Potemkin Mutiny

Potemkin Mutiny


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In June, 1905, sailors on the Potemkin battleship, protested against the serving of rotten meat. The captain ordered that the ringleaders to be shot. The firing-squad refused to carry out the order and joined with the rest of the crew in throwing the officers overboard.

The sailors sailed into Odessa harbour but were unable to land. Fearing that the Potemkin would be attacked by other ships of the Russian fleet, the mutineers decided to leave Odessa. The crew sailed the Potemkin to Romania where they surrendered to the local authorities.


The Origins of the Potemkin Mutiny

From Revolutionary History, Vol.و No.ق, 2002, pp.㻁󈞶.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT is well-known that the Potemkin mutiny was not an unexpected event. It was the premature and isolated explosion of a courageously prepared plan for a general rising which was intended to ignite the Black Sea fleet within its iron ring. By seizing naval bastions, the Russian revolution would have had at its disposal an impregnable base for further conquests. By moving from the shelling of the shores to sieges of the garrisons, it would have covered all the South, and from there spread across the rest of the country. This rising was planned for July, at the time of the major fleet manoeuvres. At the agreed signal – two rockets fired one after the other from the deck of the battleship Catherine II – the sailors involved were to arrest or kill their officers ‘in the name of the people’, and to seize all the ships and take command of them. In fact, the unfortunate incident of the spoiled meat provoked a premature revolt on the Potemkin, and the whole plan collapsed.

The other ships, unprepared, were not warned the only ones among them able to take part in the movement were the Georgi Pobedonostsev, which remained loyal to the revolution for 24 hours, and the training ship Prout, which tried in vain to find the Potemkin in order to give it support. Mention should also be made of the Sinopia, which also joined up with the Potemkin, but moved away on instructions given unexpectedly by Admiral Krieger to go to Sebastopol when the minority of revolutionary sailors had not yet managed to overcome the hesitations of the undecided and fearful majority. The most unfortunate case was the putting out of action of the battleship Catherine II, ‘Katia’ as the sailors commonly called her. ‘Katia the Red’ was prepared to take the most decisive step, and fell victim to its own revolutionary enthusiasm. When the mutiny erupted on the Potemkin, there was a minor conflict between the sailors and the officers of the Catherine II, a ridiculous incident in comparison with the rôle which the battleship could have played two days later, but which resulted in the majority of the crew being sent ashore. Thus the most revolutionary of the battleships was obliged to remain in Sebastopol, while the other ships were sent to Odessa against the Potemkin.

But there is a question to be asked: would the general rising have succeeded if the events on the Potemkin had not taken place? Could the fleet have achieved success in its attempt to take possession of the coastal towns and arouse the working-class population there?

When we learn from Kirill’s account [1] the details of the overwhelming, dramatic story of the struggle of the revolutionary sailors and discover how close they were to success when only a single vessel had mutinied, we are practically convinced that a general rising could have been successful … From a purely military and technical point of view, it was an excellent idea to launch a general armed revolt by means of a rising in the fleet: first of all, because the sailors were the most receptive of all the armed services to socialist propaganda, and, above all, because a fleet which has mutinied is in a better position to defend itself than any other formation. A victory of the mutiny in the fleet would have created an unprecedented situation in the history of civil wars. Russian absolutism, with all its army, would have proved impotent in the struggle against this handful of men. Ruling-class Russia would have found itself in the same ridiculous situation as Romania when the Potemkin came into view off Constanza: the whole garrison was mobilised, even … the cavalry.

But the real historical interest of the fleet mutiny lies in understanding its causes. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, and especially its organisation in the Crimea (the Social Democratic Union of the Crimea), through its activity over a long period made a large contribution to the emergence of revolutionaries in the ranks of the sailors. But it was the structure of the Russian state, and especially the regime in the barracks, which aroused their spirit and taught them to understand revolutionary and socialist ideas. It is impossible to understand the revolutionary rising in the fleet or other comparable movements without taking these elements into account. When we understand just how seriously revolutionary action was blocked in Russia, at the price of how many victims and of what efforts it took for every step – victims of whom only a tiny minority would see the achievement of their goal and the majority of whom would fall in the very first battle against the multitude of obstacles set up by the political regime – then we realise that at the root of the sailors’ revolt were above all their conditions of life.

Today it is more than ever necessary to understand the nature of the barracks system in Russia. When peace is concluded and the Constituent Assembly is established, the political parties will have to reconstruct the country in a radical fashion. But Russia will not really be transformed until it is liberated from the errors of the past. We want … to describe, on the basis of documents in our possession, the rôle played in the revolt by conscious factors, that is socialist propaganda, and by unconscious factors, that is, the military system in Russia. The barracks system is only a reflection of the social and political structure of a country, and the conditions of life on board the Potemkin were the same as in the whole of the fleet. The same abuses were encountered everywhere. On the part of the officers, especially of the senior officers, there was everywhere the same stupid cruelty, and the same refusal to understand the need for a more humane behaviour towards the sailors. Any attempt on the part of the latter to gain a more bearable existence merely evoked from the officers the obstinate determination to punish them even more severely. Thus the sailors could not feel favourably disposed towards their superiors. On the surface, they were docile, out of fear of repression, but, at bottom, they hated and despised the ‘dragons’ and ‘scorpions’, terms they did not hesitate to use at the slightest opportunity. During the mutiny of 3 November, the sailors chased their officers, throwing stones and hurling crude insults at them. In any case, the insults were so common that the officers were used to them and pretended not to hear them … The hostility and distrust between officers and soldiers are general phenomena in all armies, but they were more acute in the Russian armed forces. The unbridgeable gulf between them became deeper with every political event, and ended up with the soldiers being despatched against strikers and demonstrators …

To explain this distrust, as well as the contemptuous hatred felt by the sailors for their officers, we must remember, as well as political reasons, the specific faults of the Russian officer corps, especially in the fleet, where officers were recruited exclusively from the nobility. The military colleges were inhabited by the ‘dregs’ of industrial society. As for the honest and competent youth, they generally inhabited Russian jails, and made inroads into the intellectual professions. Only incompetent and servile people turned to careers in the bureaucracy and the armed forces … These officers considered their position as a means of survival, and strove to work as little as possible for the greatest possible personal advantage. It was on this basis that the relations between officers and sailors developed, often with catastrophic consequences.

But to return to the battleship Potemkin. The most brutal corporal punishments were commonplace. Despite the appearance of a secret circular insisting on the need to ‘respect the human dignity of subordinates’, the naval officers continued, as if by habit, to deal out slaps and blows. Sailors have told me of having their eardrums burst by such violent blows … But above all they suffered from insults and humiliations of every sort which attacked their human dignity. You had to see the arrogance with which those who are called ‘aristocrats’ treated their underlings to understand the strength of the hatred which the latter felt for them …

Anyone who has lived in Russia has perhaps seen, in some public parks, the barbaric notice: ‘Entry strictly forbidden to dogs and lower ranks.’ Admiral Chukhnin managed to invent an even worse rule for the sailors of Sebastopol. Order no.𧆸 of 29 April 1905 banned sailors ‘on pain of imprisonment’ from walking on two boulevards, two avenues and a street. A few days later a group of disabled sailors, back from Port Arthur, passed along one of these boulevards in which stood the monument commemorating the siege of Sebastopol in 1855. They met an officer who challenged them in crude terms: ‘How dare you come here? You know the boulevard is banned to lower ranks!’ One of the sailors replied: ‘Do we have the right to tread our native soil, for which we have shed our blood?’ ‘You have the nerve to argue, scum!’ And a series of blows enabled these returning ‘heroes’ to taste the joys of a grateful homeland. The mutiny of 3 November was provoked by an order from Admiral Chukhnin forbidding the sailors to go into the town without special permission, the so-called ‘red ticket’.

Measures like these would not have had such serious consequences a few years earlier. We can even claim that the result would have been the same if there had been an improvement and not a deterioration in the conditions of life in the fleet: above all, it was the sailors themselves who had changed and matured. During some five or six years, their sense of personal dignity had ripened … To take one instance typical of the new generation. The 1904 recruits of the Thirty-Sixth crew – that of the Potemkin – even before they had sworn allegiance, presented their superiors with a set of demands. The powerful shock sent throughout Russia by the workers’ movement in the five preceding years had aroused in the sailors hope for a new, better and free life. As a result of the conditions of work, the battleship was in fact a floating factory the sailors were closer to the working class than to any other. From the large number of punishments for reading, which, while legal, was not approved by the officers, we can judge the level of interest in science and literature among the sailors, as well as their thirst for knowledge. Their quest for a better future ran up against the officers … who personified absolutism.

The sailors discussed enthusiastically the question of relations between the officers and the rank and file: the leading party of the Russia of the future must be equally concerned. We should recall that the first point of the ultimatum delivered by the battleship to the military commander of Odessa was the replacement of the standing army by people’s militias. The relations between the sailors and their superior officers were a question of the first importance. It was by observing the behaviour of a sailor towards his officers and his feelings about them that the revolutionary comrades decided whether he was fit to take part in their secret activities …

It is important to dwell on the way propaganda work was carried out on board the Potemkin. A number of sailors had already encountered social democratic ideas when they were working in the Nikolaievsky shipyards. They were in contact with civilian workers, many of whom had been influenced by socialist propaganda. Then the Potemkin crew made direct contact with the Social Democratic Party in Sebastopol, where it had already established firm links with the navy. Obviously, only a small number of sailors could be in direct contact with the revolutionaries. Among those on the Potemkin, I have identified about 15 to 20 who attended, irregularly, the secret meetings organised by the socialists. These meetings, called ‘short-lived’ when there were hardly any participants and ‘mass’ when there were a lot of them, brought together the sailors from the 50 warships anchored off Sebastopol. Originally at long intervals, the meetings become more and more frequent in the course of the four months before the rising, there was one almost every Sunday (from 10 November to 25 March there were 11 in all). The number of sailors taking part rose from 30 to 300 or 400. In order to avoid unpleasant surprises, these meetings were held outside the town, in a forest near to the Malakhov hill. The sailors went there in small groups, first taking the Inkerman road, then splitting up to take various paths. There was a guard stationed all the way to ensure that the route was clear. When they reached the meadow which was the meeting place, they settled in as they pleased. The speeches began. The speakers, often women, explained to the sailors the causes of the existence of the unbearable oppressive authority, and proposed means to destroy it and liberate the whole country. Then they discussed, told of their experiences, and, after having adopted a resolution, they wound up the meeting with a revolutionary song. Here is the text of one of these resolutions adopted on 20 March:

We 194 sailors from the Black Sea fleet attending this meeting join our voices to those of the Russian workers represented by their revolutionary wing, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party we demand the removal of the autocratic regime and its replacement by a democratic republic. We are convinced that only the convening of a Constituent Assembly, on the basis of direct and equal universal suffrage, with a secret ballot, can assert the power of the people. We know that the Tsarist regime went to war in its own interests. That is why we demand an immediate end to it. By joining our voice to that of Russia which is awakening to political life, we are confident that our example, the example of the protest of the Black Sea fleet, will be followed by all the Russian armed forces. The last bastion of the regime is about to crumble. Our liberation is imminent, and we call upon all those persecuted and oppressed by the autocracy to join our ranks, the ranks of our party. Our struggle will not cease until humanity has freed itself from the exploitation of the capitalist bloodsuckers. We are fighting for socialism. Down with the autocracy! Down with war! Long live the Constituent Assembly! Long live the democratic republic! Long live the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party! Long live socialism!

One hundred and fifty sailors who had not attended this meeting endorsed this resolution.

Among the other sailors, propaganda was carried out by pamphlets and above all by appeals. It should be noted that the sailors asked the Sebastopol committee to draw up appeals specially for them. When the committee had established that propaganda among the sailors was effective, it made efforts to illuminate every more or less significant event in the life of the fleet. Thus two or three days after the revolt, when the sailors got up and went out into the yard, they found leaflets about the recent events scattered over the ground. The Sebastopol committee called on the sailors to give a political character to their protest. Some 1,800 copies of this appeal were distributed. All told, the committee distributed 12,000 leaflets from the beginning of November to the beginning of April. Titles include Time to Put an End to It, The Soldiers’ Manual (2,800 copies), The Two Europes, Who Will Win?, Death to Tyrants, The Tsar’s Manifesto (9 January), etc. Some dealt with the Russian regime in general, others specifically concerned the sailors. They depicted the difficult conditions of existence of the sailors, which were contrasted with the comfort and privileges which their officers enjoyed. During this time in Japan, Togo, the Admiral of the Japanese Fleet, got 5,600 roubles a year, while Grand-Duke Alexei, Admiral of the Russian Fleet, had a salary 18 times higher – 108,000 roubles. On the other hand, sailors’ pay was incomparably higher in Japan than in Russia. A sailor cost the Japanese government 54 roubles, as against 24 for the Russian government – and half of that was stolen by the officers. Special leaflets were put out when 800 sailors left for Libau, and others on the occasion of the trial of 30 sailors accused of being the ‘instigators’ of the 3 November revolt. In parallel with these specific events, questions of a general nature were raised: the war, the situation of the workers and peasants, the Russian state, etc. An end to the war was the most popular slogan. Some urged sailors to refuse to go to the Far East. One leaflet printed by the Sebastopol committee produced a particularly powerful impression. It had been drawn up and signed by ‘sailors and NCOs on the battleship Catherine II, together with the Social Democratic Party’. It was already an indication of the more important actions which would arise as a result of the defeat at Tsushima. [2]

Today, now that Russia has become an self-styled democratic state, the question of the reorganisation of the armed forces is still an important one. The sailors’ demands are all aimed at improving their conditions of life during their period of service: only at the end do they mention the close link between the social order in Russia and the military system. We should note some of these demands:

  • Reduction of the length of military service in the fleet to three years (currently seven years).
     
