Kronstadt 1921 – Notes on the documents
“Ignorance is a demonic force and it is to be feared that it will cause many more tragedies.” (1)
It is with the deep meaning of this quotation in mind that we have endeavored, during the commemoration of the Kronstadt uprising of March 1921, to search for documents that are direct sources relating to this uprising and the reactions it provoked. We want to share our need to understand and there is nothing better than to centralize on a single platform texts that are scattered here and there, and then make them accessible, those already known and others unpublished. Thus, antinomic texts will rub shoulders, those in favor of the insurrection and those who fought it mercilessly.
It is a big mass to digest (2), we cannot be satisfied with reading a chosen text, often that of such or such author to whom we have sympathy, because he or she belongs to our political family. But our choice is not to privilege such or such political family, because this one locks us, deprives us of the necessity to seize this movement of struggle which, like any movement, is protean, moving, changing and reserving many surprises in its evolution. The family freezes, repeats the same clichés and does not make the effort to question itself. In this case, reflection gives way to emotion, a constant of our time that must be preserved.
The first direct source is of course the ‘Kronstadt Izvestia’ (‘Kronstadt News’), the official organ of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee (PRC), which published this small newspaper from March 3 to 16. Its main purpose was to counteract the violent campaign of slander and lies conducted by the Bolshevik authorities, relayed by various organs of the press under orders such as ‘Pravda’ and the ‘Petrograd Izvestia’.
In its 14 issues, one finds administrative and economic directives of the PRC, as well as the reports of its activity; extracts of the propaganda of the Soviet power to highlight its lies as well as its ukases to put an end to the insurrection; letters of resigning members of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) who condemn the attitude of the Soviet power and support the necessity of a radical change of course.
Let’s look at the side of those who support the crushing of the insurrection. Lenin’s speech at the 10th Congress of the Russian CP on March 8, 1921 is intended to galvanize the party troops, to chain them in order to better subdue the Kronstadt insurrection. The interview of Trotsky on March 16 to the foreign press allows to reinforce the thesis of the conspiracy of white-guards /socialist-revolutionaries / Menshevik /counter-revolutionary generals. Even more important in its repercussions on the Western proletariat is the article by Karl Radek of April 1. His attitude is worthy of a prosecutor whose function is to smear, discredit and slander all the more strongly because he is in a position where his voice carries. According to him, the insurrection could only be the work of white guards and therefore [had] to be crushed. This is the message of a prominent representative of Soviet power, which was translated into several languages as soon as it was written. This article became state truth, as long as it came from Moscow. In French, it appeared in the ‘Bulletin Communiste’ n°19 of May 12, 1921, the organ of the committee of the Third International, which did not see fit to reproduce contradictory documents. (3) In the following issues of this Bulletin Communiste, other articles will be a somewhat servile relay of Moscow: again on Kronstadt and articles of Lenin on the X. Congress.
Radek’s article, relayed by all the organs of press, propaganda of the communist parties in full expansion could only marginalize and discredit the discordant voices, more especially as the mendacious propaganda acts on the best minds whose sight can be blurred momentarily.
Articles of those who feel, demonstrate the importance of the insurrection and its repression.
Here is the observation of an Italian anarchist, back from Russia, who writes in the Risveglio comunista-anarchico n° 573 of October 1, 1921 as follows:
“[The] revolt [of the sailors of Kronstadt is] still little known by the subversive milieus in general and by the anarchists in particular, in all its tragic and terrible events, which continued after its surrender, because our milieus [are] still impregnated by all the interested and partial propaganda which aimed at making pass in a bad light, not only those who had participated in this revolt, but also all those who, for one reason or another, protest against the barbaric and ferocious methods employed against these same sailors who had made the revolution and were unanimously considered to be in the vanguard of it, simply because they had dared to show solidarity with the workers on strike in Petrograd, and whose demand for a little more bread had been met with bullets and arrests.”
This observation is important: very few anarchist, syndicalist, or non-party militants (in any case outside the political milieu pronouncing itself in favor of the III. International) grasp the importance of this insurrection, on the one hand as being a clear break from Soviet power, to the point of speaking of a third revolution, and on the other hand that we are witnessing the “bloody twilight of the Soviets”, as Ida Mett could write in 1938. The analysis of the events in their globality is not yet formulated. For that it is necessary to wait until the end of 1921 with the publication of Rudolf Rocker’s text, the “first global criticism of the principles of Bolshevism published in German from the anarchist side” (Arthur Lehning).
