Crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion: a tragic necessity

On 2 March 1921, sailors in Kronstadt took up arms against the young Soviet government. The rebellion was short-lived and crushed by 18 March. But its tale has survived much longer and has been told and retold with very little concern for facts and serious analysis. The present work will not rehash chronological details of the rebellion in depth, which readers can find in great detail in many other works. Instead, it will outline the underlying processes that gave rise to the rebellion, looking beyond mere appearances to its real character, and explain the actions taken by the Bolsheviks against it.

Liberals, ultralefts and anarchists alike have hailed the rebellion, with the latter calling it a third Russian Revolution, “the Second Paris Commune”, the last revolt of the proletariat against the Bolshevik usurpers. Its eventual suppression has been touted as proof of the ruthlessness of the Bolshevik dictatorship: the seed of Stalinism that is always sure to grow from Marxism. Yet, a closer and more sober reflection can only bring us to the conclusion that the Kronstadt Rebellion was merely a manifestation of an exhausted revolution, ravaged by a civil war and isolated in its own economic backwardness. It was one episode in a chain of events that highlighted the impossibility of building socialism in one country, particularly one largely populated by poor peasants.

Any worker who has ever been on a strike and stood on a picket line can appreciate this event much better than petty-bourgeois philistines. A strike that has gone on for too long, under constant siege from all sides, is bound to provoke an internal crisis and bitter splits amongst the striking workers. That was precisely what was unfolding in the Kronstadt Rebellion, and the many peasant rebellions that exploded onto the scene at the end of a long and brutal civil war. The conflict between the cities and the villages, between the proletariat and the peasantry, was being strained to an unbearable point by the harsh measures of War Communism.

In revisiting this important event, we will mainly use materials furnished by the anarchist historian Paul Avrich in his book Kronstadt 1921. That way, we won’t be accused of conjuring facts to suit our narrative. If anything, we will see here how facts put forward by Avrich inadvertently support the Bolsheviks’ position.

Russia on the eve of Kronstadt Rebellion

The Kronstadt Rebellion cannot be understood in isolation. We need to look into the state of the young Soviet regime by the end of the Civil War (1918-21). Even before the October Revolution, Russia had been bled dry by the Great War (1914-1918). The young Soviet power that arose from the Second All-Russian Soviet Congress inherited an extremely difficult situation.

For Lenin and Trotsky, the survival of the Russian Revolution was inseparable from the fate of the world socialist revolution / Image: public domain

Nevertheless, it was a beacon to the working class all over the world. As Rosa Luxemburg eloquently said of the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: “All the revolutionary honour and capacity which Western Social Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism[1] [all emphasis ours throughout] It was indeed salvation. The revolution inspired soldiers of all nations to turn their guns to their commanders and sparked a wave of revolution across Europe, thus bringing an end to the great slaughter of World War One.

The October Revolution was not an adventure on the part of Lenin and Trotsky to try to build socialism in a backward country. They firmly based their actions on the perspective of a world socialist revolution, for which the Russian Revolution would serve as an opening shot. The initial difficulties faced by the Russian Revolution – isolation in a backward economy, the exhausted population, the loss of significant territories as imposed by the Brest Litovsk treaty, etc. – would (it was hoped) eventually be overcome with the help of a victorious proletariat in more advanced capitalist countries.

For Lenin and Trotsky, the survival of the Russian Revolution was inseparable from the fate of the world socialist revolution. At the Seventh Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March 1918, Lenin wrote in his political report: “Regarded from the world-historical point of view, there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries. When the Bolshevik Party tackled the job alone, it did so in the firm conviction that the revolution was maturing in all countries and that in the end—but not at the very beginning—no matter what difficulties we experienced, no matter what defeats were in store for us, the world socialist revolution would come—because it is coming; would mature—because it is maturing and will reach full maturity. I repeat, our salvation from all these difficulties is an all-Europe revolution. [2] Lenin was particularly directing his gaze to the unfolding German Revolution: “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed. [3]

With a victorious world socialist revolution, the higher productive forces in western countries would be harnessed 10-fold, if not 100-fold, by a socialist mode of production, which under an internationally planned economy would swiftly lift battered Russia from its backwardness. Practically, this would mean the ability of the urban industries to provide consumer goods to the peasantry in exchange for their grain, while accelerating the industrialisation of agricultural production, which in turn would permit the development of collective farming to overcome individual small-proprietorship farming.

The October Revolution did spark a wave of revolutionary movements across Europe. Millions of war-weary soldiers, workers and peasants rose up. We witnessed, to name a few, the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, the Finnish Revolution of 1917-1918, the Italian Revolution of 1919-1920 (The Biennio Rosso), the formation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, a mass strike in Austria in 1919, and the most glorious of all, the German Revolution of 1918-19. “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution,” remarked British Prime Minister Lloyd George to the French Premier Clemenceau in March 1919. The workers had shown their utmost courage and revolutionary initiative in launching the revolutions. In some cases, power was in their hands. In Germany, the workers, sailors and soldiers set up soviets and toppled the Hohenzollern dynasty. Nothing further could be asked of them. However, one by one these revolutions ended in defeat. The working class leadership either proved inadequate to the task at hand or, in the case of the social democrats, betrayed the revolutions.

