Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917: the memoirs of Fyodor Raskolnikov

This happened on May 17, 1917, when Comrade A.V. Lunacharsky was visiting Kronstadt. As we entered the Soviet they were discussing the problem of the Anarchists, who had arbitrarily seized a building in one of Kronstadt’s best streets. This action of theirs evoked general indignation. Anatoly Vasilyevich [Lunacharsky] asked to speak, and delivered a whole lecture on Anarchism. He distinguished, of course, between the ideological anarchists and those who, arbitrarily and regardless of the local Soviet, seized flats for themselves, but on the whole his speech was filled with love of peace and included an appeal that an attempt be made to reach an amicable agreement. In view of the fact that we had to hurry off to Anchor Square where a meeting had been arranged at which Comrade Lunacharsky was to speak, we left the Soviet without waiting for the end of the session.

The next point on the agenda concerned the Provisional Government’s commissar, Pepelyayev. He was a rather characterless man who led a reserved sort of existence within the four walls of his office and exerted absolutely no influence on the course of political life in Kronstadt, which was seething in the fire of revolution. For this reason the question of Pepelyayev engaged our attention not at all, as lacking any serious significance. We supposed that the discussion of this item of the agenda would not deal with any but particular, concrete questions. Not for the first time in our practical work some friction had occurred between the representatives of the Provisional Government, who embodied the power of the bourgeoisie, and the Kronstadt Soviet, which reflected the interests of the workers, sailors and soldiers.

However, it turned out that from this discussion of an insignificant question flowed a serious decision of principle, which proved to be fraught with major consequences.

The meeting in Anchor Square was in full swing. Comrade Lunarcharsky was delivering with ardent enthusiasm a speech full of passion, when, pushing their way through the dense crowd to the tribune where S. Roshal and I stood, came some comrades who had hurried down from the Soviet to bring news that staggered us by its unexpectedness. We learnt that, after our departure, when the question of Pepelyayev was discussed, a resolution had been passed by the Soviet to say that the office of Government Commissar appointed from above was abolished and that the Kronstadt Soviet took all power into its own hands alone. [1] What first struck us about this decision was its unforeseen radicalism. The point was that, at that time, our Party, which had put forward the slogan of transfer of power to the Soviets on an all-Russia scale, was still in the minority at Kronstadt. The majority was constituted by the non-Party ‘marsh’ [2] which followed its leader, the hundred-per-cent philistine A.N. Lamanov, who at one time busied himself with the absurd idea of forming a ‘party of non-party men’. The relative number of votes and the degree of influence possessed by the Bolshevik fraction were of course considerable, especially when the Left-SRs voted along with us, but all the same, we did not have an absolute majority in the Soviet. Consequently, because we could not count on success, we had never put forward any proposal to abolish, on grounds of uselessness, the post of Government Commissar. And on this occasion the proposal to transfer power to the Soviet had come not from us but from the non-Party element, and our Bolshevik comrades, together with the Left-SRs had merely supported this ‘marsh’ which had plucked up its courage.

When we received the news we reacted to it positively. We regarded the decision taken as being, in essence, correct. We saw in it merely a proclamation, for all to know, of the actual state of affairs which had come about in Kronstadt since the February-March revolution. From the very start our Soviet had been everything and the Provisional Government’s Commissar nothing.

Hardly anywhere in Russia was the deputy of Prince Lvov and Kerensky in such a pathetic situation as Pepelyayev was at Kronstadt. In actual fact he possessed no power: the fate of Kronstadt was controlled by our valiant Soviet. The morning after the adoption of this memorable decision, that is, on May 18, a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party, Comrade Grigory Fyodorov, came quite unexpectedly to see us. A visit from a member of the CC was for us, in general, a notable and rare event. In the given case, Comrade G. Fyodorov’s arrival, without any preliminary announcement, was most unusual.

