Is To Be Like A Wolf’ from Izvestiia…Kronshtadta Number 12, 14th March 1921.
[29] Paul Avrich, 1991, p. 177.
[30] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 179-180. Marie makes it clear, however, that while anti-Semitism certainly existed in Kronstadt, it was also strongly opposed. Thus on the Petropavlosvsk a resolution was moved calling for all Jews to be deported to Palestine. However, it was defeated. Jean-Jacques Marie, 2005, p. 144.
[31] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 88-89.
[32] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 189-190. This will be examined in more detail later.
[33] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, p. 504.
[34] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, pp. 504-505.
[35] Antonov and his Greens had backed Wrangel throughout the Civil War and used cruel and vicious tactics. Makhno described himself as an anarchist and switched from supporting the Whites to supporting the Reds as it suited him. Makhno’s Insurgent Army declared it was ‘the actions of the Bolshevik regime that cause a real danger to the worker-peasant revolution’ when in fact it was Makhno’s actions against the Red Army that had made the real enemies of the revolution, the Whites, able to return for a short while. Makhno had very little support from workers and only limited support from the peasantry based solely on his opposition to grain requisitioning. Makhno used extremely violent means and had his own ‘security forces’ and could not have provided an alternative to the Bolsheviks. Makhno’s anarchism was nothing but ‘a thin veneer on peasant rebellion’, John Rees, 1997, pp. 68-72.
[36] John Rees, 1997, p. 75.
[37] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, p. 511. The General in question, Kozlovsky, remained in his post and continued to advise and assist the Provisional Revolutionary Committee. Evidence also shows that émigrés in France were planning to attack Petrograd from the Gulf of Finland and indeed the National Centre, an anti-Bolshevik coalition of Cadets, Octobrists and others, had produced a secret document, a Memorandum on the Question of Organising an Uprising in Kronstadt, which contained detailed plans that could be put into place in the event of an uprising at the base, Avrich, 1991, pp. 103-106.
[38] John Rees, 1997, pp. 75-6.
[39] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 110-111.
[40] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 126-127.
[41] Cited in Mike Haynes, 2002, p. 57. It must be added, however, that Serge did change his mind at a later date. He came to believe that the decision to suppress the rising was wrong.
[42] Paul Avrich, 1991, p. 88.
[43] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 191-192. Many of the delegates from the Tenth Party Congress went to Kronstadt to take part in the fighting, to rally the troops and also to produce leaflets to get the sailors to give up their fight. One leaflet read: ‘Free soviets’ would mean a restoration of the ‘bourgeoisie, landlords, generals, admirals, and noblemen, the princes and other parasites’ and as such there was a choice, ‘either with the White Guards against us, or with us against the White Guards’, Paul Avrich, 1991, p. 195.
[44] ‘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’, Leon Trotsky in a speech to the Second Congress of the Communist Youth International, 14th July, 1921, reproduced in Kronstadt Uprising, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSkronstadt.htm It must be added that recent work based on unpublished material from recently opened Russian archives disputes this. Voroshilov, leader of the contingent of congress delegates sent to fight at Kronstadt, later mocked ‘comrades Trotsky and Zinoviev who don’t know what is going on under their noses. There was no water on the ice. The ice could last for another three weeks’. In fact the ice lasted another two weeks. See Jean-Jacques Marie, 2005, p. 290.
[45] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, pp. 490-491.
[46] Isaac Deutscher, 1976, pp. 491-504.
[47] Mike Haynes, 2002, pp. 57-58.
[48] John Rees, 1997, p. 77.
[49] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 220-223.
[50] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 182-183.
[51] By this time Lenin realised that this was not a classic White uprising. Now he described it as ‘petty bourgeois counter-revolution’, an analysis that appears to have been fleshed out by Trotsky much later. See Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 129-130.
[52] Leon Trotsky, 1938, pp. 103-106.
[53] Leon Trotsky, 1938, pp. 103-106.
[54] Leon Trotsky, 1938, pp. 103-106.
[55] Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 131-134.
[56] Paul Avrich, 1991, p. 135.
[57] Paul Avrich, 1991, p. 6.
[58] Leon Trotsky, 1938, pp. 103-106.
[59] Cited in Paul Avrich, 1991, pp. 228-229.

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