Kronstadt: Trotsky was right! New material from Soviet archives confirms the Bolsheviks' position
Written by A Kramer Monday, 01 December 2003 00:00
New material that has emerged from the old Soviet archives over the past decade or so have allowed new books to be published on the events surrounding the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921. Far from confirming the criticisms of those hostile to the Bolsheviks, the latest sources show that Trotsky's position was correct and totally justified.
For many years the capitalist press, erudite professors and bourgeois analysts have been going on about the "secrets in the Soviet archives". There was much speculation about the "terrible secrets of the communist regime" that would finally confirm the "evil character" of communism.
After the events that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, historians were finally allowed access to the Soviet archives. So one would expect a flow of terribly indicting facts. However the results for the bourgeois historians have been really disappointing. Of course, they did find a large amount of new evidence that confirms the shocking crimes of Stalinism. But we never had any doubt about this. Trotsky and his followers condemned these crimes long before any archives were opened. Trotsky's supporters in Soviet Russia in the 1920 and 1930s had first hand knowledge of these crimes because they were among the first to suffer the consequences of the Stalinist degeneration. Thousands of them died at the hands of Stalin's henchmen.
What the bourgeois historians were hoping for was a mass of evidence that they could use to show that there was no difference between Stalinism and the healthy regime under Lenin and Trotsky in the first period after the revolution. But they met with real problems in trying to find documents that could be used to discredit the leaders of the Russian Revolution - Lenin and Trotsky. The most difficult documents to get to in the past were those concerning the leaders of the Left Opposition. It is now clear to any historian why this was. The archives show that these leaders played a key role in the 1917 revolution and in establishing the Soviet state.
During the last ten years many new interesting sources about critical moments of the Russian Revolution have been published. Among them are two books about the most tragic act of the Russian Revolution – the so-called Kronstadt rebellion.
It is not necessary to describe here all the aspects of this well-known event. At the beginning of March 1921, in one of the most critical periods of the Soviet Republic's existence, in the naval base of Kronstadt near Petrograd, there was an attempt at a military coup against the Soviet government. The critical state that the Soviet Union was passing through in that moment meant that Lenin and Trotsky were forced to deal with the rebels very quickly. After rejecting the government's ultimatum to capitulate, Kronstadt was stormed and captured in the second attack. The rebel leaders escaped to Finland.
At the end of the 1930s a group of former Trotskyists, including Victor Serge, Max Eastman, Souvarine and some others, attacked Trotsky for his behaviour during the rebellion. (In doing this Serge contradicted his own earlier views expressed at the time of the rebellion). They described the Kronstadt events as a workers' and sailors' rebellion against the "Bolshevik dictatorship", and saw the crushing of the rebels as a "first step towards Stalinism". Later on, this criticism was adopted by other anti-Communist ideologues and propagandists. Trotsky answered these people in 1938 in his article "Hue And Cry Over Kronstadt" where he analysed the petit-bourgeois nature of this putsch.
There is no need to repeat Trotsky's arguments here, as anyone can read his article by linking to it above. Anyone who wants to know the truth can read Trotsky for themselves. What I intend to do here is to highlight some of the new information published in these recent documents - a collection of material on Kronstadt.
The first book was published under the strange title, "The Unknown Trotsky: the red Bonaparte" (Krasnov V.G., Moscow, 2000). This attempts to describe the role of Trotsky during the Russian civil war. The second book – "Kronstadt 1921" (Moscow, 2001) - is a collection of documents about the Kronstadt rebellion. It is important to stress that neither of the two books have been written by Bolshevik sympathizers.
The popular image that anti-Bolshevik critics try to portray is that there was widespread sympathy among the then Red Army soldiers towards the rebels. There has been a lot of speculation about the mass of soldiers refusing to take part in the attack for political reasons and also stories of mass desertions among the Red Army soldiers with many of them passing to the side of the Kronstadt rebels. This, however, is a myth.
What really happened was absolutely different. There was one case where one unit moved to the side of those defending Kronstadt. This was during the first unsuccessful attack. It was a battalion from the 561st Red Army regiment. This regiment was recruited among former Machno, Wrangel and Denikin prisoners. It is a well-known fact that during the civil war in Russia some peasant units changed sides even several times as a result of military failures.
