March 18, 1871: Revolt of the Paris Commune; March 18, 1921: The Bolsheviks crush the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion against tyranny

Paris Commune: The revolt dividing France 150 years on

Over 150 years after the Paris Commune, rival passions flare over how to remember the city’s brief and much-romanticised experiment in power to the people. The first act of the city’s famous insurrection came on 18 March 1871, when crowds stopped troops from requisitioning cannons parked on the hill of Montmartre. It was the aftermath of the siege of Paris by the Prussians, in which working folk had suffered terribly.

Over the next three months, people’s committees ran the capital while the official French government fulminated in Versailles. But in May the army moved in and the Commune was crushed. For supporters then – and since – it was a springtime of hope bloodily repressed by the forces of conservatism. Karl Marx saw it as a prototype of his workers’ revolution; Lenin was interred with a Communard flag as his shroud.

But for the right, it was a time of chaos and class vengeance. They remembered the killings of priests and the burning of landmarks like the Hôtel de Ville. Afterwards they atoned by building the Sacré Coeur church where the cannons had been. A century and a half on, the Commune continues to divide….

The Kronstadt Uprising of 1921

On 28th February, 1921, the crew of the battleship, Petropavlovsk, passed a resolution calling for a return of full political freedoms. It was reported by Radio Moscow: that the sailors were supporters of the White Army: “Just like other White Guard insurrections, the mutiny of General Kozlovsky and the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk has been organised by Entente spies. The French counter espionage is mixed up in the whole affair. History is repeating itself. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who have their headquarters in Paris, are preparing the ground for an insurrection against the Soviet power.”

I response to this broadcast the Kronstadt sailors issued the following statement: “Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you.”

Eugene Lyons, the author of Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet (1967), pointed out that this protest was highly significant because of Kronstadt’s revolutionary past: “The hundreds of large and small uprisings throughout the country are too numerous to list, let alone describe here. The most dramatic of them, in Kronstadt, epitomizes most of them. What gave it a dimension of supreme drama was the fact that the sailors of Kronstadt, an island naval fortress near Petrograd, on the Gulf of Finland, had been one of the main supports of the putsch. Now Kronstadt became the symbol of the bankruptcy of the Revolution. The sailors on the battleships and in the naval garrisons were in the final analysis peasants and workers in uniform.”

Lenin denounced the Kronstadt Uprising as a plot instigated by the White Army and their European supporters. However, in private he realised that he was under attack from the left. He was particularly concerned by the “scene of the rising was Kronstadt, the Bolshevik stronghold of 1917″…

Some observers claimed that many of the victims would die shouting, “Long live the Communist International!” and “Long live the Constituent Assembly!” It was not until the 17th March that government forces were able to take control of Kronstadt. Alexander Berkman, wrote: “Kronstadt has fallen today. Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in its streets. Summary execution of prisoners and hostages continues.”

An estimated 8,000 people (sailors and civilians) left Kronstadt and went to live in Finland. Official figures suggest that 527 people were killed and 4,127 were wounded. “These figures do not include the drowned, or the numerous wounded left to die on the ice. Nor do they include the victims of the Revolutionary Tribunals.” Historians who have studied the uprising believe that the total number of casualties was much higher than this. It is claimed that over 500 sailors at Kronstadt were executed for their part in the rebellion….

Kronstadt Uprising – Seventeen Moments in Soviet History

The Bolshevik Heritage. By Dilip Simeon