  • Precise definition of the working day (manoeuvres at the front and special exercises are considered as work).
     
  • Sailors’ control over expenditure on food intended for them. The sailors demand to be directly involved in supplies and in the appointment of the cook: ‘We shall thus deprive you of the ability to steal from us’, the sailors of the Catherine II say to their officers …

Another set of demands concerned human rights and citizens’ rights: the abolition of the formulae which sailors had to use when addressing their superiors [3], and of the practice of giving military honours to officers. The sailors also demanded that offences be judged by an ordinary court. If military courts were to be preserved, they must be composed equally of officers and of sailors elected by their comrades …

These appeals were distributed everywhere in hundreds of copies. One day the sailors on the Potemkin awoke to be surprised by finding them on the blankets of their beds. They all picked up the ‘flyers’ and looked for ‘a private place’ to read them. Subsequently they discussed them in groups for several days. Perhaps the sailors did not understand everything. It happened that the Potemkin sailors wrote [to the committee] criticising the use [in the leaflets] of too many expressions that were incomprehensible for the majority of sailors, and asking for new leaflets. But these leaflets, small, insignificant and often illegible, printed clandestinely on primitive machines, carried out their revolutionary task. They were the living proof of the existence of a party which could not be pinned down, which stood alongside the isolated and submissive sailors to listen to their complaints and to sympathise with their sufferings. The people of this party held out a fraternal hand to the sailors, treated them as equals, and put at their disposal their time, their resources and their life they called on them to join in a struggle against the enemy of the whole working class. It could not be expected that this propaganda would transform the sailors into conscious socialists. Yet it did a great deal by giving a political character to their vague discontent, and by popularising the slogans of the minimum socialist programme.

Initially unorganised, the sailors’ struggle became conscious. They adopted as their own the party and its programme. ‘We are 300 social democrats ready to die’ it was with these words that I was greeted by the sailor Matiuchenko when I boarded the Potemkin at Constanza. These 300 social democrats perhaps did not know everything about what their party was demanding, but the fact of being among its members gave them unlimited confidence in their own strength.

Thus, with growing energy and spirit of initiative, the sailors found within themselves what the appeals could not offer them. They completed their political training by observing facts around them, and by reading the books and newspapers permitted by the officers. Guided by a hatred of despotism, they discovered revolutionary ideas even in religious books. Anyone who closely studied everyday life on board the Potemkin could perceive their intense intellectual life. It was like a bee hive in which everyone acted to the limits of his strength. There were about 30 advocates of non-violence, who urged passive resistance to the war and a refusal to shoot at ‘human beings, God’s creatures’. Arguments broke out almost every Sunday between them and commanding officer Golikov …

If we examine the personality of the sailors, we can see that there were brilliant men among them, whose potential for playing a rôle was blocked by the social and political conditions in the country. Among them Nikichkin, a true tribune of the people, exercised a great influence on his comrades (he died heroically at Feodosia). Possessed of a great oratorical talent, imbued with that religious idealism which is deeply rooted in the popular masses, especially the peasantry, and which has not yet been undermined by superficial scepticism, and with a remarkable memory, he decorated his speeches with quotations. He initiated the style of speech which began with an extract from the gospels and ended with a revolutionary anthem.

Zvenigorodsky, an apprentice mechanic from the practical school, was a different type the son of a journalist, he himself produced papers in which he described the poverty and suffering of the sailors, and which he read to his comrades. It was thanks to his activity that numerous sailors, like Reznichenko for example, became revolutionaries. ‘We often discussed for hours on end’, the latter told me, ‘staring at the smooth surface of the sea.’ Besides these two figures, there were a whole number of active agitators, Matiuchenko, Reznichenko, Kurilov, Dymchenko, Makarov and many others. They discussed events which were agitating the whole of Russia. One of the consequences of the Russo-Japanese War was undoubtedly the emergence of social life and public opinion … The afflictions, shame and shared sufferings brought the navy and the army closer to the people … Once Nikichkin read an extract from Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, in which one of the occupants of Vassilissa’s tavern launches into a revolutionary speech: ‘Your law, your truth, your justice are not ours’, etc. Nikichkin gave his readings throughout the nooks and crannies of the ship, and his listeners were enthused with a common feeling. They went beyond words to action: collective protests became more and more frequent. They were prepared in the evening before bedtime. The sailors, assembled on the quarter deck of the ship for prayers, refused to disperse, despite the orders of the officer on guard, and began to discuss in low voices then one of the bravest among them raised his voice and shouted slogans. When they had said all they had to say, the sailors dispersed.

It was on the evening of 3 November 1904 that, for the first time, the sailors’ protest took on a tone of impending revolt. The windows of the barracks and the lamps in the courtyard were broken, and the officers’ rooms were ransacked in a moment. The officers ran to hide anywhere possible, and managed to dodge the sailors’ anger. The soldiers, who had been called from nearby barracks, refused to shoot. The sailors and NCOs of the Pamiat Merkuria finally succeeded, after several salvoes, in dispersing the mutineers … Incidents erupted more and more frequently on the ships … The sailors of the Catherine II threatened to sink the ship if they were not paid wartime wages. The crews of all the ships supported this demand. They won, as they did also on the quality of the bread. The revolutionary sailors were generally behind these actions. Every success strengthened their influence.

But it was war which was the sharpest stimulant for the sailors. It had laid bare the innumerable failings of the army and of the navy, which the sailors attributed to the incompetence and cowardice of the ‘leaders’. The officers had lost all authority, and no longer inspired either respect or fear. For their part, the sailors had understood that resolute action leads to victory, and they had gained in daring. Acts of desertion became ever more numerous, and were openly supported by everybody.

It was in this atmosphere, where the wind of revolution was blowing and where discipline had been shattered, that the idea of a general rising was conceived. Where, when and by whom was the idea launched for the first time? Like any truly popular idea, it was probably not launched deliberately by anyone in particular, and it arose spontaneously amid the mood of hope prevailing on the ship. Already on 3 November, the sailors had asked the Social Democratic Party whether the time had not come to transform the revolt into an organised movement. The committee had advised delay until a more favourable moment. The idea of a revolutionary intervention had thus already emerged a year previously. Later, at the beginning of the year, when there was news of a pogrom of Jews carried out by the Sebastopol police, 150 armed sailors went into the town and joined the workers to defend the Jews.

The events of 8󈝸 January 1905 in Petersburg provoked high feelings among the sailors … The ‘sailors’ centre’ – the central committee led by representatives of sailors from all the ships – began seriously to elaborate a plan for a rising. This was not easy. The proposal raised a mass of concrete questions. What attitude do we take to the officers? Should we arrest them or execute them? What would be the consequences of the rising, whether successful of defeated? Would it not lead to the break-up of Russia? Each sailor gave his point of view. In a letter addressed to the Sebastopol committee … the Potemkin crew asked for a reply to all the questions which were raising doubts. But the defeat at Tsushima and the news of the massacre of 40 sailors from the Niebogatov squadron near Shanghai (published in a Russian newspaper) pushed the sailors’ patience to its limit. They said: ‘If we have to die, it might as well be in order to liberate Russia, rather than by being killed by officers or the Japanese.’ And the idea of a rising won ever more supporters.

A question arises here: how many of the sailors on the Potemkin were involved in the plot? At least half, I have been told. In fact, the revolutionary sailors did not keep their plan secret: they observed only very basic precautions. Here is a detail which shows how audacious they were: the officers of a small ship – whose name we shall not mention – one day went into town to go to a wedding: during this time the sailors held a meeting on board … It is highly probable that the officers knew what was being prepared. We know that there were some 30 informers among the sailors. But how could they thwart these plans? Who should be arrested? They did not succeed in discovering who were the members of the revolutionary committee of the Potemkin

The commanding officer of the Potemkin failed in all his attempts to restore discipline on board by traditional measures, which were ridiculous and ineffective … They tried to stop the sailors from meeting they were even forbidden to read newspapers and magazines, and it was difficult to get leave to go into town. Golikov, who had previously often spent the night off the ship, now never left it: he inspected the cabins to check on the sailors’ timetable: ‘Why is this hammock empty? Where is sailor X?’ ‘He is on guard’, replied his neighbour, while sailor X was discussing in a dark corner with a comrade. These draconian measures made the protests even sharper. There was one particularly sharp one in the two or three days before Trinity Sunday. Golikov thought he could put an end to it by giving a speech about discipline during the festival. He told how a mutiny 20 years earlier on the Svetlana, where he had been serving, had ended up with numerous executions. ‘That is what awaits those who forget discipline’, he declared … After the defeat at Tsushima, such words were highly irresponsible. The fact of learning the risks they were running allowed the sailors to overcome their fear of the consequences of a revolt. But what could the wretched commanding officer do? Like any good soldier of absolutism, he had to defend the old Russia by any means possible. Faced with the difficulty of the task, Golikov, like the others, lost his head and merely accelerated the process. Besides, he himself was quite certain of his own impotence: ‘The revolutionary poison is spreading on the boat even among the NCOs’, he said one day to a police officer. Any attempt to root out revolution ended up in failure … Reznichenko quotes a significant example:

We were just about to start the meeting when a patrol under the command of an officer turned up. He wanted to arrest us all. One of us went up to him and, after saluting, asked him: ‘What does it matter to you that we are here?’ – ‘I order you to disperse.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘Because I am instructing you.’ – ‘But we are not doing anything criminal.’ – ‘Disperse or I shall give the order to shoot.’ – ‘Nobody will obey you. Today I am on this side, but tomorrow I may be in your patrol, and if you give the order to shoot, you will be the first one I shall shoot.’

The officer retreated without a word. The sailors moved and resumed their meeting. Baranovsky, the commanding officer of the Prout, gave a speech about these meetings in which he accused the Jews of being behind the disturbances in the fleet. He added that he would not hesitate to pronounce death sentences on all those taking part in plots with the socialists. A few days later a proclamation by the sailors appeared: ‘You were speaking the truth. We know you are an executioner. The day is coming when we shall not hesitate to strangle you. The time for payment is coming.’

A few weeks later, Baranovsky was arrested by the sailors and Golikov died, a victim of the obstinacy of absolutism.

Notes

1. Kirill was the pseudonym of Anatoly Petrovich Berezovsky, who was responsible for assembling the recollections of a sailor on the Potemkin from which this article is taken.

2. The Russian Baltic Fleet, having sailed all the way around the world, was annihilated near the islands of Tsushima by Admiral Togo on 27 May 1905.

3. Servicemen in Tsarist Russia were obliged to address officers in a particularly obsequious manner.


In Focus: Mutiny on the Potemkin

Roger Hudson looks at an episode that inspired one of the greatest films ever made.

Crew members of the Russian battleship Potemkin come ashore on a tugboat in Constanta harbour on the Romanian Black Sea coast after surrendering in July 1905. The battleship can be seen in the background and shortly she will settle in the water, half sunk, because the crew’s last act has been to open her seacocks.

Russia has been in a deeply disturbed state since the start of the year, brought on by her defeats in the Russo-Japanese War being fought in Manchuria. At the end of May the Russian Baltic fleet eventually reached the Far Eastern war zone, only to be wiped out at the Battle of Tsushima. The Black Sea fleet, already denuded of its best officers and men, now feared it would be ordered to follow. On June 24th 40 sailors suspected of being mutinous were taken off the Potemkin. On June 27th crew members refused to eat maggoty meat and then thought they were going to be shot as mutineers. They turned on their officers, killing seven of them, including the captain, before sailing into Odessa. Martial law had just been declared there because of fighting between strikers, police and soldiers. When the mutineers went ashore, the violence got worse. After firing the odd shell into the city, the battleship went to sea on June 30th, where she was confronted by a squadron from the Black Sea fleet, which chose not to fire on her, probably because the officers feared mutiny might also break out on their ships. The battleship St George did briefly mutiny, but then the officers and petty officers regained control and ran her aground. On July 2nd Potemkin arrived in Constanta for the first time but the Romanians would not sell her supplies, so she went back to Theodosia in the Ukraine. There a party of her sailors, trying to hijack coal barges for refuelling, was ambushed and 22 out of 30 failed to return. On July 8th she was back in Constanta, where she surrendered.

