The heroes were offered enough: Marines at war with Lenin

In 1921 there is an uprising in the Kronstadt naval base. Sailors who in 1917 were the elite soldiers of the October Revolution starved and wanted to overthrow Lenin. The…

In 1921 there is an uprising in the Kronstadt naval base. Sailors who in 1917 were the elite soldiers of the October Revolution starved and wanted to overthrow Lenin. The young Soviet Union goes to great lengths to suppress the rebellion.

The sailors at the naval base in Kronstadt know that a Bolshevik attack is imminent. On this morning of March 8, 1921, just before the sun lights up the frozen bay off Petrograd, the Reds are making plans.

Many thousands of wealthy cadet recruits are dressed in white hoods to hide in the snow, hurrying across the ice towards the naval base.

14,000 sailors nervously follow the attack force. No one in the fort wants to shoot, but it’s obvious that the Reds won’t let anything stop them. The marines open fire.

The officer materials that find no shelter out on the ice are salted down. In the middle of this uneven battle, a snowstorm breaks and those who survive the firestorm take the opportunity to escape back to the land. But it is of no use.

On land, you can find the most extreme and ruthless Reds, and they fire their machine guns at their own comrades, who must turn back.

About 80% of the Reds seen here on the ice died in the first attack on Kronstadt.

Among the eyewitnesses in Kronstadt is the marine Stepan Petrichenko who later described this failed Bolshevik attack:

“When the day rose and it set, only a few boys wearing white hoods reached us, exhausted, hungry and barely able to walk”.

But just like the other sailors in Kronstadt, Petrichenko knows full well that this defeat of the Bolsheviks will not prevent their further attacks the next day.

Only a few years earlier, these brave sailors of Kronstadt had been some of Lenin’s most loyal members and were hailed as the backbone of the revolution itself. But now the Bolshevik leader saw them as his most dangerous opponents. Kronstadt’s marines were to be exterminated.

Sailors mutiny

Kronstadt’s sailors ended up in 1917 in one of the most fateful events in history. Ever since the 18th century, Kronstadt had defended the seal of Petrograd, the Tsar’s capital on the Gulf of Finland.

At the same time, the main island, Kotlin, was a naval base for the Russian Baltic Fleet. Kronstadt and other fortified islands therefore housed thousands of sailors in a well-organized community.

“The situation is serious. Anarchy reigns here in the capital”.

Telegram to the Tsar on the uprising in Petrograd in February 1917.

Altogether, it involved 27,000 marines and 13,000 civilians working to strengthen Kronstadt’s political status. And when workers in Petrograd protested their miserable lot in February 1917 – during the country’s third winter war – the Marines were ready to support their demands.

Emperor Nicholas II was not in the capital. And the desperate chairman of the consultative assembly, the Duma, sent a telegram to the dictator on February 26:

“The situation is serious. Anarchy reigns here in the capital”.

That same day, soldiers fired into the crowd. Their atrocities prompted other military units to support the protesters in the capital.

Leading the way were the sailors in Kronstadt. They revolted and murdered the supreme commander of the Baltic Fleet, Admiral Adrian Nepenin, along with the director of the naval academy, Robert Viren, who was stabbed to death in Kronstadt’s main square.

Then an officer on the feeding ship Aurora was also executed. Other commanders of the station fled, and after that Kronstadt was a rallying point for the revolutionaries in St. Petersburg.

Kronstadt was established in 1704 and its defenses were strengthened in the following years. The drawing shows the naval base around 1850.

The ancient fortress of Emperor Peter was almost impregnable

Kronstadt was built to withstand any enemy attacking the fortress from the outside. But the designers had intentionally made Kronstadt more vulnerable to attack from land.


About 25 km west of St. Petersburg is the island of Koklin. There, Emperor Peter the Great built a large fortress in 1704 and the naval base Kronstadt, which was supposed to protect the entrance to his newly built city, St. Petersburg.


In winter, the Gulf of Finland freezes, and the Russians took advantage of that to expand their defenses. Thousands of logs, wooden frames filled with stones were transported across the frozen sea and pressed down into holes sawn into the ice.


In this way, numerous small new islands were created and fortresses were erected on them.


Thus the shipping route to St. Petersburg closed. Only two narrow channels could be navigated to reach the city and they were protected by numerous fortresses.


In the following years, the defenses were increasingly strengthened with more man-made islands and artillery.


However, Kronstadt’s defenses were only directed towards the west, while the opposite side was almost undefended.


If the enemy succeeded in winning this great sea fortress, after all, the artillery on the coast could easily rain bombs on Kronstadt.


When the sailors in Kronstadt staged a revolution against the Bolsheviks in 1921, this was precisely their downfall.

However, not everyone was so impressed by the sailors: “This group had the same mentality as the trash crowd. Thinking only of their own needs but not seeing the big picture”, one Bolshevik recalled many years later.

A few days after the uprising in Petrograd, the Tsar abdicated, leaving a provisional government in place. A few weeks later, the revolutionary exile returned to Russia with a plan, in which Kronstadt’s marines were to play an important role. His name was Vladimir Lenin.