With the defeat of these revolutions, the much awaited help from the West never came around. The Russian Revolution was isolated. What did come was an invasion by 21 imperialist armies that rejuvenated the White forces, precipitating a long, bloody Civil War (1918-21) that unleashed fire and brimstone upon every corner of Russia. We will quote Avrich to illustrate the total destruction visited on the young Soviet regime:

“By the end of 1920 total industrial output had shrunk to about a fifth of 1913 levels... damage [to the Baku oil fields and Donets coal basin] was extensive and very difficult to repair. Many of the mines were flooded... The total production of coal in Russia at the end of 1920 was only a quarter, and of oil only a third, of prewar levels... cast iron output had dropped to less than 3 percent of 1913 levels, and the production of copper had all but ceased. Lacking these basic materials, the major industrial centres of the country were forced to cut back production very severely... in consumer goods enterprises total production fell to less than a quarter of prewar levels. The manufacture of footwear was reduced to a tenth of normal, and only one in twenty textile spindles remained in operation.”[4]

The cities were depleted of food, consumer goods, raw materials, and even people. As factories closed due to a lack of resources, and with food nowhere to be found, urban dwellers flocked to the countryside in search of sustenance. Between October 1917 and August 1920, the population of Petrograd shrank by 70 percent, from almost 2.5 million to about 0.75 million. Moscow’s population was halved during the same period. Overall, what little urban population that Russia originally had declined in just a few years by a third. [5]

World School banner

Meanwhile, the most courageous and self-sacrificing workers in the major cities were the first to leave their benches to join the Red Army in a life-and-death struggle for the survival of the young Soviet power. The high death rate at the front was devouring the proletarian ranks. In August 1920, Petrograd was left with only a third of the nearly 300,000 factory workers that it had on the eve of the October Revolution. Overall, the ranks of the Russian proletariat were reduced to less than half.[6] This dealt a serious blow to the main social base of the October Revolution, diminishing its most class-conscious elements, leaving behind the more wavering and self-serving ones. The reality is, revolution devours revolutionaries, physically and spiritually.

Central to the war effort to defeat the White Army was War Communism, and the main plank of this policy was grain requisition. The cities and the factories had been emptied, and whatever was left in the production capacity was dedicated to the war effort. As a result, the cities were not able to produce consumer goods to pay for the grain from the countryside. Thus, to feed the cities and the armies, the peasants were asked to hand over their surplus grain for practically nothing. Naturally, this policy was highly unpopular amongst the peasants, who wanted to be left alone with the plots of land they just won from the October Revolution. But it was tolerated in the beginning by the peasants, as they feared the White Army more.

Yet, with every return visit of armed detachments that emptied their granaries, their resentment grew. They began to hide their grain, which inevitably led to the use of force in grain collections. Barred from selling their grain, the peasants saw no incentive to produce and started cutting down their sowings. By 1921, agricultural output had fallen to less than half of pre-war levels, and the quantity of livestock to about two-thirds. This in turn led to requisitioning of even-bigger portions of the peasant’s grain to meet the much-needed quota. With each passing day, the gulf between the proletariat and the peasantry grew. The peasants, from their perspective, thought: what good is having a plot of land when an urban-based state hundreds of kilometers away takes our produce and dictates to us how to use our land? Under the circumstances, this could not have been avoided. But nevertheless, a violent clash was being prepared.

“The flash which lit up reality better than anything else”

By fall of 1920, with the defeat of Wrangel’s army, the threat of the White Army’s imminent victory no longer loomed large. From the perspective of the peasantry, their old masters had been defeated and would not return to claim their estates back, and therefore, fear of White reprisals gave way to more resentment against the Bolshevik regime. This resentment turned rapidly into open defiance. Waves of peasant uprisings swept Russia from one end to the other.

Wrangel Image public domainWith the defeat of Wrangel’s army, the threat of the White Army’s imminent victory no longer loomed large / Image: public domain

Throughout the winter of 1920-21, the number of rural outbreaks rose at a frightening pace. In February 1921 alone, on the eve of the Kronstadt rebellion, government officials recorded 118 separate peasant risings breaking out in various parts of Russia. [7] The real number was most likely higher. Defections became a common occurrence as most soldiers were peasants in uniform, sons of muzhiks affected by the desperate plight of their parents, who were fighting against grain requisition. To maintain army discipline, Cheka units and officers made up of loyal Communist Party members were dispatched, which only sharpened the peasant’s resentment.

Everywhere, the scattered peasant insurgencies were united around common slogans: “Down with requisitioning”, “Away with food detachments”, “Don’t surrender your surpluses”, “Down with the Communists and the Jews” (as we will explain, backward prejudices were also a factor in the rebellion).[8] There was no coherent programme, but the class character and demands of these rebellions were clear. The peasants were demanding to be left alone with their plots of land and to be able to sell their grain on the market as they saw fit.

These were petty proprietors, and in the absence of a confident leadership from the mass of the working class driving them forward and granting them reforms, socialism was not on their horizons. Anarchists who imagined that these peasant rebellions were to be harbingers of genuine communism or a classless, stateless anarchist society would be sorely disappointed to know that the peasants had no such thing in their minds.

The Kronstadt Rebellion was a mutiny of peasants in uniform. The Kronstadt insurgents had cannons, directed at Petrograd, and the tactical advantage of being in a fortified naval base that could be a staging ground for further military assaults into the very heart of Soviet power. This is what prompted Lenin to dub the Kronstadt Rebellion as “the flash which lit up reality better than anything else”. This reality was that a wedge had been driven between the exhausted revolution and the peasantry, and a degree of free trade had to be re-established in order to win them back, and spur the peasants to produce again.

