Kronstadt Fortress – Memory and Forgetting in Modern Russia

The fortress of Kronstadt lies on Kotlin Island about 30 miles offshore from St. Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland. It was constructed in 1703 by Peter the Great, just a year after he established his new capital, St. Petersburg. The history of the fortress has closely paralleled the history of St. Petersburg. Kronstadt has played two very different roles in the history of Russia. On the one hand, it has guarded St. Petersburg from attack from the sea, representing the last line of defense for St. Petersburg. The sailors of the fortress have guarded the port of St. Petersburg from Sweden, Great Britain, and Germany. Kronstadt was able to provide artillery support for the crucial Oranienbaum bridgehead during the Second World War. On the other hand, the sailors of the fortress played an indisputably important role in overthrowing the tsarist government and supporting the ideology of “All power to the Soviets.” This is most apparent when, in 1921, the Kronstadt sailors revolted against the Bolsheviks over how to allocate power in the new nation. This study will examine how the two roles played by the fortress in history are represented in the modern Russian memory. It is informed by visits to Kronstadt itself, by the tours offered by guides there, by visits to other fortresses in the region, and by official histories of the navy as represented in local museums like the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg and by celebrations like the annual Baltic Navy “Fleet Week.” The conclusions from this investigation are that the memory is focused on the fortress’s historical role of protector which fits in to the wider social memory of the Russian people.

The most visible of these representations is in the emphasis that Kronstadt places on its military history and subsequently its role as protector of St. Petersburg. This can be most readily seen in the military sites covered in the tour. For example, the tour started in the town center, where several plaques displaying the history of the fortress were located. These plaques memorialize most of the significant military events in the history of the fortress, starting with the founding date of the fortress and ending with the fortress’s defense of St. Petersburg during World War II. The next significant military site covered in the tour was the boat tour of the island batteries. These batteries included Kronshlott and Fort Alexander, among others which served as a deterrent to anyone wishing to invade St. Petersburg by sea. The tour of the batteries allowed anyone visiting the fortress to truly grasp the extensive area covered by the island fortress. The fortress used to be considered the most fortified fort in the world (Encyclopedia Britannica) and it is made up of 19 island forts and batteries that make up the Kronstadt fortress (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). These batteries first become visible while driving across the barrage to the Gulf of Finland en route to Kotlin Island. The fortress’s role as protector is memorialized by making visible all of the aspects of the fortress and its history.

Besides the actual military structures of the fortress, the nonmilitary structures on Kotlin Island also help to memorialize the military history of the island. The most apparent of these is the Naval Cathedral, built between 1908 and 1913 (Appendix B). It is considered a masterpiece of Russian neo-byzantine architecture, and it truly is the most impressive structure on the island, dominating the skyline of the town (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). Neo-Byzantine architecture as a style originated in Russia in the mid to late 19th century and fully matured as a style at the turn of the century. Its most defining features are the domes blended with arches and exposed masonry that is two-toned or stripped. Today, this church still marks a significant site by evoking memories of this architectural style. The giant Anchor Square lying directly in front of the cathedral contains a monument to the military hero, Stepan Makarov. Makarov is considered the greatest Russian Admiral in history. His successes began in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. He then commanded two round-the-world Oceanographic Expeditions for the Russian Navy in 1886-89 and 1890-92. He was killed in action during the Russo-Japanese War after his ship struck 3 mines near Port Arthur in 1905 (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). Squares often serve a social function by serving as meeting places. Therefore, the inclusion of a giant square in front of the Naval Cathedral indicates that the cathedral was meant to be a central meeting place in the town. Therefore, even when the cathedral was built, it was meant to be a symbol for the town and for the navy. At the end of the square, immediately in front of the cathedral, are several billboards around the cathedral carrying famous sayings by Peter the Great and St. John of Kronstadt. John of Kronstadt was one of the most widely popular priests in the Orthodox Church at the turn of the century. He travelled throughout most of the Russian empire seeking to help the poor and those who did not have access to the church. When he died in 1908, he was not only venerated in Russia, but internationally as well (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). This display of quotes memorializes the town’s military history and the importance of the cathedral in that history. In addition to the cathedral, the tour also included the sailors’ hospital, the armory, and the barracks. Additionally, by the cathedral is the central Naval hospital, at which anesthesia was first used in certain medical operations. The inclusion of all of these sites in the tour memorialized the lesser known aspects of the navy not commonly thought of by those outside of the fortress.

