The rebellion took place in the first weeks of March, 1921. Kronstadt is a naval fortress on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Traditionally, it has served as the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet and to guard the approaches to the city of St. Petersburg (which during the First World War was re-named Petrograd, then later Leningrad, and is now St. Petersburg again) thirty-five miles away.
At the end of the Civil War, Soviet Russia was exhasted and ruined. The droughts of 1920 and 1921 and the frightful famine during that last year added the final, gruesome chapter to the disaster. In the years following the originally "bloodless" October Revolution, epidemics, starvation, fighting, executions, and the general breakdown of the economy and society had taken something like twenty million lives. Another million had left Russia -- with General Wrangel, through the Far East, or in numerous other ways - rather than accept Communist rule, the emigres included a high proportion of educated and skilled people. War Communism might have saved the Soviet government in the course of the Civil War, but it also helped greatly to wreck the nation economy. With private industry and trade proscribed and the state unable to perform these functions on a sufficient scale, much of the Russian economy ground to a standstill. It has been estimated that the total output of mines and factories fell in 1921 to 20 per cent if the pre-World War level, with many crucial items experiencing an even more drastic decline. Production of cotton, for example, fell to 5 per cent, iron to 2 per cent, of the prewar level. The peasants responded to requisitioning by refusing to till their land. By 1921 cultivated land had shrunk to some 62 per cent of the prewar acreage, and the harvest yield was only about 37 percent of normal. The number of horses declined from 35 million in 1916 to 24 million in 1920, and cattle from 58 to 37 million during the same span of time. The exchange rate of the US dollar, which had been two rubles in 1914, rose to 1,200 in 1920.
The unbearable situation led to uprisings in the countryside and to strikes and violent unrest in the factories. In urban areas, a wave of spontaneous strikes occurred and in late February a near general strike broke out in Petrograd. On 26 February, in response to these events in Petrograd, the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting and agreed to send a delegation to the city to investigate and report back on the ongoing strike movement. On their return, two days later, the delegates informed their fellow sailors of the strikes (with which they had full sympathy with) and the government repression directed against them. Those present at this meeting on the Petropavlovsk then approved a resolution which raised fifteen demands which included free elections to the soviets, freedom of speech, press, assembly and organisation to workers, peasants, anarchists and left-socialists. Of the fifteen demands, only two were related to what Marxists term the "petty-bourgeoisie" (the peasantry and artisans) and these demanded "full freedom of action" for all peasants and artisans who did not hire labour. Like the Petrograd workers, the Kronstadt sailors demanded the equalisation of wages and the end of roadblock detachments restricting travel and the ability of workers to bring food into the city.
Finally, in March 1921, the Kronstadt naval base, celebrated by the Communists as one of the sources of the October Revolution, rose in rebellion against Communist rule. It is worth noting that the sailors and other Kronstadt rebels demanded free Soviets and the summoning of a constituent assembly. The Communist Government responded with an ultimatum on 2 March. This asserted that the revolt had "undoubtedly been prepared by French counterintelligence" and that the Petropavlovsk resolution was a "SR-Black Hundred" resolution (SR stood for "Social Revolutionaries", a party with a traditional peasant base and whose right-wing had sided with White forces; the "Black Hundreds" were a reactionary, indeed proto-fascist, force dating back to before the revolution which attacked Jews, labour militants, radicals and so on). They argued that the revolt had been organised by ex-Tsarist officers led by ex-General Kozlovsky (who had, ironically, been placed in the fortress as a military specialist by Trotsky). This was the official line through-out the revolt.
The revolt was isolated and received no external support. The Petrograd workers were under martial law and could little or no action to support Kronstadt. The Communist government started to attack Kronstadt on March 7. After 10 days of constant attacks, during which many Red Army units were forced onto the ice at gunpoint and during which some had joined the rebellion, the Kronstadt revolt was crushed by the Red Army. On March 17, the Bolshevik forces finally entered the city of Kronstadt after having suffered over 10,000 casualties (there are no reliable figures for the rebels loses or how many were later shot by the Cheka or sent to prison camps). The next day, ironically, the Bolsheviks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.
Although Red Army units ruthlessly suppressed the uprising, the general dissatisfaction with Bolshevik rule could not have been more forcefully expressed. And it was against this background of utter devastation and discontent that Lenin, who, besides, had finally to admit that a world revolution was not imminent, proceeded in the spring of 1921 to inaugurate his New Economic Policy in place of War Communism. This article originally appeared on Infoshop