Mutinies and violence continued across Russia, culminating in a general strike in October, which forced the tsar to concede the principles of freedom of speech, conscience and association. However, as Trotsky said, Nicholas II had granted everything and given nothing and the revolt was soon crushed. The Potemkin episode was quickly mythologised by the revolutionaries, but its real transformation had to wait until the 27-year-old Latvian Sergei Eisenstein made the film Battleship Potemkin in 1925. He pared the story down to five episodes covering a mere three days, June 27th to 30th. Of these, it is the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence that resonates, with its rows of boots marching down them, the bespectacled old lady wounded in the face, the baby’s pram bouncing down, the mother climbing up with her dead child in her arms. Eisenstein justified ending the film with ‘the Rendez-vous with a Squadron’ because, as he wrote, this was the point at which the story ‘had become an asset to the Revolution’.

As for the real-life ship, she was salvaged and renamed the Panteleimon, only to be scuttled again in 1919 during the Civil War by White forces in Sevastopol. Most of the 1905 crew stayed in Romania some of those who went back to Russia were executed, including the leading mutineer, Afanasi Matuschenko 32 went to Argentina. The last survivor, Ivan Beshoff, died in 1987, aged 102, after running a fish and chip shop in Dublin for many years.


8 The Mutiny On HMS Hermione


One of the most violent mutinies in British naval history took place on the frigate HMS Hermione in 1797. The ship patrolled the seas of the West Indies, captained by Hugh Pigot. He was cruel and violent, renowned for lashing his crew members for minor slights. The mutiny was dramatic but not surprising.

One night during a storm, the ship&rsquos crew were working to bring in the sails. Unhappy with what he perceived as slow work, Pigot yelled that the last man down would be flogged. In the rush to avoid punishment, three men fell to their deaths. Pigot had the bodies thrown overboard and placed the blame on a dozen other sailors. He had them all lashed.

That night, the resentment from the crew reached a head. Several dozen seamen, led by a surgeon&rsquos mate, stormed the captain&rsquos cabin. Each was desperate to hack at Pigot, who was sliced by a wide variety of knives and swords. Eventually, the bloodied captain was thrown out of his window, alive and screaming. Many of the ship&rsquos other officers faced a similar fate.

The crew realized they wouldn&rsquot be able to return to British territory, so they set sail for ports under Spanish control. They told the authorities there that they had simply set their commanding officers adrift and offered the ship in return for asylum. The Spaniards agreed, and the Hermione became the Santa Cecilia. It was returned to British control just over two years later, when a Royal Navy raiding party landed aboard and killed 100 Spanish sailors.

While the crew adopted new identities, over half of them were eventually captured. Two were caught trying to sail back across the Atlantic in a Spanish vessel, which was intercepted by the Royal Navy near Portugal. In total, 24 of the mutineers were hanged for their actions.


Military History Book Review: Red Mutiny

More than a century has passed since sailors aboard the Imperial Russian Navy battleship Potemkin deposed their officers and challenged Tsar Nicholas II. In Red Mutiny, Neal Bascomb has taken a fresh look at the events of June 1905 absent the political bias of previous historians. The author doesn’t depict the mutiny as a mere isolated naval incident, but places it squarely in the context of the times. In 1905 Russia was a rapidly modernizing nation locked in the grip of a corrupt, incompetent and highly unpopular autocracy. The country was also embroiled in an unpopular war against Japan. Climaxing the series of military blunders perpetrated by the tsar and his incompetent military advisers was the dispatch of the entire Baltic Fleet to the Far East, where it was destroyed by the Japanese navy at the Battle of Tsushima.

Sailors in the Black Sea Fleet were ripe for mutiny. They were aware of the widespread civil unrest in their country, including “Black Sunday,” the massacre of peaceful demonstrators by the tsar’s soldiers in St. Petersburg on January 9. The fate of their sailor counterparts at Tsushima in May, who were led to their deaths by incompetent officers in a pointless war, was seen as further proof of the callousness of their leaders. The only thing that forestalled a planned fleetwide mutiny was the unanticipated, premature mutiny aboard Potemkin.

Bascomb traces the events of the 11-day uprising, following the officers who tried unsuccessfully to suppress it, the revolutionaries who tried to assist and take advantage of it and the sailors who led and participated in it. Foremost among the latter is mutiny leader Afanasy Matyushenko, who held the uprising together almost by sheer force of will. A Ukrainian peasant with only two years of education, Matyushenko impressed everyone who met him.

Like most military uprisings, the Potemkin mutiny was bound to fail. Synchronous mutinies aboard other Russian warships, whose sailors refused to fire on the rebellious battleship, proved abortive, leaving Potemkin virtually isolated. Indecisiveness and a lack of coordination among the revolutionaries on land also left the ship’s crew with no clear course of action. Lacking shore support, the battleship could only operate for a limited time before running out of fuel and water. Unlike their tsarist counterparts, who had no scruples about killing civilians, the mutinous sailors were unwilling to fire on Russian seaports in order to get the supplies they needed.

In the end, the mutineers accepted asylum in Romania, which promptly returned the battleship to its former owners. Although the uprising failed, it did deliver a blow to the tsar’s empire from which, arguably, it never recovered.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


The revolt on the armoured cruiser "Potemkin"

In June, the squadron was awaiting orders to be sent out of Sevastopol for practice manoeuvres. On June 13th, the "Potemkin," an armoured cruiser of the squadron, which had just been refitted, was ordered to proceed to Tender Island for gun tests and target firing. This isolation of the "Potemkin" served as the indirect cause which upset the appointed plan of revolt.

On the day when the "Potemkin" arrived at Tender Strait (June 13th), Torpedo-boat No. 267, which accompanied it, was sent to Odessa for provisions, and on the evening of the same day returned with supplies which were duly transhipped to the cruiser. The meat for the soup was hung up on hooks on the spar deck. Early in the morning of June 14th (old style), during the usual cleaning up of the ship, one of the sailors noticed that there were maggots on the meat. The discovery was soon made known to the whole crew. Groups of sailors began to gather round the meat, and muttered curses and threats were heard:

"Those scoundrels of officers don't want to pay attention to the sailors' food."

"Show it to the doctor, and let him have it thrown overboard."

Hearing of the unrest among the crew, the Captain of the "Potemkin," Golikov, sent the senior surgeon of the ship, Honourable Counsellor Smirnov, to examine the meat. He approached the meat, put on his pince-nez so as to see the maggots better, twisted it round in front of his face, sniffed and said that the meat was very good, that the crew was merely faddy and therefore did not want to eat it. All that was necessary was to wash off the maggots with water, and the meat would be excellent. After this decision by the senior surgeon, Captain Golikov ordered a sentry to be stationed by the meat, and supplied him with a pencil and paper. The sentry was instructed to write down the names of all who came to look at the meat and afterwards to report them to the Captain.

The crew knew well the habits and views of the Captain, and were afraid to approach the meat. The Captain ordered dinner to be prepared, but the excitement among the sailors did not die down.

"How can we serve in the navy now? How can we fight, when the prisoners in Japan are better treated than we are?" was heard among the crew.

At the usual hour the call to "dine and wine" was sounded, but one part of the call remained unanswered. Every sailor took a piece of bread and a mug of water, dipped the bread in the water and let this serve as his dinner. The cauldrons of soup which had been put out in the caboose (the ship's kitchen) were left untouched. This was reported to the Captain, and soon Chief Officer Giliarovsky, followed later by Captain Golikov, arrived to restore order. In reply to the question of the senior officer as to why the crew did not eat their dinner, the cook replied that they did not want the soup and asked for tea to be made and butter issued. The Captain had by that time arrived, and when he heard from the Chief Officer what the trouble was, he turned to the sailors with the question:

"Why don't you eat the soup?"

From the crowd of sailors was heard the reply:

"Eat it yourself, and we will eat bread and water."

The officers decided to put down the opposition. Golikov ordered all hands on deck and had the whole crew drawn up in front of him, addressing himself to them as follows:

"I have repeatedly said that such disorder is inadmissible on a warship of the navy. For such things your kind can be strung up there," (pointing to the yardarm). "Now, men, whoever is willing to eat the soup, step forward."

Only the "long service men," the bosuns and some of the petty officers responded, while the mass of the sailors remained motionless. Golikov gave another command:

"Turn out the guard," and in a minute the guard, armed with rifles, were drawn up before the parade of sailors. The next moment, the sailors, expecting arrest and possible shooting, ran to the gun tower in a disorderly crowd. Chief Officer Giliarovsky, seeing this and wishing to catch some of the "guilty" persons, shouted "Halt," and together with the officer of the watch, barred the path of those sailors who had not had time to join their comrades (thirty in all). He ordered the guard to surround them.

The crew stood there, pale and terribly worked up, when they saw their comrades surrounded by the guard. Amid the deathly silence was heard the order of the Chief Officer: "Bosun, hand out the tarpaulin."

The order given to the bosun meant that these comrades would be covered with a tarpaulin, and, in this helpless situation, volleys would be fired into them. This infamous order decided the matter. Matushenko stepped out in front of the sailors, and appealed to the guard with the words:

"Comrades, don't forget your oath—don't shoot at our own men."

The muzzles of the rifles dropped to the deck—they had refused to shoot at their comrades. Next minute there was a shout:

"Comrades, look what they are doing to our fellows! Grab rifles and cartridges, shoot them down, the swine."

This was the same Matushenko, and his call served as a signal for revolt. As if they had been waiting for the command, all the sailors rushed to the gun deck, seized rifles, loaded them, and ran out to their comrades who stood surrounded by the guard.

The sailors who were running with loaded rifles to liberate the prisoners were met with threats and curses by the Captain and the Chief Officer. But in reply to this, a loud "Hurrah" ran through the "Potemkin," and shouts of "Long live freedom! Down with the war! Down with the Tsar!"

Captain Golikov threw himself on Matushenko with the order:

"Drop your weapons," and in reply heard: "I will drop my weapons when I am no longer a living being but a corpse. Get off the ship. This is the people's ship and not yours."

The Captain fled. The revolt spread like wildfire, and shots and volleys could be heard.

The mighty force of the spontaneous outburst can be understood from the fact that even the religious sectarian sailors took part in the shooting, though up to that time, in the frequent discussions with the Commandant of the "Potemkin," they had been stubbornly against the permissibility of "shooting at their fellow men."

Chief Artillery Officer Neopkoev, who was in company with the Captain, fell under the bullets of the rebels, and immediately afterwards, Chief Officer Giliarovsky was killed. The latter was found by Matushenko with a rifle in his hands at a gun-tower standing by the corpse of the sailor Vakulinchuk, who had been killed by him, and who had been among those who had been sentenced to be shot. Giliarovsky shot at Matushenko but missed him. He turned to flee, but Matushenko's bullet finished him. The bodies of the officers who had been killed were thrown overboard.

It was a terrible but a triumphant picture. Eight hundred men were shouting: "Death to the tyrants! Long live freedom!" and shots rattled in the direction of the officers who were trying to save themselves by swimming to the Torpedo-boat 267.

A torpedo officer, Lieutenant Ton, came towards the sailors. The crew, recognising an officer who had been brutal to them, shouted: "Overboard with him!" But Ton came up to Matushenko and said: "I want to speak to you." Matushenko asked the sailors to stand on one side and went with Ton into the gun-turret.

Ton at that moment pulled out his revolver and shot at the man who had trusted him. His bullet wounded a sailor who was standing nearby in the arm. The next moment the officer fell under a hail of bullets.

Then came the turn of the Captain. First of all, he hid in the Admiral's cabin, but seeing the hopelessness of the situation, he came on deck to express his belated repentance. Evidently looking on Matushenko as the leader of the revolt, the Captain of the "Potemkin" rushed to him, threw his arms round his knees, and cried:

"I am greatly to blame for my attitude to the crew. Forgive me, comrade."

"Personally, I have nothing against you, it depends on the crew."

"Hang him on the yardarm," shouted the crew. "He threatened us with the yardarm!"

"Don't waste time," voices were heard. "Shoot him."

The tyrant Captain was led away, a volley was heard, and the corpse of Golikov was thrown overboard. He was the last.

Meanwhile, the officers who had swum to Torpedo-boat No. 267 were hastening to escape. They had already raised the anchor so as to steam to Sevastopol, but shots from the 47mm and 75mm guns of the cruiser made them stop, and at the command of the "Potemkin," Torpedo-boat No. 267 came alongside the mutinous cruiser. The Captain and two other officers were taken from the Torpedo-boat, but the demands of part of the crew to throw them overboard was not supported by the majority.