Stepan Makarov’s statue, in front of the overarching Naval Cathedral, represents another way in which the town’s role as protector is memorialized in the minds of the Russian people. Statues are a means through which people memorialize the life of a person or the happenings of a certain event. The monument to Makarov does both of these things, because it memorializes Makarov’s life in the Russian navy as well as certain key events of the times.   The presence of anchors around the monument remind the viewer that Makarov lived on the sea. The statue depicts Makarov standing on top of a wave, gesturing towards the future. On the sides of the statue’s base are important scenes from Makarov’s life, such as the battle of Port Arthur (Appendix B).  Many other statues around the city commemorate the lives of the most famous people to come out of the fortress’s military schools. One such statue was the monument to Ivan Aivazovsky, the famous Russian seascape painter. He was known as the most famous Russian romantic landscape painter in the mid-19th century and was commissioned by the Imperial Russian Navy in order to paint, and thus memorialize, their victories (Oxford Dictionary of Art). The monument includes a bust of Aivazovsky holding a paint brush and a paint panel in one hand and a miniature mast in the other (Appendix E), representations of his artistic and naval connections.  Kronstadt also has a statue commemorating Peter the Great, who founded the Russian Navy. Additionally, the town has memorials commemorating significant events for the town, of which the most significant is the memorial to the Battle of Tsushima (1905),  the defining battle of the Russo-Japanese War. The Russian Pacific and Baltic Fleets were all but destroyed in the battle, causing significant riots in the ranks of the Russian sailors (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia).  This small statue contains an engraving of a Russian warship being destroyed in the battle, with the date of the battle engraved under it and an anchor in front of it. All of these statues in Kronstadt as well as elsewhere serve to solidify the memory of these historical people or events in the minds of modern observers.

Modern Russian history’s emphasis on World War II includes the Kronstadt Fortress role in the defense of Leningrad. This can be seen from the World War II memorial, the last site on the tour. This memorial is right across the street from the Naval  Cathedral in Anchor Square, and is visited by many people who can revisit here the memory of Kronstadt’s role in WWII. Clearly visible from the street are the row of plaques commemorating the losses in Kronstadt during World War II. These people died defending the artillery from annual Luftwaffe raids on the city. Also outside is an anti-aircraft gun that was used to protect the artillery emplacements in the city. The artillery emplacements were meant to provide support to the troops on the ground in the Oranienbaum Bridgehead and to harass the German lines. The Oranienbaum Bridgehead was an area about 65 km in length that the Russians held during the Siege of Leningrad. The Russian Baltic fleet served a major role in providing supporting fire to the troops in the bridgehead. When the siege of Leningrad was broken in 1944, this bridgehead was instrumental in linking up with the troops from St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). These monuments serve to remind visitors of the city’s contribution to the war effort. The visibility of both monuments from Anchor Square suggests that they too are meant to be frequented and thus remembered by the people who visit the city. In the Central Naval Museum, three rooms are dedicated to the role of the navy in WWII; each of the rooms explains the role of the various Russian fleets. For instance, there is a room on the Baltic, Black Sea, and the Pacific Fleets as well as the Caspian, Siberian, and Lake Ladoga Flotillas. In the room dedicated to the Baltic Fleet, it is easy to see how Kronstadt played a role in protecting the city. In this exhibit there is a campaign map of the Siege of Leningrad. One can clearly see the naval fortress of Kronstadt and the bridgehead at Oranienbaum on the campaign map. The museum also has on display scale models of the ships of the Baltic Fleet, so that the visitor is better able to visualize the ships that participated in the war. Another exhibit in the museum memorializes the sacrifices made by the pilots during the war, some of whom were from Kronstadt and defended the artillery from the many Luftwaffe raids. Museums add material substance and fact to the events that are being commemorated, and help shape memories in the process.  The Central Naval Museum provides a broader naval wartime context within which the visitor can locate the significance of one particular site, such as Kronstadt.