There was the other case of the 236th and 237th infantry regiment which refused to go attack. Their position was: "We'll not go on the ice", "we'll go to our villages". These peasant units were terrified at the idea of having to attack across the ice this first class fortress defended by battleships. There are other reports about refusals to carry out orders on the part of different units, but in all these cases the causes were such things as the poor quality of food and clothing, the bad quality of the camouflage. No political reasons were given. This is easily understood if we remember how the young Soviet regime inherited a backward economy and, on top of that, had been forced to use its scarce resources to defend itself against the White armies backed by the imperialists who were trying to crush the revolution.
The situation inside Kronstadt also appears different to the myth. There was no solid mass of soldiers, firmly behind the rebellion. Even bourgeois historians such as Krasnov have had to recognize this fact. Inside Kronstadt there were clashes between the old revolutionary sailors and the new recruits who came from peasant and petit-bourgeois families. This fact can be confirmed by the fact that some ships declared their neutrality, while others moved against the rebels.
Here it is worth quoting from some of the statements issued by the crews of a number of ships, among them the mine-sweepers "Ural", "Orfei" and "Pobeditel": "The men of the White guards that are leading the rebels can do a lot of damage to the Republic, and they may not even hesitate to bomb Petrograd".
The same situation was to be found behind the rebel battle lines. From the 7th Army intelligence report we learn that many rebel sailors and soldiers wanted to move over to the side of the Bolsheviks, but they were terrorized by their commanders.
However, the final nail in the coffin for the anti-Bolshevik mythology built up around Kronstadt comes later. According to documents published in these two books new facts emerge about what happened in the town around Kronstadt. During the attack on Kronstadt, the workers of the town moved against the putschists and liberated the town even before the main forces of the Red Army arrived. So in reality what we had was not a workers' and sailors' rebellion against Bolshevism, but a workers' and sailors' Bolshevik uprising against the "rebels"!
In the proclamations of the Kronstadt sailors we see the words that refer to "the men of the White guards that are leading the rebels ". These were not mere words. The real command over the rebels was concentrated not in the Kronstadt soviet, as some naive individuals may think, but in the so-called "Court for the Defence of Kronstadt Fortress". One of its leaders was rear-admiral S.H. Dmitriev (who was executed after the fortress fall), the other was general A. H. Koslovsky, who escaped to Finland. Both of these senior officers were very far from having any kind of sympathy for Socialism "with Bolsheviks" or "without Bolsheviks".
There is also much talk about S. M. Petrechenko - the sailor and anti-Bolshevik leader. What is really interesting is to note that in 1927 this man was recruited by Stalin's GPU and he was one of Stalin's agent until 1944 when he was arrested by the Finnish authorities. The following year he died in a Finnish concentration camp.
So, the real story is that the Kronstadt workers and sailors actually understood the real nature of these rebels far better than any of the later intellectuals who have tried to build up the myth of Kronstadt. The same can be said of the counterrevolutionary forces that were operating in Kronstadt. The former Tsarist prime-minister and finance minister, and in emigration the director of the Russian Bank in Paris, Kokovzev, transferred 225 thousand francs to the Kronstadt rebels. The Russian-Asian bank transferred 200 thousand francs. The French prime-minister, Briand, during the meeting with the former ambassador of Kerensky's government, Malachov, promised "any necessary help to Kronstadt".
As Trotsky explained, the so-called Kronstadt rebellion was not the first petit-bourgeois, anti-Bolshevik movement to take place during both the civil war and the revolution. There were a lot of other movements that were lead by people raising the slogan of "Soviets without Bolsheviks", etc. There were such movements in some factories in the Urals and among the Aries Cossacks. But from these experiences we can see clearly that in the conditions of uncompromising class war this kind of slogan can lead straight into the camp of Mediaeval reaction and barbarism. There cannot be a revolution without a revolutionary party. And again, the ordinary Russian workers and soldiers of the time understood this very well. They understood it far better than some people today, among them even some people on the left.