Social character of the Kronstadt uprising

It is important to understand the main social forces at play behind the Kronstadt Rebellion. It is clear that the Kronstadt sailors of 1921 were not the same heroes of 1917. The best layer had been sent to the front, and in fact were the first to volunteer to fight the Whites. This is a fact that is admitted even by Avrich, stating that those who had “had played prominent roles in Kronstadt during 1917 were no longer present four years later.” [9]

He continued in his Kronstadt 1921:

“There can be little doubt that during the Civil War years a large turnover had indeed taken place within the Baltic Fleet, and that many of the old-timers had been replaced by conscripts from the rural districts who brought with them the deeply felt discontents of the Russian peasantry. By 1921, according to official figures, more than three-quarters of the sailors were of peasant origin, a substantially higher proportion than in 1917, when industrial workers from the Petrograd area made up a sizeable part of the fleet. Petrichenko himself later acknowledged that many of his comrades-in-arms were peasants from the south aroused by the plight of the villagers back home.”[10]

This is exactly what Trotsky understood about the changing social composition of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921, that it was composed of a more politically backward layer, who was more prone to buckle under the pressure of difficult situations. Trotsky wrote in Hue and Cry over Kronstadt:

“Under the pressure of need and deprivation, the workers themselves were episodically divided into hostile camps, depending upon stronger or weaker ties with the village. The Red Army also found itself under the influence of the countryside. During the years of the civil war it was necessary more than once to disarm discontented regiments... Yes, Kronstadt wrote a heroic page in the history of the revolution. But the civil war began a systematic depopulation of Kronstadt and of the whole Baltic fleet.”[11]

However, even with this fact staring him in the face, Paul Avrich tries to twist and turn to reach the opposite conclusion: that the Kronstadt of 1921 was fundamentally the same as the one in 1917 and 1905: “On November 7, the third anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, they [Kronstadt sailors] were in the front ranks of the celebrations”; “Petrichenko [the leader of the rebellion] had joined the fleet as early as 1912”; etc. It would take a naive fool to believe that the revolutionary Kronstadt sailors of 1917 would remain idle in the fortress and on the ships while their comrades-in-arms fought a life-and-death struggle against Wrangel, Kolchak, Denikin, etc.

A few important remarks must be said of Petrichenko. A few pages after making the assertion that the Kronstadt of 1917 was fundamentally unchanged four years later, Avrich writes:

“[When] Petrichenko returned to his native village in April 1920... having had ample time to see the Bolshevik food detachments in action and to build up considerable hostility against the government... He had even tried to join the Whites, only to be turned away as a former Bolshevik.”[12]

1921 stepan petrichenko Image public domainDuring the rebellion, Petrichenko and his “Revolutionary Provisional Committee” made many high-sounding pronouncements that they were the true inheritors of the October Revolution / Image: public domainAvrich does not bother to say anything more about this episode, in which the future leader of what he and his fellow anarchists hail as “the Second Paris Commune” had attempted to join the Whites just a year before.

During the rebellion, Petrichenko and his “Revolutionary Provisional Committee” made many high-sounding pronouncements that they were the true inheritors of the October Revolution, fighting to free the soviets from the Bolshevik usurpers; that their rebellion had nothing to do with the White forces; and it represented the elemental, revolutionary desires of workers and peasants. But this revolutionary phrase mongering was immediately exposed to be nothing but a cynical ploy. Barely a few months after being defeated, the exiled leadership of the Kronstadt Rebellion made an alliance with the reactionary White Army, as attested by Avrich himself:

“What can be shown, however, is that some sort of agreement was concluded between the rebels and the emigres after the rising had been crushed and its leaders had fled to Finland. In May 1921, Petrichenko and several of his fellow refugees at the Fort Ino camp decided to volunteer their services to General Wrangel. At the end of the month, they wrote to Professor Grimm, Wrangel's representative in Helsingfors, and offered to join forces in a new campaign to unseat the Bolsheviks and restore ‘the gains of the March 1917 Revolution.’”[13]

But one might ask: what does “restoring the gains of the March (February) 1917 revolution” actually mean? The February Revolution was triumphant in overthrowing the Tsar. But it did more than just that. It opened the floodgates for the establishment of Soviets all over Russia. Through these Soviets, the revolutionary masses expressed their aspirations for the end of the imperialist war, land for the tillers, bread for the workers, the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, right to self determination for the oppressed nations, etc. But the Menshevik and SR leaders of the Soviets betrayed these aspirations by supporting the bourgeois Provisional Government. Therefore, the only way to defend the gains of the February Revolution and fulfill the aspirations of the masses was to press forward to its final conclusion: the October Revolution, where the workers took power with the Bolsheviks at their head. So, when Petrichenko spoke of “restoring the gains of the March 1917 revolution”, he meant turning the clock back to the rule of the bourgeois Provisional Government, which would in practice negate the October Revolution.

Avrich continues:

“The sailors put forward a six-point program as the basis for any common venture [with General Wrangel]: (1) all land to the peasants, (2) free trade unions for the workers, (3) full independence for the border states, (4) freedom of action for the Kronstadt fugitives, (5) the removal of shoulder epaulettes from all military uniforms, and (6) the retention of their slogan ‘all power to the soviets but not the parties.’ Surprisingly, however, the slogan was to be retained only as a ‘convenient political maneuver’ until the Communists had been overthrown. Once victory was in hand, the slogan would be shelved and a temporary military dictatorship installed [!] to prevent anarchy from engulfing the country. This last point, no doubt, was intended as a sop for Wrangel. The sailors, at any rate, insisted that in due course [!] the Russian people must be ‘free to decide for themselves what kind of government they want.’”[14]

Wrangel accepted the terms, because any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks at that time was obligated to pay lip service to the land and national questions, and parrot the “all power to the Soviets” slogan. But, as shown above, the slogan was only a smokescreen for a military dictatorship, which was agreed by Petrichenko and his fellow leaders. The fact that Avrich was ‘surprised’ at this only betrays his formalism. Despite his rigorous attention to material facts, his rigid belief that the rebels represented a ‘progressive’ struggle against Bolshevik tyranny leads him to overlook inconvenient truths.

