- Head, M.A., S.J.
- WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1987 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
KRONSTADT IS A FORTIFIED CITY on the island of Kotlin, about 30 kilometres from Leningrad in the Gulf of Finland. Built three centuries ago, it was to guard the approaches to St. Petersburg and therefore had large forts on the western, southern, northern sides. On the eastern side was a large naval base, home base of the Russian Baltic Fleet. The island is 12 kilometres long and 2 to 3 kilometres wide, and the city of Kronstadt covers about a third of the total area. With the forts of Krasnaya Gorka on the southern coast, and Lissy Noss on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, the area could be held against the British Grand Fleet. Generally about 50,000 lived on the island – crews of ships, artillery men, officials, and the skilled workers of the dockyards.
The men of Kronstadt had played a most significant role in the October Revolution and the guns of the Aurora signalled the fall of the Czar. Then they had resisted the British attacks on the base in 1919 and served well in the defence of Petrograd by the Bolsheviks. By 1921 these threats were over and things were very different in the city of Petrograd.
The Chela (now the KGB) were in firm control but restlessness grew. In February 1921 a general strike broke out in Petrograd, and a call was made for a new revolution. These new revolutionaries were just as opposed to the new Bolshevik Government as they were to private capitalism. They wanted free speech, but only for anarchists, Left Social-Revolutionaries, and similar groups.
By February 25th the strike had affected the Admiralty Arsenal and the port of Galernii Island. Proclamations poured out:
‘A fundamental change in the policy of the government is required. In the first place the workers and peasants need liberty. They do not want to live according to the regulations of the Bolsheviks; they want to decide their own destinies for themselves. Comrades, maintain revolutionary order!’
On February 28th Trotsky struck and wiped out the defenceless strikers ‘by an iron hand’. On the same day, Kronstadt declared its support for the revolution and went into action.
The crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk led the way and was soon supported by the Sevastopol. A mass meeting was held in the giant Anchor Square and a motion put by a seaman named Petrichenko was carried by 16,000 people, almost unanimously. The communist leaders, Vassilieff and Kalinin, were amongst the few who voted against it.
The 1st and 2nd squadrons of the Baltic fleet accepted sixteen motions which called for such things as freedom of the press and of speech for all workers and peasants, and members of left socialist parties. The printing presses ran hot and soon the Provisional Revolutionary Committee was in full control of the island.
The Bolsheviks did not waste any time. Under Trotsky’s orders new and reliable forces were brought in, and the closest forts to Kronstadt, Krasnaya Gorka, Oranien- baum, and Lissy Noss were taken over. The city of Petrograd was put under martial law and a state of siege was declared on Kronstadt. Nothing moved on the ice and snow of the Gulf of Finland. A violent propaganda attack was launched against the rebels:
‘To all! To all! To all! To arms against the White Guard conspiracy! The mutiny of ex-General Kozlovsky and the battleship Petropavlovsk has been organised by spies of the Entente, as was the case in numerous previous plots.’
The unfortunate Kozlovsky was an ex- Czarist general who had been appointed to Kronstadt as an artillery expert by Trotsky himself and had nothing to do with the revolution, before, during, or after it.
On March 5th Trotsky issued an ultimatum to the revolutionaries. It was an order to submit and nothing less. ‘Only those who surrender unconditionally can expect mercy from the Soviet Republic’. This was followed by an historic threat:
‘I will shoot you like partridges’.
At 6.45pm on March 7th the forts at Krasnaya Gorka, Lissy Noss, and Sestroretsk bombarded the island. A massive assault across the ice by troops dressed in white followed. It was beaten back with appalling losses. The battleship Sevastopol silenced the fortress at Krasnaya Gorka for the time being, but it could not go on. The 14,000 men who made up the garrison of Kronstadt were cut off with no hope of relief.