What follows is part one of an article by the Bolshevik revolutionary Karl Radek about the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising. Part two is here.
It was published in Bulletin Communiste, the organ of the French section of the Communist International, on 1 April 1921. As a contemporary account and analysis of the uprising, it represents a not-often-heard dimension. We publish it to inform the debate that has taken place in the pages of this paper on the uprising and the record of the Bolshevik government. The article was translated from the French by Ed Maltby.
A great joy seized White Guards all over the world when on the 2 March, news reached the outside world that that the sailors of Kronstadt had risen up against the Soviets.
“I have made you, and I shall kill you” — that was the caption below a cartoon that appeared in a big broadsheet in Paris, showing a tall, lanky sailor pointing his revolver at Trotsky. “The odious sailors of Kronstadt, who brought revolution into every corner of Russia, the maniacal enemies of the bourgeoisie, have broken from the Soviet government. Upon whom will the government support itself now?”
That is what was repeated by all the possible, imaginable organs of the Russian counter-revolution. And more than one was already banking on the end of the Soviet government. But things didn’t work out as they had expected. The Kronstadt uprising, just as they proudly declared it, fled into the land of Canaan, into Finland, where grass had just begun to grow on the graves of 30,000 proletarians murdered by the Finnish Whites. They abandoned the sailors to the revolutionary tribunals of Soviet Russia.
Nevertheless, the crushing of this mutiny by military force did not erase its significance. The real character of the Kronstadt uprising does not only cast light on the current situation in Russia, it also illuminates at the same time one of the most important problems of the world revolution in general: the problem of the relationship between the Communist Party and the mass of the proletariat and the form of the dictatorship: dictatorship of the Party or dictatorship of the class (to employ the customary expression, which is in any case inexact).
The Kronstadt uprising was not a local event, although it naturally bore numerous local characteristics. The latter consisted first of all in the fact that it was not provoked by a very high level of material deprivation.
The sailors of Kronstadt live better than the rest of the army or the working class, they are well dressed and their other material conditions of life are without a doubt better than the average of those experienced by the rest of the Russian proletariat.
The local discontent of the sailors was directed first and foremost against the discipline and order established by the Soviet government. That is expressly confirmed by the central organ of the Whites, Les Dernières Nouvelles of Milyukov, who writes, according to a refugee sailor, that the discontent had already manifested itself the year before and that it had been stirred up by the radical measures taken by the Soviet government in order to arrest the degeneration of the fleet. Everywhere, but especially in Russia, sailors have always been a particularly ill-disciplined element and given to excess. It is a fatal consequence of their life and of the union which they form with their ship: once they come ashore, they run riot.
As a result of this undisciplined spirit and of the great number of highly qualified workers among their ranks, the Kronstadt sailors played an eminent role in the revolutions of both 1905 and 1917 as agents of the destruction of the bourgeois state. These highly qualified workers acted as a moral cement, transforming the indiscipline of the mass into a revolutionary factor.
But these revolutionary proletarian elements have been singularly weakened during the last three years. The former crews of Kronstadt have given the Soviet government thousands upon thousands of fighters, who, in all the armies, in all the services, have played the most glorious role in the defence and the reconstruction of Soviet Russia. Only an insignificant number of these former militants have remained at Kronstadt and all of these now occupy command positions. They constitute the Communist apparatus of the fleet and it is against them that the new crews have rebelled.
Where have these new crews of the fleet been recruited from? Finland and the Baltic provinces no longer belonging to Russia, there only remains Southern Russia and the coasts of the Black Sea. In the main, the fleet is now composed of peasant elements from the Ukraine.
Before, specialist sailors were principally metalworkers; the necessity of keeping the latter in war industries meant that many young bourgeois who had had to interrupt their studies as a result either of the war or the revolution, were attracted into the fleet by the relatively good conditions that it offered them. If we add to this the fact that the Communist organisation in Petrograd has been badly weakened by the departure of tens of thousands of members going to literally guard the Revolution in all corners of Russia, we can understand that the work of politically educating the sailors had greatly suffered.