When we wrote that “their view may have been momentarily blurred”, we are referring to two anarchist newspapers. Such an example is given to us by the reading of the Réveil communiste-anarchiste where we can read this laconic “The news which arrives to us from Russia is distressing. It is the fratricidal struggle, inevitable consequence of any so-called revolutionary dictatorship.” (‘Le Réveil’ n°560, March 19, 1921) In the newspaper ‘Le Libertaire’, no article on Kronstadt before December 23, 1921. (4)
However, some anarchists, like Marie Isidine, (5) “felt” the true nature of this insurrection. In her article “La vérité sur Kronstadt”, published in a small confidential review ‘Les Temps Nouveaux’ in April-May 1921, (6) she says the essential, that it is a spontaneous insurrection and that the white guards did not play any role. Moreover, M. Isidine writes something important: “this is what we felt” when we read the bourgeois newspapers, which were exultant, thinking that the era of the Bolsheviks was over. It is not necessary to have all the proofs in hand, like a laborious academic, to perceive the strength of a movement, even if one reads only the lies of the press at the orders of Moscow. Another article published in the newspaper ‘Le Populaire’, the organ of the Socialist Party of March 26, signed by Alexandre Schreider (an exiled left-wing socialist-revolutionary) only confirms the previous observation.
Thus information circulated, more or less well. Alexandre Schreider and Marie Isidine were better able to grasp the essentials since they read Russian and had been able to have the Kronstadt Izvestia in their hands. The other problem that must be kept in mind is the question of language. Everything we have mentioned so far is translated into French. But what about the testimony written in Russian and not translated for many years by Stepan Petrichenko in 1921? The same goes for the text by R. Rocker written in German and translated many years later into French. And in other languages?
We can find excerpts from the ‘Kronstadt Izvestia’ in French, in the ‘Bulletin périodique de la presse russe’ n°92 of April 29, 1921, as well as information which we can say today that they were precise and accurate. (7) We can also find some extracts from the Izvestia in the newspaper ‘Le Populaire’. (8) This makes it difficult for us to understand the reason for this silence for many months in a certain anarchist press. (9) Is it not due to the fact that the “anarchists have unanimously supported it [the Bolshevist insurrection] and during all the revolution have participated in the defense of the country against the attacks of the counterrevolutionary generals.” (‘Le Réveil’ No. 602 of November 18, 1922.) This same newspaper, in its number 601, wrote: “the danger [of mutilation of the revolution] appeared to us from the first day; but our protest could have been exploited by the counter-revolutionaries and even served to justify the infamy of the blockade, and we had to keep a certain reserve…” (10) The honeymoon with the Bolsheviks is consumed at the end of 1920, beginning of 1921 because the Soviet power locks up the anarchists (as well as all organized forms of opposition – left socialist-revolutionary, maximalists, Menshevik…); the crushing of the Kronstadt insurrection and its deep meaning will only confirm the oppressive nature of the Russian state, but it will be necessary to wait until the end of 1921 for this to appear in full light.
* * *
If the number of documents published in 1921 is large and already sufficient to get a clear idea of the nature of the Kronstadt uprising, we note that with the years 1922 and following, their number decreases. It is time for commemoration, which A. Berkman does in the article “About the Kronstadt riots” and the assessment of this crucial period. Efim Yartchouk in 1923 and Stepan Petrichenko in 1925 make this assessment, but as these texts were published in Russian, one can think that their impact is not the same as André Morizet’s book, which relates the events in a measured and correct way, while thinking that the repression was necessary.
The end of the 1930s in Russia was marked by a gigantic repression against what was the Bolshevik vanguard and the proletariat in general. Trials were held in Moscow in August 1936, January 1937 and March 1938. Trotsky, in exile in Mexico from January 1937, was denounced as “a terrorist in the pay of the Nazis”. He tried to set up a commission of inquiry (known as the Dewey Commission) into the trials, the first session of which was held on April 10, 1937. It is at this moment that a former German communist deputy, Thomas Wendelin, member of the American sub-commission, publicly questions Trotsky on Kronstadt and Makhno, saying that there is a “fundamental identity” between the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders in 1921 and Stalinism. Trotsky answers him in July 1937. He continued to claim the “tragic necessity” (11) of crushing this movement. He put forward arguments denigrating the insurgents, writing that “the mutiny was dictated by a desire to obtain privileged food rations”, that it was led by petty-bourgeois, peasants whose ideas were reactionary. (12) In doing so, he attracted the responses of Ida Mett, Emma Goldman, Victor Serge and Anton Ciliga. The controversy continued until 1938. During this year, Ida Mett finalized her text The Kronstadt Commune, Bloody Twilight of the Soviets. (13) It was not published that year because the ‘Proletarian Revolution’ Publishing House refused to publish the manuscript, at a time when Trotsky was the object of senseless accusations and assassination attempts by the Stalinists. On the other hand, this did not prevent the newspaper ‘Le Libertaire’ from publishing a series of articles on Kronstadt by Alexander Berkman from December 15, 1938 to February 2, 1939, the conclusion of which we are putting online.
