June 13, 2021

Who Were the Kronstadt Rebels?

from CrimethInc.

Who were the Kronstadt rebels? Disciples of Lenin and Trotsky have largely founded their efforts to rationalize the violent suppression of the Kronstadt uprising on their leaders’ allegations regarding the politics and class backgrounds of the sailors, soldiers, and workers who participated in the uprising. Rounding out our retrospective on the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Kronstadt rebellion, we present an analysis from Andrey Kalyonov, an anarchist from St. Petersburg, addressing this important question. Because many of the primary sources regarding the revolt have yet to be translated from the original Russian, it is important to center research about the Kronstadt revolt that draws on materials that are not available in English.

Translation by Bryan Gigantino ([email protected]). The header illustration is by anarchist artist Clifford Harper, from his classic Anarchy: A Graphic Guide.

Who were the Kronstadt rebels?

The “Political Physiognomy” of Rebel Kronstadt

The one-hundred-year anniversary of any historical event often turns out to be a limit when it comes time to figure out the details. Regarding the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, this is especially true.

The event is well documented, most of the verified sources have been published, and more of the actual participants are known by name than in any similar event of those years. Yet at the same time, our knowledge of the event is shrouded by a set of propaganda clichés, concealing the living substance of the actors in the uprising—both those who participated and those who suppressed it.

The information war over the event has buried the reality of the event. This forces us to ask—what will our era provide historians? An era when not only the facts matter, but the way the facts echo and resonate?

What Did the Kronstadt Rebels Want in March 1921?

We now know that the allegation that the main demand of the Kronstadt rebels was “Soviets without Communists” is not true. The resolutions and appeals from the meetings of the Revkom (the Provisional Revolutionary Committee) refute this misconception.

First, the “Izvestia of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Sailors, Soldiers, and Workers of Kronstadt” formulated the slogan “Power to the Soviets, not to the parties,” which is first mentioned in the issue of March 7.

It is likely that the slogan was popularized not by the Revkom itself, but by Anatoly Lamanov, an employee of the Izvestiya Revkom, the former chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet, a Socialist-Revolutionary Maximalist, and a member of the Bolshevik Party at the beginning of the uprising.

This begs the question—how should we understand the slogan “Power to the Soviets”? After 70 years of the Soviet Union, a government that was “Soviet” in name, the very concept of “Soviet power” has been obscured.

Lamanov and three other members of the Kronstadt Soviet.

How exactly did the Kronstadt rebels understand Soviet power and Soviet rule in July 1917 and March 1921?

A century ago, as today, the prevailing view was that society was made up of groups of individuals who shared common interests. Back then, the two most common ways of defining such groups were as nations and as classes. The differences between the popular ideologies of the time, nationalism and Marxism, derived from whether they prioritized national interests over class interests, or vice versa.

However, in Russia, the peasants who mobilized in 1914 perceived themselves more as natives of a particular province than as “Great Russians.” The interests of nations and states did not find a place in the worldview of peasants—even Germany was understood as a province, not a nation. In response to the carnage that nationalism unleashed over the next four years, educated people began paying more attention to class interests instead of national ones.

In 1917, with Tsarism abolished in Russia, two approaches for restructuring society immediately emerged: a traditional, vertically-structured power based within national borders but now with a parliamentary system, or building power from the bottom up with governing assemblies elected on a class basis.

Since both models were democratic, both of them immediately began to experience the deforming influence of peasant forms of organization, in which democracy was present, but differences of opinion were rejected. This meant that the discussion of an issue had to end with a consensus solution, which was always easier to achieve by coercion than by persuasion.

In the political struggle of 1917, those who supported the class approach came out on top—the ones who declared the construction of not only the power of the Soviets, but also the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party leader at the head of this dictatorship expressed his views as follows:

“Everyone knows that the masses are divided into classes… that classes are usually and in most cases, at least in modern civilized countries, run by political parties; — that political parties, as a general rule, are governed by more or less stable groups of the most authoritative, influential, experienced, elected to the most responsible positions of persons, called leaders…”

By the beginning of 1921, the ruling party itself was on the verge of a split, and many party members feared that the RKP(B) [the Communist Party of Russia (Bolsheviks)] had become too involved in building a dictatorship of party leaders, drifting away from the class in whose name they justified the dictatorship.

