Everyone has a different breaking point, I suppose, a different last straw that pushes a person or group from suffering in silence and discontent to active rebellion. One more law, one too many rules, another freedom taken away, one more indignity heaped on to the many other little pieces of disrespect. In the case of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, the breaking point supposedly was the sailors finding rotten meat in their lunches. That indeed may have been a convenient trigger, but as described by Neal Bascomb in Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin, it was just a jumping off point to an action that was long planned.
The word Potemkin brings to mind two meanings. In one corner we have the original man himself, Count Grigory Potemkin, 18th century Russian noble, most famous for having been one of Catherine the Great’s lovers and for the ruse he supposedly pulled off to impress her. Legend has it that Catherine was traveling through newly acquired lands in the Crimea to find out what kind of progress Potemkin had made in extending the Russian Empire. Not having much to show, Potemkin put up fake facades along the way to create a picture of vital, bustling villages in the new areas, making it look like he was just a wizard of governance. So now the term "Potemkin village" is used to describe any situation where a false happy face is put on to try to give the idea that everything is going well when it is not (for example, if someone asks me, “How’s that novel coming along?” and I smile and say, “Great!” and hold up a sheaf of cheerfully scribbled upon pages, then, well, I am a Potemkin village). Needless to say, this story is largely fiction, but it has persisted.
Then there's Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 epic film, Battleship Potemkin. You may not know what it’s about, you probably have not seen the whole thing, but chances are decent that you’ve seen the Odessa Steps sequence from the film. And if you haven’t seen that, well, did you see The Untouchables? Remember the scene with the baby carriage on the steps at the Chicago train station right before the shootout between the G-men and mobsters? That was Brian DePalma riffing on Eisenstein. So now we have that all cleared up (thank you, I did go to film school).
(btw, I fully recognize that The Untouchables isn’t a great movie, but you know what? Anytime it’s on, I’m more than happy to watch it. It’s just fun.)
But despite the familiarity of these two Potemkins, most people don't know a lot the actual ship and the sailors' uprising. Yes, obviously, the Eisenstein film was about the event, but as I said, most people don’t get around to the whole movie. And although many memoirs and accounts were written by survivors of the Potemkin, they’re not exactly required reading today. So Bascomb’s book is much appreciated for digging up the real history of the mutiny.
Mutinies are strangely delicate things. Commanders of armies, governors of occupied territories, prison guards live in fear of them. After all, those in charge of these types of places are usually vastly outnumbered by the underlings. Yet mutinies rarely, truly succeed. Yes, people die, they have been bloody and scary, but they don’t cause change. The Raj actually became stronger after the 1857 Indian uprising and the number of British in India was incredibly tiny in relation to the native Indian population. However, as we saw at Agincourt (Falling In Love), sometimes numerical superiority can be a curse. It’s hard to keep a large group organized, it’s difficult to make sure everybody understands their roles, it’s easy for discontent to crop up and splinter a cause. And mutinies often come about in a rush, which creates even more potential for disorganization and a quick descent from the first flush of heady triumph to panic and fear, to “what now?”
Sailors of the Russian Navy had been secretly meeting and planning a rebellion for a while before June 1905, with an eye towards taking action that summer. The sailors were draftees, not volunteers, and were treated as badly as you might expect. After all, they were the lowest of peasants and were led by officers usually plucked from the aristocracy. Underfed, underpaid, overworked, and miserable, the sailors lives' were pretty much as tough as those of their serf forebears. The serfs had been emancipated, but the sailors and soldiers, the children of those serfs, were still enslaved. The key difference, though, as described by Orlando Figes in his monumental A People’s Tragedy (Revolution Takes Its Turn) was that this generation of peasants had a much higher rate of literacy, due to the evangelical fervor of university students who had spread out through the villages and isolated farmlands in the 1890s, with the goal of teaching and uplifting the peasants. They might not have uplifted them much from their low station in life, but indeed, they did teach them to read. And when many of those peasants went to the cities to work in factories, they read the literature of workers’ revolutions, and discovered ideas which turned from demands for the rights of workers to the rights of soldiers and sailors when the peasant factory workers were conscripted into the services.