The Kronstadt refugees later joined the National Center (or National Union): a coalition of Kadets, Octobrists (constitutional monarchists), and other anti-Bolshevik groups formed in 1918, that worked hand-in-hand with White generals to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Avrich writes:

“In June 1921 the Congress of National Union, summoned by the National Center to unite like-minded emigres in an anti-Bolshevik crusade, received a message from a group of Kronstadters in Finland warmly endorsing their program. Furthermore, in the archives of the National Center there is a confidential document of October 30, 1921, signed by Petrichenko and Yakovenko (as chairman and deputy chairman of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee), which authorizes one Vsevolod Nikolaevich Skosyrev to join the Russian National Committee in Paris as a representative of the refugees for ‘the coordination of active work with other organizations standing on a platform of armed struggle against the Communists.’” [15]

What more can one say? Despite all of these facts, that even before the rebellion Petrichenko himself had tried to join the Whites, and shortly after the failed rebellion he and his “Provisional Revolutionary Committee” did join the Whites, Avrich still tries to deny the reactionary nature of the leadership of Kronstadt rebellion.

“None of this, of course,” Avrich is keen to point out, “proves that there were any ties between the [National] Center and the [Kronstadt Provisional] Revolutionary Committee either before or during the revolt.”[16] It is true that no organisational ties between the Whites and the Kronstadt leadership were formally established during the revolt. But it was only because the two sides did not have the timely and convenient opportunity to find each other, as the White forces had been on the retreat and were completely disorganised by the end of 1920. When they did have the opportunity, after the defeat of the rebellion, an unholy alliance was struck, without much difficulty. Such an alliance would have been a near certainty had the rebellion held out.

Avrich tried to explain this alliance as a result of “mutual experience of bitterness and defeat”. Leon Trotsky and the Left Oppositions also faced bitterness and defeat in their struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, but never once considered accepting aid from any of the White émigrés: the Kadets, Right SRs, the monarchists, the White generals, etc. Furthermore, the latter knew full well what the Left Oppositionists represented – the genuine proletarian tendency of the Russian Revolution – and thus never considered entertaining a common front against the Soviet government. The aims of the White émigré groups and the Left Opposition were simply irreconcilable. On the contrary, they were rejoicing to see the Left Oppositionists and the old Bolsheviks filling up the Lubyanka (OGPU’s torture chambers) and gulags at the hands of Stalinist inquisitors. Meanwhile, the Whites understood perfectly that the confused character of the peasant rebellions and the Kronstadt revolt were a suitable vehicle for their reactionary goals.

During the first week of the rebellion, Alexander Kerensky and Victor Chernov sent a radiogram to the Provisional Revolutionary Committee, offering their “service to the people’s revolution” and “the final victory of the laboring masses”. They had collected sizable funds and supplies from White emigres and were ready to send them to Petrichenko. While only one member of the Committee voted in favor of accepting the aid, and another one outright rejected, Petrichenko and the rest argued that the best course was to decline for the time being:

“The Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Kronstadt expresses to all our brothers abroad its deep gratitude for their sympathy. The Provisional Revolutionary Committee is thankful for Chernov's offer, but it declines for the moment [!], until further developments become clarified. Meanwhile, everything will be taken into consideration.”[17]

Having presented themselves as the saviors of the Soviets from the Bolshevik usurpers, the rebels were exchanging pleasantries with supporters of the rotten, ousted Provisional Government. The door to an alliance with these enemies of the October Revolution was not closed, but deferred until an opportune moment arrived.

Provisional government Image public domainThe rebels exchanged pleasantries with supporters of the rotten, ousted Provisional Government / Image: public domain

The leadership of the Kronstadt rebellion tried to cynically capitalise on the discontent of the masses. Any revolutionary worth their salt can and should understand the genuine desire of the peasants to work their land without having armed detachments coming to seize their grain, and the frustration of a large part of the toiling masses over the difficulties arising from the Civil War and the many harsh measures associated with it. At the parade for the troops who were sent to recapture the Kronstadt base from the rebels, Trotsky said: “We waited as long as possible for our blind sailor comrades to see with their own eyes where the mutiny led.”[18]

It would be the height of folly to equate this discontent with some sort of advanced class consciousness, because unwittingly riding behind this genuine discontent were reactionary forces. The eventual Petrichenko-Wrangel alliance exposes the real content of the programme that the Kronstadt insurgents put forward. Behind their call for “free Soviets” lay a military dictatorship. Lenin and Trotsky were not wrong to believe that the victory of the Kronstadt rebellion would reignite the Civil War and provide the White Army with a highly strategic launching pad to crush the Soviets. And the fact that the peasant rebellions largely ceased after the implementation of the New Economic Policy showed the true motivation of the peasant rebellions: the freedom to sell their grain on the market.