Finally, we must say that the Kronstadt sailors had a very clear idea of their own strength. They were still bathed in the halo of their revolutionary past; they guarded the gates of Petrograd; their little isle is like the Heligoland of revolutionary Russia. Such are the local particularities which made the Kronstadt uprising possible and which gave it its original colour.
In a general sense and in the first instance, it is the discontent of the peasant and the Ukrainian peasant which is expressed in this mutiny. After the liquidation of the fronts, the majority of sailors were off on leave at home. They had heard everywhere that there was no longer any danger from the Whites, and they had been struck by complaints about food requisitioning.
In the Ukraine, people spoke of the merciless struggle waged by the Soviet government against the bands which pillaged, burned and cut the rail-roads under the Anarchist flag of Makhno.
More than one sailor never returned at all from leave, and some went over to Makhno’s side. In an article that a fugitive sailor wrote in Milyukov’s newspaper, to characterise the uprising at Kronstadt, he frankly recognised that Makhno’s calls to pillage pleased the sailors a lot and in any case played on their natures (17 March 1921). A characteristic fact is that four members of the “revolutionary committee” of Kronstadt are the children of Ukrainian peasants and that the more influential amongst them, Petritchenko, had been nicknamed “Petlioura” by his friends.
The peasant believes that he has nothing more to fear from feudal land-owners. He now demands of the Soviet government to reduce the demands placed upon him. The same tendency has had an impact on the little island of Kronstadt. The son of the peasant, held there on a ship under a rigid discipline, saw in the Communists in the fleet people who were demanding from him submission to discipline, when no more Entente squadrons were to be seen. And the Communists who were demanding this discipline of him were the same who were demanding the peasant give up his grain.
At the same time the Kronstadt sailor feels himself to be a born revolutionary; he does not have the slightest intention of aiding the capitalist, the Tsarist general or the fat landlord to regain their dominion. His protest against the demands placed on the peasant as well as against revolutionary discipline and order, is not in his opinion an expression of a counter-revolutionary tendency; on the contrary, this protest his, he thinks, surely an extension of the October Revolution. “We made the revolution, we proclaimed Soviet power; but who exercises power now? The Communist Party. It’s the Soviets who should hold and exercise power, it is the masses. We must found a real Soviet power.” This tendency had been determined by the public discussions over all the questions which had accumulated over three years of war within the Communist Party.
In the Communist press and in Communist meetings, it was openly said that over the course of long years of struggle the organism of the Soviets had developed a parasitic, bureaucratic tendency.
One often heard talk of the necessity of purging the Communist Party of all its careerist elements. Kronstadt had heard all that, and their essentially peasant psychology (albeit transformed by the conditions of life as sailors) conceived of these problems as being inherent in Soviet Russia.
In this general conception, there is a mixture of anarchism which rejects all bureaucracy and centralisation, of SR-ism, and a syndicalism which affirms that the worker, like the peasant, should be master of what he himself makes. All these tendencies are summed up in the demand for the re-election of the Soviets, re-election which would free them from the influence of the Communist Party in general. The syndicalist side has seduced a part of the workers of Kronstadt, for whom the direct domination of the proletariat over all factories is the same as the appropriation by the worker of the product of his work; the legal right to relieve his poverty through the sale of the instruments of his work and, eventually, of the produce of his labour as well.
Furthermore, the people at Kronstadt were isolated. They had heard talk of peasant movements about which exaggerated tales were being spread (they received White newspapers from Finland); they had heard of the poverty and the strikes which gripped Petrograd, among workers who had hoped that with the end of the war would come an improvement in their situation.
In this atmosphere, the clandestine organisations of Right SRs and Left SRs, of anarchists, of Mensheviks and, in the background and unbeknownst to the sailors, the Monarchist counter-revolutionary conspiracy of the artillery commander Kozlovski, all acted efficiently.