So the uprising on the Potemkin didn’t spontaneously erupt when the sailors refused to eat the maggot-filled meat (to be honest, considering the lives of most of them, weren’t they probably used to food just as bad if not worse, or no food at all?). The mutiny was in the works, but when the rebel leaders, Vakulenchuk and Matyushenko saw the anger of the sailors over the meat they decided to seize the moment and use that anger to take over the ship immediately. After dispatching some of the worst officers and keeping on some of the more manageable ones (particularly those who had valuable skills), the sailors organized themselves into democratic committees to run the ship, promised to make all decisions open and transparent to all the sailors and set sail for Odessa, where they expected to be backed up by other ships, which they also hoped would soon be controlled by rebel sailors. Then they’d, uh, get rid of the tsar and umm…take over Russia, and kind of make it into some sort of worker-run type place…
Yeah, as you can see, mutiny and taking over one ship is easy, but after that plans can get kind of foggy. To make matters worse, Odessa had its own problems when the sailors arrived at the port. A factory worker rebellion had fizzled before the ship got there and discontent revolutionaries were roaming the streets, looking for their next move. When the Potemkin landed, leaders of the failed Odessa rebellion quickly tried to get on board ship to take over and conduct their revolution from there. Instead all they did was create confusion, mistrust, and trouble. Meanwhile, the body of Vakulenchuk, who had been killed during the mutiny, was brought ashore and displayed on a dock, representing martyrdom to the sailors' cause. The bier became a rallying point for the Odessa crowds but these quickly turned into riots that were harshly put down by Cossack guards. Fire, panic, death, and terror swept through the port at Odessa (remember your Eisenstein? Here’s where that Odessa steps scene comes in). The sailors weren’t such welcome visitors, such symbols of hope and freedom, after all.
Things went from triumph to disaster for the sailors. With the tsar's forces on the way and in need of food and supplies, the Potemkin couldn’t stay in Odessa. Other navy ships arrived and though in the end they didn’t attack the battleship as expected, they also didn’t join the rebellion (well, one ship did, then recanted and turned on the Potemkin mutineers). The sailors decided to sail to Constanza, a Romanian port, where they were again refused coal and supplies. They set sail for Theodosia, a Crimean port, and were given no welcome there either. The ship's engines were grinding down from the constant aimless sailing, and the crew was almost out of coal, water, and food. The sailors’ unity was fraying. Without a home, the Potemkin was like a ghost ship, forced to travel on forever without any safe haven to land. But unlike a ghost ship, the Potemkin held real people with real needs and they were tired of the ship, tired of the rebellion, and tired of fighting for a lost cause. They eventually decided to return to Costanza and abandoned ship.
Many of the sailors melted away into Romania and built new lives. Some leaders of failed rebellions on other ships were tried and executed. The Potemkin mutiny leader, Matyushenko, traveled around for a while. He met Lenin and some of the other revolutionary theoreticians in Switzerland but felt they had no connection to the lives of the oppressed sailors and factory workers. He went to New York and worked there for a while in a factory. Then he returned to Russia to try to continue his fight, whereupon he was captured and executed.
Bascomb rightfully questions the value of the sailors’ actions. The mutiny itself failed, but it was undoubtedly one crack in the wall of the tsar’s autocracy, and as we have seen, it can take many cracks, and they can take many years, but eventually the wall will crumble, as it finally did in 1917.
Bascomb’s book is solid, a fast read, with charismatic characters and a quick pace. I appreciated his excellent documentation and the depth of his research. Again, though, I was interested, but maybe not gripped. I liked it, but did not fall in love (how elusive that is). Still I highly recommend Red Mutiny, especially because it brings to light an episode of history that is too often glossed over.
There is one persistent image that I took away from this book. The sailors, as they approached Theodosia, desperate for supplies and a place to land, scrubbed and polished the ship from end to end, washed and pressed their uniforms, and did everything they could to put on their best appearance. They wanted the people of Theodosia to see that they were not thugs, rogue sailors, criminals, but just good hardworking men who hoped for a better life for themselves and indeed for all of the tsar’s oppressed. This reminded me of the way animal shelters will wash and brush and put ribbons on the orphan dogs and cats in the hope that looking shiny and bright will convince someone to give them a home. The hopefulness and desperation are almost too much to bear.