Backward prejudices – such as antisemitism – were also hiding behind the smokescreen of revolutionary-sounding rhetoric of “free Soviets” that peppered the Kronstadt daily newspaper Izvestia. As mentioned before: “Down with the Communists and the Jews” was a common slogan of the peasant insurgencies in 1920-21. Avrich notes the anti-semitic language heard amongst the peasants and workers who were protesting against the Bolshevik government: “Anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism began to rear their heads, often simultaneously; the charge was made that the Bolsheviks were an alien breed of Jewish intellectuals who had betrayed the Russian people and contaminated the purity of the revolution.”[19] Avrich, as expected, tried to downplay this by saying that “anti-Semitism was a traditional [!] response of Russian peasants and workers during times of unusual hardship.”[20] But it was traditional in a sense that it represented the age-old prejudice of the most backward layers of the population, not its advanced layers.

Such anti-semitic views were also prevalent amongst the Kronstadt rebels, as Avrich himself highlighted from the memoirs of one of the Kronstadt sailors during the rising:

“That fantasies like this [Jewish conspiracy to take over the world] circulated within the Baltic Fleet is evident from the memoirs of a seaman stationed at the Petrograd naval base at the time of the Kronstadt rising. In a particularly vicious passage he attacks the Bolshevik regime as the ‘first Jewish Republic’; and the ‘wicked boyar’ theme, so prominent in Russian popular myth, clearly emerges when he labels the Jews a new ‘privileged class,’ a class of ‘Soviet princes.’... These sentiments, he asserts, were widely shared by his fellow sailors, who were convinced that the Jews and not the Russian peasants and workers were the real beneficiaries of the revolution: Jews held the leading posts within the Communist party and Soviet state; they infested every government office, especially the Food Commissariat, seeing to it that their fellow Jews did not go hungry... Such beliefs, no doubt, were as prevalent in Kronstadt as in Petrograd [amongst the Petrograd workers who went on strike in February 1921], if not more so.”[21]

And one would be wrong to think that such anti-semitic views were confined to the rank-and-file sailors. When Vershinin, one of the members of the Kronstadt Provisional Revolutionary Committee, came out on the ice on 8 March to parley with a Soviet detachment, he found it instrumental to resort to anti-semitic appeals: “Enough of your ‘hoorahs,’ and join with us to beat the Jews. It’s their cursed domination that we workers and peasants have had to endure.”[22] Such was the leadership of the “Second Paris Commune” that the anarchists were pinning their hopes on.

The Bolshevik Party waged a relentless and principled struggle against all forms of anti-semitism. A genuine socialist revolution cannot be tainted by such prejudice, which divides the working class. This poisonous ideology of anti-semitism has always been the weapon of choice for the reaction, to rally the most backward layers of the society against its most advanced layers. It was used by the White reaction to attack the Bolshevik leaders, and later by Stalinist reaction against the October Revolution, where Stalin and his epigones raised the ugly head of anti-semitism in their struggle against Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the Old Bolsheviks. Therefore, the prevalence of anti-semitism in the Kronstadt uprising was another indicator that this uprising was not “the third Russian revolution”, but a petty-bourgeois reaction coming from the more backward layers of the toiling classes.

The assault to retake Kronstadt

The Civil War had created terrible hardship across Russia. Cold and hunger, combined with ever-diminishing rations, had produced a highly charged atmosphere in many cities. On 22 January, due to the disruption in railway transportation, the government announced that the already meager bread ration for the cities would be immediately cut by one-third. This sparked a wave of demonstrations and strikes in Moscow and Petrograd, with workers carrying “banners and placards demanding ‘free trade’, higher rations, and the abolition of grain requisitions”. Some placards even bore the slogan “Down with the Communists and Jews”.[23]

Assault Image public domainA military operation to retake Kronstadt began on 7 March / Image: public domain

The local Soviet declared martial law and imposed a night-time curfew. Detachments were sent to disperse demonstrations and strikes. The Cheka arrested SRs, Mensheviks, and other agitators who were exploiting the food crisis to inflame the hungry masses against the workers’ state. The Petrograd Soviet launched a major appeal campaign to the strikers to return to work, explaining to them that the hunger, exhaustion, and cold were the inevitable cost of defending the revolution, and the sole beneficiaries of these strikes and demonstrations were the White guards. These disturbances eventually petered out as the government provided immediate relief to the hungry and cold populations: extra rations were distributed and coal was brought in from abroad. But most importantly, Zinoviev, the chairman of Petrograd Soviet, revealed for the first time that the government was in the process of replacing the grain requisitioning with a tax in kind.[24] In this sense, we can see that the striking workers in Moscow and Petrograd represented the more backward layers, who were under petty-bourgeois influence. As outlined above, the most dedicated and conscious workers had volunteered for the civil war front. Those that remained were the most selfish, and least inclined to sacrifice for the general interests of the revolution.

By 2 March, order was restored in Petrograd. But the news of the disturbances had reached Kronstadt, and mixed with this news were “an assortment of bogus rumors, which quickly roused the passions of the sailors. It was said, for example, that government troops had fired on the Vasilii Island demonstrators and that strike leaders were being shot in the cellars of the Cheka.”[25] Nothing of the kind ever happened. But Petrichenko, the would-be leader of the rebellion, seized upon these rumors to excite the sailors to rebellion.