The non-party workers appreciated the system of elected councils, but they had no sympathy for the new restrictions imposed by the party dictatorship. It was widely believed that workers were being put on starvation rations and forcibly assigned to work at enterprises. The slogan “Factories for the Workers” did not prevent the factories from being turned into sites of worker subjugation. While it is true that these measures were temporary, by 1921, the regime had been tightening its grip for three years. Here, we are talking about workers.

The relationship between the Bolsheviks and the peasantry—the largest social group in Russia at the time—had a much more complex trajectory. Despite the calculated strategy of Bolshevik propagandists, allegations about the Kronstadt garrison’s erosion by peasants was greatly exaggerated. It is clear from the demands of the rebels that the interests of the peasants were not among their primary concerns.

Consider the content of the fateful resolution drafted at the meeting between the 1st and 2nd naval brigades on March 1, 1921. Some of its points are not slogans, but present a plan of action, starting with the demand for the re-election of Councils (paragraph 1). At the same time, this item can also be considered an element in a program. The remaining programmatic elements of the resolution are as follows:

  • Freedom of speech and press for workers and peasants, anarchists, and left-wing socialist parties (paragraphs 2 and 13);
  • The release of political prisoners from the socialist parties and the workers’ and peasants’ movements, and the review of the cases of other prisoners (paragraphs 5 and 6);
  • Abolition of political control bodies and armed formations of the RKP(B) (paragraphs 7 and 10);
  • The removal of barrage detachments (which prevented the transportation of goods) and freedom of handicraft production, that is, steps towards freedom of trade or, as follows from the following texts, freedom of exchange (paragraphs 8 and 12);
  • To equalize rations for all workers (paragraph 9);
  • The right of peasants to freely dispose of land (paragraph 11).

The Revkom supplemented this moderate platform in its appeals. In an address to railway workers, the Revkom proclaimed freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of direct exchange between workers and peasants, the abolition of the death penalty and the political police (“Closing all CHEKA”), the dissolution of the Labor Army (as a type of slave labor), and the “payment of workers in gold, not paper trash.” The Revkom summed up thus: “Our demands are modest. We want fewer freedoms than we had in 1917. For this, we are going to die.”

So the Kronstadt rebels were maintaining the position of 1917, proclaiming that power should be vested in the Soviets of workers and peasants, that workers should be given control of factories and the peasants control of the land and crops. At the same time, they called for the elimination of the party dictatorship, the Bolshevik monopoly on propaganda, the political police, and new forms of forced labor. They demanded the release of political prisoners and for freedom of speech to extend to workers and peasants, left-wing socialist parties (the largest of which, by 1921, was the RKP (B.)), and anarchists. There was no movement towards a Constituent Assembly or a homogeneous socialist government. There was no demand for free trade, only for the free exchange of the products of labor among worker collectives, artisans, and peasants. The rebels themselves presented this program.

What Aims Did the Bolsheviks Attribute to the Rebels?

The Kronstadt uprising of March 1921 overlapped with an information war. This caused things to escalate. While the world’s press was busy reprinting rumors and speculations about the events, in Bolshevik Russia itself, a new propaganda campaign had begun. Meetings took place constantly and reports, resolutions, proclamations, and posters circulated in order to impose a particular interpretation of events according to the interests of the new Bolshevik state. The rebels published a newspaper, tried to distribute proclamations and leaflets outside the island, and made regular radio broadcasts. The Bolsheviks tried to jam the Kronstadt radio messages with the New Holland radio station, though without much success.

The Bolshevik interpretation of what happened in Kronstadt on March 1 was based largely on a government message dated March 2, signed by Lenin, Chairman of the Labor and Defense Council, and Trotsky, Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, which we will now examine in detail.