The fact is that many ordinary members of the Anarchists, Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries and others parties took part in the Soviets with the Bolsheviks, but not without them. There was a huge difference between the ordinary rank and file members of these parties and their leaders who were completely anti-Bolshevik in their feelings. In the early 1920s the local Soviet authorities in some Jewish areas of the Ukrainewere totally recruited from members of the Bund. Many Anarchists took part in the Revolution and in the Civil War on the side of the Bolsheviks against the White reaction. They also cooperated with the new power until the rise of Stalinism. To this day, those courageous people are considered by some modern anarchists as "traitors". Some people never learn!
We have nothing to fear from the publication of more material from the Soviet archives. We hope that over the next few years more documents will be found in these archives about the long and glorious struggles of the Russian proletariat. They will surely provide more information on the revolutionary traditions of the Russian workers.
Appendix: Ted Grant on Kronstadt
Before much of the material that has now become available from the Soviet Archives, Ted Grant published his book Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution (1997). What he wrote about the Kronstadt events is confirmed by what A Kramer writes in this article. We quote from Part One of the book, pages 86-88:
A most serious situation arose when the naval garrison at Kronstadt mutinied. Many falsifications have been written about this event, which has been virtually turned into a myth. The purpose, as ever, is to discredit Lenin and Trotsky and show that Bolshevism and Stalinism are the same. Interestingly enough, the hue and cry over Kronstadt unites the bourgeois and Social Democratic opponents of October with anarchists and ultra-lefts. But these allegations bear no relation to the truth.
The first lie is to identify the Kronstadt mutineers of 1921 with the heroic Red sailors of 1917. They had nothing in common. The Kronstadt sailors of 1917 were workers and Bolsheviks. They played a vital role in the October Revolution, together with the workers of nearby Petrograd. But almost the entire Kronstadt garrison volunteered to fight in the ranks of the Red Army during the civil war. They were dispersed to different fronts, from whence most of them never returned. The Kronstadt garrison of 1921 was composed mainly of raw peasant levies from the Black Sea Fleet. A cursory glance at the surnames of the mutineers immediately shows that they were almost all Ukrainians.
Another lie concerns the role of Trotsky in the Kronstadt episode. Actually, he played no direct role, although as Commissar for War and a member of the Soviet government, he fully accepted political responsibility for this and other actions of the government. The seizure of the Kronstadt fortress by the mutineers placed the Soviet state in extreme danger. They had only just emerged from a bloody civil war. It is true that the negotiations with the garrison were badly handled by the Bolshevik negotiating delegation led by Kalinin, who inflamed an already serious situation. But once the mutineers had seized the most important naval base in Russia, there was no room for compromise.
The main fear was that Britain and France would use their navies to occupy Kronstadt, using the mutiny as a pretext. This would have placed Petrograd at their mercy, since whoever controlled Kronstadt controlled Petrograd. The only possible outcome was capitalist counter-revolution. That there were actual counter-revolutionary elements among the sailors was shown by the slogan "Soviets without Bolsheviks". The Bolsheviks were left with only one option. The fortress had to be retaken by force. These events occurred during the 10th Party Congress which interrupted its sessions to allow the delegates to participate in the attack. It is interesting to note that members of the Workers' Opposition, a semi-anarcho-syndicalist tendency present at the Congress, also joined the attacking forces. This nails yet another lie, which attempts to establish a clumsy amalgam between Kronstadt - anarchism - Workers' Opposition - three things that have absolutely nothing in common.
Victor Serge, who had many sympathies with anarchism, was implacably opposed to the Kronstadt mutineers, as the following passage shows:
"The popular counter-revolution translated the demand for freely-elected soviets into one for 'soviets without Communists.' If the Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of the Communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian. Dispatches from Stockholm and Tallinn testified that the émigrés had these very perspectives in mind: dispatches which, incidentally, strengthened the Bolshevik leaders' intention of subduing Kronstadt speedily and at whatever cost. We were not reasoning in the abstract. We knew that in European Russia alone there were at least 50 centres of peasant insurrection. To the south of Moscow, in the region of Tambov, Antonov, the Right Social Revolutionary school teacher, who proclaimed the abolition of the Soviet system and the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, had under his command a superbly organised peasant army, numbering several tens of thousands. He had conducted negotiations with the Whites. (Tukhachevsky suppressed this Vendée around the middle of 1921.)" (Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, pp. 128-9.)