"Overboard with them all!" cried the sailors, indignant at their attempts to escape on the Torpedo-boat. But other voices were heard: "There has been enough bloodshed. The ship is now in our hands and these creatures are not dangerous to us. Let us wash the decks down." The crew obeyed. They limited themselves to arresting the officers from the Torpedo-boat and locking them in a cabin. Soon they were joined by several others from the "quarterdeck" who had hidden themselves in any place they could find in their fright at the moment of the revolt. Twelve persons were arrested in all, and their fate was to be decided later.

After the officers and those of the petty officers who were not thoroughly trusted had been arrested and the sailors had become the masters of the powerful cruiser, the Torpedo-boat crew began to raise steam and prepare to sail, while the fighting crew cleared the ship for action, in expectation of the meeting with the squadron which had remained in Sevastopol.

From the "Potemkin" the Red Flag fluttered victoriously.

The "Potemkin" at Odessa

Having risen and seized power in their own hands, the sailors of the cruiser "Potemkin" elected a Ship's Committee consisting of twelve men who henceforth directed the ship.

The first decision of the Committee was to sail for Odessa, to get into contact with the workers, and after receiving reinforcements to take further action.

At the time when the events already described were taking place on the "Potemkin," there was taking place in Odessa a fierce struggle between the workers and the capitalists, first in the form of a general strike and from this spontaneously passing over into armed rebellion.

Owing to the poor preparations of the proletariat in Odessa, the events took place spontaneously. This was inevitable, owing to the fact that most of the industry in Odessa consisted of small plants. The following organisations existed there, each of them claiming the leading role: (1) The committee of the RSDLP (the majority fraction) (2) the group under the CCRSDLP (minority fraction) (3) the Bund Committee (4) the committee of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (5) a group of Anarchist-Communists and (6) the Poale-Zionist group. All these organisations were hostile to each other and struggled for the supremacy.

The Bolsheviks were organised worst of all. They advocated an armed insurrection, while the Mensheviks were trying to direct the movement along peaceful lines. However, the Bolsheviks were not strong enough to get the movement into their hands. For several days there had been clashes between the workers, the troops and police. Several workers had been killed by the sabres of the Cossacks, and the bullets of the gendarmes. Exasperation had reached a tremendous height. The workers demanded arms, but there were none. The situation was becoming hopeless. Naturally the course of events in Odessa changed radically with the arrival of the "Potemkin." The feeling of the workers became bold and confident.

The workers welcomed the arrival of the "Potemkin" with tremendous enthusiasm when they heard of the events which had taken place. The Ship's Committee of the "Potemkin" decided: (1) to send parties on shore early in the morning to buy provisions (2) to get the necessary amount of coal (3) to send the body of Vakulinchuk on shore with a manifesto to the population (4) to draw up a detailed statement of the events at Tender and to examine all the officers (5) to draw up an appeal to the population of Odessa, to the Cossacks and to the French Consul, and (6) to get into contact with the Social-Democratic Parties. A decision was also made to put on shore those officers who would not agree to support the "cause of the people." Only a few officers, who agreed to help the revolutionary cause, remained on the cruiser. The engineer, Kovolenko, Lieutenant Kaluzhny and Doctor Galenko, who deliberately joined the rebels so as to betray them later, were set free. Midshipman Alexeyev, who had been set free earlier, was appointed as captain of the ship under the observation of the crew he also became a provocateur to save his own skin.

Early in the morning on June 15th (old style) three sailors went on shore for the provisions. They carried out their tasks without difficulty. The body of Vakulinchuk was carried ashore and put into a tent made of sails. On his breast, over his crossed hands, was put the appeal to the population of Odessa.

A. P. Brzhezovsky, one of the participants in the "Potemkin" revolt, describes the events of June 15th (28th) around the body of Vakulinchuk, in his book Eleven Days on the "Potemkin" as follows:

"A tremendous crowd gathered, so that it was impossible to move. Everyone wanted to look at the dead man. Many people approached, took off their hats, crossed themselves and bowed down to the earth before the victim of savagery and tyranny. Women wept and kissed the hand of the dead warrior of the people. Sobs were heard, and there were tears in the eyes of many men. Near the tent, on a heap of barrels and on every available platform, orators were speaking on behalf of the various revolutionary groups. Fierce and passionate speeches poured forth to the tremendous gathering of people. Merciless exposures of the barbarity and the bloodshed caused by the Government were drowned from time to time by thunderous applause and revolutionary shouts: 'We have waited long enough! Death to the tyrants! We will die for freedom!' mingled with the deafening shouts of the excited crowds of workers who surrounded the platform. Their faces were bright with earnestness, indignation burned in their breasts, and all around could be felt a determined feeling of readiness to march immediately to the fight. Involuntarily I gave way to the general excitement and rushed to the platform.

"'Comrades,' I shouted. 'There are thousands of us here, and we cannot bear the slavery and oppression of the Government any longer. Let us withdraw the workers from the ships and all the port-workers, and let us march altogether into the town. With arms in our hands and under the protection of the sailors and their guns, we shall win our freedom, we shall win a better life.'

"A deafening roar arose before I could finish. The whole crowd moved as one man through the port, past the ships and the steamers. The sailors were withdrawn from their work on the ships. Hundreds of whistles were sounding wildly, deafening everyone. The crowd flowed like a wave from side to side, attracting everyone into their ranks as they moved along."

When the Ship's Committee heard of the shootings which had taken place by the Cossacks on the previous day during a demonstration in the streets, it sent the following proclamation to the Cossacks and the soldiers, on behalf of the crew of the "Potemkin":

"The sailors of the 'Potemkin' appeal to you, soldiers and Cossacks, to put down your weapons and to let us win freedom for the people. We request the peaceful citizens of Odessa to leave the town, because in case of any violence being attempted against us, we will reduce Odessa to a heap of ruins."

The commander of the troops in Odessa, General Kokhanov, did not trust the troops and applied for reinforcements—from Tiraspol, the 15th Artillery Brigade, the Voznesensk Dragoon Regiment from Belets, and several infantry regiments from Vender and Ekaterinoslav. Martial law was declared in Odessa. The Government attempted to seize the body of Vakulinchuk and to drive off the guard, but the crew of the "Potemkin" would not allow it.

In order to work out a general plan of action, the Ship's Committee got into contact with the Social-Democratic organisations of Odessa and asked them to send representatives on board the cruiser. At this time, a preliminary meeting of representatives of three organisations—Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and the Bund— prepared a plan which they intended to submit to the sailors of the "Potemkin."

In this plan, it was decided to land a strong party of sailors, who would march at the head of a demonstration of thousands of workers through the main square of the town to bury their dead comrade. At the first clash with the troops, the sailors would call on the soldiers to fraternise with them and to come over to the side of the people. In addition to getting the soldiers on to our side, one of the main tasks was to disorganise all the resources which the Government possessed to crush the rebellion—destruction of telegraph and the telephone wires, tearing up the railway lines, the arrest of all Government representatives, the liberation of prisoners from the prisons, etc. The cruiser would remain as a threat to the town all the time and would fire warning shots. If the plan failed to the slightest extent, it would begin to bombard the town. Then four representatives were chosen to go to the cruiser and inform the sailors of this plan, but in view of the fact that the circumstances were changing every minute, they were given powers to change the plan of action to suit the new conditions.

When they arrived at the cruiser, it was made clear at the meeting of the Ship's Committee that this plan was not advisable. Firstly, the sailors were opposed to an armed descent on the town. They said that the crew of the ship should not be split, because there would not be sufficient men left to serve the ship and keep it ready for action. Secondly, if they were separated and the boldest and the most reliable sent on shore, then those who were left on the ship would not act with sufficient determination at the critical moment. They were strong only if they remained united.

Many Social-Democratic workers came with the representatives of the organisations, and related the events in the town. The more backward section of the sailors, under the provocation of the petty officer who had been liberated from arrest, began to show their dissatisfaction at the presence of "strangers" on the ship, saying that the events on the "Potemkin" only applied to the sailors. As a result, the session of the commission was broken up and it was decided to leave only a few comrades on the cruiser while the remainder should leave for the time being.

On the evening of June 15th, the "Potemkin" captured a small war vessel, the "Vekka," which was bound from Nikolayev to Odessa. It was converted into a hospital ship, while the captain and the officers were arrested. Soon the officers were put on shore without arms, while the crew joined the sailors of the "Potemkin."

On the same day, a delegation from two regiments, the "Ismail" and the "Danube" regiments, arrived at the ship, and on behalf of the organised part of their comrades in the regiments, they stated that they were prepared to join the crew of the "Potemkin" as soon as the latter took decisive action.

"We, comrades, will support you on the shore. No longer are we prepared to kill peasants or workers, and we shall not fire at you if you come to occupy the town," said one of the delegates. (Kirill, Eleven Days on the "Potemkin.")

Besides these friendly visits, the gendarmes and the police made attempts to get on to the "Potemkin," but at the orders of the sailors, they were compelled to throw their swords into the water and beat a shameful retreat.

Meanwhile, bloody events were taking place in the town and the port. The soldiers and the police lost their heads at first, but when they saw the inaction of the "Potemkin," they began to rally their forces and to prepare for a new slaughter. As darkness fell, attempts were made to start a Jewish pogrom, but without success. One of the speakers who was calling for the pogrom was badly beaten up, and another was killed by a shot from the crowd. Then the provocateurs turned all their energy to the port. The police got cases of vodka ready to make the hoodlums drunk so as to get them to participate later in the pogrom. After the end of the meeting near the body of Vakulinchuk, the crowd at the port consisted mostly of curious middle-class elements and hoodlums. There were very few workers and all their attempts to hold back these people or to interfere with them were hopeless. The drunken crowd went to the liquor stores, and after a speech from some unknown person with a direct appeal to plunder, they began to break up and burn everything which came under their hands. A big fire commenced in the port and a panic started. The fire brigade arrived, but the police compelled it to turn back. The wild and drink-maddened crowd were at the mercy of the flames. The soldiers who were at hand, began to shoot right and left at everyone in the port. Here is how one of the eye-witnesses describes the events of that night:

"Volley after volley was fired at the thousands of people who were looting the storehouses. The soldiers fired with rifles and machineguns. They fired on all sides…the cannonade continued through the whole night. Horror followed on horror…"

The police discovered a crowd of workers who were trying to make their way through the town. They sent the soldiers against them, describing them as looters, and many were killed as the result of the shooting. At the same time, in a Jewish settlement of Odessa—Moldavanka—the police openly commenced a Jewish pogrom.

About 2,000 persons were killed by the shooting or as the result of the fire.

The morning did not bring a return of quiet. The fire in the port had not yet died down, the corpses had not been removed from the sea-front, and Cossack patrols were shooting people who went to the smoking ruins to seek for their dead relatives.

The funeral of Gregory Vakulinchuk took place on the same morning. In spite of the fact that martial law had been declared in the town, in spite of the bloody events of the preceding night, the commander of the troops permitted the funeral procession to pass through the whole town, insisting only on the delegation from the "Potemkin" being restricted to twelve sailors (the sailors had demanded that one hundred of them should take part in the funeral procession), and that they should be unarmed. But the safety and freedom of the delegates was guaranteed, so great was the fear of the authorities before the "Potemkin."

Matushenko describes the funeral of Vakulinchuk as follows:

"I have never seen such a solemn sight as the funeral of our dear comrade, or so many genuine tears as were shed over the body of a sailor, hitherto unknown to them. When we left the boat and went on shore near the body of Vakulinchuk, there was a mass of people, just as on the previous day. Immediately several persons lifted up the stretcher with the body and the long procession marched through the town in the direction of the cemetery. In the streets new masses of people joined us. On the balconies, in the windows and on the roofs of the houses, there were crowds of people. Shouts could be heard: 'All honour to the dead hero!' 'Down with the tyrants!' 'Long live the "Potemkin"!'"

This continued along the whole route, until the procession had passed through the town and arrived at the cemetery.

"After the funeral we drove back to the port, but on the way we were stopped by a company of soldiers which blocked the road. We were in a hurry and continued our journey on foot. But as soon as we drew level with the soldiers, a signal was given and they opened fire on us. We were unarmed, and could do nothing but run. I was behind the others, and saw that no one had been killed, although bullets pierced my trousers. I think that the soldiers deliberately fired wildly. However, when we arrived at the landing stage, there were only nine of us. I do not know what happened to the other three."

In the evening of the same day, the "Potemkin" began to bombard the town.

It has not been discovered exactly why this bombardment was commenced. One of the participants in the rebellion, Kovalenko, explains it by saying that the crew of the "Potemkin" wished to help the workers of Odessa who were being threatened with shooting at the orders of the Military Council which was sitting at that time in the town theatre, headed by the commander of the troops. It was expected that the shells would be fired chiefly at the Military Council.