Vladimir Lenin.

The report begins, oddly enough, not with the events on the island, but with reference to a February 13 article from the Paris newspaper Le Matin reporting (inaccurately) about unrest in Kronstadt. The statement claimed:

“In Kronstadt and Petrograd, White Guard leaflets appeared. During the arrests, known spies were detained.”

The intention was to suggest that the events were prepared by foreign agents. The statement continued:

“On February 28, unrest began in Kronstadt on the ship ‘Petropavlovsk.’ The Black-hundred-Socialist-Revolutionary resolution was adopted.”

This paints the forces involved as an alliance bringing together anti-Bolshevik forces including both the far-right Black Hundreds and the Socialist Revolutionaries.

The report went on to discuss how

“a group appeared on the scene… former General Kozlovsky with three officers whose names have not yet been established… Thus, the meaning of the recent events was fully explained. This time, too, the tsarist general stood behind the SRs.”

After the end of the descriptive section of the report, a three-point directive followed:

1) Outlaw the former General Kozlovsky and his associates.
2) Declare the city of Petrograd and the Petrograd Province under a state of siege.
3) Transfer all the power in the Petrograd fortified area to the Petrograd Defense Committee.

The last step is characteristic of the Bolsheviks throughout the civil war—under the slogan of protecting Soviet power, they actually transferred power from the Soviet of elected deputies to the committee of appointees.

Now let’s analyze the three messages in turn.

I.

The first message is about a newspaper report.

The People’s Commissar for Military Affairs, Leon Trotsky, regularly read foreign newspapers. It was he who discovered the news about Kronstadt in the February 13 issue of Le Matin. Later, he even mentioned it himself, describing the message as follows: “…in a number of foreign newspapers, including the Matin, the report about the uprising in Kronstadt appeared in the middle of February, that is, at a time when Kronstadt was completely calm.” Here it should be noted that the report had nothing to do with the uprising, it only stated that “…in view of the recent unrest of the Kronstadt sailors, the Bolshevik military authorities are taking a number of measures,” followed by a completely unreliable report about “hundreds of prisoners.” Of course, there were no hundreds of people arrested in February, but there were reasons to write about the unrest. For example, in his report of December 10, 1920, the Chekist Vladimir Feldman wrote about “discontent” in general. There is plenty of evidence that the situation was far from calm.

The report from Le Matin: “HELSINKI, February 11. It is reported from Petrograd that following the recent mutiny by the sailors from Kronstadt, the Bolshevik military authorities have taken a series of measures with a view to isolating Kronstadt and forbidding access to Petrograd to the Red soldiers and the sailors of the garrison of the island. The supplying of Kronstadt was interrupted until further notice. Hundreds of sailors were arrested and transferred to Moscow, presumably to be shot there.”

Building such chains of causation is a double-edged sword. Already on February 24, the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet had declared martial law in Petrograd because a Pipe Factory had gone on strike on Vasilyevsky Island the day before. The factories in Petrograd had gone on strike before, but this time not only Vasilyevsky Island, but the entire city was placed under martial law. The question may be raised: was Zinoviev’s greater attention to this strike due to a shrewd foresight regarding its consequences, or were the consequences the result of the harsh actions of the Executive Committee?

If we stick to the conspiracy theory, we can go so far as to say that the arrests of approximately 10,000 Kronstadt residents after the Red Army took the fortress were prepared by the French special services, since the arrests were previously reported in Le Matin.

The issue of Le Matin from February 13, 1921.

So, Trotsky, according to his own statement, having read about the “unrest” in Kronstadt in a French newspaper, instructed the command of the Baltic Fleet to take measures to prevent the uprising, as the People’s Commissar for military and naval affairs. This correspondence has not been found; measures were taken, as is known, but not sufficiently.
Some of the high-ranking Bolsheviks already had a very developed espionage system. For example, on March 9, 1921, during the Kronstadt events, Felix Dzerzhinsky wrote to Vyacheslav Menzhinsky: “…today an English radio telegram about the uprising in Odessa was intercepted.”

