“Seventeen dreadful days”: Emma Goldman on the Kronstadt Rebellion
- March 1, 2021
Anarchism & Autonomy
Despite her efforts to facilitate a peaceful outcome, the Red Army’s ruthless repression of the rebellion led to Goldman’s definite break with the Bolsheviks.
The digital version of this text was originally published at Anarchy Archives.
The digital version of this text was originally published at Anarchy Archives.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 uprising, we are republishing Emma Goldman’s account of the material and ideological motivations behind it and her reflections on the government’s repression, which, in her words, “was characterized by ruthless savagery” and led her to break all ties with the Communist Party.
The text is drawn from Goldman’s My Further Disillusionment in Russia, originally published in 1924, which collects her personal observations and experiences of post-revolutionary Russia between the years 1920-1921.
In February, 1921, the workers of several Petrograd factories went on strike. The winter was an exceptionally hard one, and the people of the capital suffered intensely from cold, hunger and exhaustion. They asked an increase of their food rations, some fuel and clothing. The complaints of the strikers, ignored by the authorities, presently assumed a political character. Here and there was also voiced a demand for the Constituent Assembly and free trade. The attempted street demonstration of the strikers was suppressed, the Government having ordered out the military kursanti.
Lisa Zorin, who of all the Communists I had met remained closest to the people, was present at the breaking-up of the demonstration. One woman became so enraged over the brutality of the military that she attacked Lisa. The latter, true to her proletarian instincts, saved the woman from arrest and accompanied her home. There she found the most appalling conditions: in a dark and damp room there lived a worker’s family with its six children, half-naked in the bitter cold. Subsequently Lisa said to me: “I felt sick to think that I was in the Astoria.” Later she moved out.
When the Kronstadt sailors learned what was happening in Petrograd they expressed their solidarity with the strikers in their economic and revolutionary demands, but refused to support any call for the Constituent Assembly. On March 1, the sailors organized a mass meeting in Kronstadt, which was attended also by the Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, Kalinin (the presiding officer of the Republic of Russia), the Commander of the Kronstadt Fortress, Kuzmin and the Chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet, Vassiliev.
The meeting, held with the knowledge of the Executive Committee of the Kronstadt Soviet, passed a resolution approved by the sailors, the garrison and the citizens’ meeting of 16,000 persons. Kalinin, Kuzmin and Vassiliev spoke against the resolution, which later became the basis of the conflict between Kronstadt and the Government. It voiced the popular demand for Soviets elected by the free choice of the people. It is worth reproducing that document in full, that the reader may be enabled to judge the true character of the Kronstadt demands. The Resolution read:
Having heard the Report of the Representatives sent by the General Meeting of Ship Crews to Petrograd to investigate the situation there, Resolved:
- In view of the fact that the present Soviets do not express the will of the workers and the peasants, immediately to hold new elections by secret ballot, the pre-election campaign to have full freedom of agitation among the workers and peasants;
- To establish freedom of speech and press for workers and peasants, for Anarchists and left Socialist parties;
- To secure freedom of assembly for labor unions and peasant organizations;
- To call a non-partisan Conference of the workers, Red Army soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt, and of Petrograd Province, no later than March 10, 1921;
- To liberate all political prisoners of Socialist parties, as well as all workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors imprisoned in connection with the labor and peasant movements;
- To elect a Commission to review the cases of those held in prisons and concentration camps;
- To abolish all politotdeli [political bureaus] because no party should be given special privileges in the propagation of its ideas or receive the financial support of the Government for such purposes. Instead there should be established educational and cultural commissions, locally elected and financed by the Government.
- To abolish immediately all zagryaditelniye otryadi [armed units that requisitioned grain from the peasants];
- To equalize the rations of all who work, with the exception of those employed in trades detrimental to health;
- To abolish the Communist fighting detachments in all branches of the Army, as well as the Communist guards kept on duty in mills and factories. Should such guards or military detachments be found necessary, they are to be appointed in the Army from the ranks, and in the factories according to the judgment of the workers;
- To give the peasants full freedom of action in regard to their land, and also the right to keep cattle, on condition that the peasants manage with their own means; that is, without employing hired labor;
- To request all branches of the Army, as well as our comrades the military kursanti, to concur in our resolutions;
- To demand that the press give the fullest publicity to our resolutions;
- To appoint a Travelling Commission of Control;
- To permit free kustarnoye [individual, small-scale] production by one’s own efforts.