While the History of the Bolshevik Party, supervised by Stalin himself and widely distributed by the various communist parties in 1946, states: “The counter-revolutionary riot in Kronstadt was a clear example of the new tactics of the class enemy…”, the association “Friends of Voline” publishes the book ‘The Unknown Revolution’ by Voline. This 700-page volume gives a broad overview of the Kronstadt uprising and allows readers to discover unpublished material, including large extracts from the Kronstadt Izvestia. Then came the publication of Ida Mett’s book ‘The Kronstadt Commune, Bloody Twilight of the Soviets’ in 1948.
The publication of the article of ‘Le Prolétaire’ in 1946, is part of the reflection undertaken by militants who during the 2nd imperialist war had a position that we qualified years later “internationalists of the third camp”, that is to say those who did not support any imperialist camp. This questioning will reappear several times during the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s… often among militants who have passed through Trotskyism, as it was the case for those revolutionary communists a little before 1940. As a general rule, it is a radical questioning of Leninism and an evolution is made either towards anarchism, or towards a communism of the left or of councils. This group, which published Le Prolétaire, also produced a pamphlet with Ciliga’s text published in 1938.
As we can see, the divisive polemic born in 1938 is not dead. Regularly until our days, it remains alive.
For the following years we leave it to the readers to discover these documents.
Source: Notes à propos des documents sur l’insurrection de Cronstadt-1921. Announcement on ‘Fragments d’Histoire de la gauche radicale’ (Archives Autonomies): March 5, 2021.
Translation: H.C., April 23, 2021. Last edited: April 6, 2021.
1 Marx, 1842. Quoted by B. Souvarine in his book Staline, aperçu historique du bolchevisme, page 612, éditions Champ Libre, 1977. [We found this reference in the arrière-propos (“background information”) of the 1985 edition with ‘Les Éditions Gérard Lebovici’, Paris. Editor’s note.]
2 We refer the readers to the bibliography that we have established, which adds more material to what can be found here, which is not exhaustive and – with some exceptions – limited to works in French.
3 The Bulletin communiste is aimed at informed readers. The tone remains measured. This is not the case with ‘L’Humanité’, henceforth the organ of the SFIC (French Section of the Communist International), which from the beginning of the insurrection, dragged it through the mud: “behind the Kronstadt mutineers one sees the Finnish counter-revolutionaries and if one looks closely, the French government” (‘L’Humanité’, March 11). We spare the readers other, particularly odious, excerpts.
4 We don’t know about the anarchist press in Italian, German or English. It would be necessary to study this closely, not to condemn, but to understand. With regards to France there are several elements to be taken into account: 1°) The end of the war destroyed “the best of us”; 2°) There are accounts to be settled between those who supported the military effort of the Allies and those who opposed all the warring sides; 3°) The participation or not with the first communist parties (in 1919 and 1920); 4°) The chronic disinterest for what was not France; 5°) The question of the circulation of information, already not easy, although in 1920, this was liberalized, without counting the problem of the language, since crucial information exists first in Russian, and little in French.
7 To which Rudolf Rocker refers in his text ‘The soviets betrayed by the Bolsheviks’, published in late 1921.
8 Some excerpts from the Izvestia are placed on the front page of Le Libertaire… in its number 161 of February 17, 1922.
9 We note that we have not found any publicity in Le Libertaire for M. Isidine’s book.
10 We emphasize that we seek to understand and not to judge out of hand. Support for the Bolshevist revolution is the work of revolutionaries who are enemies of all white counter-revolutionary forces.
11 This expression is used in his biography of Stalin.
12 He does the same with Makhno whose name he doesn’t hesitate to sully by saying that the “partisans of Makhno were overtaken by a militant antisemitism”.
13 At least that was the title of her publication in 1948.