The Russian Civil War had left the country weak, unstable, and hungry for more effective government. This, coupled with droughts and famine, left an undercurrent of discontent. Riots began to spread across the country, with the Kronstadt rebellion leaving the biggest mark.
The Kronstadt sailors were especially unimpressed with the Bolshevik government. They yearned for a more democratic government and the end of the War Communism policy. A delegation met on the battleships that were frozen in the harbor to draft a set of 15 demands for the government. Those demands being:
- Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and peasants. The new elections should be held by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda.
- Freedom of speechand of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties.
- Theright of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organizations.
- The organization, at the latest on 10th March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.
- The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of allimprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organizations.
- The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons andconcentration camps.
- The abolition of all political sections in the armed forces. No political party should have privileges for the propagation of its ideas, or receive State subsidies to this end. In the place of the political sections various cultural groups should be set up, deriving resources from the State.
- The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside.
- The equalization of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs.
- The abolition of Party combat detachments in all military groups. The abolition of Party guards in factories and enterprises. If guards are required, they should be nominated, taking into account the views of the workers.
- The granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labor.
- We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.
- We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.
- We demand the institution of mobile workers’ control groups.
- We demand that handicraft production be authorized provided it does not utilize wage labor.
- (Kronstadt rebellion, 2014)
- (Kronstadt rebellion, 2014)
The government responded to the demands by dismissing their legitimacy, saying they were part of an elaborate French plot with the White Army. In a rush to arrest the uprising they muted press from the island to keep the rebellion from spreading. Media outside the island began to quickly spread the French involvement rumor:
“Just like other White Guard insurrections, the mutiny of General Kozlovsky and the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk has been organised by Entente spies. The French counter espionage is mixed up in the whole affair. History is repeating itself. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who have their headquarters in Paris, are preparing the ground for an insurrection against the Soviet power” (Moscow Radio Broadcaster, 1921).
The Bolsheviks believed that the uprising must be shut down immediately with force so they quickly assembled an armed response. They began their siege of Kronstadt on March 7. The siege took ten days and consisted of three major assaults on the main fortress. The final assault was launched March 16 where troops attacked from three different directions and forced their way into the city. They finally gained control of the city on March 18 and chaos ensued. Those who could escaped to Finland while the captured were shipped off to prison camps.
Although the uprising was quickly halted it left an undeniable impression on the government. The sailors had been loyal to the Bolsheviks cause and the outcry forced them to reevaluate their tactics. They were clearly having problems transitioning from a revolutionary force to a ruling force. “Now Kronstadt became the symbol of the bankruptcy of the Revolution” (Kronstadt Uprising). In attempt to sooth the damage the 10th congress endorsed the New Economic Policy. This policy addressed some of the grievances listed in the demands. This new policy featured many ambitious aims to “ease public resentment against the emergency measures of the civil war; to regularize supply and production through a limited reintroduction of the market; to invigorate the grass roots economy and generate investment capital for industrialization; and, in general, to lay the foundation for the transition to socialism at some unspecified but inevitable date” (Freeze, 2009, P. 308-209). The Kronstadt rebellion may have been halted in its tracks but it certainly served as a wakeup call to the government.
A History, 3rd Edition Oxford University Press, 2009), Gregory L. Freeze, ed.
4 thoughts on “The Ships of Change”
You provide some really important context to the early struggles of Bolshevik control. The Kronstadt demands, though relatively unrealistic, were in fact influential in the re-emergence of a market and private industry through the New Economic Policy. Nice work!
Thanks for this overview of some of the essential issues at stake in the Kronstadt rebellion. Listing the rebels’ demands was a great idea (do indicate, though, when you are quoting verbatim from another source). If those demands had been made in the fall of 1917 (instead of early 1921), how do you think the Bolsheviks’ response would have been different?
I believe the suppression of the revolution was coming from a place of fear on the Bolsheviks side. They were have trouble transforming into a ruling party and lived in constant fear of failure. I think their siege represented a desperate attempt to stay in control and since the sailors were loyal supporters of the Bolsheviks I believe their demands would have at least attempted if they had been made in 1917. I will also edit my post to include a citation at the end of the demands! Sorry about that!
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Great job covering the Kronstadt Rebellion. I am curious to know if there were other parts of the military that had similar ideas about the new government. Do you know if the Bolsheviks took any other steps to quell any possible rebellious military factions? It seems as though the new government had many difficulties adjusting to their new role.