Kronstadt: the Third Revolution.
In October 1917 the sailors of the Baltic fleet garrisoned at Kronstadt, helped the Bolsheviks seize power from the plethora of organisations and parties that had overthrown the Tsar in March* that year. Many of them were Socialist-Revolutionaries or anarchists, far more progressive than the Bolshevik leadership.
* The ‘February Revolution,’ old calendar
“it was in its commune-like self-government that Red Kronstadt really came into its own, realising the radical, democratic and egalitarian aspirations of its garrison and working people, their insatiable appetite for social recognition, political activity and public debate, their pent up yearning for education, integration and community. Almost overnight, the ship’s crews, the naval and military units and the workers created and practised a direct democracy of base assemblies and committees.”
– Israel Getzler.
By February 1921, after the Russian Civil War, the workers’ and peasants’ organisations had been crushed, their free Soviets that gave their name to the new republic converted into tame organs of the Communist Party, likewise the Trade Unions. The constituent assemblies were abolished, anarchists and other dissenters were imprisoned and shot in droves. Even the mighty Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovschina), having liberated its territory from Tsarist generals, bourgeois and nationalist movements, Austro-Hungarian and German invaders, was eventually overwhelmed by the Bolshevik war machine.
In the countryside starving peasants rose up against the government policy of grain requisitioning, a general strike was called in Petrograd only to be met with a lockout and martial law. The crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol sent representatives to investigate. On hearing their report a fifteen-point resolution was agreed, demanding free elections to the soviets; an end to grain requisitions and roadblocks; freedom of speech and the press for workers and peasants, anarchists, and Left-Socialists; release of political prisoners and the removal of party representatives from the military and the factories.
The ‘Petropavlovsk resolution’ was put to a mass meeting of sixteen thousand people in Anchor Square and passed. The delegates sent to present it to the government were promptly arrested, and the bureaucrats began to slander the sailors as they had the Ukrainians before them, accusing them of mutiny and conspiracy with foreign spies and petty bourgeois. Former Tsarist General Kozlovsky, appointed to Kronstadt by Trotsky as an Artillery specialist, who played no rôle whatsoever in these events, was named as the ringleader.
“Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you.”
– Kronstadt Provisionary Revolutionary Committee, 4th March, 1921.
Given a new lease of revolutionary life, Kronstadt returned to bottom-up organisation. The Trade Union committees were re-elected and formed a council. The Conference of Delegates met regularly to discuss the people’s needs and the struggle against the government. The sailors voted to equalise their rations with the workers.
The revolutionaries sought a peaceful settlement with the Bolsheviks and a group of notable anarchists including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman offered to mediate. The sailors’ families were taken hostage in Petrograd. The Communist Party was deluged with letters of resignation from outraged members, many of which were published in Izvestia.
Artillery bombardment of the Kronstadt forts began on 7th March, the anniversary of the Women Workers’ Day. The Rebel City did not forget, and sent a radio greeting to the working women of the world.
“Today is a universal holiday — Women Workers’ Day. We of Kronstadt send, amid the thunder of cannon, our fraternal greetings to workingwomen of the world. … May you soon accomplish your liberation from every form of violence and oppression. … Long live the free revolutionary workingwomen! Long live the Social Revolution throughout the world!”
The siege lasted ten days, the forts had not been constructed to defend themselves from land.
The crews of Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol fought to the death, as did the cadets of the Mechanics School, the Torpedo Detachment and the Communications Unit.
On the night of the 17th March the Red Army entered the city and ran amok. Eight thousand sailors, soldiers and civilians made it across the ice to Finland, thousands were arrested and shot or put into concentration camps, and their families deported to Siberia. At least ten thousand government troops were slain by the insurgents, they had been herded into battle at gunpoint and many switched sides.
“The Kronstadt experience proves once more that government, the State — whatever its name or form – is ever the mortal enemy of liberty and self-determination. The state has no soul, no principles. It has but one aim – to secure power and hold it, at any cost. That is the political lesson of Kronstadt.”
– Alexander Berkman.
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