In 1921, during the Russian Civil War, Leon Trotsky was head of the Red Army when it crushed a sailors rebellion in Kronstadt.
It was three years ago, Nikolai Sukhanov (a member of the Petrograd Soviet) reminded Leon Trotsky that he, Trotsky, had previously announced to the people of Petrograd that “we shall conduct the work of the Petrograd Soviet in a spirit of lawfulness and of full freedom for all parties. The hand of the Presidium will never lend itself to the suppression of the minority.”
He was speaking in 1921, the year that the Bolsheviks crushed an uprising at the Soviet naval base of Krondstrat. Upon hearing that, after a moment of silence, Trotsky responded, “those were good days.”
The Kronstadt naval base situated on Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland was a base for the Russian Baltic Fleet which defended the approaches to Petrograd (the city we now know as St. Petersburg).
The sailors of the Krondstrat naval base had first dissented against the then ruling Tzarist regime during the failed 1905 revolution and later went on to participate in a mutiny against that regime during the 1917 Bolshevik revolutions of February and October. A number of them were part of the Bolshevik movement which took the cruiser Aurora and steamed up the River Nevas in Petrograd where they proceeded to lay siege to the Winter Palace.
Trotsky had been a leading dissident figure against the Tzar Nicolas II in Russia and a long time proponent of revolution there. With Lenin he succeeded in that goal, wiping out the ruling Romanov family and bringing into being the Soviet Union. Trotsky at the time referred to these sailors as the “pride and glory of the Russian Revolution.”
However by 1921 Russia was fighting a civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army opposition. Disillusioned with the Bolshevik government, the Krondstrat port would see another rebellion, this time against its former allies. The crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk passed a resolution on February 8 1921 demanding election, freedom of speech, rights of assembly and free trade, release of political prisoners, abolishment of political sections within the armed forces, granting of peasant freedom and other rights which were being denied to them by the Bolsheviks.
The sailors at Kronstadt were putting in place their own commune where they put into practice the Libertarian and democratic societal ideas that they and their comrades who had previously fought under Lenin aspired to win in 1917. They formed a council of trade unions and their Conference of Delegates held regular meetings. Their stated goal was to give “all power to the Soviets and not to parties.”
The resolution and the revolt by the sailors at Kronstadt was denounced by Lenin who denounced it as a plot devised by his White Army opponents — acting in cahoots with their European allies. By March 6 Trotsky stated he was going to order the Red Army to attack these revolting sailors. By March 17th the Red Army under his command took control of Krondstadt. Most of the sailors and civilians in the area fled to neighbouring Finland. It is estimated that some 500 were killed in the suppression of this insurrection against Bolshevik rule.
Trotsky later claimed on July 14th of the same year that if he hadnt put down the revolt when he did “two or three days more and the Baltic Sea would have been ice-free and the war vessels of the foreign imperialists could have entered the ports of Kronstadt and Petrograd. Had we then been compelled to surrender Petrograd, it would have opened the road to Moscow, for there are virtually no defensive points between Petrograd and Moscow.”
Trotsky had previously told the revolting sailors at Kronstradt to surrender or be “shot like partridges.” When they refused, the Red Army attacked. Those attacking troops were mostly young, and as they moved in to attack they were flanked from behind by Cheka agents armed with machine guns that were ready to kill any one of those soldiers that didnt carry out orders.
Trotsky infamously explained why such measures were necessary. Writing in his autobiography some years after this incident he stated that “an army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the army command has the death-penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements – the animals that we call men – will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldier between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear.”
Kronstadt signaled for many a turning point in history when the Bolshevik revolutionaries who came to power preaching empowerment and egalitarianism were utilizing state terror to ensure they stayed in power. Kronstadt is therefore seen by many former Communists as the moment when the Communist movement became just another oppressive dictatorial force in Russia. It is symbolic of that turning point as Trotsky, the well-known pamphleteer and preacher of libertarian values and egalitarianism, was the commander of the oppressive force that crushed those heartfelt Communists at Kronstadt. The very ones whose aid to their former comrades in capturing Petrograd during the October Revolution was decisive.
When Trotsky was sent into exile by Stalin and began to critique him, one of his opponents, anarchist Emma Goldman argued that his criticism of Stalin was at its base hypocritical given Trotskys role in crushing the uprising at Kronstadt.
In response to some some of his critics who equated Bolshevism and Stalinism Trotsky himself penned an article entitled Amoralism and Kronstadt in which he claimed that “the best, most sacrificing sailors were completely withdrawn from Kronstadt and played an important role at the fronts and in the local Soviets throughout the country. What remained was the grey mass with big pretensions, but without political education and unprepared for revolutionary sacrifice. The country was starving. The Kronstadters demanded privileges. The uprising was dictated by a desire to get privileged food rations.”
It was on the 22nd of January of that year of the uprising that the Bolsheviks cut the bread ration by a third. Rations consisted of only 1000 calories a day. Many of the Kronstadt sailors originated from peasant families so they despised the privileges the leaders of the Bolshevik Party received.
This incident also prompted Lenin to bring an end to his policy of War Communism and bring forth his New Economic Policy, as he realized that the martial law the Bolsheviks were enforcing would inevitably lead to a revolution against them.