“What’s happened with you here? What’s going on? What’s the meaning of this creation of a republic of Kronstadt? The CC does not understand and does not approve of your policy. You must, both of you, come to Petrograd and explain yourselves to Ilyich,” said Comrade G. Fyodorov to me and S. Roshal, in the garden adjoining our Party committee’s premises. After consulting together, S. Roshal and I decided that he should remain at Kronstadt while I went to Petrograd...

A fast launch soon brought us to the Nikolaevskaya Quay, and in a short time G. Fyodorov and I were knocking at the door of the editorial office of Pravda, which was then in a building beside the Moika.

“Come in,” we heard, in Ilyich’s well-known, distinctive voice.

We opened the door. Comrade Lenin was sitting close to his desk and, his head bent low over the paper, was hurriedly scribbling his next article for Pravda.

When he had finished writing he laid down his pen and directed at me a gloomy glance from under his brows.

“What have you been up to out there? How could you take such a step without consulting the CC? This is a breach of elementary Party discipline. For such things we shall shoot people,” said Vladimir llyich, giving me a dressing-down.

I began my reply by explaining that the resolution for the, transference of power to the Kronstadt Soviet had been adopted on the initiative of the non-party deputies.

“They should have been held up to ridicule,” Lenin interrupted me. “They should have been shown that declaring Soviet power in Kronstadt alone, separately from all the rest of Russia is utopian, is utterly absurd.”

I mentioned that when the question was decided the leaders of the Bolshevik fraction were not at the Soviet, because they were speaking at a meeting in Anchor Square. I described in detail to Lenin how, essentially speaking, the situation that had been created in Kronstadt had been like that all along – that the local Soviet had wielded full power and the representative of the Provisional Government, Commissar Pepelyayev, had played absolutely no role at all. Consequently, the decision taken by the Kronstadt Soviet had merely formalised and consolidated an actually existing situation. A fact that obtained in everyday practice had been transformed into a regular law. “All the same, I don’t understand why it was necessary to emphasise this situation and remove the harmless Pepelyayev, who actually served as a useful facade,” said Lenin.

I assured him that we had no intention of forming an independent republic of Kronstadt, and matters would go no further than election by the Kronstadt Soviet of a Government Commissar from among its own members.

“Since, in general, we advocate the principle of election of officials,” I said, “why should we not start to carry it out on a partial basis when this becomes possible? This elected commissar cannot of course be a Bolshevik, since he will have to some extent to implement the policy of the Provisional Government. But why, generally speaking, can’t we have an elected commissar? We can always find some honest non-party man to fill such a role. Why do we Bolsheviks have to oppose the principle of electing the commissar when the majority in the Kronstadt Soviet are in favour of it?”

My explanation evidently reassured Ilyich somewhat. His expressive face gradually softened.

“The most serious danger is that the Provisional Government will now try to force you to your knees,” said Vladimir Ilyich, slowly and significantly, after brief meditation.

I promised that we would exert every effort to prevent a victory for the Provisional Government and would not knuckle under to it.

“Well, all right, here’s some paper for you: write, here and now, a short note about the course of recent events at Kronstadt,” said Lenin, in a conciliatory tone, handing me a blank sheet of paper.

I sat down there and then and wrote a couple of pages. Vladimir Ilyich himself examined the note attentively, made some corrections and put it aside for printing.

When we took our leave and he shook my hand, he asked me to tell the Kronstadt comrades that next time they should not take such highly responsible decisions without informing the CC and securing its prior consent. Of course, I readily promised our dear leader that we should observe Party discipline most strictly. Vladimir Ilyich made me undertake to telephone the editorial office of Pravda every day from Kronstadt, to ask to speak to him personally and to report to him the most important facts of Kronstadt’s political life.

