The Kronstadt rebellion

Soviet propaganda depicting the Kronstadt rebels as White agents
The Kronstadt rebellion was an attempt to instigate an anti-Bolshevik revolution in early 1921. It took shape on Kronstadt, an island fortress and military garrison just a few miles from Petrograd. The Kronstadt uprising was sparked by the failure of Bolshevik economic policy, food shortages and worsening conditions. Almost three years of war communism had caused distress and shortages in Russia. Bad harvests, exacerbated by Bolshevik grain seizures, had caused famine and widespread suffering in both rural and urban areas. By 1921 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 scarcity of raw materials all hindered production. At the start of 1921, a series of strikes and urban demonstrations caused concern for the regime. They were followed by a blow Lenin had not been expecting: an uprising of soldiers and sailors at Kronstadt.

The military base at Kronstadt was located just outside Petrograd, encircling a fortress which overlooked the city. The soldiers and sailors garrisoned there were thought to be 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. 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, they 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 these were economic demands: relaxation of the stringent conditions of war communism, as well as 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’. Their document labelled the Bolsheviks as “usurpers” and described the conditions imposed by the new regime as “greater enslavement”, “moral slavery”, “new serfdom” and much greater 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.

This document, which bore some similarities to the Gapon petition of 1905, enraged the Bolshevik hierarchy. 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. Since it was winter the sea around the Kronstadt fortress was frozen solid, and it was important to crush the rebellion before the thaw, which would allow the rebels to use battleships against Bolshevik targets. The first wave of Red Army troops was low in number and poorly equipped, so 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 17 their defences collapsed and Kronstadt was invaded by the Red Army and Cheka units.

Thousands of rebels fled across the ice, north to the nearby border with Finland. Around 2,000 were captured by Bolshevik forces, marched into forests outside Petrograd and executed. Trotsky justified the use of force by implying that the Kronstadt personnel had been fickle and unreliable; the “reddest of the red” had, since 1917, been infiltrated and replaced with untrustworthy and disloyal elements. Lenin suggested the uprising was ‘whipped up’ by counter-revolutionary insurgents, foreign agents and enemies of Russia. That was the public line, but inside the party, 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. However Lenin might have reacted publicly to the events at Kronstadt, he was astute enough to understand its implications: the Bolsheviks needed to relax conditions immediately or risk another revolution.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Kronstadt rebellion” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].