The larger significance of the war can be found all around Russia, from sites that resemble Kronstadt to those that are not similar. The Shlissel’burg Fortress for example is represented quite differently in Russian social memory. Shlissel’burg is located about thirty minutes east of St. Petersburg, at the mouth of the River Neva and Lake Ladoga. Shlissel’burg is structurally and functionally similar to Kronstadt. Both were built as island fortresses to guard key waterways. Shlissel’burg was originally built by the Novgorod Republic to guard the entrance to the Volkhov River in the 14th century. The Volkhov River was the main waterway of trade for the republic, and thus represented a vital lifeline of the city (Encyclopedia of St. Petersburg). Several campaigns were fought over the fortress and it changed hands many times over the next 400 years. However, in 1702 Peter the Great conquered the fortress for the last time during the Great Northern War. In 1703 he established his new capital, St. Petersburg, at the mouth of the River Neva and the Gulf of Finland, thus permanently securing the area. When the defensive functions of the fortress became obsolete, later tsars decided to make the fortress a prison for the most heinous political crimes. From that period it acquired a reputation as one of the most brutal of the Tsar’s prisons. The tour of the fortress gives visitors a chance to view the cells of such tsarist prisoners such as Alexander Ulyanov (Lenin’s brother), Ivan VI, Wilhelm Kuchelbecker (one of the Decembrists), and Waleran Lukasinski (Polish national) (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). This fortress occupies a dark place in Russia’s social and political memory.   The cells of the fortress are gloomy and really give the viewer a sense of the desolate lives of the prisoners. Additionally, the prison’s history is further memorialized by the addition of biographies of famous prisoners who occupied the cells. Some of them, such as Alexander Ulyanov, were the leading revolutionaries of the late 19th century. The pre-Petrine history of the fort as protector of the Novgorod Republic is downplayed in the tour, and thus the fortress’s role as protector is also downplayed. This completely contrasts with the generally positive memory that is associated with the fortress Kronstadt.  Thus, Shlissel’burg’s history as a political prison overshadows its earlier role as a protector in the minds and memories of Russians.

However, the fortress’s memory of protector comes back into the social memory of today’s Russians because of its role in WWII. The fortress was the site of one of the last standoffs with the Germans before they conquered the southern banks of the Neva River and thus cut off Leningrad. The fortress served as an outpost for the Leningrad front-line and over the course of 500 days was subjected to intense bombing by the Germans (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). Today, the fortress has been left exactly as it was at the war’s end. The buildings and walls of the fortress show the signs of extensive bomb damage; in the middle of the fortress stands the old fortress cathedral. When one enters this fortress, the destruction of the Nazi bombing is immediately apparent. The most striking site at the fortress is the before-mentioned church. Today it is a heavily damaged version of its former self; in the chapel, a statue commemorates the soldiers who died fighting for the fortress.  Above the memorial is a giant metal – and religiously symbolic – halo made from scraps of metal from the fortress It is in this way that the fortress of Shlissel’burg memorializes the war in a different way than Kronstadt, because Kronstadt’s memorials do not focus on the physical destruction of the war, but rather on memorializing the people who died in the war. Therefore, the fortress is able to regain its memory of protector in Russian memory. However, both interpretations of memorializing the past give the same end result, because they evoke a strong emotional reaction from the observers and implant the same feeling of loss from the war. The memories of the destruction of the Second World War far outweigh the horrors of the tsarist prison camp that the fortress used to house. This is helped out even further because the tour starts off with the presentation of the destruction of the Second World War and ends with the tour of the tsarist prison.

The role of protector is also emphasized in Kronstadt’s memory of its soviet past.  Kronstadt, as the site of the Russian Navy, has a favorable reputation for the part it played during the Soviet revolution.  The Russian Navy actually exceeded the size of the American Navy between the years 1970 and about 1994 (Daily Chart). The way that Kronstadt memorializes its Soviet past can be most readily seen on the street names, because it has kept its old Soviet street names. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the towns throughout Russia renamed many of its buildings, public places, towns/cities and streets in order to reestablish their pre-revolutionary names. However, the names of the streets in Kronstadt included names like Lenin Street (Ulitsa Lenina), Lenin prospect (Leninskii prospect), Insurrection Street (Ulitsa Vosstaniia), Red Street (Krasnaia ulitsa), Soviet Street (Sovetskaia ulitsa) and Communist Street (Kommunisticheskaia ulitsa) among others (“Kronstadt” Map).