I returned to Kronstadt with a lighter heart. It was good that Ilyich had eventually reconciled himself to the resolution of the Kronstadt Soviet, which at first, he had viewed unsympathetically. Comrade Lenin was only afraid that the Provisional Government would force us to surrender, that we should be obliged to rescind our resolution in disgrace. It was interesting that Comrade Lenin had not insisted at all on our rescinding the resolution but, on the contrary, had been afraid that we should be obliged to go back on it. Finally, it was clear that before his talk with me Ilyich had had no precise notion of the state of affairs in Kronstadt and the scale of our intentions. If, of course, we had been trying to form an independent Soviet republic of Kronstadt, such a creation of a state within the state would have been an obvious utopia, a childish prank. But our plans went no further than ensuring the election of the Government Commissar by the Kronstadt Soviet. In this was the Government Commissar, being aware of his responsibility to the electors, would be obliged to reckon with the local Soviet and from time to time to make systematic reports to it, carrying out its instructions and working under its control.

The next task facing us was, on the one hand, not to let ourselves be forced to our knees, that is, to avoid suffering the disgrace of surrender and, on the other, not to give the Provisional Government any excuse to utilise the given conflict for an armed onslaught on Kronstadt. Vladimir llyich’s prognosis proved to be absolutely correct. The Provisional Government did indeed try to force us to our knees. We had not long to wait for the first sign of this development.

The following Sunday, May 21, we were informed by telephone that a delegation from the Petrograd Soviet was coming to see us. At the appointed hour nearly all the members of the Kronstadt Soviet’s Executive Committee and Presidium were at the landing-place. A rumour of the arrival of visitors from Petrograd had spread quickly all over the town and when the steamship drew in there was a large crowd gathered by the Petrograd pier. For lack of room, the more enterprising of the spectators climbed up the lamp-posts.

Not knowing the intentions of our unexpected guests, we welcomed them without making speeches. The delegation from the capital consisted of Chkheidze, Gatz, Anisimov, Verba and some other Mensheviks and SRs. After mutual introductions we led them to the Kronstadt Soviet. The Mensheviks and SRs who had come possessed sufficient tact not to reveal straight away their political hostility to us. They played the role of impartial observers who had come to Kronstadt in order to study objectively the political situation which had taken shape there.

Nearly all the members of our Executive Committee, who had been summoned by telephone to the Soviet, were present at this session. Chkheidze began by greeting the Executive Committee of the Kronstadt Soviet and stating that their delegation had come with no other intention than to seek information in a comradely way. Lamanov, the chairman of the Executive Committee, set forth in detail the facts of the recent days’ events. Chkheidze listened to him attentively, opening wide his unwinking eyes and from time to time stroking his beard. In general, a tone of mutual correctness was fully observed at this meeting of the Executive Committee. But the political passions of the delegates were frankly unleashed at the meeting of the Soviet which followed immediately after that of the Executive Committee. As before, Chkheidze maintained his former tone of courtesy and compliment. But this artificial, strained tone broke down completely when the SR Gatz spoke. An orator not lacking in spirit, he did not refrain in his speech from allowing himself some sharp digs at us. Naturally, these anti-Bolshevik thrusts had no success, but even so, they destroyed the sort of relationship which Chkheidze had tried to establish, with himself in the role of a kindly uncle. As a result, the visit of the Petrograd delegates achieved nothing substantial and in no way contributed to solving the conflict that had arisen between the Kronstadt Soviet and the Provisional Government. The delegates were apparently not armed with any authority and came only to obtain information.

This was the Provisional Government’s first reconnaissance in depth. After this testing step it undertook further measures. One fine day we were visited, without any warning and quite unexpectedly, by the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, I.G Tsereteli, and the Minister of Labour, M.L Skobelev. At the extraordinary meeting of the Executive Committee which was convened as a result of their visit, Tsereteli declared that Skobelev and he had been sent by the Provisional Government with special instructions to come to a definite agreement with the Kronstadt Soviet.

There and then, he put to our Executive Committee, on behalf of the Provisional Government, the following four questions:

(1) about its attitude to the central government,

(2) about the Government commissar,

(3) about the organs of self-government and the courts, and

(4) about the arrested officers.

