A Tragic Necessity

Abbie Bakan (1990)

This article was first printed in Socialist Worker Review 136 (November 1990), pp. 18-21. Socialist Worker Review, now Socialist Review, is the monthly magazine of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP-Britain).

Transcribed and marked up by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 16. June 1999.

Continuity between Lenin and Stalin is often claimed by reference to the Kronstadt revolt of 1921. But as Abbie Bakan explains the repression was necessary to defend the revolution.


THERE ARE few issues in the history of the Bolshevik tradition as controversial as that of the Kronstadt events. The course of events alone is disturbing. But the lessons of this part of Bolshevik history are important for socialists today.

The repression of the uprising in the island fortress of Kronstadt in 1921 by the Bolsheviks was, as Trotsky described it in August of 1940 (the same month in which he died at the hand of a Stalinist agent), a 'tragic necessity.'

Tragic beyond a doubt-about 600 of the Kronstadt sailors who rebelled against Bolshevik rule were killed in the events, and some 2,500 were taken prisoner. Among the dead were undoubtedly some who were unilaterally killed in the very final stages of the military conflict.

But this number pales against the list of casualties among the loyal Bolshevik defenders of the young workers' state who were killed at the hands of the Kronstadt rebel forces. The number of dead, wounded and missing is conservatively estimated at 10,000, including among the dead some 15 delegates to the Bolsheviks' Tenth Party Congress.

The Kronstadt revolt had the character of a mutiny against the Bolshevik leadership of the military. and of the state. This arose at a time when that state was in a desperately vulnerable position, with its survival at stake.

Military struggle is only politics in a hothouse, and individual lives become subordinate to the torrential waves of historic social change. And this is why Kronstadt symbolised not only tragedy, but also absolute necessity.

Necessity, not because the Bolsheviks were always right – quite the contrary – they, like all active revolutionaries, made many mistakes.

The repression of the Kronstadt revolt was a necessity because there is no question that if the Kronstadt rebellion had been successful, it would have been, as Lenin said, 'a step, a ladder, a bridge' to the victory of counter-revolution. Its success would have opened the way for the restoration of the Whites, the reactionary forces uniting monarchists, social democratic Mensheviks and foreign armies in a massive assault on the fledgling and isolated workers' state.

What, then, was the rebellion really about? To understand it, we have to look at the background to events in revolutionary Russia.


IN 1921 Russia was part of a world system in profound crisis. Capitalists in every country in the world were desperate to isolate and strangle the young workers' state that threatened to spread into the heart of capitalist Europe and beyond.

The Russian Bolsheviks had successfully defended the revolution against some 14 invading imperialist armies which were backed up by a vicious counter-revolutionary campaign led by the White army. By the spring of 1921 the civil war was over, at least in terms of the major military dimensions of the conflict.

The Whites were defeated, but it was not clear if this was a permanent or temporary defeat, because the armies had not fully demobilised their forces. The White army general, Wrangel, still had units totalling between 70 and 80 thousand in Turkey in close alliance with, and aided by, the government of France.

Meanwhile, Russia was like a Third World nation in a state of starvation. Between 1918 and 1920 seven and a half million Russians died from famine, exposure and epidemics alone, not counting war casualties.

By the last phase of the civil war Russia's income per head had been reduced to one third of its already impoverished level of 1913; industrial production was reduced to one fifth of its pre-war level; coal mining was at one tenth and iron production at one fortieth of pre-war averages; and the railway system was nearly destroyed.

The price of isolation was not only economic, but also social. With the collapse of industry the towns, the backbone of Bolshevik victory, were in crisis. The minority urban working class was decimated by war, and a massive shrinkage in the urban populations followed as unemployed workers returned to their peasant families in the countryside. Labour productivity declined to one third of its pre-war level. The soviets or workers' councils, the core of the revolution, were virtually non-functional in such conditions.

The peasant producers, and the working class consumers, faced a bitter struggle for bread. Workers' democracy could only advance if the material basis for their survival was assured. The peasants, on the other hand, having won their land in a revolutionary alliance with the urban based Bolsheviks, now fought to retain their produce for sale on the private market.

The Bolsheviks responded with War Communism, at the centrepiece of which was a policy of forced requisitioning of peasant grain. During the civil war peasants joined the Red Army and the Bolshevik Party in large numbers. But with the Whites defeated, by early 1921 two and a half million peasants were demobilised.

Throughout the policy of War Communism groups of armed peasants confronted the grain collection detachments and were quickly crushed by the Bolsheviks. Now waves of peasant uprisings swept across the Russian countryside. In February 1921 alone, the month before the Kronstadt uprising, over 118 separate peasant revolts were reported in various regions of Russia.

