The Kronstadt tragedy

Next year 2017, is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, also called in various circles as the Bolshevik Revolution or the October Revolution. This event of monumental proportion, had sweeping implications for entire humanity and the world was never the same again.

Unfortunately, during the cold war period, populist media succeeded in creating image of Soviet Union as an evil empire clad in Iron Curtain, there by is isolating October Revolution as partisan heritage of section of Global society. It is true that the then Soviet ruling class did not help the cause either.

It was only post 1989, that mainstream Russian/Slavic scholars from the western academic world could freely travel and research the Russian History and once various state archives were thrown open and official files were made available for public scrutiny that an alternate fact based research gathered momentum. Today, more up to date and panoramic view of the history is available about events before and after the Russian Revolution.

Aeschylus, the famous Greek tragic dramatist has said, “In war, truth is the first casualty”. In case of Russian Revolution it was three wars combined in one. The First World War, the War with Tsarist forces and the Civil War. This has made development of historiographical narrative of the entire Russian Revolution too daunting a task.

kmap1This paper tries to analyse one relatively small but significant event of this saga; The Kronstadt Uprising which was unsuccessful uprising against the Bolsheviks in March 1921, during the closing phase of the Civil War. Kronstadt was a municipal town located on Kotlin Island, 30 kilometres west of St. Petersburg near the head of the Gulf of Finland. The fort of Kronstadt was the seat of the Russian admiralty and the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet guarding the approaches to Saint Petersburg. (formerly Petrograd

Kronstadt sailors had an uninterrupted history of revolutionary activity. They were at the forefront to storm the winter palace, and celebrated the February Revolution of 1917 by executing their officers. In May, they established an independent commune in defiance of the Provisional Government; in July they took part in the abortive rising against Kerensky; in October they helped to bring down his government. In January 1918, they dispersed the Constituent Assembly by heckling Mensheviks and preventing their leader Martov and practically forcing he and other Mensheviks leave the meeting. An early sign of democratic deficit of Bolsheviks. The late Anarchist historian Paul Avrich, writer of an earlier history (Kronstadt 1921, Princeton University Press, 1970) in his book describes life in Kronstadt as follows

For the most part, the citizens themselves administered the social and economic life of the city, through the medium of local committees of every sort (as hallmark of) libertarian atmosphere. Kronstadt’s residents displayed a real talent for spontaneous self-organization. Apart from their various committees, men and women working in the same shop or living in the same neighbourhood formed tiny agricultural communes, each with about fifty members, which undertook to cultivate whatever arable land could be found on the empty stretches of the island. During the Civil War, says these collective vegetable gardens helped save the city from starvation.

Cherishing their local autonomy, the Kronstadt population warmly endorsed the appeal for “All power to the soviets” put forward in 1917 by Lenin and his party. They interpreted the slogan in a literal sense, to mean that each locality would run its own affairs, with little or no interference from any central authority.

Avrich considers Kronstadters as volatile champions of direct democracy.

As it is well known now, the infant Bolshevik regime had emerged with a precarious victory. Major Civil war erupted at the heels of revolution. First the former Czarist generals organized White armies and with end of first world war   the allied powers, sent expeditionary forces to join white guards against the new regime.

As contingency measures, the Bolshevik government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. This only added fuel to the fire as the successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution had already produced famines and food shortages. War damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.

It is pertinent to note here, that the white Guards were not only the Tsarist Generals and Nobility or the armies of some 30 countries from all over the world. The Bolsheviks were also fighting with their former comrades like Anarchists, Left Socialists Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks who all had contributed towards realisation of October dream in their own ways but had differing plans for the future.

Under such dire circumstances, fighting every odd, it may be pertinent to ask the question; what were the pressing ideological consideration to have an all out war against every one there by dwindling resources and creating cracks even in the infantile Bolshevik citadel. After all the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 had 352 the Left SR delegates as compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. More over the disagreement with Left SRs were about suppression of rival parties, the death penalty to fellow comrades of all colours and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

As regards Anarchists, once again I quote Paul Avrich from Russian Review, Volume 27, Issue 3 (Jul., 1968), 296-306.