Five shots in all were fired from the guns of the cruiser "Potemkin"—three blank shots and two 6-inch shells. The firing was supposed to be aimed at the Town Theatre where the Military Council was in session. But the shells did not reach their target owing to the deliberately incorrect aim of the spy and traitor, Signaller Bedermeyer.

In spite of the fact that the shells did not reach their mark, they roused tremendous enthusiasm among the working masses of Odessa, giving them hopes of victory.

The cruiser "George the Conqueror" joins the "Potemkin"

Early in the morning of June 17th, a cypher telegram was intercepted, showing that the Black Sea squadron was drawing near to the "Potemkin." At the orders of the Ship's Committee, the emergency steamer "Smely" was seized for scouting purposes. The whole of the crew was taken from the ship and replaced by sailors from the "Potemkin," and the steamer itself was sent to scout in the direction of the Tender Strait. On returning, the scout gave information that the squadron was in sight not far from Tender. It was evident that the squadron had been sent from Sevastopol to quell the mutiny on the "Potemkin." In order to give an accurate description of the events and the details of the preparations which were made to quell the mutinous "Potemkin," we will quote the words of one of the sailors of the cruiser "Rostislav," who fled abroad:

"On June 21st (old style) the squadron was to have proceeded to Tender Island to join the "Potemkin" for instructional manoeuvres. On June 15th, a signal was raised, unexpectedly for all, from the flagship 'Rostislav': 'The Admiral requests all the Captains to come to the flagship,' and a second signal to the cruisers 'Holy Trinity,' 'Twelve Apostles,' 'George the Conqueror,' 'Catherine II,' to get up steam and prepare to sail.

"The sailors were astonished at this, because everyone knew that we were due to go to Tender Island on the 21st. Some of them began to guess that something wrong had happened on the 'Potemkin,' while others said that this was merely a practice manoeuvre and nothing else. In short, the forecastle split into several groups. The crew began to make various comments on the proposed cruise.

"Meanwhile, the Captains gathered together. Their meeting lasted two hours. We do not know what was said, but after the meeting another signal was raised: 'The "Catherine" is not to leave port.' We afterwards learned the reason for this from the comrades on the 'Catherine.' On the previous day, i.e., the evening of June 14th, the crew of the 'Catherine II,' having sung prayers 'Our Father' and 'Hail, Mary,' in a half-hearted way, they absolutely refused to sing 'God Save the Tsar,' and when five or six singers nevertheless started to chant the prayer, the others began to whistle and howl. When the Captain (Senior Captain Drijenko) appeared, the crew made demands of a purely economic character. He laughed at them and hurried into his cabin. For this reason the 'Catherine II' did not go with the squadron.

"At 11 o'clock at night, the three cruisers 'Holy Trinity,' 'George the Conqueror,' and the 'Twelve Apostles,' together with the light cruiser 'Kazarsky' and four torpedo-boats left under the command of Vice-Admiral Vishnevsky. The next day, i.e., June 16th, at about 11 o'clock in the morning, a signal was raised: '"The Rotislav" and the "Sinop" to get up steam and prepare to sail.' They began to prepare. They took provisions for three days and weighed anchor soon after 6 o'clock.

"All this time the officers were terribly uneasy, walking about in a dispirited manner and whispering together. The class-conscious sailors, of whom there were only about ten on the 'Rotislav,' guessed that we were going against the 'Potemkin,' and began to agitate openly, for which they fell into the hands of the authorities. I was one of them, but I afterwards escaped. The agitation was not very successful. The majority did not believe that the 'Potemkin' had gone over to the side of the people, but at last we managed to convince many of the sailors of this, and they replied: 'If it is true that we are going against the "Potemkin," we will refuse to fire on it, because they are our brothers.'

"Shortly after 9 o'clock in the morning we approached Tender Island to join the squadron which had left before us, but it was not there. On the horizon, in the direction of Odessa, several lines of smoke could be seen. It was our squadron. We followed it and joined it at 11 o'clock. The captains of all the ships gathered for a meeting on the flagship 'Rotislav.' We heard from the sailors who rowed the Captain to the flagship, that the 'Potemkin' was in Odessa, and when they had tried to approach Odessa, the 'Potemkin' had raised the signal: 'Surrender or we will fire.' They hurriedly retreated.

"The meeting of captains lasted not more than half-an-hour. Then the squadron drew up in battle line and set out for Odessa at a speed of 10 knots. Soon after 1 o'clock, the shore came in sight, and the smoke from the 'Potemkin' could be seen." (Iskra, no. 105)

The meeting of the "Potemkin" with the squadron is described by Kovalenko as follows:

"Every minute they drew nearer. Soon they were so near that we could distinguish the ships. The cruisers 'Rotislav' and 'Sinop' had just joined the squadron. All the ships were steaming towards us, drawn up in two columns. In front were the armoured cruisers and the light cruiser, and behind were the torpedo-boat destroyers. The 'Potemkin' accompanied by the torpedo-boat, which kept close alongside all the time, drove straight at the middle of the first column. Soon it was possible to distinguish that the ships of the squadron, like the 'Potemkin' were cleared for action. The boat davits had been taken down and the guns were pointing out over the sides. But when the squadron was 100-150 fathoms away from the 'Potemkin,' a movement could be observed on the 'George the Conqueror', the 'Twelve Apostles' and the 'Sinop.'

"Crowds of them rushed up through the hatchways and soon the decks of these cruisers were covered with sailors. We had already drawn level with the squadron and the 'Potemkin' cut through the middle of it. The guns of the 'Potemkin' were slowly directed towards the passing ships. The 'Rotislav' and the 'Holy Trinity' in dead silence, replied in the same manner, but on the decks of the remaining cruisers the crew could be seen in obvious disorder. Suddenly from the upper deck of the 'Potemkin' rang out the cry: 'Long live freedom! Hurrah!' In answer to this, a mighty 'Hurrah' burst like thunder from the three cruisers."

Fearing that the mutiny would spread through the whole squadron, Admiral Krieger ordered the squadron to steer at full speed through the open sea to Sevastopol.

The "Potemkin" once more cut through the lines of the squadron and turned sharply in chase.

One of the cruisers suddenly separated from the squadron, turned round and steered straight at the "Potemkin." The signaller of the Potemkin distinguished the name by means of his telescope. It was the "George the Conqueror," the same ship whose crew had refused to take part in the unrest in the naval barracks at Sevastopol in November, 1904, owing to which there had been bad blood between the crews of the "George the Conqueror" and the "Potemkin" which had taken part in this affair.

Naturally the crew of the "Potemkin" had no reason to trust the "George the Conqueror" or to believe that its intentions were peaceful. Not wishing to allow the ship to approach too close, the "Potemkin" signalled to it to cast anchor.

The "George the Conqueror" stopped and began to signal by semaphore. "The crew of the 'George the Conqueror' requests the 'Potemkin' to send some comrades on board." Not knowing the real intentions of the "George the Conqueror," the crew of the "Potemkin" replied by semaphore: "Arrest your officers and send delegates to us." To these demands, the signaller replied: "Things are going badly here. We are not all agreed. We cannot manage ourselves. Send help quickly."

Then the members of the Ship's Committee of the "Potemkin," armed with rifles and revolvers, went over on the torpedo-boat to the "George the Conqueror." Owing to the determination and boldness of the detachment from the "Potemkin," the officers of the "George the Conqueror" were arrested and put ashore. After this the "George the Conqueror," joined the "Potemkin." While carrying out this operation of clearing out the counter-revolutionary officers, a tremendous mistake was made that afterwards destroyed the whole revolt which had commenced so brilliantly.

Some of the Potemkinites were so incautious as to believe the assurances of the good-natured sailors of "George the Conqueror" that the petty officers on their ship were reliable. Therefore these hypocrites were not put on shore together with the officers and were not even arrested, but were left at complete liberty to carry on quiet counter-revolutionary agitation.

The tremendous victory of the cruiser "Potemkin" increased its strength and at the same time raised the spirits of the crew and gave them the hope of successfully completing the mutiny which had commenced so well. This victory not only brought joy to the crew of the "Potemkin," but also to the workers in Odessa, whose spirits rose once more and who once more hoped for a favourable conclusion to their struggle. One of the participants in the mutiny of the "Potemkin", Kirill, describes the feelings of the "Potemkin" after it had been joined by the "George the Conqueror" in the following words:

"Our minds were at ease, and the constant nightmare of fear that the business would fail was replaced by a complete confidence in a rapid victory over our ancient enemy and the apostles of darkness and violence.

"Now we had our own revolutionary squadron—two cruisers with six 12-inch guns, a torpedo-boat and the "Vekha." Under such conditions, the idea of establishing political freedom for all South Russia and extending it over the whole of Russia seemed perfectly feasible at that moment, and in our thoughts we were already living in the new kingdom of liberty.

"Tomorrow we shall go to Odessa and take it, establish a free Government, join the free soldiers, organise a people's army, march on Kiev, Kharkov and other towns, join the peasant masses in the villages, and then we shall march to the Caucasus along the shores of the Black Sea and everywhere announce independence and freedom from the old chains of slavery! Then to Moscow and St. Petersburg!"

But, unfortunately, all these were mere dreams, phantasies, having no connection with reality. Our people argued, discussed, raved, expressed the most florid dreams, but they very slightly understood the real state of affairs, what should be done, how to fight against the enemy, how to act so as to overcome this great enemy.

The enemies—the servants of the Tsarist monarchy—had not the feelings of victors. Feelings of depression reigned among them. But, nevertheless, in most cases the servants of the Tsar were men of action, practical men, and therefore they energetically organised resistance to the mutinous sailors who were preparing to defeat them.

General Kakhanov describes the events at Odessa as follows:

"During June 16th and 17th, I was visited by the Consuls of France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria and Italy. They expressed anxiety for the safety of the consulates and for their nationals, and also demanded various explanations. I told the Consuls that they should apply for explanations to Yurenev, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to whom I should send information of the state of affairs in Odessa. To guard the consulates, I appointed two infantry soldiers to each of the eighteen consulates in Odessa.

"When it was found in the evening that the crew of the "George the Conqueror" had also mutinied and that the squadron had returned to Sevastopol without crushing the crew of the "Potemkin" and even reinforcing them by a cruiser, I had to reckon without the help of the Admiralty in my further actions, and to fight against the two cruisers by my own forces alone. Owing to this, I ordered the second battalion of sappers to be brought from camp to erect a battery on the Jevaka Hill for eight 9-inch mortars. The commander of the fortification stores in Odessa directed this battery to be armed with the guns in the stores, ordering shells to be brought for these guns from Ochakov, and also bringing the commander of the engineer battalion from that fort to decide whether it was possible to blow up the mutinous cruisers by means of the equipment at Ochakov. Finally, a telegram was sent to the War Minister, requesting long-range guns to be sent from internal storehouses."

As the reader will see, though the enemy did not feel himself to be in good shape, nevertheless, preparations for the forthcoming struggle were carried on in a businesslike and well-thought-out manner. Comrade Lenin has repeatedly pointed out in his numerous articles on the preparations for an armed rebellion, that we have much to learn from our enemies, because it is only by learning and adapting the methods and means of planned preparations for war and planned warfare with our enemy, the monarchy, that we can defeat it and overcome it.

The desertion of the "George the Conqueror" and the end of the revolt

July 18th was the culminating point in the history of the revolt on the cruiser "Potemkin" and at the same time, this day marks the turn of the tide in the direction of the downfall and disintegration of this revolt. During the night, the position of the "George the Conqueror" had changed considerably, for the worse. As was to be expected, the hypocritical counter-revolutionary petty officers who had been left at liberty, openly commenced to urge the crew to return to Sevastopol. They succeeded in splitting the crew into two sections, one of which was openly hostile to the "Potemkin," and the other which was undecided and hesitating. The Ship's Committee of the "Potemkin", hearing of the state of affairs, decided to send a deputation of several sailors to the "George" with an armed guard to arrest the petty officers and bring them to the "Potemkin."

Unfortunately for the deputation, two sailors who were almost unknown, and Doctor Galenko, accompanied it. From the very beginning, they had been planning treachery.

Matushenko and Kirill were unable to go with this deputation, because they had completely lost their voices owing to addressing so many meetings. As for the other energetic representatives, Doctor Galenko, though not objecting to them coming, nevertheless arranged matters in such a way that they were not included in the delegation.

When the delegation from the "Potemkin" arrived at the "George," Doctor Galenko suddenly announced impudently to the sailors that the crew of the "Potemkin" had decided to surrender, and to ask the crew of the "George" to go with them to Sevastopol that only a few men who kept the whole crew in their hands wished to fight any longer, but that in a day or two the sailors would overthrow their power and return to Sevastopol.

Such a speech from the accredited representative of the "Potemkin" produced a disastrous effect on the crew and irretrievably decided the whole matter. Doctor Galenko was energetically assisted in his treachery and provocation by the petty officers and by the bosun Kuzmin.

