'Red Kronstadt,' a town and naval base outside St. Petersburg (aka Petrograd, Leningrad), was a center of revolutionary activity throughout the Russian Revolution. In February 1917 its workers, sailors and soldiers overthrew its Tsarist authorities and invested power in a revolutionary Soviet. In July 1917 a delegation of Kronstadters traveled to Petrograd to join the 'July Days' demonstrations in an unsuccessful attempt to force the Petrograd Soviet to take power as the Kronstadt Soviet had. Kronstadters took part in the October 1917 coup that brought the Bolsheviks to power. In January 1918 Kronstadters shut down the Constituent Assembly on Lenin's orders. And, most famously, in March 1921, the Kronstadters rebelled against Lenin's Bolshevik dictatorship, proclaiming that it had betrayed the Revolution and degenerated into a tyrannical despotism.
Much has been written about the 1921 Kronstadt mutiny and its brutal suppression by the Bolsheviks. However, not much was written about Kronstadt itself, about the new society that the revolutionaries tried to create in 1917, until Israel Getzler's "Kronstadt 1917 - 1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy" was first published twenty years ago. Unlike most books about Kronstadt, which focus on the 1921 mutiny, Getzler concentrates on Kronstadt's 'golden age' from February 1917 to the early months of 1918. He investigates in great detail the events at the base and in Petrograd in that year, and takes a long look at the new social and political order constructed by the Kronstadters after February.
In brief, Getzler presents a vibrant multi-party Soviet democracy, which flourished in Red Kronstadt from the February Revolution until it was strangled by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Readers will find his lengthy and detailed descriptions of Soviet elections and sessions either tedious or fascinating; I definitely felt the latter. Getzler's account of the Civil War years (1918 - 1920) and Kronstadt's 'Third Revolution' are much shorter than his analysis of its golden age. During the civil war, the Kronstadters were willing to go along with the Bolsheviks and their dictatorship in order to defeat the Counterrevolutionary White armies. After the end of the Civil War, however, the Kronstadters judged the Bolshevik dictatorship on its own merits, resulting in their catastrophic 1921 revolt.
Getzler describes this revolt as the Kronstadters' desperate attempt to restore their Socialist democracy of 1917. His analysis of the continuity between the 1917 Revolution and the 1921 mutiny (both in terms of ideology and personnel) demolishes the Bolsheviks' dogmatic interpretations of the revolt and their claims that the Kronstadt of 1917 - the 'pride and glory of the Russian Revolution' - was not the same as the 'traitorous and counterrevolutionary' Kronstadt of 1921. Those who are looking for a more detailed history of the mutiny itself would do well to consult Paul Avrich's "Kronstadt, 1921."
In the preface to the 1983 edition, Getzler complains that his research was hampered by the unwillingness of the Soviet authorities to grant him access to their archives. I don't know whether the new 2002 edition of this book includes additional research. It would be wonderful if Getzler has been able to improve this book with new resources, but even if this is not the case, "Kronstadt 1917 - 1921" remains by far the best analysis of Kronstadt's period of multi-party Soviet Socialist democracy in existence. It should thrill all those who are interested in Socialism or the Russian Revolution.