Lenin was obviously very impressed by the news that Le Matin had previously reported on the uprising in Kronstadt. He devoted the greater part of his report to the Tenth Congress on the events in Kronstadt to discussing this circumstance. Despite the expressed interest of ordinary delegates, little was reported about Kronstadt at the congress. Nevertheless, Lenin later returned to the February report in Le Matin, making a detailed review of the latest publications of the bourgeois press.

Leon Trotsky.

I will provide a short excerpt from this long review, as it illustrates the situation on this front of the information war of the time:

“Since the beginning of March, every day, the entire Western European press has published a whole stream of fantastic news about the uprisings in Russia, about the victory of the counter-revolution, about the flight of Lenin and Trotsky to the Crimea, about the white flag on the Kremlin, about the streams of blood on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow, about the barricades there, about the dense crowds of workers coming down from the hills to Moscow to overthrow the Soviet government, about Budyonny’s transition to the side of the rioters, the victory of the counter-revolution in a whole number of Russian cities, and one city or another appears, and in general almost the majority of the provincial cities of Russia were listed.”

Further:

“We have here in Moscow representatives of large capital, who in all these rumors have been disbelieved, and they have stated how in America one group of citizens used an unprecedented method of agitation for Soviet Russia. In a few months, this group collected from the most diverse newspapers everything that was said about Russia, about the flight of Lenin and Trotsky, about the shooting of Lenin by Trotsky and back, and put it all together in one pamphlet. It is impossible to imagine a better agitation for the Soviet government. From day to day, information was collected about how many times Lenin and Trotsky were shot and killed, this information was repeated every month, and then, in the end, they are collected in one collection and published.”

The story about the brochure makes it clear that the flow of fantasy did not start from the beginning of March, that it lasted at least several months. This means that the February report on the unrest in Kronstadt is not anything special against the background of the report on the uprising in Odessa, on the separation of Saratov from Russia, or on the white flag over the Kremlin.

However, not necessarily every report about the uprising was the invention of foreign journalists. In one of the first issues of the Izvestiya Revkom, there was a report about the general uprising in Petrograd. The newspaper probably did not have a significant circulation outside of Kronstadt, but it is known that the rebels actively used the radio station, and, quite likely, transmitted messages close to those published in the Izvestiya Revkom.

II.

The second message is about the “Black-Hundred-Socialist-Revolutionary resolution.”

“SR-Black Hundred resolutions”—this is the wording of Zinoviev, contained in the first coded message reporting on the events of February 28 on the battleships “Petropavlovsk” and “Sevastopol,” which were located at Kronstadt. The cipher message was sent out at the same time, on February 28. We can safely assume that Zinoviev was not familiar with the texts of the resolutions of “Petropavlovsk” and “Sevastopol” at that time. If the texts of those resolutions were known in Petrograd—then or later—and could indeed be presented as Black Hundreds, the Bolsheviks would have published them in whole or in part with their own comments, as they did with other similar documents. This did not happen; moreover, the resolutions have not yet been found. This means either that the resolutions were lost in the course of further events on the island, and Zinoviev never saw them, or that nothing was found in them that could discredit the battleship crews in the eyes of the workers, peasants, and soldiers of the Red Army and Red Navy.

Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Soviet of Labor and Defense in 1921.

We have already considered the real resolution adopted on March 1. It may have been too Socialist-Revolutionary for the Bolsheviks, but it was certainly too Bolshevik for the Socialist-Revolutionaries. Even freedom of speech and the press was proclaimed only for “left-wing socialist parties”; the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (PSR) was excluded from this definition. As far as we can judge from the available facts, only individual Social revolutionaries who had no contact with the rest of the PSR and its representatives participated in the uprising.

The PSR established contact with the rebels, stating that they could offer cooperation only if the Kronstadt Revkom supported the slogan of convening a Constituent Assembly. The Revkom did not agree to these conditions.

III.

The third message is about General Kozlovsky and the “golden riders.”