On March 4, the Petrograd Soviet was to meet and it was generally felt that the fate of Kronstadt would be decided then. Trotsky was to address the gathering, and as I had not yet had an opportunity to hear him in Russia, I was anxious to attend. My attitude in the matter of Kronstadt was still undecided. I could not believe that the Bolsheviki would deliberately fabricate the story about General Kozlovsky [a former White Army general] as the leader of the sailors. The Soviet meeting, I expected, would clarify the matter.
Tauride Palace was crowded and a special body of kursanti surrounded the platform. The atmosphere was very tense. All waited for Trotsky. But when at 10 o’clock he had not arrived, Zinoviev opened the meeting. Before he had spoken 15 minutes, I was convinced that he himself did not believe in the story of Kozlovsky. “Of course Kozlovsky is old and can do nothing,” he said, “but the White officers are back of him and are misleading the sailors.” Yet, for days the Soviet papers had heralded General Kozlovsky as the moving spirit in the “uprising.”
Kalinin, whom the sailors had permitted to leave Kronstadt unmolested, raved like a fishmonger. He denounced the sailors as counter-revolutionists and called for their immediate subjugation. Several other Communists followed suit.
When the meeting was opened for discussion, a workingman from the Petrograd Arsenal demanded to be heard. He spoke with deep emotion and, ignoring the constant interruptions, he fearlessly declared that the workers had been driven to strike because of the Government’s indifference to their complaints; the Kronstadt sailors, far from being counter-revolutionists, were devoted to the Revolution. Facing Zinoviev he reminded him that the Bolshevik authorities were now acting toward the workers and sailors just as the Kerensky Government had acted toward the Bolsheviki. “Then you were denounced as counter-revolutionists and German agents,” he said; “we, the workers and sailors, protected you and helped you to power. Now you denounce us and are ready to attack us with arms. Remember, you are playing with fire.”
Then a sailor spoke. He referred to the glorious revolutionary past of Kronstadt, appealed to the Communists not to engage in fratricide, and read the Kronstadt resolution to prove the peaceful attitude of the sailors. But the voice of these sons of the people fell on deaf ears. The Petro-Soviet, its passions roused by Bolshevik demagoguery, passed the Zinoviev resolution ordering Kronstadt to surrender on pain of extermination.
“To remain silent now is impossible”
The Kronstadt sailors were ever the first to serve the Revolution. They had played an important part in the revolution of 1905; they were in the front ranks in 1917. Under Kerensky’s regime they proclaimed the Commune of Kronstadt and opposed the Constituent Assembly. They were the advance guard in the October Revolution. In the great struggle against Yudenitch the sailors offered the strongest defense of Petrograd, and Trotsky praised them as the “pride and glory of the Revolution.” Now, however, they had dared to raise their voice in protest against the new rulers of Russia. That was high treason from the Bolshevik viewpoint. The Kronstadt sailors were doomed.
Petrograd was aroused over the decision of the Soviet; some of the Communists even, especially those of the French Section, were filled with indignation. But none of them had the courage to protest, even in the Party circles, against the proposed slaughter.
As soon as the Petro-Soviet resolution became known, a group of well-known literary men of Petrograd gathered to confer as to whether something could not be done to prevent the planned crime. Someone suggested that Gorki be approached to head a committee of protest to the Soviet authorities. It was hoped that he would emulate the example of his illustrious countryman Tolstoy, who in his famous letter to the Tsar had raised his voice against the terrible slaughter of workers.
Now also such a voice was needed, and Gorki was considered the right man to call on the present Tsars to bethink themselves. But most of those present at the gathering scouted the idea. Gorki was of the Bolsheviki, they said; he would not do anything. On several previous occasions he had been appealed to, but refused to intercede. The conference brought no results. Still, there were some persons in Petrograd who could not remain silent. They sent the following letter to the Soviet of Defense:
TO THE PETROGRAD SOVIET OF LABOUR AND DEFENSE, CHAIRMAN ZINOVIEV:
To remain silent now is impossible, even criminal. Recent events impel us Anarchists to speak out and to declare our attitude in the present situation.
