Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Kronstadt Spring

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is, with good reason, regularly voted the greatest film ever made. There were no Soviet films made to lionise the Kronstadt Uprising, to relive the early spring of 1921 when this fortified Baltic port, guarding the approaches to Petrograd (St. Petersburg), erupted in rebellion against the new Bolshevik dictatorship.

The Kronstadt sailors had been the vanguard of the revolutions in 1905 and 1917 when they sailed the commandered cruiser Aurora up the River Neva and fired on the Czar's Winter Palace, the first shots of the October Revolution. Trotsky called them the "pride and glory of the Russian Revolution". Four years later it was Trotsky who commanded the Red Army to crush them.

The Civil War had ended in Western Russia in November 1920 with the defeat of General Wrangel in the Crimea, but popular protests were erupting in the countryside against 'War Communism' and forced grain requisitioning. In urban areas, a wave of spontaneous strikes occurred and in late February a near general strike broke out in Petrograd.

On February 26th 1921, the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting and sent a delegation to Petrograd to report back on the ongoing strike movement.
On their turn two days later, the delegates informed their fellow sailors of the strikes, their sympathy with them and the government repression of the workers. At a meeting on the Petropavlovsk a resolution was passed, raising 15 demands including free elections to the soviets, freedom of speech, press, assembly and organisation to workers, peasants, anarchists and left-socialists. Like the Petrograd workers, the Kronstadt sailors also demanded the equalisation of wages and the end of roadblock detachments restricting travel and the ability of workers to bring food into the city.

A mass meeting of sixteen thousand people was held in Anchor Square on March 1st and the 'Petropavlovsk resolution' was passed after the Petrograd delegation had made its report. Kronstadt repudiated the ‘Communist’ government and revived the original slogan of the 1917 revolution "All Power to the Soviets" - adding "and not to parties." This revolt, they hoped, was the "Third Revolution", after February and October of 1917 and would herald a true workers republic of freely elected, self-managed, soviets.

Resolution passed by the crew of the Petropavlovsk on 8th February, 1921.

(1) Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and the 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 the Left Socialist parties.

(3) The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organizations.

(4) 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.

(5) The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and for all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to workers and peasant organizations.

(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 equalization 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 of 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.

Only two Bolshevik officials voted against it. A delegation of 30 was sent to Petrograd to explain the resolution to the Bolshevik government and suffered immediate arrest. A committee was formed to organise the defence of Kronstadt.

The Communists responded with an ultimatum on March 2nd. They claimed the revolt had been organised by French spies and ex-Tsarist officers led by ex-General Kozlovsky - the man Trotsky had appointed to the fortress as a military specialist.

"Just like other White Guard insurrections, the mutiny of General Kozlovsky and the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk has been organised by Entente spies."
- Moscow Radio Broadcast, 3rd March, 1921.

"Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you."
- Kronstadt Provisionary Revolutionary Committee, 4th March, 1921.

Kronstadt reinvented itself in its fleeting days of freedom. Trade union committees were re-elected and a council of trade unions formed. Rank and file Communists left the party in droves, expressing support for the revolt and its aim of "all power to the soviets and not to parties." About 300 Communists were arrested but treated humanely in prison. Up to one-third of the delegates elected to Kronstadt's rebel conference of March 2nd were Communists. The sailors even brought out their own newspaper, the Kronstadt Izvestia.

Lenin and Zinoviev isolated the island, ordered a press blackout, and organised special shipments of clothing, shoes, and meat into Petrograd to pacify its rebellious citizens. Petrograd was under martial law and could take little action to support Kronstadt.

On March 5th, two days before the bombardment of Kronstadt had begun, anarchists led by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman offered themselves as intermediates to facilitate negotiations between the rebels and the government. This was ignored by the Bolsheviks.

"[e]ven when the fighting had started, it would have been easy to avoid the worst: it was only necessary to accept the mediation offered by the anarchists (notably Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman) who had contact with the insurgents. For reasons of prestige and through an excess of authoritarianism, the Central Committee refused this course."
- Bolshevik eye-witness Victor Serge.

The Bolsheviks threatened to shoot the rebels "like partridges" and took sailors' families hostage in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The decision to attack Kronstadt had already been made.

"5 March, if not earlier, the Soviet leaders had decided to crush Kronstadt. Thus, in a cable to . . . [a] member of the Council of Labour and Defence, on that day, Trotsky insisted that 'only the seizure of Kronstadt will put an end to the political crisis in Petrograd."
- Historian Israel Getzler based on documents from the Soviet Archives.

The Communist government would "make no concessions to the proletariat, while at the same time they were offering to compromise with the capitalists of Europe and America."
- Anarchist eye witness Alexander Berkman.

Lev Trotsky had been despached to Petrograd to crush the rebellion. He assembled as many loyal troops as he could under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevskii and, on March 7, began the bombardment of the island by the great guns of Petrograd. Though the rebels stood alone, without hope of relief or assistance, the first Communist assault was an abject failure.

"After the Gulf had swallowed its first victims, some of the Red soldiers… began to defect to the insurgents. Others refused to advance, in spite of threats from the machine gunners at the rear who had orders to shoot any wavers. The commissar of the northern group reported that his troops wanted to send a delegation to Kronstadt to find out the insurgents' demands."
- Anarchist historian Paul Avrich.

"At the beginning of the operation the second battalion had refused to march. With much difficulty and thanks to the presence of communists, it was persuaded to venture on the ice. As soon as it reached the first south battery, a company of the 2nd battalion surrendered. The officers had to return alone."
- Millitary Report on the 561 Infantry Regiment used against the Kronstadt sailors March, 1921.