But concessions to the peasant majority meant increased hardship and decreasing confidence and power for the working class, and it was in the hands of the working class that the future of Russian and international socialism rested. In January of 1921 the Bolsheviks announced that the already poor bread ration for Moscow and Petrograd was to be reduced by one third.

The reduction was reached reluctantly by the Bolsheviks, but they had no choice. Heavy snows and fuel shortages had held up grain trains, in addition to the crisis of peasant non-cooperation with the government. In the first week and a half of February not a single carload of grain arrived to reach the already empty warehouses of Moscow.


IN THESE conditions even the mainstay of the revolution, the working class, went on strike for bread. Strikes spread throughout Petrograd, and the survival of a socialist bridgehead to world revolution came under severe threat.

Lenin described in 1921 the conditions which were necessary for the victory of socialism in backward Russia: 'Here industrial workers are in a minority, and the petty farmers are the vast majority. In such a country, the socialist revolution can triumph only on two conditions. First, if it is given timely support by a socialist revolution in one or several advanced countries... The second condition is agreement between the proletariat, which is exercising its dictatorship, that is, holds state power, and the majority of the peasant population.'

Russia in 1921 had seen neither of these conditions fulfilled. But the revolution in Germany had not been decisively defeated. With the Whites defeated, negotiations were in progress for a commercial treaty between the weakened workers' state and Britain, and a peace treaty was under negotiation with Poland. The aim of the Bolsheviks was to hold on to power and fight to inspire the success of workers' struggles against capitalism in 'one or several advanced countries.'

This is the situation in which the Kronstadt uprising occurred.

During the 1917 revolution the Kronstadt sailors were among the most politically advanced of the entire working class movement. Trotsky had relied on them during the revolution to lead forces all across the country during the years of invasion and civil war. Kronstadt sailors were at the political centre of an army composed largely of peasant recruits who had shifted very quickly and rapidly from reactionary backgrounds to Bolshevism.

But, as the Kronstadt sailors fought and led, so were they killed and wounded, and replaced in the Baltic Fleet by conscripts from the rural districts. The Bolsheviks called them rather unaffectionately 'peasant lads in sailor suits.'

As in all of Russia, when the civil war came to an end, the vanguard of the working class, the ones who had fought in the centre of the Red Army, were gone.

By 1921 more than three quarters of the sailors in the Baltic Fleet stationed at Kronstadt were recent recruits of peasant origin. This was a reversal of the situation in 1917, when the majority were recruited from the industrial centre of Petrograd, the heart of the workers' revolution in Russia.

Petrichenko, the leader of the uprising of March 1921, was himself a Ukrainian peasant, and later acknowledged that many of his fellow mutineers were peasants from the south who were in sympathy with the peasant opposition movement against the Bolsheviks.


WITH PEASANT backwardness came backward ideas. In January of 1921 alone some 5,000 Baltic sailors left the Communist Party in protest. In the Kronstadt party organisation particularly, between August of 1920 and March of 1921 half of its 4,000 members resigned. War Communism was seen as the product of Communism, rather than the product of the attacks against Communism by world capitalism and its allies.

Anti-semitism was vicious and rampant. The worst venom of the Kronstadt rebels was levelled against Trotsky and Zinoviev, treated as Jewish scapegoats among the Bolsheviks. Racism against the Jews was common among peasants from the Ukraine and the western borderlands, from where many of the Kronstadt rebels were recently recruited, and where the majority of the leadership of the revolt, the Kronstadt Revolutionary Committee, were from. As one of the committee, Vershinin, announced when he came out on the ice on 8 March to state their demands to a Soviet detachment: 'Enough of your "hoorahs", and join with us to beat the Jews. It's their cursed domination that we workers and peasants have to endure.'

Further evidence of vicious anti-semitism is apparent in memoirs of a seaman involved in the Kronstadt rising. In a passage referring to the Bolshevik regime as the 'first Jewish republic', he called the Soviet government's ultimatum to retreat 'the ultimatum of the Jew Trotsky.'

The demands of the Kronstadt sailors reflected the ideas of the most backward section of the peasantry.

Couched in calls for greater freedoms, the main economic target was the programme of forced requisitioning of peasant produce and the roadblock detachments that halted the black market in grain. The Bolsheviks were already discussing the abandonment of War Communism in favour of a programme concessionary to the peasants which would later be dubbed the New Economic Policy. But the content of the revolt went further. The sailors called for the abolition of Bolshevik authority in the army, factories and mills. The sailors' opening declaration, that 'the present soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants', indicated the real character of the rebellion.

