Alfred Rosmer

Moscow in Lenin’s Days: 1920–21


Source: New International, Vol. XXII No. 2, Summer 1956, pp. 133–135.
Transcribed & marked up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Kronstadt Uprising

The discussion was prolonged. The Party Congress was about to meet when the Kronstadt uprising broke out. The news was terrifying and, at first, unbelievable. Was it possible that Kronstadt, the most flaming hearth of the October Revolution, had risen against the Soviet Republic?

Even the leaders of the Party were taken by surprise. We were dismayed. As was always the case, when difficulties and dangerous circumstances arose, the Central Committee sent Trotsky to Petrograd, ready to charge him with responsibilities for what was not of his doing. [1]

It was necessary to study and learn the exact character of the movement, especially of its causes – some of them were obvious. Kronstadt of 1921 was no longer the Kronstadt of 1917. The removal of the Soviet government to Moscow had drawn off a large number of militants and the civil war many others. The working class quarters had filled their quotas. Petrograd of the October insurrection, Petrograd which had lived through every stage of the Revolution seemed to be a capital without spirit and had fallen from its position of eminence.

Zinoviev was in charge here. But he was completely incapable of efficient administration. Besides, he was now engrossed in the work of the Communist International and its sections. The city and the surrounding region were adrift while the condition of the workers and the organization of production were neglected to the point where strikes had broken out. Petrograd’s location at the extremity of the country was the greatest obstacle to supplying it with food when Russia was cut off from the outside world. Its position, advantageous in peacetime, left it completely exposed in war.

It was normal for counter-revolutionary elements to take advantage of the situation. Their role was to stir up discontent, exacerbate grievances, and influence the movement. It is not easy to give the exact origin of the slogan “Soviets without Bolsheviks” but it was effective in rallying everybody around it. All the enemies of the regime, especially the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Cadets, the Mensheviks, were so eager to take revenge that we may be pardoned for believing that they were the source of the slogan.

The propaganda they carried on around this demand influenced the sailors and soldiers, most of them young recruits from the countryside who were deeply moved by the bitter complaints in letters from their families angered by the party leaders. Writing a year later “on the anniversary” of the event, Andres Nin, who the whole of the preceding year was in Soviet Russia and had the opportunity to make inquiries and corroborate what he learned, arrived at the same explanations and reached the same conclusions.

The opponents of bolshevism have explained their thesis in several brochures, usually by anarchists. We find it again in what I believe is the latest published in 1948 by Ida Mett, Editions Spartacus, under the title The Kronstadt Commune, Bloody Twilight of the Soviets. The title clearly reveals the author’s conclusions but he states that his only purpose in writing this work was to establish the historic truth of the tragic event. Did he succeed ? He recognizes that elements are still lacking for a definitive analysis, short of access to the archives of the Soviet government and the Red Army However, he reprints and comments on many important documents; but there are many contradictions in the evidence and evaluations to which he refers, the source of which is primarily partisan and clearly hostile to the Bolsheviks.

The origin and cause of the uprising, according to one of its leaders, Petrichenko, writing in 1926, was the continuance of the regime of war communism even though the civil war had ended. This irritated the workers and drove them into rebellion against the Soviet government which was as anxious to shift from a war regime to that of peace. Did it wait too long? Could it have introduced earlier the NEP which had been the subject of intense concern for months? It was the object of study and research. The great discussion on trade unions was set in the framework of these investigations. Only a very rash person could presume to answer these questions, while it is difficult if not impossible to reconstruct exactly the general situation prevalent at the time.

Even if we admit the uprising sprang from the independent action of the workers and sailors, from their own initiative without ties to counter-revolutionaries, we must recognize that as soon as the uprising broke out all the enemies of Bolshevism came out of their shell, the Social Revolutionaries of the Left and the Right, the anarchists, the Mensheviks. The foreign press was filled with joy. It didn’t even wait for the active phase of the struggle to begin before hailing it. The press was not interested in the rebels’ program, but understood that their revolt could achieve what the allied bourgeoisie had been unable to: the overthrow of a hated regime whose fall it had been awaiting for years in vain.

