The slaughter of the First World War spurred many soldiers to mutiny and join the revolution. Kronstadt sailors played a leading role—and that was no accident.
Kronstadt, base of the Baltic Fleet, was at the centre of the Tsar’s attempt to build a modern navy. That meant more and more skilled recruits were needed.
More than half of recruits were workers—compared to just 3 percent of recruits to the largely peasant army.
Along with their skills, these working class sailors brought an experience of class struggle and socialist politics into the base.
As the director of police complained, they had “already gone through the corrupting school of the factory atmosphere”.
This was also true of the dockers, munitions workers and others who ran the facilities that kept the base running.
By 1917 the town’s industrial workforce had swelled to 17,000.
This powder keg finally blew as a full-scale insurrection ripped through Kronstadt in February 1917.
The February Revolution replaced the Tsar’s rule with a Provisional Government, which dispatched the liberal Victor Pepeliaev to run Kronstadt.
But the sailors had already set up the Committee of the National Movement as the new revolutionary body.
And their soviet—or council—was democratising the fleet in the face of Pepeliaev’s protestations.
Through intense debates Bolshevik workers and sailors won it to opposing the ongoing war—and later to supporting the party’s slogan of “All power to the soviets”.
Their soviet defied the Provisional Government by declaring itself the “sole power” in the city on 30 May.
This prompted revolutionary Leon Trotsky to praise Kronstadt as the “pride and glory of the revolution”.
This foreshadowed the October Revolution when the working class seized power.
But after October Russia’s old rulers and their imperialist backers fought to regain control.
Their civil war decimated the working class the revolution was built on—and forced its leaders to desperate measures.
In 1921, famine in the cities led the Bolsheviks to requisition grain from the peasants, provoking protests.
Kronstadt rose again—now demanding “soviets without Bolsheviks” and a “free market in agriculture”.
This time Trotsky’s Red Army had to suppress it.
The battle was bloody, and many anarchists and liberals use this as proof that the Bolsheviks were installing a dictatorship.
But the angry rebukes they faced in workers’ committees across Petrograd show that, despite the civil war, a working class democracy survived.
If the Bolsheviks had given in to the rebellion’s demands, it would have meant giving up on the revolution’s socialist aims.
Every reactionary would have jumped on a successful Kronstadt revolt to slam the door shut. The Bolsheviks fought to keep it ajar.
Defeat would have ushered in the gruesome revenge of the old ruling class.
If the revolution survived, revolts in other countries could break it out of its isolation. But this hope was beginning to fade.
As Bolshevik leader Lenin said, the tragedy at Kronstadt “lit up reality like a lightning flash” and summed up the growing desperation.