After this, it was decided to return immediately to Sevastopol. Steam was raised on the "George the Conqueror," and it steamed out into the open sea. The "Potemkin" began to hoist threatening signals but the "George" continued to steam ahead. Then the "Potemkin" hoisted its battle-flag and the "George the Conqueror" turned sharply around, steamed to the harbour and ran on to a shoal.

Naturally, the "Potemkin" should have immediately sent the torpedo-boat to the "George the Conqueror," to arrest the petty officers, to put the guards at the guns and then compel one of the steamers in the harbour to tow the cruiser off the shoal and not allow the soldiers to join with it. But the ruling power—the Ship's Committee—did nothing. Their feelings had fallen catastrophically. A pitiful confusion reigned.

Suddenly a shout was heard "Sail to Romania," and in a minute or two almost all the crew, shaken by the treachery of the "George the Conqueror" was repeating these words. Even Matushenko gave way to these feelings of despair and began to repeat these ominous words: "To Romania."

The order was given to raise steam, and as soon as the deputation returned from the "George the Conqueror," without the provocateur, Doctor Galenko, of course, the "Potemkin" set out in the direction of Romania. The cruiser "Potemkin" which had lost its faith in the favourable outcome of the revolt, had hardly departed for Romania, when, a few hours later, a small training ship, the "Prut," arrived at Odessa to join the "Potemkin." The quality of the crew of the "Prut" from the point of view of revolutionary preparation, was fairly high, and therefore as soon as they heard of the mutiny off the "Potemkin," they rose under the leadership of the most active sailors, and arrested the officers, of whom two were killed. The Red Flag was raised and the ship set out in search of the "Potemkin."

It was a great tragedy for the crew of the "Prut" when they arrived at Odessa and found that the "Potemkin" had left for Romania to disarm. Most of the command began to hesitate, feeling uncertain of their strength and of the result. After long arguments and discussions, the minority gave way to the majority, the Red Flag was hauled down, the officers were liberated, and the "Prut" set out to Sevastopol.

The defeated minority still held to slight hopes that they would be able to cause a revolt in the whole squadron on arriving at Sevastopol. But alas, these hopes were fated to disappointment. On its way, the "Prut" was met by two torpedo-boats and taken under control. On arriving at Sevastopol, the crew of the "Prut" on the demand of Admiral Chukhnin, handed over forty-two of the "ringleaders" who were sent for trial by court-martial.

The Tsarist Court meted out stern justice. Four were sentenced to death and thirty-eight to penal servitude. Although the defence and the court applied for mercy, Nikolai II handed over the whole matter to the discretion of Admiral Chukhnin, who confirmed the sentences completely.

When the "Potemkin" had left, the police, the gendarmes, the Tsarist generals and capitalists felt themselves to be masters of the situation, and carried out a devilish revenge on the revolting workers, repaying them for the terror and excitement through which they had lived.

We will not go into details as to the further fate of the cruiser "Potemkin" or describe its double journey to Romania and its disarmament at Constance, but will conclude its tragedy of struggle, with the words of Lenin:

"The passage of the 'Potemkin' to the side of the rebellion was the first step in converting the Russian Revolution into an international force, bringing it face to face with the European countries."

The lessons of the mutiny of the "Potemkin"

There were many causes for the defeat of the revolt on the cruiser "Potemkin." But the chief and most fundamental reasons were as follows:

Firstly, the masses of soldiers and sailors were not class-conscious, were ignorant and had no experience whatever of revolutionary struggle. They were easily roused to hatred and anger against their oppressors, and were easily roused to spontaneous protests and mutinies. They were easily fired by the flames of revolt, but they had no revolutionary solidity, firmness, reliability and determination, no planned preparations. In short, they had none of those qualities which are given by a long political revolt in the process of the revolutionary class struggle and which are so necessary for a victorious armed rebellion.

Secondly, the leadership of this revolt was weak and incapable, not understanding the seriousness of the situation.

Without wasting valuable time, they should have immediately used their arms to catch the enemy unprepared and disorganise them. But the leaders did not make a unanimous decision on a single question. The Social-Democratic organisation of Odessa, consisting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, was not prepared and did not show sufficient activity and determination. It did not even set up a leading military centre. At the moment when rapidity, decision and boldness were necessary, as one of the contemporaries, bitterly states, in reality there was only a foolish, helpless and mistaken attitude of waiting for "something."

In general, neither the leaders of the workers' organisations, nor the leaders of the sailors held in the slightest degree to the golden rule which had been pointed out by Marx long before, as to how a victorious armed revolt ought to be organised.

"Revolt, like war, is a science," said he, "and therefore we should never 'play at rebelling,' but once we have commenced, we should know thoroughly that we have to carry it through to the end.

"It is necessary to collect a great superiority of forces at the decisive spot, at the decisive moment, otherwise the enemy, who has better organisation, will destroy the rebels.

"Once the rebellion has commenced, it is necessary to act with the greatest determination and immediately take up the offensive. Defence is the death-blow to an armed rebellion.

"We must try to catch the enemy unawares. Every day some successes, however small, must be obtained, so as to maintain the moral superiority at all costs."

Comrade Lenin, throughout the whole course of his revolutionary activity, untiringly urged these golden rules of Marx, on our Bolshevik comrades. Therefore it is not to be wondered at that we conquered in October, 1917, under his talented leadership.

On the other hand, in all the events which took place in Odessa, there can clearly be seen the imprint of Menshevik tactics, according to which a revolt is a process. They tried to utilise the revolt of the cruiser for agitation, for arousing the masses against the monarchy, but they did not wish to take the responsibility of organising a revolt, of making technical preparations for it, or giving it the necessary correct direction.

The Bolshevik organisation as well was evidently weak and could not take charge of the rebellion.

Comrade Shapovalov, who was in Odessa at the time of the "Potemkin" mutiny, gives the following account of the situation in the Social-Democratic organisations:

"The united commission (composed of representatives of the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks and the Bund) committed an inexcusable mistake when they decided to direct the activity of the cruiser from the shore. On the first day they lost six hours of valuable time in quarrels as to what to call it. The Bund and the General Workers' Union on the first day proposed that the sailors should bombard the town and then send a landing party. The representatives of the organisations were against the bombardment, on the grounds that it was too harsh. Then the sailors refused, very sensibly, to leave the ship before the arrival of the rest of the squadron. Then for two or three days, the commission and the representatives babbled irresolutely, and for humanitarian reasons set the officers free on the shore. During all this time the meetings were systematically broken up by the conciliators. They only gathered when one cruiser had gone and the other had surrendered. The workers of Odessa were waiting for the bombardment like manna from heaven, but the Social-Democrats, together with the bourgeoisie, were against the bombardment of the aristocratic sections of the sea-front. Now the reaction will set in, because it can be seen that the organisation is weak. Oh, now it will be harder to drive out the intelligentsia, the conciliators, the traitors to the workers."

This characterisation of the events, given by a Bolshevik worker, contains many hard phrases, under the influence of a natural irritation against the opportunist actions of the organisations. But on the whole, it is undoubtedly correct.

Comrade Lenin was abroad in exile, and followed the development of events in Odessa with the greatest intensity and interest, and even took steps to send the best Bolshevik comrades to lead the revolt, giving them instructions and directions.

It is true that before these comrades who had been sent by Lenin (Vassiliev, Yuzhin) could arrive the struggle was already over.

In an article in the Bolshevik organ, Proletary, Comrade Lenin gave the following estimate of the events at Odessa:

"The tremendous significance of the recent events at Odessa lies in the fact that for the first time a large part of the military forces of tsarism—a whole armoured cruiser—came over openly to the side of the revolution.

"There was much in the movement which was undeveloped, and in the events at Odessa there were many of the features of the old mutinies. But it signifies that the first waves of the flood have already flowed up to the very threshold of the monarchist stronghold."

In analysing these events further, Comrade Lenin draws the following instructive lessons in the same article:

"From the troops themselves, detachments of the revolutionary army are formed. The business of these detachments is to declare a rebellion, to give military leadership to the masses, which is necessary for civil war as for every other war, to form base points for an open struggle throughout the country, to transfer the revolt to neighbouring districts, to assure complete political freedom—even if only on a small part of the territory of the country at first—to commence the revolutionary reconstruction of the decayed system of the monarchy, to develop the creative efforts of the rank and file to the full.

"A revolutionary army is necessary because great historical questions can only be settled by force," Lenin teaches us further in the same article: "but the organisation of force in a modern struggle is a military organisation."

These quotations from an article written by Lenin twenty-five years ago are so modern and so obviously applicable, that when we read them, they might have been written yesterday with regard to the heroic struggle of the Red Army in China, or in any other country where the great struggle of the toilers for their freedom is going on.

More than ten years after these events, in one of his speeches abroad, Lenin again returned to the question of the methods of armed struggle by the rebellious revolutionary troops against the Tsarist Government. As an example, Comrade Lenin again gives the episode from the revolt of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol:

"Permit me to relate to you in detail one little episode in the mutiny of the Black Sea Fleet, in order to give you a concrete picture of events at the apex of their development.

"Gatherings of revolutionary workers and sailors were being organised more and more frequently. Since men in the armed forces were not permitted to attend workers' meetings, the workers began in masses to visit the military meetings. They gathered in thousands. The idea of joint action found a lively response. The most class-conscious companies elected deputies.

"Then the military authorities decided to take action. The attempts of some of the officers to deliver 'patriotic' speeches at the meetings had failed miserably: the seamen, who were accustomed to debating, put their officers to shameful flight. After these efforts had failed, it was decided to prohibit meetings altogether. In the morning of November 24th, 1905, a company of soldiers, in full war kit, was posted at the gate of the naval barracks. Rear-Admiral Pisarevsky, in a loud voice, gave the order: 'Permit no one to leave the barracks! In case of disobedience, shoot!' A sailor, named Petrov, stepped forth from the ranks of the company that received that order, loaded his rifle in everybody's view, and with one shot killed Lieutenant-Colonel Stein of the Brest-Litovsk Regiment, and with another wounded Rear-Admiral Pisarevsky. The command was given: 'Arrest him!' Nobody budged. Petrov threw his rifle to the ground and exclaimed: 'Why don't you move? Take me!' He was arrested. The seamen, who rushed from every side, angrily demanded his release, and declared that they vouched for him. Excitement ran high.

"'Petrov, the shot was an accident, wasn't it?' asked one of the officers, trying to find a way out of the situation.

"'What do you mean, an accident? I stepped forward, loaded and took aim. Is that an accident?'

"And Petrov was released. The seamen, however, were not content with that all officers on duty were arrested, disarmed, and taken to company headquarters…Seamen, delegates, forty in number, conferred throughout the whole night. The decision was to release the officers, but never to permit them to enter the barracks again.

"This little incident shows you clearly how events developed in the majority of the mutinies. The revolutionary ferment among the people could not but spread to the armed forces. It is characteristic that the leaders of the movement came from those elements in the navy and the army which had been recruited mainly from among the industrial workers and possessed most technical training, for instance, the sappers. The broad masses, however, were still too naive, their mood was too passive, too good-natured, too Christian. They flared up very quickly any case of injustice, excessively harsh conduct on the part of the officers, bad food, etc., was enough to call forth a revolt. But there was no persistence in their protest they lacked a clear perception of aim they lacked a clear understanding of the fact that only the most vigorous continuation of the armed struggle, only a victory over all the military and civil authorities, only the overthrow of the Government and the seizure of power throughout the whole State could guarantee the success of the revolution.

"The broad masses of the seamen and soldiers light-heartedly rose in revolt. But with equal light-heartedness they foolishly released the arrested officers. They allowed themselves to be pacified by promises and persuasion on the part of their officers in this way the officers gained precious time, obtained reinforcements, broke the power of the rebels, and then the most brutal suppression of the movement and the execution of the leaders followed." (Lenin, The 1905 Revolution)

The revolt on the cruiser "Potemkin" in 1905 was one of the object lessons of the revolutionary struggle, in which the broad masses of workers and peasants and particularly the sailors and soldiers, learned the lesson of revolutionary struggle and the concrete tactics of armed revolt. The Bolsheviks generalised these concrete lessons and drew the necessary conclusions with regard to the further preparations for the overthrow of tsarism.

The victory of the workers and peasants in October, 1917, was not only due to the favourable international and internal political circumstances, but chiefly to the fact that they were led by our Communist Party, with Comrade Lenin at its head, which had gathered tremendous experience in the struggle against the monarchist Government during the 1905 Revolution, in the years of reaction and retreat, and especially during the time of the conciliatory bourgeois Government of Kerensky.


Red Mutiny

For readers of the Hunt for Red October or In the Heart of the Sea, a riveting look at the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin that inspired the Russian Revolution.

