Thursday, August 9, 2012

OMG, Needs More Potemkin!

What Up, Nerds?

1905. The Russo-Japanese war had destroyed two out of three total Russian fleets. The Baltic fleet and the Pacific fleets were bot sitting at the bottom of the Yellow sea. Now only the Black Sea fleet remained.

The Black sea fleet wasn't going to do a thing to help Russia's prospects with war against the Japanese. It was stuck in the Black sea by international treaty. But the men who crewed the fleet weren't. So as the war raged on and more and more Russian sailors from the Pacific and eastern fleets were killed, the Russian government started to transfer all the experienced commanders and crew from the Black Sea Fleet to the east to replace those who died. By the time the Russo-Japanese War ended nearly all the experienced sailors had been moved from the Black Sea Fleet to the Pacific. The Black Sea fleet was manned almost entirely by raw recruits and men passed over by the upper brass.

As such this fleet was made up mostly of men who just didn't really like the military. And they were men who had just seen two-thirds of their country's navy thrown away in a fruitless war for the Tsar's imperial ambitions. They were not the most loyal. There were more than a few revolutionaries on every ship.

And the Russian military's response to revolutionary sentiment? It was the same as its response to everything else: enacting the strictest possible discipline. These revolutionary raw recruits did not react so well to the military's harshness.

In late June of 1905 the revolutionary sailors from the Black Sea fleet met to plan their revolution. They were chafing under the harsh discipline and they were angry about the unpopular war, and that meant to them that the time for revolution had come. They agreed that the sailors of the Battleship Potemkin should be the first to mutiny and begin the overthrow of the Tsar. Once the revolutionaries had taken the Potemkin, the crew of the other ships would follow suit, mutiny, and seize military power all over the Russian coast of the Black Sea.

But then the military authorities found out about their plan. While the Battleship Potemkin was at port they moved in an arrested forty of the lower-lever revolutionaries, as well as one of the ringleaders. They were taken off and summarily shot.

This is the Battleship Potemkin. It was an incredibly formidable boat, one hundred and seven years ago.
(Pic from Wiki)

The Potemkin was ordered to depart port and it sailed to Odessa. At Odessa the Potemkin took on rations, one part of which was a big old portion of maggoty beef. That day when the sailors sat down to eat they noticed the maggots in their Borscht, and refused to eat it. One of the Potemkin's top brass, Lieutenant Giliarovsky, assembled the crew on deck.

He shouted at them and dressed them down, and then he attempted to force them to eat it. About a dozen men complied, but the rest stood firm and refused. Giliarovsky summoned about twenty Marines to deal with these men he saw as mutineers, and all but about thirty of the Potemkin's sailors immediately fled the deck. Among these thirty were secret revolutionaries that the purge on the Potemkin had missed.

Giliarovsky ordered that tarps be lain out on deck. Given theri past experience, the thirty men reckoned the tarps were out so that Giliarovsky could execute them without getting blood all over the decks and then throw them overboard more easily. That wouldn't have been an abnormal punishment for their situation, so you can probably assume they're right. 

Facing their imminent deaths the thirty begged the marines not to  kill them. Meanwhile about thirty other men who had fled the deck saw what was happening and acted fast. They stormed the armory and then they seized the signal room and the engine room. That second group of thirty men came out on deck very quickly, and at that point the marines declined to shoot anybody.

Lieutenant Giliarovsky was furious. He decided to take matters into his own hands. So he pulled his gun and shot one of the revolutionaries, Artillery Quartemaster Grigory Vakulinchuk. He ordered the marines to attack again, but the marines preferred not to die and ran away instead. The thirty armed sailors took the opportunity to shoot Giliarovsky dead. They moved like lightning as the ship's officers fled. They seized the Potemkin, and then took the torpedo boat that accompanied her, the Ismail. When the dust cleared they had killed seven officers and arrested twelve more. They set up a revolutionary committee on board with a man named Afanasi Matushenko as chairman. Matushenko had been an NCO and a political activist before the uprising, and now he took command of the tiny two-ship revolutionary fleet.

But the lack of Mustache was the most revolutionary thing about him.
(Pic from Wiki)

By ten o'clock that night the revolutionary battleship Potemkin steamed into the port at Odessa with one more new red flag and with one less old picture of the Tsar.

The imperial government at Odessa was already having some problems with revolutionaries. A general strike had been called across the city against the government's wishes. The arrival of a revolutionary battleship in port helped the imperials in no way. The strikers immediately approached the sailors and asked for their help to storm the armory and take over the city. By acting in this way the strikers figured they could extend the Potemkin's revolution to the land and use their armed workers as a land army in conjunction with the revolutionary fleet. Then they could support each others forces and take down the weakened Tsarist state.

That actually been had been the revolutionary sailors' original plan before the mutiny, but confusion and division between the sailors and these particular strikers quickly started to drive the sailors away. In the end the crewmen of the Potemkin were unwilling to commit their few men to a risky storming of the armory, and the assault never happened.

Instead the body of Quartermaster Vakulinchuk, who had been the man shot by Lieutenant Giliarovsky, was taken off the ship to be given a "state" funeral. The revolutionaries proceeded to carry Vakulinchuk's body up what is now know as the Potemkin stairs, in Odessa.