Among the leaflets distributed at Kronstadt, the one signed by a group of Mensheviks ended with the following words: “Where are the real counterrevolutionaries?” “They are the Bolsheviks, the commissars. Long live the revolution! Long live the Constituent Assembly!” According to the Socialist Messenger, the official organ of the Russian Social Democrats published abroad, “The slogans of Kronstadt are those of the Mensheviks”; while Martov denies the Mensheviks or Social-Revolutionists participated in the movement. For him, the initiative came from the sailors who broke from the Communist Party over organizational questions, not principles.

The facts referred to in the brochure demonstrate that it was the Provisional Revolutionary Committee that took the initiative in military measures. Acting on false rumors, it hurriedly carried out the occupation of strategic points, seized state buildings, etc. These operations took place on March 2 and only on the 7th, after exhausting all attempts at conciliation, was the government compelled to order the attack. The S.R.s had been preoccupied with preventing a peaceful solution to the struggle. One of their leaders, Chernov, a former minister in the coalition cabinets which led the revolution from February to Kornilov and Kerensky shouted: “Don’t allow yourselves to be deceived into entering negotiations with the Bolshevik power which it will use to gain time.” The government reluctantly joined battle which had become inevitable. This was confirmed by the testimony of Lutvinov, one of the leaders of the “Workers Opposition.” On his arrival in Berlin, March 21, he stated:

“The news published by the foreign press about the Kronstadt events is greatly exaggerated. The Soviet government is strong enough to destroy the rebels; the operations are moving slowly because they want to spare the population of the city.”

Lutvinov had been sent to Berlin in disfavor and his membership in the “Workers’ Opposition” gives special value to his statement.

If it is possible that the Soviet government made mistakes, what shall we say of the role of a man like Chernov for whom this event was only an opportunity for vengeance on the Bolsheviks who had dethroned him from his presidential seat when they dissolved the Constituent Assembly. Even though aware that the insurrection was doomed to failure he did everything possible to inflame the sailors. His contribution only made the useless sacrifice of human lives greater. Under the circumstances the struggle, once joined, had to be ruthless. Both sides, the rebels as well as the cadets of the Red Army, suffered heavy losses.

On several occasions the Kronstadt sailors revealed a certain impatience. Under the Provisional Government on May 13, they had declared that: “The only power in Kronstadt is the Soviet.” Trotsky then defended them against the Menshevik minister Tseretelli. Two months later, during the great turmoil known as the “July Days,” just after the hapless offensive launched by Kerensky under allied pressure, the Kronstadt sailors marched en masse on Petrograd. After demonstrating all through the city, they moved upon the Tauride Palace where the Soviet was in session. In demanding tones they asked the Socialist Ministers to face them with an explanation. Chernov was the first to appear. Immediately a shout arose from all around: “Search him.” “Make sure that he has no arms!” The welcome was not very cordial. “This being the case,” he shouted, “I have nothing to say.”

With this he turned his back on the crowd in order to return to the Palace. However, the roar died down. He made a short speech in an attempt to appease the dissidents. When he finished some stalwart sailors seized him, pushed him into an auto and took him hostage. This unexpected act created great confusion. There were shouts of approval and disapproval. While the discussion was raging, workers rushed into the Palace shouting that Chernov had been arrested by fanatics and had to be saved. Martov, Kamenev and Trotsky hurriedly left the meeting. Trotsky succeeded with difficulty in having Chernov released and led him by the arm back to the Soviet. In 1921, Chernov had completely forgotten this incident, now four years old. His only thought was criminally to stir up the brothers of those sailors who had treated him more harshly than the Bolsheviks.

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1. Trotsky knew Kronstadt and its militants very well. In his History of the Russian Revolution, he speaks of them in these words:

“In spite of the ruthless vengeance, the flame of rebellion never went out in Kronstadt. It flared up threateningly after the revolution ... On May 13, 1917, the Soviet resolved: ‘The sole power in Kronstadt is the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.’ Model order was maintained; all brothels were closed ... The Kronstadt sailors became a kind of fighting crusaders of the revolution ... It was decided up above ... to give the Kronstadters a lesson ... The prosecutor of course was Tseretelli ... Appearing in their defense (was) Trotsky.” (Vol. I, pp. 430ff.)

Last updated on: 26 October 2019