On 1 March, M.I. Kalinin and N.N. Kuzmin were sent from Petrograd to explain the real situation to a mass meeting in Kronstadt and calm the excited sailors. But they were not given the opportunity to speak as their words “were drowned out by whistles and catcalls.”[26] Kalinin was even detained for a time before being allowed to leave the island. Bolshevik members in the island were also subjected to such treatment when speaking in mass meetings. As Avrich wrote: “When addressing their comrades, they [the Communists] were heckled and interrupted in the same way Kalinin and Kuzmin had been the day before. In the main garrison, for instance, the Bolshevik commissar barely had time to object to the irregular proceedings before being cut off by the ‘military specialist’ in charge of artillery, a former tsarist general named Kozlovsky.”[27]

On 2 March, during a Kronstadt Soviet conference, Petrichenko ordered the arrest of the three main Bolshevik leaders: Kuzmin, the chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet Vasiliev, and the commissar of the Kronstadt Battleship Squadron Korshunov. This truly exposes the hollowness of the mutineers’ demand for free speech. The arrest pushed the conference toward an open mutiny. But it irreversibly became an open mutiny when someone from the floor shouted that “15 truckloads of Communists armed with rifles and machine guns were on their way to break up the meeting”.[28] This unfounded rumor, that was later found to be false, threw the conference into frenzy. Instead of investigating this, the conference chair Petrichenko further provoked the situation by announcing that a detachment of 2,000 Communists were indeed on their way to arrest them. Under this atmosphere of panic and confusion, created by false rumors, Petrichenko gained the pretext he needed to postpone the election for a new Soviet and establish a Provisional Revolutionary Committee with him as the leader. Communists were arrested; all exits from the city were banned; a curfew was imposed. The rebellion was in full swing.

The news of the rebellion immediately stirred new hope amongst all counter-revolutionary forces. The exiled Kerensky believed that the rebellion would herald the imminent collapse of Bolshevism. The Kadet leader Miliukov welcomed the revolt and “expressed optimism that the days of Lenin’s regime were numbered and called on the American government to send food to the rebels.” The National Centre was jubilant and wrote: “The rising in Kronstadt has found a response in all the hearts of the Russian exiles.” The Russian Union of Commerce and Industry in Paris pledged an initial sum of two million Finnish marks in “the sacred cause of liberating Russia” and established a special committee to organise an effective supply line to Kronstadt.[29] One can tell a lot about who a person is by the friends that gather around them. The White emigres clearly understood the counter-revolutionary nature of this rebellion.

Therefore, far from being “the Second Paris Commune”, the Kronstadt mutiny was a petty-bourgeois reaction, aroused by the difficulties imposed by the tough conditions facing the proletarian revolution. The victory of this rebellion would have served as a launching pad for a new counter-revolutionary offensive. The class line separating the two camps – the Soviet government on one side, and the Kronstadt Rebellion on the other – is clear. There is no middle ground on this question. No room for moralistic wavering. Hesitation would have meant the death of the revolution itself. In suppressing the Kronstadt Rebellion, the Bolsheviks defended the October Revolution against the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois reaction.

The bombardment of the Kronstadt forts Image public domainUnder a heavy barrage of artillery, many plunged through the ice and drowned / Image: public domain

A military operation to retake Kronstadt began on 7 March. The Red Army was racing against time. With spring approaching, in a matter of weeks the ice surrounding the island would thaw, which would make an infantry assault on the fortress impossible and allow for supply and reinforcements from outside to reach it by sea. This would have made Kronstadt a strategic base for a new White Army invasion.

However, retaking Kronstadt was not an easy task. Not only was it heavily fortified, but it also stood high across an open ice field. Thousands of Red Army soldiers and workers lost their lives in a heroic assault to recapture the fortress. They advanced bravely across the open ice, with no protection from a hail of machine-gun fire. Under a heavy barrage of artillery, many plunged through the ice and drowned. When the fortress was finally conquered 10 days later, soviet casualties were estimated to be between 10,000-25,000. 300 delegates to the Tenth Party Congress, which took place during the rebellion, left the hall of the congress to volunteer for the assault, and 15 of them lost their lives. This was the real spirit of sacrifice that represented the best of the revolution.

Meanwhile, the rebels suffered 600 deaths and 1,000 wounded.[30] Petrichenko and the other members of the Revolutionary Committee fled to Finland and shortly after joined the White forces under General Wrangel. Despite the hue and cry raised by their opponents, the Bolsheviks did their duty honorably to defend the conquests of the October Revolution.

The opponents of Bolshevism to this day have never stopped equating the Red Terror of the young Soviet regime (1917-1921) – including the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion – with the Stalinist terror that followed in the next period. Stalinism is presented as the continuation of Bolshevism, with the crushing of the Kronstadt as its bridge. However, a serious and honest analysis of the history of the Russian Revolution would show that the Red Terror was directed against forces hostile to the October Revolution. These hostile elements unfortunately included some layers of peasants and workers, the least conscious ones, who fell under the influence of anti-Bolshevik forces owing to the hardships and privations they faced. By contrast, the Stalinist terror was directed largely against the proletariat, specifically against that layer that best represented the genuine traditions of the October Revolution. For Stalin and the bureaucracy to cement their rule, they had to annihilate all the old Bolsheviks. The overwhelming majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee members that led the October Revolution perished under Stalin’s rule. Out of the 30 CC members, eight died of natural causes before Stalin took power in 1927; 18 were executed under Stalin’s order; and only three were spared: Muranov who was sent to early retirement in 1939; Kollontai who was effectively sent to exile as a foreign diplomat; and Elena Stasova, whom Stalin saw as harmless. Stalin alone remained. There is a river of blood separating Bolshevism from Stalinism, which was a product of the isolation of the Russian Revolution.