Throughout the night, without getting a wink of sleep, we talked with Skobelev and Tsereteli. On the first point we declared at once that we recognised the Provisional Government and, so long as it existed, considered its rulings no less applicable to Kronstadt than to the rest of Russia. Of course, we recognised the Provisional Government and submitted to it only reluctantly, through necessity. At the same time we said that we had no confidence whatsoever in the Provisional Government and reserved our right to criticise it. We stressed that we were going to wage a struggle to ensure that throughout Russia all political power would be transferred to the Soviets. Tsereteli and Skobelev were satisfied with this answer; saying that what was most important for them was that we recognised the Provisional Government and submitted to its orders: confidence or lack of confidence in the Provisional Government was our private affair. On the question of the commissar a very bitter argument flared up between the members of the Kronstadt Executive Committee and the representatives of the Government. The ‘socialist’ ministers insisted warmly on the need for the Government commissar to be appointed from above.

“The Provisional Government must have its own man in Kronstadt, somebody it knows,” said Skobelev and Tsereteli, with one voice. But we insisted that there must be, at the head of civil administration of Kronstadt, a person enjoying the confidence of the Kronstadt Soviet and chosen by it.

After discussion in which the most prominent members of the Executive Committee and representatives of all fractions took part, a special commission was chosen to draw up the text of an agreement. Among others, Roshal and I served on this commission. Late in the night (because the session of the Executive Committee had gone on for a long time) we assembled in one of the officers’ quarters and set about discussing the draft of an agreement. I sat at a desk. Skobelev lounged on a couch. Tsereteli paced nervously up and down the room. I wrote and the delegates of the Provisional Government offered, from time to time, corrections of one sort or another to my text. Sometimes our differences gave rise to fierce arguments, but broadly speaking we managed to reach agreement on most of the questions at issue.

It was decided, regarding the Provisional Government commissar, that he would not be appointed from Petrograd but must be elected by the Kronstadt Soviet and then confirmed in office by the Provisional Government. Similarly, he would be obliged to subordinate himself in his work to the decisions of the Provisional Government and carry them out unquestioningly. When this question was being discussed the delegates of the Provisional Government expressed the fear that an elected commissar would transgress the instructions the central government if he happened to disagree with them “For instance, if the elected commissar should turn out to be Bolshevik, wouldn’t he carry out his Party’s policy?” Tsereteli asked us. We replied that a Bolshevik could not, of course assume the post under discussion owing to his complete disagreement with the policy of the Provisional Government. Consequently, there could be no question of a Bolshevik being elected. This at once considerably appeased the over-excited Tsereteli and provided the basis for agreement on this point.

“Make a handsome gesture,” Tsereteli urged us eloquently. “Transfer the arrested officers to Petrograd and you will thereby cut the ground from under the bourgeois slanderers who are spreading frightful stories about the Kronstadt prisons.” [3]

Tsereteli strove hard to get the officers released, but we could not accept this. Then Tsereteli and Skobelev tried to have the matter decided in a sense favourable to them by proposing that the officers be transferred to one of the prisons in Petrograd. They promised that in Petrograd the officers would be investigated and brought to trial. On the third point there were no differences between us and the ministers, since for the present we were not proposing to introduce any changes in the system of organisation of the courts and the organs of self-government as being institutions common to Russia as a whole.

But the fourth point, about the arrested officers, the ‘subject’, as Tsereteli called it, involved us again in very harsh disputes. Knowing very well the feelings of the Kronstadt masses, we considered that a solution of this matter such as delegates proposed would be received very unsympathetically by them, as the sailors would immediately secure a transfer of arrested officers to Petrograd as a concealed way of setting them free. On this question, as on many others, Tsereteli and Skobelev were forced to retreat. It was decided that a special investigating commission would be sent to Kronstadt to look into all the cases along with our local commission: the guilty would be brought to trial and the innocent released.

Tsereteli and Skobelev were in an excited state the whole time. Tsereteli frequently clutched his head, exclaiming: “Will there really be civil war, will it really not be possible to prevent it?” Along with this, in order to intimidate us, he asserted the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison were acutely hostile to Kronstadt and were even straining at the leash to suppress it. Since we had precise information as to the mood of the Petrograd garrison we were not particularly disposed to share Tsereteli’s fears.