In 1905 after being served rancid meat, more than 600 Russian Navy sailors mutinied against their officers aboard what was then the most powerful battleship in the world. What followed was a violent port-to-port chase that spanned eleven harrowing days and came to symbolize the Russian Revolution itself. A pulse-quickening story that alternates between the opulent court of Nicholas II and the razor’s-edge tension aboard the Potemkin, Red Mutiny is a tale threaded with terrific adventure, epic naval battles, heroic sacrifices, treachery, bloodlust, and a rallying cry to freedom that would steer the course of the twentieth century. It is also a extensive work of scholarship that draws on the long-closed Soviet archives to shed new light on this seminal event in Russian and naval history.

Reviews

“[An] elegiac and emotionally involving story…beautifully researched…[A] high-seas drama as gripping as a novel by C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian….Bascomb has written a remarkable book about an episode that, once historians get it right, will rank next to Spartacus’ uprising against Rome and Washington rallying his troops at Valley Forge.”
—Los Angeles Times

“I can pay this superb book no greater compliment than to admit that, despite knowing the outcome, I was genuinely gripped as the dramatic events unfolded. With this brilliant reassessment, Bascomb has restored the extraordinary story of the Potemkin to its rightful place in Russia’s history.”
—Sunday Telegraph Book Review

“Bascomb has a knack for writing interesting books about events you’re not sure you’re all that interested in. Now he turns to the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin…His book all but throbs with Russia: vodka, fiery rhetoric, aristocratic snobbiness, peasant resignation, Russian glory, Russian shame and all the rest of the stuff that made Dr. Zhivago such a good movie.”
—St. Louis Post Dispatch

“Bascomb presents the gripping events of June 1905 with sharply focused immediacy and a flair for high drama… In his capable hands, this powerful morality play vividly reminds us never to underestimate a handful of people willing to die for an idea… Bascomb recounts the unfolding events in a believable and authoritative voice… History at its best: readable, dramatic, and propelled by unforgettable principals.”
—Kirkus, starred review

“‘You might at any moment be carried off to warfare…’ So said a revolutionary seeking recruits to a mutineer’s cause in June 1905. Inhaling RED MUTINY, I was indeed carried off to war — at every moment. Neal Bascomb has reached back through 100 years of fog and propaganda to find truth, history and an old-fashioned great read.”
—Sherry Sontag, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

“Neal Bascomb’s Red Munity is a riveting, impeccably researched and completely riveting account of the first act of the first Russian Revolution of 1905 — a cliff-hanging tale of rebellion and dissent that became symbolic and emblematic of the events that ultimately led to the overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917. Dramatically and vividly told, it is must reading for anyone interested not only in Russian history, but in all the momentous upheavals of the 20th century.”
—Peter Kurth, Anastasia and Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra

“As gripping as a good novel. This is an outstandingly good book.”
—Times of London (paperback review)

“In his fascinating new book, Bascomb sweeps away the simplistic, sanitized myths surrounding the mutiny to reveal all the complexity, excitement and significance of those 11 fateful days. Bascomb tells the story of the mutiny with a masterful touch and perfect pacing.”
—Seattle Times

“After a tautly vivid rendering of the mutiny, Bascomb writes of the 11 days that follow. [His] account is both thrilling and judicious. With a wealth of detail, he tells of the Potemkin anchoring in Odessa, its guns threatening the authorities who were struggling to put down riots and demonstrations. The military commander set a cordon around the port fires broke out, and when the crowds sought to flee they were massacred on the high steps leading into town…The high point in a book of many excellences.”
—Boston Globe

“Novelistically omniscient and vivid, featuring a busy chorus of disaffected sailors, tyrannical officers, idealistic revolutionaries, and reactionary Romanovs: a grand narrative in search of a modern Eisenstein.”
—Times of London (hardcover review)

“A rollicking good yarn, an energetic, colorful account of 11 days that shook the world.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Daily Telegraph

“Bascomb has done naval history a great service by delving into hitherto unplumbed resources…A real page-turner…The author has woven a rich tapestry through the lives and actions of sailors pressed beyond the bounds of humanity.”
—Naval History (U.S. Naval Institute)

“This is a rich, complex book in the tradition of the grand tale told as legend. Bascomb’s range is huge, his eye omnipotent, his research impeccable. Bascomb is able through the alchemy of his art to transform history into a living, breathing story. Red Mutiny reads as if these fantastic events were happening for the very first time, with each turn of the page.”
—Doug Stanton, In Harm’s Way

“Red Mutiny is the compelling story of the arrival of ‘people power’ on the world scene, an event that transformed the modern world. In Neal Bascomb’s fine telling, the drama is high, the stakes are higher, and the rewards to the reader are highest of all.”
—James Carroll, House of War

Photos

What drew you to the story of the Potemkin mutiny?

As a student in 1992, I traveled to Russia for the first time.
Glasnost had only just begun to lift the Iron Curtain, and
there was still a real sense of what it was to live in the Soviet
state. The border guards had a starched skepticism about
them. The family I stayed with was reluctant to speak openly.
Away from the double arches above Tverskaya Street in
Moscow, there were few signs of the much debated policy of
perestroika. And Lenin’s tomb in Red Square remained a site
of imposed reverence, an honor guard of soldiers watching
us closely as we stepped around the embalmed, waxy white
face of the father of the Bolshevik party.

Back then, my perception of the Soviet Union was rooted in
fear, thanks to classroom exercises of ducking for cover
under my school desk. My knowledge of its history was
limited to Cold War propaganda. I understood little of the
Russian Revolution being a “people’s tragedy”—as English
historian Orlando Figes incisively labeled it—and how the
overthrow of Nicholas II began as a struggle for many of
the same principles of equality and freedom held dear in
the West. Only when I began studying Soviet history
during my weeks in St. Petersburg and Moscow did it
become clear that the course of Russia in the 20th century
could have gone so differently. My fascination, therefore,
focused on the revolution’s early days, specifically the
1905 upheaval. This led me to the tale of the sailors of
the battleship Potemkin. Sailors seizing control of Russia’s
most powerful battleship to spark a revolution—I had to
know more. And this is how it always begins for me.

How was researching this story in Russia?

Well, I was accused of being a spy at the first archive I visited
in Moscow and searched by guards with automatic weapons
slung over their shoulders. And then securing entry to the
naval archives in St. Petersburg was an exercise in patience
and persistence, but eventually I won access to everything
I needed. And it was a gold mine of material. At the naval
archives, I combed through ship logs telegrams between
the Admiralty, Black Sea squadron, Odessa officials, and the
Tsar summary reports by the naval commanders sailor
memoirs, and a trove of court martial records.

The challenge was not finding material as much as sifting
through contradictory reports and recollections, trying to
ascertain what was the most accurate information. For
instance, Vice Admiral Krieger, who was in charge of the
squadron that took on the Potemkin, wrote a long report
on his involvement in suppressing the mutiny, but he was
fighting to keep his post, so he shifted blame and cast
himself in the best possible light. That said, I loved the
research end of this story, managing to find details in the
most interesting of places. For a photograph of Aleksandr
Kovalenko, we (I had some great assistants on this project)
tracked down a small museum dedicated to him in the
obscure little Ukrainian village where he was born. A local
beermaker happened to have a scanner and sent us his
picture. I think it’s the first published of Kovalenko. That’s
the pleasure of researching a story. You slowly put
together the research, and each scrap of information,
comes together to reveal a story that I hope breathes
on the page.

Any revelations in your study of the Potemkin?

RED MUTINY is the first book in English published on the
mutiny in fifty years, and the first enjoy to full access to
the Russian naval archives. Of course, there have been
numerous accounts researched and written by Soviet
scholars, but these were always filtered through their
political lens. What will first surprise most readers is that
the mutiny was not launched because of some maggot-
infested meat. This was only a pretext. A band of
revolutionary sailors had long planned an uprising in the
Black Sea fleet, believing their rebellion could result in
the downfall of the Tsar. Second, I shift the narrative
back and forth between the battleship, naval command,
and the Tsar, because it is clear how profoundly the
mutiny scared Nicholas. This is an often overlooked,
underappreciated element of the story, not to mention
the shockwaves caused by the sailors throughout the
world. Third, I focus a good deal of the story through
the eyes of Afanasy Matyushenko. The mutiny’s leader,
he has been excoriated by Soviet historians because he
refused to join the Bolshevik party, but in my view, he
was the true hero of the Potemkin. Through the sheer
force of his will, he sustained the mutiny for eleven days
he risked his life at every turn and perhaps most
importantly, he chose not to decimate Odessa, an act
that would have killed thousands of innocents, to realize
his ambitions. Curiously, it was this act of noble restraint
that earned him such disdain by Lenin and others. Aside
from these larger themes, there are scores of scene
details and character insights that have escaped other
histories on the mutiny.

Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin – Fact or Fiction?

More than any other question, this cuts to the heart of the
Potemkin story, at least in terms of how it has been
represented in history. Eisenstein was a brilliant director,
his cinematic innovations with his film were incredible, but
the chief reason it is studied in every introductory film class
is that it was the first great propaganda film. Ever since
1905, Lenin co-opted the Potemkin mutiny for his own
purposes. In essence, Soviet historians and Eisenstein
hijacked the event, declaring their leadership in its
successes and blaming its failures on the lack of Bolshevik
faith among some of the sailors. One of my intentions in
this book was to set the record straight. Sailors like
Matyushenko were risking their lives for a voice in their
government, not unlike our own revolutionaries of 1776.
What occurred afterward would have made them shudder. Furthermore, Eisenstein certainly took some pretty wide
creative license. For instance, the famous scene where the
sailors are covered with a canvas tarpaulin before a firing
squad, thus stirring the crew to mutiny—never happened.
This was for dramatic effect. In fact, the tarpaulin never
reached the quarterdeck, where in reality it would have
been placed underneath the sailors’ feet, so as not to stain
the deck with their blood…equally chilling in my estimation.
You’ll be curious to know that one of the crewmembers
actually acted in the film, Konstantin Feldmann, the Odessan revolutionary who came on board when it reached the port.
Talk about the blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

Skycrapers, runners, battleships—broad subject range?

Guilty as charged. Right now I’m in the middle of researching
my next book, the story of the flight and capture of Adolf
Eichmann, so I have to invest in a whole new library No doubt
there is value in being a specialist in one subject, not only in
terms of scholarship, but also you have an easier time keeping
hold of your readers. But what I enjoy in researching and
writing these books is the process of discovery, of diving into
a subject and immersing myself in a new body of knowledge.
For the past three years, I’ve studied little else than Russian
history, particularly 1905, and it’s been wonderful, but for the
sake of my own sanity, it’s probably time to move on. What I
hope my readers find is that there is a fundamental
connection between the stories that I tell. Whether it’s
architects, Mossad agents, runners, or Russian sailors, I choose
strong narratives with individuals driven by powerful
motivations. Another common thread is that although the
events that I write about may be well known, for one reason
or another, they have been understudied and are ripe for
revelations and new scholarship.


Battleship Potemkin

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Battleship Potemkin, Russian Bronenosets Potyomkin, Soviet silent film, released in 1925, that was director Sergey M. Eisenstein’s tribute to the early Russian revolutionaries and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of international cinema.

The film is based on the mutiny of Russian sailors against their tyrannical superiors aboard the battleship Potemkin during the Revolution of 1905. Their victory was short-lived, however, as during their attempts to get the population of Odessa (now in Ukraine) to launch a massive revolution, Cossacks arrived and laid waste to the insurgents, thus fanning the winds of war that would ultimately lead to the rise of communism in the Revolution of 1917.

Although agitational to the core, Battleship Potemkin is a work of extraordinary pictorial beauty and great elegance of form. It is symmetrically broken into five movements or acts. In the first of these, “Men and Maggots,” the flagrant mistreatment of the sailors at the hands of their officers is demonstrated, while the second, “Drama on the Quarterdeck,” presents the actual mutiny and the ship’s arrival in Odessa. “Appeal from the Dead” establishes the solidarity of the citizens of Odessa with the mutineers.

It is the fourth sequence, “The Odessa Steps,” which depicts the massacre of the citizens, that thrust Eisenstein and his film into the historical eminence that both occupy today. It is unquestionably the most famous sequence of its kind in film history, and Eisenstein displays his legendary ability to convey large-scale action scenes. The shot of the baby carriage tumbling down the long staircase has been re-created in many films, including Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). The sequence’s power is such that the film’s conclusion, “Meeting the Squadron,” in which the Potemkin in a show of brotherhood is allowed to pass through the squadron unharmed, is anticlimactic.