The economic basis of the Kronstadt Rebellion

In the final analysis, the Kronstadt rebellion highlighted the problem of attempting to build socialism in an underdeveloped country with small pockets of industrial production and a large peasantry. This problem was exacerbated by the consecutive wars that drained the country. This economic problem can be reduced to a question of how to supply agricultural products to industrial centres in order to develop the productive forces. The peasants would only trade their grain in exchange for consumer goods, but the state industries were in such a tattered condition that they could not provide those manufactured goods. This caused all kinds of contradictions. As Trotsky wrote in Revolution Betrayed:

“In a country which had completely exhausted its stores and reserves, industry could not develop except by borrowing grain and raw material from the peasants. Too heavy ‘forced loans’ [i.e. requisition] of products, however, would destroy the stimulus to labor. Not believing in the future prosperity, the peasant would answer the grain expeditions from the city by a sowing strike. Too light collections, on the other hand, threatened a standstill.”[31]

The economic tension between the city and rural districts finally went beyond “a sowing strike” and broke out in a series of peasant rebellions and the Kronstadt revolt. Trotsky explained this well in his Hue and Cry over Kronstadt:

“During the years of the revolution we clashed not a few times with the Cossacks, the peasants, even with certain layers of workers (certain groups of workers from the Urals organized a volunteer regiment in the army of Kolchak!). The antagonism between the workers as consumers and the peasants as producers and sellers of bread lay, in the main, at the root of these conflicts. Under the pressure of need and deprivation, the workers themselves were episodically divided into hostile camps, depending upon stronger or weaker ties with the village. The Red Army also found itself under the influence of the countryside. During the years of the civil war it was necessary more than once to disarm discontented regiments... The Kronstadt uprising was only an episode in the history of the relations between the proletarian city and the petty-bourgeois village.”

peasantry Image public domainThe end of War Communism and its replacement with the NEP largely alleviated the economic and political problems for the peasants, at least momentarily / Image: public domainThe implementation of unpopular measures such as grain requisitioning, prohibition of free trade of grain, road blockades to prevent speculation and black markets – necessary in the gravest time of war – could not be done without some restrictions and coercion. In short, Kronstadt saw the peasants’ immediate economic interests, in the context of extreme desperation and deprivation, clashing with the historical task of the proletariat to build a socialist, planned economy. Lenin eloquently highlighted this fundamental problem of the Russian revolution in his report to the Tenth Party Congress, that took place as the Kronstadt rebellion was unfolding:

“Then there are the economic problems. What is the meaning of the unrestricted trade demanded by the petty-bourgeois elements? It is that in the proletariat’s relations with the small farmers there are difficult problems and tasks we have yet to solve. I am speaking of the victorious proletariat’s relations with the small proprietors when the proletarian revolution unfolds in a country where the proletariat is in a minority, and the petty bourgeoisie, in a majority. In such a country the proletariat’s role is to direct the transition of these small proprietors to socialised and collective work. Theoretically this is beyond dispute. We have dealt with this transition in a number of legislative acts, but we know that it does not turn on legislative acts, but on practical implementation, which, we also know, can be guaranteed when you have a very powerful, large-scale industry capable of providing the petty producer with such benefits that he will see its advantages in practice.”[32]

To mitigate the open clash between the proletariat and the small proprietors, at least until the Soviet economy had the material basis to overcome aforementioned problems, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was enacted, representing the limited reintroduction of capitalism. It was in fact the fulfillment of the Kronstadt main grievance – the end of grain requisitioning and the implementation of free trade. The end of War Communism and its replacement with the NEP largely alleviated the economic and political problems for the peasants, at least momentarily.

But from the point of view of the working class, the NEP was a step back. It was meant to create breathing space until the next wave of world revolution. While the NEP revived the economy tattered by successive wars, it also created all sorts of social contradictions. It strengthened not only the kulaks (rich peasants) and NEPmen (speculators and traders who grew rich from the NEP policy of free trade), but also the bureaucracy. The hostile class forces of the kulaks and NEPmen exerted their pressure inside the party and the young Soviet regime through the bureaucracy. As the economy revived on the basis of the NEP, a small surplus appeared and naturally it was concentrated in the cities and at the disposal of the bureaucracy that was becoming increasingly aware of the privileges it could gain. The rising bureaucracy increasingly leaned on the kulaks and NEPmen to strike against the working class and the poor peasantry.

Additionally, prior to the NEP, wage differentials stood at 1:4 or 1:5, and this was seen by Lenin as a regrettable necessity, the result of constraints imposed by the country’s isolation and economic backwardness. The only way to motivate the few specialists and engineers the nation had was to provide them with special remuneration. The proletariat did not yet have sufficient specialists amongst their ranks that they could count on, which forced the Bolsheviks to rely even on former-Tsarist elements and other social refuse. But with the coming of the NEP this process accelerated massively. Wage differentials increased to 1:80 by 1923 (which we note is still very small compared to most capitalist societies today).[33] The petty-bourgeois layer of specialists who flourished under the NEP would also become part of the social basis for the rising bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy also used the NEP and the temporary inequality that the NEP sanctioned as justification for its own privileges. Trotsky wrote in his unfinished biography Stalin: “It was only when the bureaucracy began to rise above society on the basis of the aggravation of social contradictions at the time of the NEP that Stalin began to raise himself above the party.”[34] He continued:

“In Marx’s letter concerning the Gotha Programme of the German Social-Democracy Stalin found a phrase to the effect that during the first period of socialism [read the NEP period] inequality will still be preserved... This quotation was incorrectly interpreted as a declaration of the rights and privileges of the bureaucrats and their satellites. The future of the Soviet Union was thus divorced from the future of the international proletariat and the bureaucracy was provided with a theoretical justification for special privileges and powers over the masses of toilers inside the Soviet Union.”[35]

The need for an internationalist perspective

In an unpublished note that Rosa Luxemburg wrote while in prison, she provided a preliminary assessment of the Bolshevik regime in its first year. Despite the limitations of this note – which was the reason Rosa never published it, and it was later fished out by the enemies of the Bolsheviks – it does provide a penetrating insight:

“Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions.