The report that the uprising was allegedly organized by a former general achieved the greatest propaganda effect.

The strike movement in Petrograd at the beginning of March was already subsiding, and the workers of many enterprises went to work on March 1, 2, or on the morning of March 3. In other words, they did so even before the publication of the report of the Council of Labor and Defense, which alleged that General Kozlovsky was the organizer and leader of the uprising.

But it was this propaganda move that had a significant impact on the further course of events—on the curtailment of strikes, on the resolutions of labor collectives, and on the stability of combat units. The political work of the Bolsheviks soon focused on this argument. The appeal of the Revtroika of the Baltic Fleet, “To all the sailors of the Baltic Fleet,” published on March 5, stated:

“The troublemakers, provocateurs, and agents of the Entente have finally thrown off their masks! (…) Having accepted the Judas services of the former Lieutenant-General Kozlovsky, they occupied some forts of the Kronstadt fortress.”

For legitimacy, Revtroika promoted Major-General Kozlovsky to Lieutenant-General.

Soon, resolutions very similar to each other began to be adopted everywhere—for example,

“On March 13, the citywide meeting of the Red Army men of the Gatchina garrison, together with members of the trade unions, after hearing a report by T. Podpek and others on the current situation, decides: ‘To express our contempt for the traitors of the working class of the S.-Rev., the Mensheviks, and the tsarist generals, who have involved the deceived Kronstadt sailors in a criminal adventure, and are preparing a treacherous stab in the back of the working class of Russia…’”

Where did such resolutions come from? The beginning of many of them leaves no doubt—the resolutions were made after the propagandist’s report.

So, on March 15, the newspaper Smena printed:

“Having heard the report on the situation near Kronstadt, we, the worker and peasant youth, members of the RKSM, who were taken into the detachment of the trade union regiment, saw the dastardly game started by the white generals and the black pack, thanks to which they entangled and caught the residents of Kronstadt and some workers of Red St. Petersburg with the Socialist-Revolutionary-Menshevik bait…”

On March 26, the newspaper Red Baltic Fleet published the following:

“After hearing the report of the chief of the garrison, comrade Romanets, about the Kronstadt events, we, the red sailors of the Black Sea Fleet and the Red Army soldiers of the Novorossiysk garrison, vow to die for the red banner and act as one to fight against the protégé of the world reaction—general Kozlovsky…”

The fact that there was a former general in the fortress, of course, could not be unknown in Petrograd. After Gromov, the commissar of the fortress, made his way to Oranienbaum (apparently on March 2), the names of several other former officers became known, and reliable information appeared that Kozlovsky actively supported the uprising. It only remained to write about Kozlovsky’s leading role in the uprising, alleging that it was he who arrested the Commissar of the Baltic Fleet, Nikolai Kuzmin, and so on.

The Bolsheviks understood that the participation of Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and anarchists in the insurrection would not discredit the insurrection in the eyes of the non-party members. Therefore, in their outward messages, they talked about Black Hundreds, generals, gold hunters, spies, and landlords. Thus, the surname of an member of the Kronstadt Revkom, Tukin, was systematically deployed to evoke associations with the unrelated Turkin merchant family, which was well-known in Kronstadt and Petrograd.

A special gift to Bolshevik propagandists was the arrival in Kronstadt on March 8 of Baron Wilken, as a representative of the Red Cross. Baron Wilken had commanded the battleship Sevastopol in 1917. The story of the Red Cross mission, as soon as it became known on the mainland, immediately accumulated many unreliable details. The argument that aid from international and foreign organizations inevitably imposes certain political obligations, which was so convincing in Russia at the beginning of 1921, soon became inconvenient for the Bolsheviks, when famine broke out in the Volga region and American organizations provided assistance to the starving.

Of course, the grossest lies were best spread away from Kronstadt and Petrograd. The most indignant resolutions came from the well-fed south. Some of them were addressed to the rebels. Some, especially the appeals of the Black Sea sailors, reprinted “Petrogradskaya Pravda” and “Red Baltic Fleet,” but those did not reach the rebels. Only ultimatums and similar texts aimed at intimidating people, such as the appeal of the Petrograd Defense Committee “We have succeeded,” which the Bolsheviks themselves later regarded as a political mistake, were sent to Kronstadt.