During their brief stay at Kronstadt, Tsereteli and Skobelev tried to establish direct contact with the masses. On their insistence that notice was given by telephone to all the ships that there was to be a meeting at which they would be present. At the appointed hour the two appeared in Anchor Square. The crowd, quite numerous at first, thinned out increasingly as meeting went on until at last only a small handful of people were left near the tribune.

The speeches of the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet made no impression at all on the Kronstadters. The most markedly ‘social-compromiser’ passages in Tsereteli’s speech were loudly hissed. While they were speaking they were continually interrupted by hostile shouts from the crowd. On his return from this meeting, Tsereteli said to me, shaking his head: “Yes the masses are thoroughly on your side.” It was plain that here – perhaps for the first time during the revolution – he had realised that his eloquence was helpless before the conscious masses of revolutionary Kronstadt.

After we had succeeded, at our night session, in achieving an agreement, this draft was submitted for discussion at a meeting of our Executive Committee, and was unanimously approved. It then had to go to the next level of authority, namely, the plenum of the Kronstadt Soviet.

At an extraordinary session of the plenum speeches in favour of the agreement were made both by local activists and by Tsereteli, who delivered with fervour what was essentially conciliatory speech.

That same day Tsereteli and Skobelev, satisfied with the results of their mission, returned to Petrograd. In the evening however, Comrade Roshal said, in a talk with a Petrograd correspondent, that the agreement arrived at did not in the least signify a victory for the Provisional Government, but left the situation unchanged. Comrade Roshal even published this opinion of his in the newspapers in the form of a letter to the editors. In essence it was perfectly correct. We had made no concessions of substance, but on the contrary, had achieved some practical results. Nevertheless it was not, of course, good idea to tease the geese and make a parade of our victory.

This statement of Semyon’s almost caused the whole agreement to break down. As soon as it reached Petrograd a unprecedented uproar arose in Menshevik and SR circles and among the members of the Provisional Government: the Kronstadters, it was said, were repudiating their agreement, they were pursuing a two-faced policy, they were not honouring their engagements. This was said and written in the various bourgeois organs.

In connection with this to-do we were informed that Comrade Trotsky was to make an urgent visit to Kronstadt. I went to meet him in one of the tugs which maintained constant contact between us and Petrograd.

Having picked up Comrade Trotsky on Nikolaevskaya Quay, I withdrew with him to the cabin and explained to him all the events of the previous few days, the details of our negotiations with the representatives of the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government. Lev Davidovich [Trotsky] expressed complete approval of what we had done, but condemned Roshal’s action, as a result of which the Mensheviks and SRs were ready once more to climb up the wall.

When he arrived at Kronstadt, Comrade Trotsky at once summoned an extraordinary meeting of the Kronstadt Executive Committee. His proposal that we issue a manifesto explaining in a concrete way our attitude on all the disputed questions was adopted unanimously. He sketched out a draft of the manifesto [4] there and then.

Next day the manifesto was approved by the Soviet and a meeting was held in Anchor Square at which I read out the text which had been adopted by the Kronstadt Executive Committee. By a show of hands, the entire meeting unanimously voted its acceptance of the manifesto. It was quickly reproduced by our Party printing press in an enormous number of copies, distributed among the proletariat and garrison of Kronstadt and sent out to Petrograd and the provinces.

A few days later the leaders of the Kronstadt Soviet found themselves suddenly invited to attend the next meeting of the Petrograd Soviet. The meeting was held in the huge auditorium of the Mariinsky Theatre. Gangplanks had been laid between the stalls and the stage. Up there, brightly lit by the footlights, Chkheidze, Dan and other members of the Presidium of the Petrograd Soviet sat at a table. From Kronstadt had come Roshal, Lyubovich, me and some others.

