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ISR Issue 58, March–April 2008


When antiwar sailors took over the ship

Neal Bascomb
Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin
Houghton Mifflin, 2007
386 pages $26


Thus do we, the crew of the battleship Prince Potemkin-Tavrichesky, resolutely and unanimously take the first great step. May all those peasants and workers, our brothers, who have fallen in the fields of our fatherland by the bullets and bayonets of the soldiers, release us from their curse now! We are not their murderers. We are not the butchers of our own people. We are their defenders, and our common cry is—“Death or Liberty to the People!” We demand the immediate end to bloodshed in faraway Manchuria. We demand the immediate convocation of a constituent assembly through direct elections. For these demands we are all prepared to fight, and to perish with our ship, or to attain victory.
—Excerpt from the Declaration of the Potemkin Mutineers

ON JUNE 14, 1905, more than 700 sailors wrested control of the Potemkin, the mightiest battleship in the Russian fleet, away from their officers and tried to use it for the revolution. Red Mutiny tells their story.
Neal Bascomb’s book is an engaging account in the best form of history-as-mystery. He takes great care to explain a certain amount of history, and the amount of introductory material makes it an accessible book for people not at all familiar with this historical period. But he also weaves an exciting tale of clandestine meetings, how the sailors came to form elected committees, what challenges dictated each move the mutineers made, and the mutiny’s impact internationally.

Throughout the book, Bascomb is anti-Leninist, and derogatory towards organized socialists in general. In fact, his stated purpose is to rescue the mutiny from all those who had used it to serve their own ends or glorify themselves (he never says this outright, but he means the socialists). Leon Trotsky’s book, 1905, is recommended to supplement Red Mutiny for more of a representation of the Russian Revolution as well as a truer representation of the workings of soviets (workers’ councils) and the RSDLP (Russia’s socialist party).

Nevertheless, within Bascomb’s masterful representation telling of the harrowing struggle aboard the Potemkin and the social conditions the sailors faced, a compelling story emerges that negates his narrow conception of revolutionary parties or the role they play in advancing struggle.

It’s important to understand the Potemkin mutiny was part of a larger struggle shaking Russia. The struggle against the tsar’s despotism had turned revolutionary in January 1905 after Bloody Sunday, when the tsar’s troops killed hundreds of men, women, and children who had joined a peaceful march to plead for the creation of an elected parliament. The tsar was pressing a poorly planned and worsely executed war against the Japanese. The Russo-Japanese War had been raging for more than a year and was exacting losses of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and sailors as it destroyed the economy. The mutiny played an important part in propelling the revolution forward, as well as reflecting the corruption and injustice in Russia that the tsars had created.

In the beginning of June, members of the Tsentralka—a sailors’ revolutionary committee—met in Sevastopol to discuss the strikes and uprisings around the country. The committee decided there that the time for action had come, and that the navy-wide mutiny they had been plotting was now necessary to both support the workers and peasants and to put an end to the brutality that soldiers faced. They set the date for September or October in order to give themselves time to prepare the fleet. Sailor Afanasy Matyushenko was present and took it upon himself to prepare the Potemkin’s crew. Less than ten days later, the Black Sea Fleet mutiny began ahead of schedule.

Supply officers purchased rotting meat for the Potemkin in Odessa, an important trading city. The majority of sailors’ refused to eat the fetid meat and was met with an ultimatum from the captain and first officer: Eat the meat or be summarily executed on the deck. Matyushenko and another revolutionary sailor, Vakulenchuk, quickly realized they couldn’t let themselves be murdered over meat or a point about respecting authority. The mutiny had to start then. The captain and his first officer were shot and thrown overboard and the other officers relieved of duty and locked up. Vakulenchuk was shot and killed in the opening battle, so the sailors’ revolutionary committee decided to sail to Odessa where they could bury their fallen comrade and also fill up on supplies, connect with workers and Social Democrats, and wait to see if the rest of the fleet followed suit in mutiny. Odessa gave them a hero’s welcome.

The strength of Red Mutiny is in the expressive detail Bascomb uses to illustrate just how miserable was the life of every Russian who wasn’t an autocrat:

While many of the captains lived in private houses, Matyushenko and the others were packed like cattle into poorly ventilated barracks, suffering nightly swarms of bedbugs and rats. The windows were barred, and their beds were little better than planks of wood. Latrine pipes leaked filth between the walls, and the brackish river water they showered in left its own stench and a dirty film on their skin.

The book rightly conveys that the mutiny was not only months, but years, in the making due to cruel social conditions, and that the mutineers had a definite relation to the working class (a relation that Trotsky explains in more detail in 1905). As Bascomb says in his introduction:

The insurrection had begun over a protest against maggot-infested meat, but stale borscht was little more than a pretext for mutiny, an action planned months in advance by sailors turned revolutionaries. All of Russia was on the verge of insurrection against the despotic rule of Tsar Nicholas II, and these sailors hoped to bring the battleship to the people’s side, leading to the tsar’s fall from the throne.

Ultimately, the revolutionary sailors were unsuccessful and faced harsh repression, but some, like Matyushenko, never gave up hope and continued to organize another, more successful mutiny in November 1905. The main impression that Bascomb leaves the reader is that the mutiny was a just cause and the sailors were right to risk their lives for a better world.
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