There is an interesting—though not entirely reliable—account of the controversy of propagandists on both sides. On March 5, commissar Ivan Sladkov of the fort “Krasnoflotsky” told Zinoviev that he had a conversation on the radio allegedly with the chairman of the Revkom, whom he called Volin, who, however, addressed Sladkov as “Kolka.” Despite these oddities, the conversation recounted by Sladkov is remarkable: Commissar Sladkov repeated propaganda points about the coup led by the “golden riders,” to which Sladkov’s opponent insisted that the “Petropavlovsk” was and would remain a red ship, that only communists who supported the dictatorship were arrested, that the rest were working at their positions, that the “golden riders” were fleeing from the fortress to the Bolsheviks, etc.

There are many reasons for the exceptional propaganda activity of March 1921: in addition to the strategic position of Kronstadt, there was the programmatic proximity of the conflicting parties, which created dramatic fluctuations in the sympathies of the masses, and the peculiarities of the moment, which raised the stakes in the unfolding struggle. On March 16, in London, Leonid Krasin and Robert Horne signed the Soviet-British trade agreement. On March 18, a peace treaty was signed in Riga between the RSFSR [the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] and Poland. A different course of events on the banks of the “Marquis’s Puddle” could affect the outcome of these negotiations. But the biggest gamble was the congress of the RKP(B).

The signing of the Treaty of Riga in March 1921.

The tenth Congress witnessed Lenin’s frontal attack on the “Workers’ Opposition” and the supporters of democratic centralism. It was a struggle for the unity of the RKP(B). As we previously established, the slogans of the rebels were very moderate, not very far removed from the criticism of the established dictatorship by the factions of the party known as the “Workers’ Opposition” and the “Decists.” That is why it was necessary to present the insurrection as an action radically hostile to the Bolsheviks and to the workers and peasants. Only this made it possible to prevent the rebels from joining with the opposition within the ruling party itself. In short, internal party issues worried the Central Committee more than the uprising of a particular city or county.

At the congress, Ivar Smilga said:

“Of course, it is not so terrible that in Kronstadt, Kozlovsky rose up in a bloc with the right Social Revolutionaries. I would say that this question, which we are now discussing, does not have a decisive influence, as even the fact that there were work slow-downs in the Petrograd factories is a question of the current moment. The question that interests us now is the question of party-building, and in it the danger lies in the fact that among our Kronstadt comrades, of the Communists, according to the words of comrade Trotsky, 30 percent take an active part against us, 40 percent take neutral positions, and only the rest are fighting against the Kronstadt rebels.”

The data on the split in the Kronstadt organization of the RKP(B) was clarified when the organization formally re-registered, but there was a split, and there is enough evidence that it developed even before the uprising, in fact as a consequence of internal party discussions.

What Happened to the Bolsheviks in Kronstadt?

What was the fate of the Kronstadt organization of the Bolsheviks against the background of the discussion and the uprising?

The re-registration of the Kronstadt organization of the RKP(B) in September 1920 showed a voluntary decline from 25-27% of the total number. This situation could still be considered relatively stable; according to Vladimir Feldman’s report of December 10, across the Baltic Fleet as a whole, more than 40% of the members left the party organization.

By March 1, there were only 2126 members of the RKP(B) in Kronstadt; 684 of them were attached to the district committee and 1442 to the Kronpolitotdel (i.e., most of the Kronstadt Bolsheviks were in military service), and there were also about 500 candidates. There were almost no Bolsheviks with pre-revolutionary experience. About 85% of the Kronstadt party members in the registration cards were listed as workers and peasants, but in fact the majority were military and civilian employees. In other words, they were just as “from the people” as the majority of the party, and the essence of the party discussion that took place at the end of 1920 and the beginning of 1921 was precisely that the “from the people” party members were beginning to lose touch with the people from which they came.

