The Kronstadt rebellion was an anti-Bolshevik uprising in early 1921. It was carried out by soldiers and sailors on the island fortress of Kronstadt, a few miles off the coast of Petrograd. Those involved were rebelling against Bolshevik economic policies, food shortages, political oppression and the brutal mistreatment of ordinary Russians. The rebellion was eventually crushed by the Red Army.
Three years of war communism had caused widespread shortages and significant distress across Russia. Poor harvests, exacerbated by Bolshevik grain seizures, had caused famine and widespread suffering in both rural and urban areas.
By 1921, the production of most goods had fallen to little more than half pre-World War I levels. Government quotas and interference in factories, strikes, workforce dissent and the scarcity of raw materials all hindered production.
At the start of 1921, a series of strikes and urban demonstrations heightened concerns in the Bolshevik regime. They were followed by a blow the government had not been expecting: an uprising of soldiers and sailors at Kronstadt.
Kronstad, an island-based fortress, guarded the marine approaches to Petrograd. The soldiers and sailors garrisoned there had been among the most loyal supporters of the Bolshevik revolution.
Renowned throughout Russia as fearless troops, they had been one of the first military units to mutiny during the unrest of 1905; and Kronstadt sailors had been in charge of the gunship Aurora when it sailed down the Neva River to menace the Winter Palace during 1917’s October Revolution.
Leon Trotsky called them heroes of the revolution, “the reddest of the red”, and most Russians considered them to be closely aligned with the Bolshevik cause. In reality, the Kronstadt servicemen had a reputation for acting spontaneously; they were stirred more by conditions than ideology.
By late February 1921, the men of Kronstadt had experienced enough of Bolshevik political oppression and the economic misery of war communism. Hearing of suffering and deprivation in letters from home (many Kronstadters were of peasant origins) and seeing it first-hand during their leave in Petrograd, the men of Kronstadt decided to take action.
Their first move was to form a Provisional Revolutionary Committee (an intentional merging of the terms ‘Provisional Government’ and ‘Military Revolutionary Committee’) before issuing a series of political, economic and social demands.
Among their economic demands were a relaxation of war communism and improved food supplies to the cities. Their political demands were more extensive: the restoration of full freedom of speech, increased democratic input and consultation in policy formulation, the release of non-Bolshevik socialists from detention, guarantees of civil rights and, significantly, ‘Soviets without communists’.
The Kronstadt rebels also published their own anti-Bolshevik newspaper, Izvestia. Its columns described Lenin and his followers as “usurpers” and described the conditions imposed by their regime as “greater enslavement”, “moral slavery”, “new serfdom” and worse than the impositions of tsarism. The Kronstadters called for the revolution to be placed back into the hands of the workers who it had originally claimed to represent.
All this enraged the Bolshevik hierarchy. War Commissar Trotsky began to organise an immediate military response to crush the Kronstadt rebels. Since there was more than 15,000 of them, it would need to be a large campaign.
The Bolshevik counter-attack
Since it was winter, the sea around the Kronstadt fortress was frozen solid. It was important to crush the rebellion before the spring thaw when the rebels might use battleships against Bolshevik targets.
The first wave of Red Army troops to cross the ice was low in number and poorly equipped. It was driven back by fire from the base at Kronstadt.
Trotsky increased troop numbers to 60,000, equipped them with white camouflage and heavy artillery and laid siege to the fortress for almost three weeks. On March 17th, their defences collapsed and Kronstadt was invaded by the Red Army and Cheka units.
Facing capture or annihilation, hundreds of rebels took flight across the ice, headed north to the nearby border with Finland. Around 2,000 were captured by Bolshevik forces. Most were marched into forests outside Petrograd and executed.
Trotsky justified the use of force by implying that the Kronstadt personnel had been fickle and unreliable. They were no longer the “reddest of the red”, having been infiltrated and replaced with untrustworthy and disloyal elements.
Lenin echoed a similar line, suggesting that the uprising was ‘whipped up’ by counter-revolutionary insurgents, foreign agents and enemies of Russia.
Inside the party, however, there was less agreement and more discomfort about what had taken place. Individuals such as Alexandra Kollontai expressed concern about the conduct of the party leadership.
Whatever Lenin’s public pronouncements about the Kronstadt rebellion, he was astute enough to understand its meaning and the dangers to the Soviet regime. The Bolsheviks needed to relax conditions or they faced the very real risk of another revolution.
1. The Kronstadt Rebellion was an anti-Bolshevik uprising that broke out among soldiers and sailors on an island fortress, close to Petrograd.