Kronstadt was a closed city during the Soviet days, meaning that only those with a government permit could enter and live in the city. This shows that the city was militarily significant to the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kronstadt was opened up to Russian and international tourists. However, since the Soviet days the city has suffered a decline in prosperity due to government cutbacks in the Navy during the 1990’s. The Russian Federation was forced to seriously downsize the Navy during the 1990’s because of budget shortfalls and economic collapse. The Navy quickly lost military readiness and comparability with the US fleet and has lost more than half of its fleet strength since 1985 (Economist). Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, a member of the Russian Duma, stated that “If the current situation [with shipbuilding] remains unchanged, we will face a grand-scale removal of ocean-going warships from service with the Russian Navy by 2015 and, as a result, a sharp decrease in its combat capabilities” (“Russian Navy Could be in Dire Straits”).  Many Russians remember the glory days of the Navy during the Soviet era, when it was among the most powerful navies in the world. During the Russian version of Fleet Week in Saint Petersburg, this researcher saw many Russians displaying symbols of old Soviet Navy, such as the old Soviet Naval banner. This memory of the Soviet era is not unique to Kronstadt and the navy; many Russians continue to hold the days of the Soviet era in high regard. Many of the host mothers that the students in this group were staying with had more positive to say about the Soviet days, than of the days after the end of the Soviet Union. This researcher’s host mother was more positive about the period right before the collapse of the USSR than after (The Soviet Days). Thus, Kronstadt’s positive view of its Soviet past matches the view that most Russians hold concerning their past in the USSR.

When the fortress’s role of protector is compared to the role that Kronstadt played in the Revolution, it is apparent that the representation of Kronstadt’s revolutionary role is somewhat contradictory. The revolutionary history of Kronstadt is memorialized in Anchor Square by an eternal flame that sits in the middle of a three-sided pyramid memorializing the 1905 revolt, the 1917 revolt, and the 1921 revolt. In 1905, the sailors of Kronstadt were some of the fieriest revolutionaries who rose up against the Tsar after the Bloody Sunday Massacre (Avrich, 43).  In 1917, the Kronstadt sailors again participated very passionately in the October Revolution, so much so that Bolsheviks were able to consider them to be their most loyal supporters (Avrich, 50).  In 1921, though, the Kronstadt sailors found themselves facing down in open revolt the new Bolshevik government, and arrogating to their cause the old 1917 slogan  “All power to the Soviets!” These sailors wanted to devolve powers away from the central government towards the local Soviets that had originally fought for the October Revolution in 1917. They laid out a list of 15 demands to the Bolshevik government in Moscow that reiterated their desire for devolved government powers to the Soviets. However, Lenin sent in 60,000 troops led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky in order to retake the fortress.  The Kronstadt revolt and suppression, combined with a number of other factors, caused Lenin to rethink the direction of the new government, and he shortly afterwards passed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which loosened government restrictions on goods and services. This site is the first one that that is visited upon arriving at Anchor square, and subsequently the only revolutionary site in the tour. The three sides of the pyramid state: “1905-1906 – Fearlessly you fell in a struggle for freedom and with your feat you have illuminated the path for the October”, “1917 – Under the red flag in the fire of revolutions you have assured the glory of Kronstadt for the centuries to come”, and “1919 – 1921. Slain in the battles for the people’s happiness, they have deserved the gratitude of the living” (Wandering Camera). The placement of this monument in Anchor Square places extra emphasis on this because of the significance of the Square and the number of visitors to it.  However, at the same time it is also overshadowed by the other monuments in the square. It is difficult for the simple three-faced pyramid to make a strong impression on the viewer unless that person has preexisting knowledge of the events represented on the monument. The monument is surrounded by the Neo-Byzantine masterpiece of the Naval Cathedral, the World War II memorial, and the grandiose monument to Admiral Stepan Makarov all within sight of the monument. Thus, even here we can see the revolutionary history being overshadowed by Russia’s tsarist past and the collective memory of the Second World War.

The tour guide mentioned another monument that was dedicated specifically to the sailors of the Kronstadt revolt. However, this monument was not included in the guided tour. The monument to the revolt is a small plaque on the side of a building by the road, and was seen on the bus ride out of town. Additionally, although the 1905 and 1917 revolts are listed in the ‘official’ town history, there is no mention of the 1921 revolt in this history located in the town center. Arguably it was the most historically significant revolutionary event that occurred in Kronstadt because its suppression helped solidify the Bolsheviks’ dominance of the government. The Kronstadt revolt forced out the true colors of the October Revolution because the Bolsheviks turned on the most dedicated supporters of the revolution. The negation of the 1921 revolt from the official history shows a striking disregard of this revolt from history, and the placement of the memorial to the revolt makes it appear that the city wants to sweep the memory of the rebellion under the rug.

