The Russian Revolution at the Kronstadt Navel Base
Most popular uprisings in recent history have been characterized by a brief period of incredible potential and hope, only to collapse in failure and despair. Even the supposedly 'successful' Russian Revolution of 1917 followed this pattern. Revolutionaries threw off centuries of imperial rule and oppression in order to create a new world of freedom, peace and equality... only to end up with Stalin, purges, gulags, dekulakization - and ultimately decades of Bolshevik1 rule and oppression. Although it can sometimes be disheartening to review this long history of failure and oppression, valuable insights can be gained by investigating these past revolutions. The achievements and promise of the revolutionaries can be studied and their strengths marked. The weaknesses that led to their eventual defeat and decay must also be understood, so that the same mistakes are not made again. This article will address these themes in the context of the Russian Revolution at the Kronstadt navel base.2
Kronstadt deserves special attention for several reasons. The workers, soldiers and sailors at Kronstadt used the Revolution to build "a bustling, self-governing, egalitarian and highly politicized Soviet democracy, the like of which had not been seen in Europe since the days of the Paris Commune."3 This was the great promise of Kronstadt, which Trotsky praised as "the pride and glory of the Russian Revolution."4 Nowhere in Russia, however, was the failure of the revolution so dramatically illustrated as at Kronstadt. After the Bolsheviks consolidated their control of the base in mid-1918, Kronstadt made one last "desperate attempt to restore and reactivate its radical Soviet democracy."5 This was the notorious 'uprising' of March 1921, in which Trotsky condemned the Kronstadters as "counterrevolutionary mutineers."6 In the short battle that followed, Kronstadt was crushed by the Red Army, its soviet disbanded, hundreds of its revolutionaries interned in prison camps and thousands more executed.7 The course of the Soviet Union in later years is, as they say, history.
Any complete history of revolutionary Kronstadt can begin no later than 1905, when the Kronstadters joined in the wave of local uprisings sweeping Russia. Angered by decades of "bad food, maltreatment by officers... and humiliating prohibitions"8 the sailors and soldiers rose up and demanded: vodka. Leaderless and with no conscious goals, the revolt quickly disintegrated into nothing more than "arson, pillage and drunken orgy,"9 which ended after a few days. All this made quite an impression on "the few Social Revolutionary [SR] and Bolshevik activists there, who... saw to their horror how a spontaneous and leaderless mutiny could degenerate into an 'imbecile, wild and drunken pogrom'."10 Although they were impressed by the power of Kronstadt's masses, they were dismayed by the destructive and ultimately futile uses to which that power was...