Superstars of the revolution

Lenin was not satisfied with the Tsar’s resignation. As the leader of the Bolsheviks, he attacked the authorities and demanded that all power be transferred to the so-called soviets: councils of peasants, workers and soldiers that were established around the country after the February Revolution.

“Armed rebellion is inevitable and now is the time”.

Message from the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The most important of them was the Pedrograd Soviet under the leadership of Leon Trotsky. After months of preparation, the Bolsheviks decided in the fall of 1917 to propose a solution:

“An armed uprising is inevitable and now is the time”, sounded the message from the Bolshevik Central Committee.

On October 25, 1917, the revolution began. In the port of Petrograd there were five warships with pro-Bolshevik crews, and other sailors in Kronstadt, now free to govern themselves, also supported the rebellion.

The Bolshevik Reds rushed into the streets to seize Petrograd’s most important buildings. Sailors aboard the Aurora managed to guide this huge ship up the Neva River to one of the city’s most important transportation routes: the Nikolai Bridge.

The bait ship Aurora played a major role in the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. The ship is today in a museum.

When the warship was discovered, many in the provisional government fled, and within a short time the rebels took control of most of the bridges. Meanwhile, the government held an emergency meeting in the Winter Palace in downtown Petrograd.

When the Bolsheviks approached the palace, most of the defending soldiers left the building. At 9:45 p.m. that night, Aurora fired her leading cannon to signal that the palace was now to be attacked.

The last soldiers in the palace surrendered – the Bolsheviks had won.

And everyone knew that this victory could not have been achieved except for the team of Kronstadt’s sailors. In one fell swoop, they had now become the superstars of the October Revolution.

Lenin called them “the reddest of all reds”, while Leon Trotsky called the sailors “the honor and pride of the revolution”.

Both of them were to regret these words.

Lenin measured the performance of the Kronstadt Marines during the October Revolution.

Freedom disappeared

Shortly after the Bolsheviks came to power, a civil war broke out: Whites, former officers and anti-communists joined forces and, with support from abroad, fought the Bolsheviks.

The bulk of Lenin’s Red Army consisted of workers and peasants who had never handled a weapon. As a result, Kronstadt’s disciplined and experienced marines became important in the Civil War.

“When we returned home, our parents asked us why we were fighting for the oppressors”.

Marines about their support for the Bolsheviks who held Russia in their iron grip.

For almost three years Kronstadt’s marines fought for the revolution. But over time they began to question Lenin’s policies and ideas.


“For years, everything that happened here at home while we were in the front line or at sea was blocked by Bolshevik censorship”, recalled a young sailor.


“When we returned home, our parents asked why we were fighting for the oppressors. It completely changed our ideas”.


The nation had endured three years of “war communism” where crops were confiscated and food rationed. But even though the civil war was over, the people were still cold and the Bolsheviks’ grip was only strengthened.


In February 1921, no fewer than 155 peasant uprisings were reported across the country, and in Kronstadt sailors began to publicly criticize Lenin’s policies.


“The Kronstadt sailors were convinced that the Bolsheviks who called themselves the ‘peasant power’ were in fact the peasants’ worst enemies,” read a newspaper article in 1921 written by, among others, sailor Stepan Petrichenko.


Rebellions and riots also broke out in Petrograd. To answer this, the Bolsheviks sent their Reds who mercilessly crushed all protests back.


But the rebellious spirit had reached Kronstadt and on February 28, sailors mutinied on the battleship Petropavlovsk . They demanded freedom of expression for all, fairer distribution of food rations and the release of all political prisoners.


Their slogan was “All power to the Soviets, not the party!”.

The Bolsheviks saw themselves as heroes of freedom in the struggle against the capitalists.

Nine bloody years brought the Bolsheviks to power

The lack of many freedoms, hunger and failed wars turned the Russians against the Tsar. The Bolsheviks were waiting for the opportunity and they did not want to share power with others. (dates according to the Russian calendar).


– October 17, 1905

Police killings cause revolution

Nicholas II promises various rights along with the establishment of a parliament after the police mercilessly shoot down peaceful protesters earlier in the year.


– July 19, 1914

Germany declares war

World War I breaks out, but Russia is underprepared. In the next three years, the country will lose around 5.5 million soldiers.


– February 23, 1917

The February Revolution

About 1,300 protesters are killed protesting the war. Emperor Nicholas II abdicates and leaves a provisional government in power.


– October 25, 1917

The October Revolution

The Bolsheviks take power in St. Petersburg and depose the Provisional Government. In the coming months, the Bolsheviks will gain power everywhere in Russia.


– June 1918

The hell of the civil war

In 1918, civil war breaks out between the Reds and the Whites. Over the next two years, up to 10 million Russians lost their lives in the war, which ended with a Bolshevik victory in 1920.


– March 17, 1921

Kronstadt uprising suppressed


Sailors at the Kronstadt naval base revolt against Bolshevik totalitarianism. The rebellion is suppressed after nine days of bloody fighting.

A race against time

The leader of the uprising in Kronstadt was Stepan Petrichenko. The 30-year-old marine had only two years of schooling and spoke with a distinct Ukrainian accent. But everyone understood him very well and appreciated his rebellious spirit.