“The Odessa Steps” incarnates the theory of dialectical montage that Eisenstein later expounded in his collected writings, The Film Sense (1942) and Film Form (1949). Eisenstein believed that meaning in motion pictures is generated by the collision of opposing shots. Building on the ideas of Soviet film theorist Lev Kuleshov, Eisenstein reasoned that montage operates according to the Marxist view of history as a perpetual conflict in which a force (thesis) and a counterforce (antithesis) collide to produce a totally new and greater phenomenon (synthesis). He compared this dialectical process in film editing to “the series of explosions of an internal combustion engine, driving forward its automobile or tractor.” The force of “The Odessa Steps” arises when the viewer’s mind combines individual, independent shots and forms a new, distinct conceptual impression that far outweighs the shots’ narrative significance. Through Eisenstein’s accelerated manipulations of filmic time and space, the slaughter on the stone steps—where hundreds of citizens find themselves trapped between descending tsarist militia above and Cossacks below—acquires a powerful symbolic meaning. With the addition of a stirring revolutionary score by the German Marxist composer Edmund Meisel, the agitational appeal of Battleship Potemkin became nearly irresistible when the film was exported in early 1926, it made Eisenstein world-famous. Ironically, the film was eventually banned by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin over fears it might incite a riot against his regime.

Over the years, Battleship Potemkin has been presented with various musical sound tracks. As film critic Roger Ebert noted, the power of the film is often directly affected by the suitability of the score.


Potemkin

The Battleship Potemkin is a landmark of film history that remains a gripping, moving piece of cinema.

Rumors of mutiny. Set in Russia during the 1905 uprising that foreshadowed the 1917 revolution, The Battleship Potemkin begins on board the Czarist battleship after which it is named, with the sailors whispering rumors of a mutiny. Cramped, inhuman conditions have begun to take their toll, and tempers are running high. When the ship’s doctor claims the maggot-infested meat the men are being served is perfectly edible, they have had enough. A small group of sailors refuses to eat the rancid meat, and the ship’s officers order their execution. The tension builds as an officer barks a sequence of orders to the firing squad.

Just before the triggers are pulled, a sailor (Alexander Antonov) emerges from the crowd and urges the guards to think about whose side they’re on—the officers’ or the sailors’. The guards hesitate, then lower their weapons. Mad with rage, the officer tries to grab one of their rifles, provoking a ship-wide revolt in which Antonov is killed.
Martyr’s inspiration. The Potemkin then steams to the town of Odessa, where the sailors erect a makeshift shrine to their fallen comrade. Antonov’s martyrdom inspires the workers of Odessa to unite with the men of the Potemkin and rise against the Czar.

Czarists battle rebels. One bright day when the people of the town are on the shore, waving and cheering the men on the Potemkin, Czarist troops arrive to quell the rebellion. Ranks of soldiers advance down the stone steps that lead to the beach, firing at everything that moves. A young mother is shot, and her baby carriage tumbles down the steps. An old woman tries to save the child but is killed by a Cossack. The outraged sailors of the Potemkin turn their ship’s huge guns on Odessa’s military headquarters and destroy it. When the smoke clears, corpses lie strewn on the Odessa steps.

Fleet unites. Back on the Potemkin, the sailors surmise that the rest of the Czar’s fleet will be coming to quell this uprising and decide to leave Odessa and meet the flotilla head on. When they encounter the fleet, they are met with smiles, their fellow sailors having decided to join the struggle against the Czar.

Film celebrates Revolution. Sergei Eisenstein was twenty-seven and had recently completed the film Strike (1924) when he was commissioned in March of 1925 to produce a film celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution. Along with political activist Nina Agadzhanova-Shutko, he drafted a script hundreds of pages in length, which attempted to cover all the important events of that year.
Filming began in Leningrad but was disrupted by bad weather. Then, after shooting a few scenes in Baku, Eisenstein moved on to Odessa, where the decision was made to devote the entire film to the events that occurred in that region, using the Potemkin mutiny as a microcosm for the whole revolution.

Montage editing. The result was one of the most important films ever made, a triumphant vindication of Eisenstein’s “montage” theory of editing. The director constructed Potemkin almost along the lines of a musical work, cutting disparate images together with a rhythmic logic and intensity that created a new kind of visual—and psychological—truth.
Eisenstein’s imitators. One testament to the brilliance with which Eisenstein put his montage theory into practice is the number of times that his work has been imitated. Filmmakers ranging from Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah to low-budget mavericks like Russ Meyer and George Romero have drawn on Eisenstein’s work to fashion their own—widely differing—cinematic styles. The Odessa steps scene, in particular, has become the single most famous sequence in film history, affectionately parodied in both Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).

Release date: December 21, 1925
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein
Stars: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barksy, and Grigori Aleksandrov
Running time: 75 minutes
Country: Soviet Union
Language: Silent


July Film: Battleship Potemkin Analysis

Battleship Potemkin, released at the end of 1925 as only Sergei Eisenstein’s second full-length film, was an elaboration on the real-life mutiny which took place on the battleship Potemkin in June 1905. The ship had been built for the Imperial Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet and at the time, many of its senior officers were away, engaged in the ongoing Russo-Japanese War. From the beginning of the year, social unrest had swept throughout the Russian Empire, in what became known as the Revolution of 1905, and resulted in a series of political reforms including the establishment of the State Duma.

Born in Riga in 1898, Eisenstein served in the Red Army, and began his career in the theatre before turning to film. Though his works have been variously interpreted – and his final film, the second part of Ivan the Terrible, so incensed Stalin that it would not be released until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein’s death – he remains most associated with his early propaganda efforts, and with his influential theories of montage. Eisenstein was not unique in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s in developing montage – the technique was also utilised by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and Boris Barnet – but along with Lev Kuleshov, who he briefly studied under, he was its foremost theorist.

Drawing crucially from the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Eisenstein believed that the rapid and jolting juxtaposition of images was the best way to manipulate the emotional response of an audience. Soviet filmmakers of the period became obsessed with the power of editing and their films tended to feature many more shots than those of their Hollywood counterparts. Eisenstein’s early career was also marked by a focus on decisive crowd sequences and by the use of untrained actors.

Battleship Potemkin is split into five parts, each clearly stated with its own title card. Part one is ‘The Men and the Maggots’. Eisenstein opens his film moving between shots of violently breaking waves then cuts to a title showing a quote from Lenin attributed to the year 1905: ‘Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war…in Russia this war has been declared and begun’. Lenin wrote these sentences at the end of January 1905, in an article ‘The Plan of the St. Petersburg Battle’.

Though the film is often stated to eschew the individual in favour of the mass, still the collected sailors on the Potemkin have a figurehead: Vakulinchuk, who takes one of his comrades aside up above the deck, and asserts that the sailors must support the workers, acting in the vanguard of the revolution. Now Eisenstein takes us below deck, to the sailors sleeping in their bunks. The influence of Battleship Potemkin on the art of Francis Bacon is often cited: Bacon apparently first saw the film in 1935, and the image of the screaming nurse from the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence was a prominent influence upon the variations of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X which he undertook through the 1950s and early 1960s. But here too, the angled hammocks and overlapping bodies of the sailors resemble Bacon’s paintings of hanging meat.

An officer prowls the sailors’ quarters, and when he stumbles, in irritation he lashes one of the sailors on the back. Eisenstein’s title cards don’t only provide dialogue or narrative exposition: they also serve an overt didactic purpose, and a title here suggests ‘easy to vent one’s rage on a recruit’. Vakulinchuk gives a rousing speech, asking ‘What are we waiting for? All of Russia has risen’.

The next day, when the sailors argue that the rotten meat which they are to be served is covered in worms, their complaints are dismissed by the ship’s doctor. However, they refuse to eat the borscht prepared with the meat. As several sailors do the washing up, their physical labour and repetitive motion is juxtaposed with the still, shimmering silver of the cutlery. The same soldier who was lashed the night before notices a line on one of the plates he is washing: it is from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. In anger and frustration he smashes the plate.

In part two, ‘Drama on the Deck’, the men who refused the borscht are charged with insubordination. Informed that they ought to be strung from the ship’s yard, one elderly sailor looks up and envisions the hanging corpses. The offending sailors are covered with a tarpaulin, and the firing squad is brought out – as the ship’s priest looks on approvingly, proclaiming ‘Bring the unruly to reason, O Lord!’. But Vakulinchuk cries out in protest and causes the firing squad to hesitate, and the sailors take the opportunity to mutiny. They triumph over the officers – while the priest feigns unconsciousness, the doctor is thrown overboard – but Vakulinchuk is shot and killed.

In ‘A Dead Man Calls for Justice’, the sailors reach the port of Odessa as free men. Vakulinchuk’s body is placed in a tent, with a sign stating ‘Dead for a spoonful of soup’, as crowds from the city flock past in support. When one aristocrat attempts to turn the people of Odessa towards other ends, encouraging amidst the rally ‘Kill the Jews!’, he is rounded on by furious onlookers.

‘The Odessa Steps’ is the best-known sequence of Eisenstein’s career, and the epitome of the montage technique. Odessa joyously sees the sailors off, with baskets of fruit, much waving, the fluttering of eyelashes, and the twirling of umbrellas. Amidst the throng, Eisenstein highlight a young man, happily cheering, who has lost both legs. Then ‘Suddenly…’, there is the first close-up of a shrieking woman’s face the legless youth scurries down the vast stairway and everyone is on the move. A mass of marching gunmen emerge over one of the stairway’s landings, and bodies begin to drop.

This stairway – extending 142 metres, constructed by 1841, and today known as the Potemkin Stairs – stands as the main entrance from the port into the city of Odessa. It was built so that one looking down the stairway sees only the landings, and none of the steps. Eisenstein uses this aspect in his film: from below, we see the people scuttling down the many stairs in panic but shot from above, beyond the corner of a statue, we see the Imperial soldiers moving against a blank surface, steady and austere.

A child is shot in the back and his mother grieves in slow-motion people are trampled underfoot and as the soldiers steadily descend from above, mounted Cossacks arrive with guns at the bottom of the stairway to continue the assault. Finally an infant’s pram teeters down the stairs and, as it is about to tumble, the sequence ends with the famous shot of the nurse, open-mouthed, bloody, and with broken glasses. These images have been echoed and parodied across all of cinema but perhaps most notably in the round of assassinations which mark the climax of The Godfather.

The Potemkin‘s guns fire off in response to the massacre, but meanwhile the sailors receive news that a squadron sent from the Tsar is on its way to take care of their revolt. The sailors determine to meet this squadron, and the fifth and final act of Battleship Potemkin – variously rendered ‘The Meeting with the Squadron’ and ‘One Against All’ – concerns the nature of this meeting.

‘Voted the greatest film of all time by an international panel of critics in Brussels in 1958, as it had been in 1950, POTEMKIN (Russians and purists pronounce it Po-tyom-kin) has achieved such an unholy eminence that few people any longer dispute its merits. Great as it undoubtedly is, it’s not really a likable film it’s amazing, though – it keeps its freshness and its excitement, even if you resist its cartoon message. Perhaps no other movie has ever had such graphic strength in its images, and the young director Sergei Eisenstein opened up a new technique of psychological stimulation by means of rhythmic editing–“montage.”‘ – Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Holt Paperback, 1991)

‘The film once had such power that it was banned in many nations, including its native Soviet Union. Governments actually believed it could incite audiences to action. If today it seems more like a technically brilliant but simplistic “cartoon” (Pauline Kael’s description in a favorable review), that may be because it has worn out its element of surprise – that, like the 23rd Psalm or Beethoven’s Fifth, it has become so familiar we cannot perceive it for what it is. Having said that, let me say that “Potemkin,” which I have seen many times and taught using a shot-by-shot approach, did come alive for me the other night, in an unexpected time and place […] Under the stars on a balmy summer night, far from film festivals and cinematheques, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its legendary rabble-rousing power.’ – ‘Great Movies’ review by Roger Ebert

‘[…] the dynamic of Sergei Eisenstein’s cinema – of drastic composition and editing fusion – had been displaced (thanks to Murnau, Renoir, Welles, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, and so many others) by fluidity, movement, and duration […] But Eisenstein and his colleagues were working in Russia in 1925, with the horror of tsarism recent enough to demand remedy. And Eisenstein was an illustrator of astonishing power. Moreover, in seeing cinema as a matter of so many angled compositions or “shock shots,” he was locking himself into an editing style that was always cutting away and would never appreciate real time or space’ – David Thomson, ‘Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Penguin, 2010)

‘In 1920s Soviet films, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin, October, and Strike, no individual serves as protagonist. In films by Eisenstein and Yasujiro Ozu, many events are seen as cause not by characters but by larger forces (social dynamics in the former, an over-arching rhythm of life in the latter).’ – David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill, 2013) 10th edition

‘[Eisenstein] also used montage to extend time and increase the tension – as in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous massacre scene on the steps of Odessa in which the action is slowed down by the intercutting of close-ups of faces in the crowd with repeated images of the soldiers’ descent down the stairs. The scene, by the way, was entirely fictional: there was no massacre on the Odessa steps in 1905 – although it often appears in the history books.’ – Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Metropolitan Books, 2002)


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