Demoralisation in the Red Army
What was morale like in the Red Army at this time? In an interview given to 'Krasnaia Gazeta', Dybenko (8) described how all the military units participating in the assault on Kronstadt had to be reorganised. This was an absolute necessity. During the first day of military operations, the Red Army had shown that it did not wish to fight against the sailors, against the 'bratichki' (little brothers), as they were known at the time. Amongst the advanced workers, the Kronstadt sailors were known as people most devoted to the Revolution. And anyway, the very motives that were driving Kronstadt to revolt, existed among the ranks of the Red Army. Both were hungry and cold, poorly clad and poorly shod and this was no mean burden in the Russian winter, especially when what was asked of them was to march and fight on ice and snow.
During the night of 8th. March, when the Red Army attack against Kronstadt started, a terrible snow storm was blowing over the Baltic. Thick fog made the tracks almost invisible. The Red Army soldiers wore long white blouses which hid them well against the snow. This is how Poukhov (9) described morale in Infantry Regiment 561 in an official communiqui. The regiment was approaching Kronstadt from the Oranienbaum side.
'At the beginning of the operation the second battalion had refused to march. With much difficulty and thanks to the presence of communists, it was persuaded to venture on the ice. As soon as it reached the first south battery, a company of the 2nd. battalion surrendered. The officers had to return alone. The regiment stopped. Dawn was breaking. We were without news of the 3rd. battalion, which was advancing towards south batteries 1 and 2. The battalion was marching in file and was being shelled by artillery from the forts. It then spread out and veered to the left of Fort Milioutine, from which red flags were being waved. Having advanced a further short distance, it noticed that the rebels had fitted machine guns on the forts, and were offering them the choice of surrendering or being massacred. Everybody surrendered, except the battalion commissar and three or four soldiers who turned back on their steps'.
On 8th. March, Oublanov, Commissar for the Northern Sector, wrote to the Petrograd Party:
'I consider it my revolutionary duty to clarify you as to the state of affairs on the northern sector. It is impossible to send the Army into a second attack on the forts. I have already spoken to Comrades Lachevitch, Avrov and Trotsky about the morale of the Koursantys (cadet officers, deemed most fit for battle). I have to report the following tendencies. The men wish to know the demands of Kronstadt. They want to send delegates to Kronstadt. The number of political commissars in this sector is far from sufficient'.
Army morale was also revealed in the case of the 79th. Brigade of the 27th Omsk Division. The Division comprised three regiments. It had shown its fighting capacities in the struggle against Koltchak. On 12th. March, the division was brought to the Kronstadt front. The Orchane regiment refused to fight against Kronstadt. The following day, in the two other regiments of the same division, the soldiers organised impromptu meetings where they discussed what attitude to take. Two of the regiments had to be disarmed by force, and the 'revolutionary' tribunal posed heavy sentences.
There were many similar cases. Not only were the soldiers unwilling to fight against their class brothers, but they were not prepared to fight on the ice in the month of March. Units had been brought in from other regions of the country, where by mid March the ice was melting already. They had little confidence in the solidity of the Baltic ice. Those who had taken part in the first assault, had seen that the shells from Kronstadt were opening up enormous holes in its surface, in which the unfortunate Government troops were being engulfed. These were hardly encouraging scenes. All this contributed to the failure of the first assaults against Kronstadt.
The regiments to be used in the final assault against Kronstadt were thoroughly reorganised. Groups that had shown any sympathy towards Kronstadt were disarmed and transferred to other units. Some were severely punished by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Party members were mobilised and allocated to various battalions for purposes of propaganda and for reporting back on unsure elements.
Between 8th. and 15th. of March, while the cannons exchanged fire over the ice at Kronstadt, the Tenth Party Congress was held in Moscow. The Congress despatched 300 delegates to the front, among them Vorochilov, Boubnov, Zatousky, Roukhimovitch and Piatakov. The 'delegates' were nominated 'political commissars' and appointed to the military section of the Tcheka, or to 'special commissions for the struggle against desertion'. Some just fought in the ranks.
The Revolutionary Tribunals were working overtime. Poukhov describes how 'they would vigorously react to all unhealthy tendencies. Troublemakers and provocateurs were punished according to their deserts'. The sentences would immediately be made known to the soldiers. Some times they would even be published in the papers.
But despite all the propaganda, all the reorganisation, and all the repression, the soldiers retained their doubts. On 14th. March, there were further acts of insubordination. Regiment 561, reorganised on 8th. March, still refused to march. 'We will not fight against our brothers from the same "stanltsas"(10)', they proclaimed.
Small groups of Red Army men surrendered to the rebels and started fighting on their side. Witnesses described how some units lost half their men before even entering the line of fire of the insurgents. They were being machined gunned from the rear 'to prevent them surrendering to the rebels'.
Official sources described how issues of the Kronstadt 'Izvestia' were being read with great interest in the Red Army. So were the leaflets distributed by the Kronstadt rebels. Special political commissions were set up to prevent such material from entering the barracks. But this had an opposite effect from the one expected.
Party organisations throughout the country were mobilised. Intensive propaganda was carried out among the troops in the rear. The human and material resources available to the Government were far greater than those available to Kronstadt. Trains were daily bringing new troops to Petrograd. Many were being sent from the Kirghiz and Bachkir lands (i.e., were composed of men as far removed as possible from the 'Kronstadt frame of mind'). As to the defenders of Kronstadt, their forces were not only diminishing numerically (through losses sustained in fighting), but they were more and more exhausted. Badly clad and half starving, the Kronstadt rebels remained at their guns, almost without relief, for just over a week. At the end of this period, many of them could hardly stand.