“... It is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realized. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles.”[36]

Bolsheviks Image public domainThe impossible decisions that the Bolsheviks had to make flowed from the “failure of the [leadership of the] German proletariat” to take power and break the isolation of the Russian Revolution / Image: public domainThe impossible decisions that the Bolsheviks had to make – from forced grain requisitioning to the violent crushing of Kronstadt – flowed from the “failure of the [leadership of the] German proletariat” to take power and break the isolation of the Russian Revolution. The October Revolution was in fact “betrayed by [the reformist leadership] of the international proletariat” and left on its own “under such devilishly hard conditions”. That much was understood by Luxemburg, that the isolation of the October Revolution would bring forth all manners of social and economic contradictions, which manifested in the Kronstadt Rebellion, and later on in the bureaucratic degeneration of the workers’ state.

Moreover, the above note was written in 1918. The “devilishly hard conditions” that Luxemburg saw in Russia would be multiplied a hundredfold by 1921. This would impose even more severe constraints on “the limits of historical possibilities” that Bolsheviks could operate in. The Bolsheviks were only guilty of understanding the real nature of the rebellion and daring to take the necessary action to extinguish it before it led to counter-revolution.

The crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion was a “tragic necessity”, as Trotsky himself admitted. The only way to prevent such tragedies in the future is by ensuring the victory of socialist revolution all over the world, for it is impossible to build socialism in one country. Rosa Luxemburg, in one of her last letters before she was murdered by the Freikorps, wrote: “The use of terror indicates great weakness… [and] the Bolshevik use of terror is above all an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat.” This “weakness” could only be remedied by the victory of socialist revolution in advanced capitalist countries.

More than 100 years later, the prospect for a world socialist revolution is far more favourable than in 1917. Everywhere, the working class is the most dominant and powerful layer in society. Globalisation has brought forth billions of workers in every country, who are concentrated in urban areas. In parts of the world where there is still a peasantry, many of them have been proletarianised, resembling agricultural workers rather than small proprietors. Therefore, in future socialist revolutions, a violent clash between the workers and the peasants would be a less likely occurrence. The youth and workers of all countries are increasingly being radicalised by events, and as a result are beginning to move toward socialism. The objective conditions for an internationalist socialist revolution have matured. What is lacking is the subjective factor: a revolutionary leadership. To build this leadership is the task of today’s revolutionaries, a task that must be shouldered with the utmost urgency.


[1] Luxemburg, Rosa. The Russian Revolution. 1918, my emphasis.

[2] Lenin, V.I. “Political Report of the Central Committee.” 7 March 1918. Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 27, Progress Publishers, 1974, p. 95, my emphasis.

[3] Lenin, Vol. 27 p. 98, My emphasis.

[4] Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt 1921. 1970. Norton Library, 1974, pp. 21-22.

[5] Avrich, Kronstadt 24.

[6] Avrich, Kronstadt 24.

[7] Avrich, Kronstadt 14.

[8] Avrich, Kronstadt 15.

[9] Avrich, Paul. Russian Anarchists. 1967. AK Press, 2005, p. 229.

[10] Avrich, Kronstadt 89-90.

[11] Trotsky, Leon. Hue and Cry over Kronstadt.

[12] Avrich, Kronstadt 95, my emphasis.

[13] Avrich, Kronstadt 127.

[14] Avrich, Kronstadt 127-128, my emphasis.

[15] Avrich, Kronstadt 129.

[16] Avrich, Kronstadt 129.

[17] Avrich, Kronstadt 125, my emphasis.

[18] Avrich, Kronstadt 134, my emphasis.

[19] Avrich, Kronstadt 29.

[20] Avrich, Kronstadt 46, my emphasis.

[21] Avrich, Kronstadt 179-180, my emphasis.

[22] Avrich, Kronstadt 180.

[23] Avrich, Kronstadt 36.

[24] Avrich, Kronstadt 49.

[25] Avrich, Kronstadt 71.

[26] Avrich, Kronstadt 77.

[27] Avrich, Kronstadt 81.

[28] Avrich, Kronstadt 84.

[29] Avrich, Kronstadt 115-116.

[30] Avrich, Kronstadt 211.

[31] Trotsky, Leon. Revolution Betrayed.

[32] Lenin, V.I. “Report on the political work of the Central Committee of the R.C.P.(B.).” 8 March 1921. Lenin Collected Works, Vol 32. Progress Publishers, 1973. p. 170-191

[33] Liebman, Marcel. Leninism Under Lenin. 1973. Haymarket Books, 2016, pp. 352-353.

[34] Trotsky, Leon. Stalin. Wellred Books, 2016, p. 546.

[35] Trotsky, Stalin 56.

[36] Luxemburg, Rosa. The Russian Revolution. 1918, my emphasis.