By early 1921 the Bolsheviks were winning the Civil War. But the country was devastated. Industrial production fell dramatically. The cities were cold, hungry and riddled with disease. What grain the peasants grew was often forcibly requisitioned.
Workers were on starvation rations of black bread. Following a further cut in rations, workers at the Troubotchny factory struck on February 24, 1921. Other factories soon joined. A mass demonstration was confronted by officer cadets. As well as economic demands, some factories made political ones such as freedom of speech and the press and the release of political prisoners. The government declared a state of siege in Petrograd.
On February 26, sailors at the naval base in Kronstadt some 25 miles from Petrograd sent a delegation there. On its return sailors on the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastapol passed a 15 point resolution.
This called for immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present ones, it said, no longer represented the interests of the working class. It called for freedom of speech and the press. It demanded freedom and the right of assembly for trade unions and peasant organizations. It called for the liberation of all political prisoners of the socialist parties and an investigation of the charges against them. The equalisation of rations, was demanded, as was the legalisation of small scale handicraft production.
A mass meeting of the First and Second Battleship sections was held on March 1. This passed the 15 point resolution. The only votes against were those of Kalinin, President of the All Russian Executive of Soviets and Kuzmin, Political Commissar of the Baltic Fleet.
A larger mass meeting the next day endorsed the 15 point resolution and a Provisional Revolutionary Committee was established. The first issue of Izvestia, the committee’s paper stated that The Communist Party has detached itself from the masses.
The Bolsheviks did not negotiate. Their reply was libel. The mutiny was being orchestrated from Paris and led by a White General. The Black Hundreds, protofascists, were alleged to be involved. On March 5 the Petrograd Defence Committee issued a call to Kronstadt. We will shoot you like partridges. The Provisional Committee replied, we stand for the power of the Soviets not that of the Party.
On March 8 the government commenced its attack. Kronstadt was bombed and shelled. Under the leadership of Tukhachevsky – commander of the 7th army- 60,000 troops assaulted Kronstadt. Their aim was to capture Kronstadt before the melting of the ice in the Gulf of Finland made this impossible.
Despite desperate resistance, by March 17 Kronstadt had been recaptured. The following day the Bolshevik government celebrated the anniversary of the Paris Commune.
Losses were far higher than the Bolsheviks cared to admit. Those who drowned or died from their wounds on the ice were not counted. Some 6,000 people from Kronstadt fled to Finland. Those who were captured were either executed or imprisoned.
Many of those who led the suppression of Kronstadt later were either shot or vanished in the purges of the thirties. Kronstadt showed beyond all shadow of doubt that the Bolsheviks ruled not on the basis of working class self-organization or political consciousness but sheer naked terror. While the 10th Bolshevik congress made some concessions in the form of the New Economic Policy, the leadership tightened its stranglehold on the Party. Factions, like the Workers’ Opposition, which had made many criticisms similar to those of Kronstadt, were banned.
Nearly a century on, Kronstadt invokes heated debate. Recently the events of 1921 were debated in the pages of Solidarity, the paper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. In the Summer 2010 edition of Permanent Revolution, Mark Hoskisson wrote: “…was Stalin’s final triumph made possible by Lenin and Trotsky’s actions in 1921…The answer is yes. The start of the bureaucratic counter revolution came in March 1921 not 1924.” If our Trotskyist comrades can look at history critically, there may be hope for them yet!