When I went up to the Presidium table to put my name down to speak, Chkheidze arid Dan gave me looks full of irreconcilable hatred. This minor circumstance already warned me of the atmosphere that was awaiting us. Soon Kerensky entered the theatre.

He was wearing his military uniform. His right arm was in a sling and with a theatrical gesture he offered his left hand to be shaken. He made a brief but hysterical speech and then, quickly taking leave of the members of the Presidium, he descended by a gangplank into the auditorium and with rapid strides made for the exit, outside which a motor car was waiting for him. In his concluding words he had said that he had come specially to say goodbye to the Soviet before leaving for the front.

This behaviour of Kerensky’s was such a low-down bit of window-dressing histrionics, everything in his speech was so obviously calculated for effect, it was all so permeated with artificiality, that we from Kronstadt, to whom that spirit was alien, felt disgusted.

When Kerensky had gone, the Petrograd Soviet proceeded to discuss the burning question of Kronstadt. Everyone sat up and concentrated their attention. The first speech was made by a worker, the Menshevik Anisimov, who, without mincing words, cursed us for perfidy, duplicity and faithlessness to our undertakings. In reply to him long speeches were made by Roshal, Lyubovich and me. I was the first to speak and they listened to me with attention but also with hostility.

Heavy artillery was brought up against us. One after another the best orators of the Petrograd Soviet took the floor – the ‘Socialist’ ministers Tsereteli, Chernov and Skobelev.

Their speeches were full of the usual attacks on the Kronstadt Soviet and its leaders. Skobelev openly threatened to cut off Kronstadt’s supplies of money and food. Chernov, indulging in his usual equivocations, clowned it on the stage, and his speech was the dullest and most poverty-stricken of all. After the ‘socialist’ ministers we heard from the Anarchist Bleichman. But his misplaced, sick, highly-strung and embittered rhetoric produced the opposite effect to what he intended. It was as though the entire audience had caught fire and blazed up in furious anger as a result of this spark cast by Bleichman.

Comrade Kamenev succeeded brilliantly in relieving the tension in the atmosphere. With immense tact Lev Borisovich dispersed the impression created by Bleichman’s speech and, above all, managed so well to mollify the mood of the audience that the adoption of a resolution abusing us was postponed. It has to be said that throughout the entire meeting we felt as though we were in the dock. The Provisional Government, together with the socialist parties supporting it, had evidently resolved to subject us to ostracism and nail us to the pillory.

We experienced some disagreeable moments, but nevertheless this meeting made no strong impression on us. Knowing the Menshevik and SR majority of the compromiser Soviet, we had expected nothing different from them. When we left the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, we were still more convinced than before of the absolute correctness of the policy we were pursuing at Kronstadt.

In all these diplomatic negotiations that we were obliged to carry on with the yes-men of the bourgeoisie, we upheld, firmly keeping in mind the behest given us by llyich, the revolutionary dignity of Kronstadt and did not let ourselves be forced to our knees. For this we were to a considerable extent indebted to Ilyich himself who, from the beginning of ‘the Republic of Kronstadt’, personally guided, over the telephone, every move of any significance made by our Kronstadt organisation.


1. Here is the authentic text of this historic resolution: “The sole authority in the town of Kronstadt is the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which in all matters of state concern acts in close concert with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”

2. During the French Revolution the Jacobins called those deputies to the Convention who occupied an intermediate position between the parties of the Left and the Right ‘the frogs of the marsh’, from their habit of hopping in either direction when scared.

3. Morgan Philips Price visited the officers imprisoned at Kronstadt in June 1917 and describes their conditions in his Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution (1921).

4. Though signed by Lamanov, as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Kronstadt Soviet, the manifesto was included in Volume III, Part I of Trotsky’s Works (in Russian) published in 1924. At the extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet on May 26, Trotsky made his famous forecast: “When a counter-revolutionary general tries to throw a noose around the neck of the revolution, the Cadets will soap the rope, and the Kronstadt sailors will come to fight and die with us.”