The naval base of Kronstadt lies on Kotlin Island near the head of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great captured the island from the Swedes in 1703 and built it into a naval fortress to protect his new capital. The concentration of heavy armory and sailors on the small island made it a bulwark against foreign invasion, but also a tinderbox in times of internal unrest. During the stormy years 1905-1906 several mutinies broke out on Kronstadt. The sailors were important allies to the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution (1917), when the Kronstadt Soviet opposed the provisional government, declared a "Kronstadt Republic," and took part in the July 1917 mutiny. The famous cruiser Aurora, which had bombarded the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917 with its famous shot heard round the world, belonged to the Baltic Fleet based in Kronstadt.
It was a rude shock to the Bolsheviks when the red sailors of Kronstadt went into open rebellion in March 1921. The sailors saw themselves as loyal to the Soviet cause, if not to the Communist rulers. That bitter winter saw Kronstadt, like most other cities in Russia, hungry and discontented. Anger at material deprivations was compounded by the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building, which seemed to violate the spirit of the revolution that the sailors had helped win. Popular unrest finally grew into strikes, which led to riots, lockouts, arrests. Finally on February 26, local Communist authorities declared martial law. A pattern of sharp protest and response escalated rapidly from here to a state of mutiny.
The mutiny was centered on two battleships with revolutionary pedigrees, the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, which were frozen in the ice of Kronstadt harbor. A delegation headed by Stepan Petrichenko, chief clerk of the Petropavlovsk, drafted a set of fifteen demands which it presented to the Kronstadt Soviet on February 28. They included such traditional democratic rights as freedom of assembly and speech; egalitarian measures such as equal rations for all working people; and an end to the Bolshevik monopoly on power. The sailors also demanded an end to the strict economic controls of war communism. The Kronstadt Soviet, run by loyal Bolsheviks, called a public meeting for 1 March in response to the insurgent demands. It was attended by over 16,000 people, including Mikhail Kalinin, who was shouted off the platform when he tried to speak. The assembly adopted the resolutions unanimously, and elected a Revolutionary Committee chaired by Petrichenko. When Pavel Vasiliev (chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet) and Nikolai Kuzmin (Political Commissar of the Baltic Fleet) threatened the committee with retribution the next day, they were arrested and imprisoned. Squads of sailors established control over Kronstadt, under the slogan All power to the Soviets, and not the parties.
The discontent had grown into full rebellion. When Kalinin reported back to Lenin and Zinoviev, their response was to isolate the island, order a press blackout, and organize special shipments of clothing, shoes, and meat into Petrograd. In an ultimatum issued on March 5, they branded the insurgents as puppets of the White Army. Lev Trotsky was sent to Petrograd to organize the armed response. He assembled as many loyal troops as he could under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevskii, and on March 7 began the bombardment of the island by the great guns of Petrograd. Over the next ten days three bloody assaults were launched against the fortress. Troops marching across the ice were slaughtered, but they gradually depleted the strength and supplies of the rebels. Though the government forces lost hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded, they numbered about 45,000 troops by March 16, when the final assault was launched. Clad in white snow capes, and bolstered by hundreds of volunteer delegates from the Tenth Party Congress then proceeding in Moscow, the troops attacked by night from three directions and forced their way into the city. Vicious fighting ensued throughout the city, and by March 18, the revolt was crushed. Many rebels escaped across the ice into Finland; many were killed in the fighting, and many who survived were executed or sent to prison camps.
The short-lived uprising had a deep if ambivalent impact on Soviet rule. While it was still in progress, the government announced the abolition of grain requisitions, replacing them with a tax in kind. It is widely assumed that the rebellion inspired Lenin and the regime to announce the New Economic Policy, which answered some of the Kronstadt demands. Liberalization of the economy was not matched by liberalization in the political sphere. The Tenth Congress saw the Workers' Opposition condemned and ordered to disperse in a move that many consider a harbinger of Stalin's dictatorship. Russian anarchists and their Western allies, such as the American Alexander Berkman, correctly saw the party reaction as a decisive moment in their history, though they were not fully justified in considering the rebellion part of their own tradition.