When the first shots of the Russian Civil War were fired, the anarchists, in common with the other left-wing opposition parties, were faced with a serious dilemma. Which side were they to support? As staunch libertarians, they held no brief for the dictatorial policies of Lenin’s government, but the prospect of a White victory seemed even worse. Active opposition to the Soviet regime might tip the balance in favour of the counterrevolutionaries. On the other hand, support for the Bolsheviks might serve to entrench them too deeply to be ousted from power once the danger of reaction had passed. After much soul-searching and debate, the anarchists adopted a variety of positions. A majority, however, cast their lot with the beleaguered Soviet regime. By August 1919, at the climax of the Civil War, Lenin was so impressed with the zeal and courage of the “Soviet anarchists”, as their anti-Bolshevik comrades contemptuously dubbed them, that Lenin counted them among “the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power

Here, it is only natural for anyone to wonder What was the mindset of Bolshevik leadership that lump Mensheviks , left SR’s and Anarchist with the white guards and Black 100’s and other reactionaries? Would it have not been a clever strategy to pool in resources with other left parties and isolate the real counter revolutionaries with an all out attack. Such step would have conserved already overstretched resources, reduced loss of human life and restricted the magnitude of mass discontent among its own populace. Politician Lenin prevailed over the statesman in him.

As expected this all out civil war brought to the Russian society enormous hardships. In 1919 and 1920, famine, disease, cold, and infant mortality had claimed some nine million lives–apart from the military casualties of the civil war. In some, the population had been reduced by a third. The living standard of the Russian worker had sunk to less than a third of the pre-war level, industrial output to less than a sixth of 1913 production. The prices of manufactured goods skyrocketed, while paper currency dropped in value. Nearly half the industrial work force deserted the towns for the villages. The continuing crisis provoked peasant risings all over Russia.

The cornerstone of Lenin’s policy of War Communism was the forcible seizure of grains from the peasants by armed detachments from the cities. “We actually took from the peasant,” admitted Lenin, “all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers.” Grain as well as livestock was often confiscated without payment of any kind, and there were frequent complaints that even the seed needed for the next sowing had been seized. In the face of all this, the peasantry resorted to both passive and active resistance. In 1920 it was estimated that over a third of the harvest had been hidden from the governments troops. The amount of sown acreage dropped to three-fifths of the figure for 1913, as the peasants rebelled against growing crops only to have them seized.

For urban workers the situation was even more desperate. Shortage of machinery, raw materials and especially fuel meant that many large factories could operate only part-time. Retreating White armies had destroyed many railway lines, interrupting the delivery of food to the cities. What food there was distributed according to a preferential system which favoured heavy industry and especially armament workers over less valued categories. Less important ones received only 200 grams of black bread a day.

The civil war also resulted in acute shortage of skilled labour. Those who ran factories during Tsarist period refused to cooperate with the new Government unless paid higher wages and better facilities. This led to the gradual abandonment of workers’ control in favour of management by “bourgeois specialists.” A new bureaucracy had begun to flourish. For the rank-and-file workmen, the restoration of the class enemy to a dominant place in the factory meant a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. As they saw it, their dream of a proletarian democracy, momentarily realized in 1917, had been snatched away and replaced by the coercive and bureaucratic methods of capitalism …. Small wonder that, during the winter of I920-1921…murmurings of discontent could no longer be silenced, not even by threats of expulsion with the potential loss of rations.

At workshop meetings, where speakers angrily denounced the militarization and bureaucratization of industry, critical references to the comforts and privileges of Bolshevik officials drew indignant shouts of agreement from the listeners. The Communists, it was said, always got the best jobs, and seemed to suffer less from hunger and cold than everyone else.

Once civil war subsided and a White restoration was no longer a threat, peasant and worker resistance became violent. There were mass strikes in Petrograd.