At the tenth Congress of the RKP(B), during the uprising, representatives of the Workers ‘ Opposition made very disturbing statements. The leader of the group, Alexander Shlyapnikov, argued that, despite the growth of the RKP(B), the number of party members among the workers remaining in the industry is decreasing. According to him, the metalworkers of St. Petersburg did not include even 2% Bolsheviks; more reliable information about the number of Bolsheviks among the metalworkers of Moscow set the figure at 4%.

Delegate Yuri Milonov described the party’s dilemma:

“How can we solve this problem: since the peasantry is not with us, since the working class is under the influence of various petty-bourgeois anarchist elements, since it also has a tendency to move away from us, what can the Communist Party rely on now? Here you will have to look for a way out in two directions. Either we must say, as some people in the localities say, that the working class is unreliable in the revolutionary and political struggle and in the construction of socialism—and such a theory has been invented—or we must say that it is impossible to rely on anyone, as comrade Osinsky has already tried to point out. It turns out to be an absurd situation: we find ourselves over a precipice, between the working class, which is infected with petty-bourgeois prejudices, and the peasantry, which is essentially petty-bourgeois; but isn’t it impossible to rely on the Soviet and Party bureaucracy alone?”

The delegates of the Leninist “Ten” and the “Buffer”1 that joined them objected that it was unacceptable to criticize the party and state leadership in such terms, as was done during the discussion that preceded the congress. Leo Trotsky at the congress quoted the “journal of comrade Zinoviev”:

“The autocratic power and the hierarchical system of enterprise management that now reigns on the railways and which TSEKTRAN [the Central Committee of the United Trade Union of Railway and Water Transport Workers] is instilling, together with the NKPS, scattered ‘eyes’ throughout the enterprise, which should frighten the workers, pull the reins from above, and from below encourage the workers, sometimes in the most brutal form, to obey these reins—these are typical features of the manufacturing period.”

Grigory Zinoviev.

The result was summed up in the resolution of the congress “On the unity of the Party.” In order to avoid criticism of the RKP(B) from outside, the congress decided not to eliminate the phenomena that caused the criticism, but to limit criticism from within. The “Workers’ Opposition” was branded in the resolution “On the syndicalist and anarchist bias in our party.”

One way or another, the rebirth and reorganization of the RKP(B), and its criticism by the opposition caused a split in the Bolshevik organization in Kronstadt. As we have seen, it was not as worker-peasant as it claimed, but the literacy rate of the party members was relatively high. Nor were they indifferent fellow travelers, unconcerned with the situation in the country and the party. On the contrary, the Kronstadt Bolsheviks actively engaged in the discussion—not by abstract theorizing, but by considering each individual, considering which of the comrades showed bourgeois aspirations and in what ways, counting the chairs in their colleagues’ rooms and the dresses of their wives. During the discussion of the relationship between the “top and bottom,” the non-party Kronstadt locals, who were also not an unconscious gray mass, were drawn into the discussion. Chekist Feldman noted that one of the reasons for the dissatisfaction of the Baltic people with political work is “the thirst to learn, to gain knowledge… especially among the sailors.”

While the “journal of comrade Zinoviev,” which was subordinate to the Kronstadt Bolsheviks attached to the district committee, denounced the “autocratic power” of TSEKTRAN, most of the organization attached to the Kronpolitotdel was subordinate to the Commissar of the Baltic Fleet, Nikolai Kuzmin, who had already acquired the appearance of a “fat, well-groomed gentleman” and was remembered for shouting “I will not allow the committee to be diluted.”

Nikolai Kuzmin.

