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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Difficult Anniversary

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow, 1 March, marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the revolt of Kronstadt sailors against Soviet power, an anniversary that Russian officials and Russian scholars have found it difficult to acknowledge.

On that date in 1921, 15,000 sailors of the Kronstadt naval garrison near what is now again St. Petersburg, a group thought to be among the most fanatical supporters of Lenin and the Bolshevik regime, staged a demonstration in front of the cathedral there to protest Soviet repression of worker and civil rights. They demanded new elections in order to have soviets which genuinely reflected the will of workers and peasants.

Fearing that the appeals of the Kronstadt sailors would spread to other groups in society, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership ordered their forcible suppression. Under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, the Red Army attacked Kronstadt and by 18 March had killed 15,000 of the sailors and forced another 8,000 to flee across the ice to Finland.

Like the working class revolts in the Siberian cities of Izhevsk and Votkinsk and the peasant revolts in Tambov and elsewhere during the Civil War, the Kronstadt protest by hitherto loyal Soviet sailors and the drowning of their efforts in blood presented the Soviet regime ever after with a serious ideological problem.

On the one hand, it called into question Soviet claims to represent the workers, peasants, and soldiers in whose name Lenin had made the revolution and in whose name his government claimed to exercise its power. And on the other hand, it showed that the Soviet regime was prepared to be especially merciless to those who were members of these social categories but who questioned the behavior of the Soviet regime.

Not surprisingly, the Soviet government and Soviet historians did what they often did when confronted with a fact that did not fit in with their ideological world view: they ignored the event to the point of acting as if it had never happened.

Access to Kronstadt was restricted until 1996, and the cornerstone of a monument to the sailors who died was laid only in 1990. In 1994, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered that the sailors be officially and mostly posthumously rehabilitated as the victims of Kronstadt, and he called for the erection of a memorial to their heroism.

But until last year, little was done to implement Yeltsin's order. The government provided no money for constructing a monument, and things appeared to have reverted to the pattern of the Soviet period when no one said anything and nothing appeared to be remembered about the sailors of Kronstadt.

Then last winter, Kronstadt administration head Leonid Surikov organized a competition to design a monument to the sailors. The winning entry consists of a broken mast as a symbol both of the aspirations of the sailors for freedom and their suppression by Lenin and his government. And local historian Marat Kuznetsov is slated to publish next month a volume on the rising.

Throughout the Soviet period, most Russians were told that the Kronstadt struggle was an "armed rebellion" or a "counterrevolutionary mutiny." Many people in Russia still believe that, including many in the government. According to Venyamin Iofe who heads the St. Petersburg branch of the Memorial human rights organization, there is a good reason for this.

As he puts it, "the heirs of the communists are still in power and still determine how we treat history." But he adds that such an interpretation must change because the Kronstadt sailors did "what was right." His words are echoed by historian Kuznetsov.

As Kuznetsov said in advance of this difficult anniversary, the events in Kronstadt in 1921 were not "an armed rebellion." Instead, the rising "was a natural expression of discontent by sailors over the policy of the Bolsheviks directed at their own people."