The spirit of ferment and dissatisfaction manifest among the workers and sailors is the result of causes that demand our serious attention. Cold and hunger have produced dissatisfaction, and the absence of any opportunity for discussion and criticism is forcing the workers and sailors to air their grievances in the open.
White-guardist bands wish and may try to exploit this dissatisfaction in their own class interests. Hiding behind the workers and sailors they throw out slogans of the Constituent Assembly, of free trade, and similar demands.
We Anarchists have long since exposed the fiction of these slogans, and we declare to the whole world that we will fight with arms against any counter-revolutionary attempt, in cooperation with all friends of the Social Revolution and hand in hand with the Bolsheviki.
Concerning the conflict between the Soviet Government and the workers and sailors, we hold that it must be settled not by force of arms but by means of comradely, fraternal revolutionary agreement. Resort to bloodshed on the part of the Soviet Government will not-in the given situation-intimidate or quiet the workers. On the contrary, it will serve only to aggravate matters and will strengthen the bands of the Entente and of internal counter-revolution.
More important still, the use of force by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government against workers and sailors will have a reactionary effect upon the international revolutionary movement and will everywhere result in incalculable harm to the Social Revolution.
Comrades Bolsheviki, bethink yourselves before it is too late. Do not play with fire: you are about to make a most serious and decisive step.
We hereby submit to you the following proposition: Let a Commission be selected to consist of five persons, inclusive of two Anarchists. The Commission is to go to Kronstadt to settle the dispute by peaceful means. In the given situation this is the most radical method. It will be of international revolutionary significance.
March 5, 1921.
But this protest was ignored.
The crime against Kronstadt
Photo: Red Army soldiers marching across the frozen Gulf of Finland towards Kronstadt to supress the rebellion.
Several days after the “glorious victory” over Kronstadt, Lenin said at the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party of Russia: “The sailors did not want the counter-revolutionists, but they did not want us, either.” And — irony of Bolshevism! — at that very Congress Lenin advocated free trade — a more reactionary step than any charged to the Kronstadt sailors.
Between the 1st and the 17th of March, several regiments of the Petrograd garrison and all the sailors of the port were disarmed and ordered to the Ukraina and the Caucasus. The Bolsheviki feared to trust them in the Kronstadt situation: at the first psychological moment they might make common cause with Kronstadt. In fact, many Red soldiers of the Krasnaya Gorka and the surrounding garrisons were also in sympathy with Kronstadt and were forced at the point of guns to attack the sailors.
On March 17, the Communist Government completed its “victory” over the Kronstadt proletariat and on the 18th of March it commemorated the martyrs of the Paris Commune. It was apparent to all who were mute witnesses to the outrage committed by the Bolsheviki that the crime against Kronstadt was far more enormous than the slaughter of the Communards in 1871, for it was done in the name of the Social Revolution, in the name of the Socialist Republic. History will not be deceived. In the annals of the Russian Revolution the names of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Dibenko will be added to those of Thiers and Gallifet.
Enemies of the revolution
Seventeen dreadful days, more dreadful than anything I had known in Russia. Agonizing days, because of my utter helplessness in the face of the terrible things enacted before my eyes. It was just at that time that I happened to visit a friend who had been a patient in a hospital for months. I found him much distressed. Many of those wounded in the attack on Kronstadt had been brought to the same hospital, mostly kursanti.
I had opportunity to speak to one of them. His physical suffering, he said, was nothing as compared with his mental agony. Too late he had realized that he had been duped by the cry of “counter-revolution.” There were no Tsarist generals in Kronstadt, no White Guardists — he found only his own comrades, sailors and soldiers who had heroically fought for the Revolution.
The rations of the ordinary patients in the hospitals were far from satisfactory, but the wounded kursanti received the best of everything, and a select committee of Communist members was assigned to look after their comfort. Some of the kursanti, among them the man I had spoken to, refused to accept the special privileges. “They want to pay us for murder,” they said. Fearing that the whole institution would be influenced by these awakened victims, the management ordered them removed to a separate ward, the “Communist ward,” as the patients called it.
Kronstadt broke the last thread that held me to the Bolsheviki. The wanton slaughter they had instigated spoke more eloquently against them than aught else. Whatever their pretenses in the past, the Bolsheviki now proved themselves the most pernicious enemies of the Revolution. I could have nothing further to do with them.
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