7th March, 1921: Distant rumbling reaches my ears as I cross the Nevsky. It sounds again, stronger and nearer, as if rolling toward me. All at once I realize the artillery is being fired. It is 6 p.m. Kronstadt has been attacked! My heart is numb with despair; something has died within me.
- Eyewitness Alexander Berkman, diary entry.

Over the next ten days three bloody assaults were launched against the fortress. Troops marching across the ice were slaughtered, but they gradually depleted the strength and supplies of the rebels. Towards the end of the revolt Trotsky sanctioned the use of chemical warfare against the rebels and if they had not been crushed, a gas attack would have been carried out. Though the government forces lost hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded, they numbered about 45,000 troops by March 16, when the final assault was launched. Clad in white snow capes, and bolstered by hundreds of volunteer delegates from the Tenth Party Congress then proceeding in Moscow, the troops attacked by night from three directions and forced their way into the city.

The Bolsheviks "arrested over 100 so-called instigators, 74 of whom he had publicly shot." The crews of the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol fought to the bitter end, as did the cadets of the mechanics school, the torpedo detachment and the communications unit. In all, despite being massively outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels killed upwards of 10,000 Bolshevik troops before being overwhelmed. Once the Bolshevik forces finally entered the city of Kronstadt "the attacking troops took revenge for their fallen comrades in an orgy of bloodletting." The next day, as an irony of history, the Bolsheviks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.*

"..fort to fort and street to street; they stood and were shot crying, "Long live the world revolution! Hundreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd and handed to the Cheka; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony. Those defeated sailors belonged body and soul to the Revolution; they had voiced the suffering and the will of the Russian people."
- Victor Serge, who along with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, had attempted to mediate between the Kronstadt sailors and the Soviet government in
"Memoirs of a Revolutionary."

17th March, 1921: Kronstadt has fallen today. Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in its streets. Summary execution of prisoners and hostages continues.
- Alexander Berkman, diary entry.

30th September, 1921: One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under the foot. The revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness. The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed. I have decided to leave Russia.
- Alexander Berkman, diary entry.

"[h]undreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony".
- Victor Serge.

4,836 Kronstadt sailors were arrested and deported to the Crimea and Caucasus immediately after the defeat of the revolt. On Lenin's orders they were then despatched to forced labour camps in Archangelsk, Vologda and Murmansk. Eight thousand sailors, soldiers and civilians escaped over the ice to find freedom in Finland. A statistical communiqué stated that 6,528 rebels had been arrested in all, of whom 2,168 had been shot (33%), 1,955 had been sentenced to forced labour (of whom 1,486 received a five year sentence), and 1,272 were released. A statistical review of the revolt made in 1935-6 listed the number arrested as 10,026 and stated that it had "not been possible to establish accurately the number of the repressed." The families of the rebels were deported, with Siberia considered as "undoubtedly the only suitable region" for them.

Kronstadt's newspaper was renamed as the victors eliminated all traces of the revolt. Anchor Square became "Revolutionary Square" and the rebel battleships 'Petropavlovsk' and 'Sevastopol' were renamed the 'Marat' and 'Paris Commune'.

Trotsky later denied any involvement in the massacre, a claim dismantled in a famous pamphlet by American anarchist and witness to the events Emma Goldman.

"In point of truth I see no marked difference between the two protagonists of the benevolent system of the dictatorship except that Leon Trotsky is no longer in power to enforce its blessings, and Josef Stalin is...Stalin did not come down as a gift from heaven to the hapless Russian people. He is merely continuing the Bolshevik traditions, even if in a more relentless manner."
- Emma Goldman in 'Trotsky protests too much" published by the Anarchist Communist Federation in Glasgow, 1938.

"Some people in America have come to think of the Bolsheviks as a small clique of very bad men who are tyrannizing over a vast number of highly intellectual people who would form an admirable Government among themselves the moment the Bolshevik regime was overthrown. This is a mistake, for there is nobody to take our place save butcher Generals and helpless bureaucrats who have already displayed their total incapacity for rule."
- V. I. Lenin interviewed by a correspondent of The New York Herald
Published in English on March 15, 1921 in The New York Herald Tribune No. 197
Published in Russian on March 26, 1921 in Petrogradskaya Pravda No. 67

"Kronstadt fell. But it fell victorious in its idealism and moral purity, its generosity and higher humanity. Kronstadt was superb. It justly prided itself on not having shed the blood of its enemies, the Communists within its midst. It had no executions. The untutored, unpolished sailors, rough in manner and speech, were too noble to follow the Bolshevik example of vengeance: they would not shoot even the hated Commissars. Kronstadt personified the generous, all for-giving spirit of the Slavic soul and the century-old emancipation movement of Russia.

Kronstadt was the first popular and entirely independent attempt at liberation from the yoke of State Socialism -- an attempt made directly by the people, by the workers, soldiers and sailors themselves. It was the first step toward the third Revolution which is inevitable and which, let us hope, may bring to long-suffering Russia lasting freedom and peace."
- from 'Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist' by Alexander Berkman.

Ida Mett's history of the 'The Kronstadt Uprising'', first published as 'La Commune de Cronstadt' in Paris in 1938, remains one of the best accounts of this final crushing of the Russian people's hopes of a genuine revolution against tyranny.

Read Scott Parker's thesis here.

Original Documents from Spartacus.

Alexander Berkman's full account can be read here

Maggots and Men'' - An American independent film about the uprising.

The '80s Essex Punk Band!


* account from 17 moments in Soviet History''.


Anonymous Sharks of Love said...

Learn very well the lesson of Kronstadt:
We shot you once, and we will shoot you again if you take up arms against us.
Long live Trotsky!
Long live the ideals of Red October!

3:04 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home