Back in Kronstadt, when news of the Petrograd strikes reached the sailors, they immediately dispatched a delegation to investigate. The delegates reported back on February 28 to a sailors’ meeting. Mammoth crowd of 16,000 sailors, soldiers and workers heard the report and then passed a resolution, which was to become the rallying point of the rebellion: The resolution sought; new elections to Soviets by secret ballot, freedom of press and political agitation for all left leaning groups, equalization of food rations between workers and party leaders and the lifting of ban on free exchange for agricultural goods.

At this stage the sailors didn’t see themselves as being in open revolt. In fact, they sent a committee of thirty men to confer with the Petrograd Soviet for an amicable end to the strike who were promptly arrested by secret police upon their arrival in Petrograd. The military strategy of the Kronstadters was entirely defensive. They ignored the suggestions of military officers to break up the ice around the island with cannon fire, which could have prevented an assault by land.

On March 5, Trotsky issued an ultimatum in which he promised to “shoot like partridges”(birds found in Europe). On March 7, an aerial bombardment was launched against the island, which continued over several days. After the first attack on 9th March failed, on the night of March 16, the last assault began. 50,000 Communist troops were pitted against 15,000 well-¬entrenched defenders. By morning the battle raged within the city itself. Women as well as men fought ferociously to save Kronstadt, but by evening Bolshevik troops conquered Kronstadt. Had they held out much longer, a plan sanctioned by Trotsky to launch a gas attack would have been carried out.

Kronstadt fell. In all, the Bolsheviks lost about 10,000 men, the rebels about 1500; about 8000 rebels fled across the ice to Finland; another 2500 were captured and either killed or sent to labor camps.

”It was not a battle,” said the Bolshevik commander later, “it was an inferno… The sailors fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the might for such rage.”

Contrary to Bolshevik estimate;

The rebels were not necessarily anarchists. They were seeking alternatives within Bolshevik polity

It was in no way, White Guard sponsored conspiracy.

Kronstaders never engaged in any dialogue with outsiders or the dissident groups

Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Victor Serge the Russian Anarchist who reluctantly sided with Bolsheviks even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. The NEP implemented only an year later, replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.

At the Tenth Party Congress Lenin commented, “They didn’t want the White Guards, but they didn’t want us, either,” The historiography of Kronstadt offers several varying versions but the one I find most convincing is the following;

Bolsheviks had no experience with administration and no guide book to build socialist state. Under such circumstances when there was no precedence or no written laws, every decision was being taken on the basis of heated ideological debates on party forums in ad hoc manner. These debates were highly polemical and often resulted in reducing problems to polarised absolutes.

Even famous Anarchist Alexander Berman agreed that, there was no other party in Russia capable of defending revolution. Bolsheviks exploited this fear of “return of white guard should there be a deviation from Bolshevik course” to the hilt. Thus fear of deviation became the central tenet of Bolshevik political ideology. Fear of potential left or right deviation prompted Lenin in the 10th party congress to ban factionalism in the party. Increasingly the propaganda acquired universal validity that there is no middle position. You are either with proletariat or with bourgeoisie. There is no third option. The entire population was made to believe in this THEY or US dichotomy. Soon the hallmark of revolutionary mind set got cast into the mentality of absolutes. Unfortunately this had disastrous consequence not only in terms of inner party democracy but the very rise of Stalin. It made the entire ideology simplistic mechanistic decision tree paradigm, which got progressively fossilized and eventually dead. In that sense, Kronstadt was an early warning, which even great ideologue like Lenin missed out. Who knows, he may have thought of correcting this tendency later, for which he never got time. Because by then Stalin a relatively green horn in Ideological matters, had established his tentacles in the party organisation across the country. The tactical political absolutism was convenient to him to build a cadre loyal to him. Because the slogan you are either with Bolshevik or you are a counter revolutionary, was malleable enough to twist into, you are either with Stalin the chosen disciple of Lenin or you are counter revolutionary eminently worthy of elimination of being consigned to gulag.