Russian sailors at Petrograd (which had been St. Petersburg) were among the first of their countrymen to become revolutionaries, when they set up their own soviet in 1905. They played an important part in the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution.
Twenty miles away from Petrograd was a naval base at Kronstadt. The sailors based there had been grossly disappointed. They had thought of a soviet as a free, self-governing community but instead they had suffered the full weight of a Bolshevik dictatorship, which they found to their amazement was even worse than Imperial Russia.
As the Russian Civil War drew to a close these sailors showed their discontent with their Bolshevik masters by deciding to return to their programme of 1917 – ‘All power to the Soviets, not to the Commissars/Parties’. A delegation of sailors met Petrograd’s workers and reported later to a big gathering at Kronstadt. It was March 1.
Sailors and workers demanded freedom for the Press and freedom of speech for everyone, ‘workers or peasants, anarchist or leftist socialist parties’: there was no mention of any social group not included in this list of the privileged – doctors, scientists, landowners etc. This was to be ‘a true Soviet’. They wanted multi-party elections, and abolition of the Cheka (secret police) and Communist Part military units. They cried, ‘no single party should have special privileges’.
It could not last; Lenin cleverly denounced the sailors’ and workers’ revolt as a ‘White Guard plot’, which of course it was not. The sea at that time being completely frozen over Lenin was able to send the Red Army over the ice to storm Kronstadt. In the horrible battle that followed the sailors/workers did almost as much damage to the Red Army as was done to them, but they lost it. The slaughter was appalling. What was worse was the aftermath; when the fighting was over the Cheka sought out those men and women who had made their declaration of freedom, and murdered them and their families.
This popular rising was never a serious threat to the Russian Soviet but at least it showed that there was deeply held consternation among ordinary Russian people. They were learning the ancient historical fact that all popular uprisings are organised by small groups of dedicated dissidents, and that though revolutions are always made in the name of the people, it is the people who suffer when revolution succeeds. Lenin quickly took advantage of his Army’s defeat of the workers at Kronstadt, outlawing the Mensheviks ( another revolutionary party) and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, defeating any worker’s dream of free Soviets.