Historians’ Panel on the Kronstadt Uprising

First panel at “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond” (Saturday, March 20, 2021)

Featuring panelists:
– Konstantin Tarasov, “Kronstadt self-government in 1917”
– Simon Pirani, “Kronstadt and the workers’ movements in Moscow and Petrograd, 1921”
– Dmitriy Ivanov, “Kronstadt 1921 uprising, political identities, and information flows”
– Alexei Gusev, “Kronstadt Uprising of 1921 as a part of the Great Russian Revolution”
– Lara Green, moderating

“One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow […]; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive” (Theodor W. Adorno).

On this panel, a hundred years on, Russian and British historians discuss the March 1921 Kronstadt uprising of the Great Russian Revolution. We learn how the Kronstadt naval garrison was, on the one hand, one of the grimmest places to serve in the Imperial Navy, and, on the other, how anarchists, Maximalist Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s), Bolsheviks, and Menshevik social democrats constructed the Kronstadt Soviet on Kotlin Island, the bastion of the Baltic Fleet. Among the 50,000 citizens of the “Kronstadt Republic,” there were 30,000 soldiers and sailors. In 1917, the Red Sailors executed their most abusive officers, revolted against the Provisional Government during the “July Days,” and helped the Bolsheviks take power in October 1917. Then, in 1921, the citizens, soldiers, and sailors of Kronstadt declared an “institutionalized mutiny,” built the Commune, and so defied the ruling Communists’ bureaucratic dictatorship.

Though swiftly crushed by Trotsky and the ex-Tsarist officer Tukhachevsky, the Kronstadt mutineers were not isolated in their courageous militancy. Indeed, they inspired many fellow soldiers and sailors to defect and join their quixotic struggle, precipitating a severe crisis for the Communist Party—”the flash,” as Lenin said, “which lit up reality better than anything else.” Many members of the Party resigned in protest over the atrociousness of Bolshevik calumnies and repression. In this sense, Kronstadt was the culmination of vast worker-peasant resistance to both the White reactionaries (led by Generals Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel) and the Bolshevik bosses (Lenin, Trotsky, Kalinin, Zinoviev).

Having parallels with the Kiel naval mutiny which launched the German Revolution of November 1918, as well as the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea of June 1905, Kronstadt came to represent a revolutionary situation that might have yielded a Third Russian Revolution. (The first had overthrown Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917; the second had instituted Bolshevik-Left SR rule in October 1917. The Bolsheviks in turn suppressed the Left SR’s in July 1918.) This Third Revolution might have changed the political regime, resolved the agrarian question, and allowed for a full transition to workers’ control. The world, and the present, would have been very different. Kronstadt’s fate thus marks a most tragic turning point in the Russian revolutionary process, as well as modern human history, considering the great damage this atrocity inflicted on the credibility of the socialist project, paving the way for Stalin’s takeover, the Purges, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, World War II, and the Holocaust.

Notwithstanding the traumatic setback of March 1921, anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, eyewitnesses to the massacre, agitated for the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) in 1922 as a means of advancing the global cause of working-class self-organization and -emancipation, while avoiding the reproduction of centralism and authoritarianism. A hundred years on, the IWA-AIT keeps up this struggle. Behold how Victor Serge, a former anarchist who had sided with the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, dramatically breaks ranks with Trotsky over his self-serving 1938 propaganda piece, “Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt.”

Courtesy Dmitriy Ivanov

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