The sailors did not think to rise up, they assembled in stormy meetings where they met with the commissar of the fleet Kouzmin, much-respected by them, and Zinoviev.
On the very day of the uprising, Kalinin, president of the Executive Central Committee, to which they accorded great weight and importance, spoke to them in Anchor Square, in Kronstadt. At mid-day, the sailors’ delegates met to discuss the re-election of the Soviet. During the discussion, news arrived that great detachments of soldiers were marching against them. This was nothing but a provocation, the means chosen by the SRs or even the Monarchists to transform the conflict into an armed confrontation. In order to guarantee themselves against any surprise, the sailors established patrols, it was insinuated to them that these would be useless, that the Petrograd Soviet would attack anyway, as the Communists did not want to concede the re-election; they had to, so the sailors were told, take some hostages in order to assure the re-election, i.e. arresting all the Communists and in preventing people from Petrograd from coming to Kronstadt.
The sailors placed an embargo on Petrograd and arrested the Communists. The struggle was provoked. The Soviet government naturally could not tolerate the arrest of its representatives, the seizure of the fortress which guarded the approaches to Petrograd. The radio-telegraphic station of the dreadnought Petropavlovsk sent coded telegrams to Reval and to Finland. It is clear that there was in Kronstadt a military staff for which the re-election of the soviets was merely a pretext, and which is capable of turning Kronstadt over to the Entente. The Finnish Whites hurried to make contact with Kronstadt.
The Soviet government ordered the sailors to lay down their arms, but they hoped that their example would be followed in Petrograd and Moscow. Their leaders promised them that in a few days the government would be obliged to hold new general elections which would end with a Soviet government without a party, a Soviet government which would put everything right and satisfy everyone. The peasant would no longer have to give over his produce, and the worker would no longer be hungry. Finally the sailors were persuaded that after rising up against the government they would be held to account for their actions, and they stiffened their resistance.
The government could wait any longer. It could not, for the simple reason that when the debacle spread across the gulf of Finland and the Neva, the counter-revolutionaries would be able to push the sailors into an assault on Petrograd. And fate followed its course.
The Gordian knot had to be cut by the sword. Troops brought from the front, led by the attack battalion of trainee Red Army officers and delegates from the Party Congress, set out one night over the ice of the Gulf of Finland which is already beginning to break up.
“Infantry has never before or since fought warships on ice”, proclaimed the soldiers of the Red Army.
The example of Voroshilov, of Zatonsky and of Boubnov and so on, the example of the students of the military colleges, led the troops on, and by daybreak they were on the firm ground of Kronstadt in the fire of the street-fighting against the insurgents.
The resistance was bloody, but not as much as it could have been given the weapons that Kronstadt had at its disposal. During the final days the faith of victory had been shaken among the sailors and most likely even faith in the justice of their cause.
This was above all because the counter-revolution, at first hidden in the background, acted more and more openly. The SR Tchernov imposed on the sailors the demand for the Constituent Assembly. From Finland arrived, as representatives of the Red Cross, authentic Russian Whites, with the captain of the vessel, Wilkins, at their head, whom the old sailors knew as a military tyrant and who had only been able to escape their vengeance in 1917 by fleeing abroad. All this enlightened the masses and sapped confidence in the correctness of their cause.
Kozlovsky’s people demanded more and more obedience to their orders, because without discipline the defence of the positions could not be assured. Their spies in Petrograd informed them that their uprising had not only failed to bring the mass of the workers along with it, but on the contrary had singularly repulsed them, such that the factories where dissension and ferment had been strongest, had now gone back to work having heard the cannon from Kronstadt.
Thus was Kronstadt stormed. The dead were still being buried when White newspapers arrived from Paris, Berlin and Prague, and it was seen then just how well the Soviet government was right to not consider the insurrection as the beginning of a third revolution but to brand it simply as a new counter-revolutionary attack.
• Part two here.