The social memory of the Revolution in Kronstadt is similar to the way that the rest of Russia remembers the Revolution. The contemporary social history of the Russian Revolution is less emphasized than the history of tsarist Russia or the Second World War. For instance, many of the sites exclusively associated with the Revolution have experienced a period of decline since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Shalash and Sarai, for example, the places where Lenin hid himself during the summer of 1917, are not visited as often as they once were by Russian tourists and have fallen into a state of disrepair.  In the summer of 1917, Lenin was forced out of St. Petersburg by the Provisional Government because of the Bolshevik’s involvement in the July Days riots. He originally fled to an apartment on the outskirts of Petrograd, where he then made his way to Shalash (barn), and Sarai (makeshift hut). The museum curator was ecstatic to have a group of students come out to these sites, she was even more excited when she found out that they were American students. Our group appeared to be the only ones who had and would visit the site that day. This represents the decay in the social memory of the Revolution because if few people are visiting these memorials, then few people are remembering their messages. On that same apartment building mentioned earlier where Lenin hid before he made his way to the Shalash and Sarai, there was a mural painted to commemorate the event (Rough Guide).  However, the mural has since been painted over in a solid coat of red paint. The only thing that stands to commemorate the memorial now is a small plaque and a bust of Lenin in front of the building. Additionally, in many of the tours that our group received while in the St. Petersburg, only scant reference was made to the revolution and to the Soviet days that followed. Many tour guides will simply gloss over the Soviet period in their tour unless being asked to directly talk about it. This represents a significant decline in the social framework of memory in Russia. Many of these sites are, such as the Shalash and Sarai, are in danger of being forgotten because of the lack of discourse on the Revolution in Russia. The same crisis of memory about the Revolution that is occurring in Kronstadt seems also to be taking place throughout modern Russia as well[f1] .

However, although there is a decline in the social memory of Revolution, the memory has not completely faded from memory yet. There is resurgence in the social memory of the Revolution and Kronstadt’s role in it thanks to the movie Admiral. This resurgence though may not be altogether positive, because the movie Admiral portrays the Revolution in a negative manner. The movie is shot from the perspective of Admiral Alexander Kolchak, one of the White generals who fought against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. He commanded the White armies out of Omsk and instigated a brutal regime in which over half a million people were killed. Therefore, the perspective of the movie is very likely to be biased against the revolutionaries. For example, one of the scenes in Admiral involves the Kronstadt sailors taking all of their officers at gunpoint to the side of a ravine and then shooting them (Admiral). This scene places specific focus on the officers of Kronstadt, thus portraying the sailors in a negative light. The site where that scene was filmed was shown in the guided tour of Kronstadt. However, the scene’s significance was not expanded upon in the tour, leaving the people of the tour only with the memory from the film. This is bad because it portrays the revolution in a completely negative light, and may lead people to dismiss certain details about the event, such as what the underlying message of the Kronstadt mutiny was. An example of this can be seen in Revolution exhibit at the Naval Museum, where there is a portrait of the Kronstadt sailors during the October Revolution. Depending on what the prevailing social memory is at the time, people will look at that portrait and see either heroes or murderers. If the negative view prevails, then the much of the memory behind the revolution’s message will be lost, as people choose to forget rather than remember something so negative. However, if the positive memory were to prevail, then it might provide a justification for similar actions to take place in the future. The best possible solution would be if there was an objective middle ground memory of the Revolution, which is not possible unless the dialogue and representation of that memory is objective. Thus, while the social memory of Kronstadt’s revolutionary role has made resurgence in the last few years, it is not necessarily a healthy resurgence because it is biased.

Kronstadt’s emphasis on its role as protector is definitely more emphasized in the way that Kronstadt is remembered in the minds of the people. The deference to the military past, with an emphasis on World War II, and the way that it memorializes its Soviet past. The fortress’s revolutionary role takes a decidedly backseat in the representation of the fortress. The guided tour was able to show this because the itinerary favored the sites without a connection to the revolutionary past. This representation is similar on a thematic level throughout Russia, because the country is still struggling in many ways to deal with its revolutionary past. The revolutionary past of Kronstadt can be properly represented to the public only once the entire country comes to terms with this past. Until then it is relegated to a back seat behind the more clear-cut subjects of Russian social history.