The adoption of a 15 point programme at a meeting on 28 February was fuelled by the strike wave taking place against the bread ration in Petrograd. The assumption was that the strike was similarly anti-Bolshevik, and the workers would support the sailors' rebellion. In fact, the industrial struggle was coming to an end, and the Petrograd workers supported the Bolshevik repression of the Kronstadt uprising.

The following day, 1 March, at a mass meeting of sailors and soldiers in the town of Kronstadt some 15,000 people met to hear two high ranking Bolshevik officials, Kalinin and Kuzmin, sent from nearby Petrograd to attempt to appease the revolt. Zinoviev, in charge of the negotiations, did not get to Kronstadt because his physical safety was threatened.

The atmosphere was such that there was in fact little basis for constructive discussion or negotiation. The meeting degenerated, with the speakers literally unable to finish even a sentence without interruption and heckling, whistling and catcalls.

The programme was put to a vote, and only the two Bolshevik delegates and Vasiliev, the leader of the Kronstadt branch of the Bolsheviks, voted against it. All others voted for it, including recently recruited peasant members of the party.

Kalinin left the island. Kuzmin stayed to address a meeting the next day, already scheduled as the occasion for the re-election of delegates to the Kronstadt Soviet. Some 300 delegates were in attendance. The meeting was full of irregularities, including a sailors' guard at the doors and the denial of party members' usual role in chairing the proceedings.

Kuzmin and Vasiliev addressed the meeting, and tried once again to explain the conditions which threatened the revolution within and without. They implored the rebels to retreat. If they did not, they were warned the Bolsheviks would repress them militarily.

Amidst heckling and jeering the two spokesmen and a Communist official named Korshonov, whose jurisdiction included directorship of the two battleships which acted as headquarters for the rebel sailors' organising, were immediately arrested and removed from the hall.


A NON-ELECTED Provisional Revolutionary Committee charged with administrating the city took over. All military leaves were cancelled, a curfew was imposed and exit of any persons from the island was banned without special permission. It was a declaration of war against the Bolshevik state.

While this was not the largest or the most serious of the peasant rebellions, its strategic location of Kronstadt in the Gulf of Finland, with access to Petrograd, and its timing made it a coveted bridgehead for a regroupment of the White army.

Lenin's suspicion of an international conspiracy linked up with the Kronstadt events has been vindicated by the discovery of a handwritten memorandum preserved in the Columbia University Russian Archive, dated 1921 and marked 'Top Secret.' The document includes remarkably detailed information about the resources, personnel, arms and plans of the Kronstadt rebellion. It also details plans regarding White army and French government support for the Kronstadt sailors' March rebellion. Its title is 'Memorandum on the Question of Organising an Uprising in Kronstadt.'

The memorandum was part of a collection of documents written by an organisation called the National Centre, which originated at the beginning in 1918 as a self identified 'underground organisation formed in Russia for the struggle against the Bolsheviks.' After suffering military defeat and the arrest of many of its central members, the group reconstituted itself in exile by late 1920. General Wrangel, with a trained army of tens of thousands ready and waiting, was their principal military base of support. This memorandum was written between January and early February of 1921 by an agent of the National Centre in Finland.


THE LINKS with the White army are explicit: 'A breakdown in morale would be inevitable if the insurgent sailors were not to receive assurances of sympathy and support from the outside, in particular from the Russian Army commanded by General Wrangel. Further, the rising was seen as 'a very rare opportunity-an opportunity that probably will not be repeated-to seize Kronstadt and inflict upon Bolshevism the heaviest of blows, from which it may not recover.'

The Bolsheviks of course did not know of this memorandum. The point is that Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership were able to assess the balance of class forces with complete accuracy, and therefore made a similarly accurate assessment of the risks. Kronstadt was perceived as a step to counter-revolution not only by the Bolsheviks but by the White army and the world's ruling classes.

There was a second consideration regarding the timing of the repression. The Gulf of Finland is frozen from late November until the end of March or early April.

Two weeks after the Kronstadt rebellion the ice was due to melt, at which time the sailors' control of the ships would give them the strategic and military basis to overthrow the Bolshevik government. Holding out until the ice melted was identified as critical in the memorandum, after which point counter-revolution would be secured.

The rebellion was suppressed militarily after the appeal for the categorical lowering of arms was rejected by the sailors. The first attacks ended in failure for the Bolsheviks, but after a regroupment including the enlistment of 320 delegates from the Bolshevik Tenth Party Congress into the ranks, on 10 March the offensive broke through successfully. Some 8,000 Kronstadt rebels fled to Finland, where some, including Petrichenko, openly identified their links with the White army.

The events were a tragic necessity. But the tragedy would have been far greater if the Kronstadt rebellion had succeeded, and the already weakened Bolshevik state been crushed.


Sidst opdateret 6.6.2007