Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring some of St. Petersburg’s 20th century historical sites.
Tomorrow, I’ll be venturing outside the city to the island and naval base of Kronstadt, about 20 miles west in the Gulf of Finland.
Kronstadt was the linchpin of St. Petersburg’s naval defenses at the turn of the twentieth century, and a line of forts on and near the island defend the city from the sea.
But in 1917, during the Bolshevik Revolution, the sailors at Kronstadt mutinied, killing their commanding officers. Due to this revolt, the sailors became known as some of the most pro-Red forces in Russia.
In 1921, however, as Lenin solidified control over the Soviet Union, the sailors became disenchanted with heavy-handed Bolshevik tactics, such as the violent suppression of strikes and the imposition of censorship. In early March, the sailors issued a set of demands, angering Bolshevik leaders.
Days later, 60,000 Red Army troops were ordered to attack Kronstadt across the ice from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The troops suffered heavy casualties in their assault—the ice offered no protection from Kronstadt’s guns—and some had to be forced into battle by the Cheka, the KGB’s precursor.
By mid-March, the rebellion had been suppressed, at the cost of at least 10,000 Red Army soldiers and perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 Kronstadt rebels.
The 1921 Kronstadt rebellion was seen in the West as a sharp rebuke to the Soviet manifestation of Communism. On March 1, 1956, the 35th anniversary of the revolt and a few days after Khrushchev’s (not-so-secret) Secret Speech denouncing Stalinism, the New York Times wrote in an editorial:
In sorrow tinged with hope friends of freedom the world over today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Kronstadt Rebellion, which, though drowned in blood by Lenin and Trotsky, serves even today to remind us of the Russian people’s love for liberty.
Beyond a large and beautiful cathedral, I’m not sure what there is to see at Kronstadt. But there’s no way I could leave St. Petersburg without spending a day on an island steeped in so much history.