The Kronstadt Mutiny

[notes on Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy (1996)]



Background        The Mutiny        Defeat of the Mutiny        Effects       






Kronstadt is a naval base on Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland, about 18 miles west of St Petersburg/Petrograd.   The sailors there were young and literate.   The March Revolution of 1917 there had been one of the bloodiest uprisings in Russia, with the sailors massacring hundreds of their officers.


In May 1917, about 3,000 sailors had joined the Bolsheviks, but it is important to note that many of the Kronstadt sailors were and remained Anarchists and Social Revolutionaries.   On 16 May 1917, the Kronstadt Soviet declared independence from the Provisional Government – a move which infuriated Lenin, since the Bolsheviks were not yet ready to make their move, and he did not want anyone ‘jumping the gun’.   The sailors were ordered to call off their action, and they backed down, but it was a sign that they were not unquestioning supporters of the Bolsheviks.


The Kronstadt sailors were, however, fanatics.   When the Provisional Government tried to close down the Anarchist headquarters in Petrograd in June 1917, 50 armed Kronstadt sailors turned up to defend it.   Kronstadt sailors also turned out during the July Days to help the Bolsheviks try to overthrow the Provisional Government, 20,000 of them fought with the Bolshevik Red Guards who defeated Kornilov in August, and, they went to Petrograd again to help the Bolshevik coup d’état in November.   In January 1918 Lenin used them to close down the Constituent Assembly and set up his ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – Raskolnikov, the sailors’ leader, proposed a ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Working People’, and when the anti-Bolshevik members voted it down, an armed party of Kronstadt sailors and Red Guards closed down the Assembly.




The Kronstadt Mutiny

It is important to realise that the Kronstadt sailors were not the only people pushed to the limit by War Communism in 1921.   On 22 January, the Bolsheviks reduced the bread ration by one-third, and even key workers were given a ration of only 1000 calories a day.   Anyone who was not a fervent Bolshevik was being pushed to the end of their patience.   In Moscow on 23 February, 10,000 angry Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries went on strike; the metal factories and shipyards joined the strike.   On 27 February a poster appeared saying: ‘the workers and peasants need freedom.   They do not want to live by the decrees of the Bolsheviks’.  


Many of the Kronstadt sailors came from peasant families, so they were not ‘proletarians’ (workers) at all.   They particularly objected to the way Bolshevik party leaders got special privileges – while they existed on starvation rations, Raskolnikov was living like a lord, with banquets, servants and a chauffeur-driven car.   On 28 February 1921 the crew of the ship Petropavlovsk mutinied.   They did not – like the Moscow strikers – call for the overthrow of the Bolsheviks, only for ‘equal rations for all the working people’ and ‘freedom for the peasants’.   Because it thus merely asked for a return to true revolutionary principles, rather than for an end to the revolution, all the Kronstadt Bolsheviks joined the mutiny too.   As Orlando Figes says: ‘this was a case of the Bolsheviks being abandoned by their own favoured sons’.  


On 1 March 1921 a crowd of 15,000 soldiers met in the Anchor Square in Kronstadt and declared a revolution.   The ‘Kronstadt Revolutionary Committee’ published its own newspaper, which complained about the ‘constant fear of torture by the Cheka … the mass executions and a bloodletting which exceeds even the tsarist generals’.   ‘The glorious emblem of the workers’ state – the hammer and sickle – has been replaced by the bayonet and the barred window’ it declared.  


The Mutiny

The Defeat of the Mutiny

Trotsky was given the job of defeating the rebellion.   In Petrograd, the Bolsheviks took the sailors’ families as hostages.    On 5 March, Trotsky reached Kronstadt and called on the sailors to surrender – or they would be ‘shot like partridges’.   He knew that he had to act quickly – soon the pack ice would be melting and the naval base would become impregnable (the British navy had failed to capture it in 1918).   But the first Bolshevik troops to attack Kronstadt were young and the Cheka with machine guns had to be placed behind them to stop them retreating.   When they attacked on 7 March across the 5-mile stretch of open ice, the Kronstadt defenders mowed them down.


Trotsky continued to bombard the Kronstadt fortress with artillery, and gathered an army of 50,000 crack troops.   On 16 March they attacked.   In an 18-hour battle, 10,000 Red Guards were killed, but Kronstadt was taken.   Hundreds of mutineers were imprisoned: 500 were shot on the spot, and a further 2000 were executed over the next few months.   The rest were sent to Siberia.


Defeat of the Mutiny


The Kronstadt rebellion had two key effects:

  1. Many socialists all over the world lost faith in the Bolshevik revolution, which they now saw as a repressive regime.

  2. Lenin realised that he would have to relax War Communism, or he was going to provoke a revolution which would throw out the Bolsheviks; this was why he invented the ‘New Economic Policy’.