A few days after the sailors’ decision, the Bolsheviks replied:

“It is obvious that the Kronstadt uprising has been organized in Paris by the French secret service”, sounded the obvious lie.

On the 6th of March there was mourning on the radio on board Petropavlovsk . It was Defense Minister Trotsky himself who demanded that everyone in Kronstadt lay down their arms:

“Only those who surrender unconditionally can expect mercy from the Soviet Republic. This is the last warning”.

But the sailors rejected this and immediately began to strengthen their defenses. Kronstadt is located in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. Between mainland Kronstadt were smaller fortresses on numerous small islands. Two warships, Petropavlovsk and Sebastopol were frozen in the winter ice in the harbor of Kronstadt.

Around Kronstadt was a series of fortresses built on man-made islands. Here the Alexander Fortress with almost 150 cannons.

With a total of 28 large cannons, the ships’ striking power was enormous. The warships and fortresses were manned by 14,000 sailors. This was joined by more than 2,000 citizens who became volunteers.


Many people expected that in other parts of the country the people would rise up against the Bolsheviks in the same way. The truth was, however, that the sailors were alone.


Trains with rested soldiers and artillery rolled in from everywhere for Petrograd. It was up to the Bolsheviks to put down this rebellion. As soon as the ice melted, the warships would be free to attack Kronstadt.


Therefore, the Bolsheviks planned an attack across the ice. The shortest distance between Kronstadt and the mainland was five kilometers – a long and dangerous route.


On March 7, 1921, the anarchist Alexander Bergman wrote from Petrograd that he could hear thunder:


“In an instant I realized that it was the artillery team that at six o’clock in the afternoon had been attacking Kronstadt!”.


The attack on Kronstadt

The attack came the next night. Dressed in white camouflage, the Bolsheviks attacked from the north and south. Those in the lead walked straight into the fire from Kronstadt’s machine guns and when they tried to retreat they were shot down by their own comrades.


The attack went horribly wrong, and in a newspaper in Kronstadt the next day, rebel leader Petrichenko addressed the raiding party directly:


“We must defend the legitimate struggle of the workers and shoot.” Shoot at our brothers who are sent to death by the communists who have made themselves fat at the expense of the people”.


Over the next few days, the attacks continued – and each time they were repulsed. Little by little, however, the strength of the marines was waning. Petrichenko wrote about the exhausted guards at the ice: “In snow and storm and terrible cold”. Inland, the Bolsheviks prepared for the final assault.


Every night Kronstadt’s searchlights illuminated the ice. And on the night of March 17, the guards spotted them – white-clad soldiers crawling towards their stronghold.

Many of the Kronstadt sailors end up in Soviet concentration camps, including Stepan Petrichenko.

The Bolsheviks take revenge

Rebel leader Petrichenko and thousands of others end up in Finland after the Bolshevik victory. Most meet a sad fate.

About 8,000 of Kronstadt’s sailors flee to Finland after the defeat. The Red Cross provided them with food there. Some got a job, but most lived a miserable life and never managed to adapt to their new situation.

When Lenin offered them amnesty, many accepted and returned home. They ended up in Bolshevik concentration camps instead. However, Stepan Petrichenko remained in Finland. In 1925 he wrote an article about the uprising: “Our revolution was a spontaneous attempt to break free from Bolshevik oppression”.

Nevertheless, he occasionally worked as a spy for the Soviet Union. When Stalin’s army invaded Finland in 1939, Petritchenko helped many Soviet groups in Finland, before being imprisoned by the Finns in 1940. Four years later he was released and in 1945 he was extradited to the Soviet Union.

There he was sentenced to ten years in a slave camp “for participation in counter-revolutionary terrorist organizations and for working for the Finnish secret service”. Petrichenko died two years later in the concentration camp.

Other searchlights were lit and rockets launched to call troops to the defense. According to one soldier, “the night turned to day” and the light revealed tight ranks of Reds who rallied behind the vanguard.


Despite heavy casualties, the Bolsheviks fought on and eventually broke through the main gate to Kronstadt.


In the narrow streets, a true hell awaited them. From the windows of the houses, the defenders fired at the Reds while the bodies piled up in the streets.


But the sailors were outmatched. This was followed by a furious thirst for revenge. Marines, civilians and women were shot in the streets. Only the crew aboard the warships continued to fight.


At 23:50 on March 17, the Bolshevik leaders sent a triumphant telegram to Petrograd: “The nest of counter-revolutionaries aboard Petropavlovsk and Sebastopol has been eliminated.”


Just before the ship was attacked, Petrichenko and many others fled across the ice. All hope was lost. Over the next 24 hours, at least 8,000 reached Finland from the doomed naval base.


Figures are unclear, but probably up to 4,000 rebels were killed, wounded or captured. Bolshevik casualties were even higher. It is believed that they lost up to 10,000 soldiers in this battle.


The Kronstadt Uprising was the last uprising against the Bolsheviks.

Read more about Kronstadt

Paul Avrich: Kronstadt 1921, Princeton University Press, 1970 Stepan Petrichenko: The Truth About Kronstadt , originally published 1921, The Anarchist Library

Related Posts