Ten thousand Odessan workers had massed to see the funeral.

Even on stairs that big, ten-thousand would have been a crowd.
(Pic from Wiki)

Three imperial port officials and fifty dismounted Cossacks saw this as their chance to disrupt the revolutionaries, and they attacked the funeral.  Apparently they didn't consider that they were fifty-three guys attacking ten thousand guys and also a battleship.The imperials were driven off. But the sailors still refused to go on the attack. Revolutionaries and the government started to fight in open battles across the whole city, and there were over twelve hundred casualties. The next day the Potemkin fired two shells into the section of the city that housed the military headquarters. Those shells killed only one man, and he was a civilian. Meanwhile the government and the workers continued to clash, and many people died.

The imperial government, fearing full scale revolution, sent in army reinforcements to crush the revolt in Odessa, and they sent the bulk of the rest of the black sea fleet to destroy or capture the Potemkin. When word of this arrived, the sailors were undaunted. The Potemkin steamed out to meet the imperial fleet near Tendra Island. The forces met and the Potemkin headed straight for the middle of the other fleet.

And the Potemkin refused to fire a single shot.

Seemingly miraculously, every single other ship refused to fire too. The crews of all the ships refused to attack the revolutionaries, men who they saw as their comrades. And as The Potemkin pulled away she had been joined by the Battleship Georgii Pobedonosets, which had just risen up in a bloodless mutiny. The revolutionary ships headed back to Odessa and left the rest of the fleet to puzzle over their gunners' sudden ineptitude.

But shortly after the Potemkin, Ismail, and Georgii Pobedonosets  began to head back to Odessa. Things went suddenly south on the new ship. The Potemkin had sent the Georgii one of its chief revolutionaries in order to maintain unity in the fleet. But that representative decided to rebel back to the imperial Government. He convinced the crew of the Georgii that the Potemkin was planning to arrest all of the NCO's and distinguished seamen, despite the fact that the head of the revolution, Matushenko, was himself an NCO. Then, after clearing out all the officers the Potemkin was supposed to make a full attack on the people of Odessa, where the crew of the Georgii was from. They were supposed to attack Odessa despite all of their previously relatively friendly interactions. So the officers of the Georgii Pobedonosets seized control of the ship, grounded her, and then before fled.

Again, two more ships mutinied and joined with the Potemkin too. But they were quickly either captured or turned against the revolution like the Georgii had been. So the Potemkin and her escort, the Ismail, remained alone in revolution.

You'll probably need this.

The Potemkin was starting to run short of supplies and steamed south to Constanța in Romania. But the port officials in Constanța feared the relative the might of the enormous Russian Empire. So the Romanians refused to sell them any goods. Unwilling to seize anything from the innocent Romanians, the Potemkin went to Feodosiya, back in Russia. Feodosiya was much more accommodating, and gave them everything they needed. Everything but coal and fresh water, that is.

The Potemkin needed water and coal, so it sent out a small force to seize some nearby imperial coal barges. The Russian army was on the prowl though. The imperials found the revolutionaries and killed most of the coal-finding force.

The Potemkin, desperately low on water and coal, sailed back to Constanța. The Romanian port officials weren't willing to give them the necessary supplies. And so, starved for coal and water and without having fought a single sea battle, the crew of the Potemkin determined that they were beaten. They let some counter-revolutionaries on their accompanying boat Ismail take that ship back to Russia. And then the Potemkin itsself was scuttled and half-sunk at Constanța. They had been defeated with hardly any clash of arms. But when the revolutionary sailors headed ashore, the Romanian crowd still cheered them.

The ship herself was quickly dragged back up, and returned to Russia, which renamed her. She continued to serve until 1919, when she was scuttled by anti-revolutionaries who wanted to keep her out of the Bolsheviks' hands.

Most of the sailors remained in Romania until the Russian Revolution. Most of the few who who returned before then were killed or imprisoned. The leader Matushenko himself returned to Russia under a promise of amnesty in 1907. His amnesty was immediately disregarded and he was promptly executed.

So what sort of legacy did the Potemkin's little revolution have?

The last surviving crew member died in 1987, in Ireland. He had made his way to the British Isles, where he had met Lenin, and eventually set up Beshoff's Fish and Chips in Dublin.

(Pic from Beshoff's)

But the revolution of 1917 saw the Battleship Potemkin's rebellion as a precedent. And 1905, it helped other Russian revolutionaries force some of the lesser reforms of the same year, like the Duma (similar to a parliament). In the end, the Potemkin probably helped speed the revolution, but not as much as the sailors would have liked. And of course even after some initial success the Russian Revolution itself would eventually fall to totalitarian control. But for the time the Potemkin rebellion wasn't a bad try at forcing social change.

And that's all the Potemkin you're getting for now.


  1. Please keep this up - its pretty cool!

  2. yeah its too good to give up on

  3. Bill!!!
    I'm about to teach the "Joy Luck Club" to some teenagers.
    What can you teach me about 1920-1950 in China?
    I know that is the broadest request ever.
    <3 Cammi

  4. Holy schmutz, people actually read this! Thank y'all kindly. I suppose I'll write some more then, even if I am 3 months late.

  5. Hi, your blog seems not to be being updated anymore but you should know that it is delightful and I wish there was more.