During the uprising, the split became a fact. The Provisional Bureau of the Kronstadt Organization of the RKP had been operating since March 2, consisting of Yakov Ilyin, Anton Kabanov, and the chairman of the Union of Metalworkers, Fyodor Pervushin. On March 3, they called on the Communists to remain in their places and cooperate with the Revkom. During the period from March 2 to 5, all the Bolsheviks who declared their non-recognition of the Revkom and did not leave the island were arrested by the rebels; some were placed in an investigative prison, others under house arrest. As a consequence, for almost the entire duration of the uprising, two Communist Party bureaus operated in the fortress. The members of the old bureau continued to call themselves Bolsheviks and were held in the Investigative Prison, while the members of the provisional bureau supported the uprising.

The prisoners held in the Investigative Prison were released during the street battles in the fortress in mid-March (when the Red Army recaptured Kronstadt), while the Provisional Bureau was arrested. Note that the members of the Provisional Bureau did not leave the island, as did most of the members of the Revkom. The Chekists singled out the investigation against the Provisional Bureau in a separate case, which involved 14 people. During the investigation, the members of the Provisional Bureau claimed that they were guided by tactical plans aimed at keeping the maximum number of Communists free and plotting against the Revkom. Investigator Kordovsky, on the other hand, believed that the appeal of the Provisional Bureau “changed the whole course of the rebellion and paralyzed all underground work.” The troika agreed with the investigator’s arguments, sentencing six people to death by firing squad, including Ilyin, Kabanov, and Pervushin, and sentencing the remaining eight Communists, who were not found to have taken concrete actions, to five years of community service on probation.

The largest number of Communists during the uprising chose to leave the party, and this was done, as a rule, demonstratively. According to the report provided by special representative Semyon Agranov to the Presidium of the VCK: “During the mutiny, the Revkom and the editorial office received from 800 to 900 applications for withdrawal from the RCP.” In other words, 37.6% to 42.3% of the organization’s members submitted applications to withdraw. When the Party was reorganized, it was believed that 497 people (23.4%) had voluntarily left the RKP(B) during the uprising.

When re-registering after the suppression of the uprising, 734 people (34.5%) were restored to the RKP(B). Of these, 95 people were outside the fortress by the beginning of March, 167 people left the island and took part in the suppression of the uprising, 327 people were arrested by the rebels, and 135 people remained in Kronstadt but did not participate in the events on any side. In addition, 211 people were excluded from the RKP(B) at the time of re-registration, and 137 people did not pass re-registration.

The investigation failed to establish the facts regarding the activities of organized political groups in Kronstadt. There were only individual Mensheviks, maximalists, and anarchists among the mass of people without party affiliation and Communists. According to the investigation materials, Anatoly Lamanov wrote a statement for Izvestiya Revkom on March 4 about leaving the RKP(B) and joining the Union of SR-Maximalists, but it does not follow that this Union was active in the Kronstadt fortress. During interrogations, a member of the Revkom, Vladislav Valk, insisted that he considered himself an internationalist Menshevik, but denied the existence of a Menshevik cell in Kronstadt.

Even if there were no groups of socialists or anarchists, it should still be understood that the most numerous and organized party structures of any type in the rebel fortress were organizations of Communists—one of which supported the uprising, the other was under arrest.

Therefore, contrary to established opinion, the Kronstadt uprising must be considered an uprising of non-party and opposition communists who supported the platform of Soviet power, but opposed the party dictatorship. This uprising was a direct continuation of the “Kronstadt Republic” of 1917, and the program of the rebels went directly back to the demands of July 1917.

Further Reading

Our overview, The Kronstadt Uprising: A View from within the Revolt, includes a full reading list on the revolt.

For more on this subject, you can consult Cienfuegos’ Critique of State Socialism in our zine library.

  1. According to the version of Lenin’s Collected Works published in Moscow in 1965, “The ‘buffer group’ took shape during the trade union discussion in 1920-21. It was headed by N.I. Bukharin and included Y. Larin, Y.A. Preobrazhensky, L.P. Serebryakov, G.Y. Sokolnikov, V.N. Yakovleva, and others. They tried to reconcile the differences between Lenin and Trotsky’s views, acting as a “buffer” in disagreements on the question of the role and tasks of the trade unions. In fact, Bukharin attacked Lenin and defended Trotsky.” 
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