Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin
By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin / 386 pages / $26
Anyone who has seen Warren Beatty's 1981 film Reds, which dramatized the birth pangs of the Russian Revolution, may be moved by Red Mutiny, Neal Bascomb's elegiac and emotionally involving story of the revolution's dress rehearsal.
It happened on a muggy June day in 1905, when 700 Russian sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin mutinied, throwing some of their officers into the Black Sea, and set up a free-speech soviet (council) to run the ship under the red flag of revolution.
Russia was aflame with strikes and riots after her Pacific fleet was annihilated in an "underfunded, ill-equipped and poorly led" war against Japan. After 250 years of despotic Romanov rule, the monarchy of Czar Nicholas II was rotting from within.
Into this epic drama stepped the hero of Bascomb's tale, Afanasy Nikolayevich Matyushenko, a hot-tempered torpedo machinist from the Ukraine. The peasant boy who had taught himself to read was like a Russian Joe Hill, preaching resistance to czarist oppression.
The 26-year-old Matyushenko was a free spirit of impatient temperament who "could barely stand any of the other revolutionaries he met," including Lenin and his newly formed Bolsheviks, Bascomb writes. At the time, Lenin was an obscure speech-monger exiled in Switzerland, a coldly analytical intellectual chafing for his historical moment.
This beautifully researched book rescues from anonymity the vibrant personalities of the other sailor rebels and their tormentors. He conveys a tragic inevitability to the collision between the seamen who can't take it anymore and the officers (often the dregs of the nobility) who can't imagine doing anything other than beating, whipping and starving their men.
The stirring images of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 propaganda film Battleship Potemkin come to mind, even though Bascomb clearly intends to demystify both the Stalin-inspired movie and the official Soviet account, which ignored - when it didn't denigrate - the mutineers.
The myth of the Potemkin uprising is that the sailors rebelled because they were forced to eat maggoty meat. Actually, the fuse was rotten borscht, made from the infested meat. The ship's captain ordered the men to eat the stew or be executed. Die for lousy borscht? Suddenly order "disintegrated. ... Life-and-death decisions were made in seconds, based on instinct, anger, confusion, or desperation," Bascomb writes.
Thirty sailors were herded for execution, and a tarpaulin - Eisenstein's famous tarpaulin - was brought on deck to soak up the blood. An enraged Matyushenko shouted, "Brothers! What are they doing to our comrades? Enough of [the captain] drinking our blood!" The execution squad turned its weapons on the officers.
The subsequent high-seas drama is as gripping as a novel by C.S. Forester or Patrick O'Brian. The first sailor to be killed was Matyushenko's dearest comrade, Grigory N. Vakulenchuk.
Although the Potemkin sailors took over quickly, this was no spontaneous uprising. Their rage was real, but Matyushenko and Vakulenchuk had spent months preaching, cajoling, teaching the arts of resistance in the engine room and gun turrets. Matyushenko and his sailors had counted on igniting mutinies throughout the Black Sea fleet that would spread revolution, already brewing in peasant revolts and factory strikes, across Russia.
The czar sent flotillas to capture or sink the Potemkin. Outnumbered 5-to-1 in the first confrontation, Matyushenko, at the helm, ordered his ship directly into an oncoming squadron. "What do you want, madman?" the flotilla admiral signaled. But Matyushenko kept coming - a high-seas game of chicken. Many of the czar's officers, fearing their sailors might rebel, lost their nerve and broke battle formation.
Indeed, there was a fleet-wide mutiny, but it was short-lived and brutally crushed. The mutiny failed because of betrayals, fatigue, poor timing and lack of support from those on land.
The Potemkin wandered the Black Sea, losing morale, sailor turning on sailor, until all was lost. The ship was scuttled. Hundreds, if not thousands, of mutineers, in the fleet and the army, were shot or hanged. (Some survivors were later murdered in Stalin's purges.) Matyushenko escaped and made his way to the United States, where he worked briefly at the Singer Sewing Machine company in New York. He returned to Russia to carry on the struggle, but was captured, tried and sentenced to death.
Matyushenko was escorted into a prison courtyard on a fall morning in 1907. The manacled revolutionary stepped to the gallows and offered these last words: "Hang me, you cowards. But know, the time will come when it will be you hanging from the lampposts in the street."
Bascomb concludes that the Potemkin's "rebellious spirit lived on in the navy." Mutinies broke out until the 1917 revolution - and afterward, when sailors at the Kronstadt naval base rose up against their new masters, the Bolsheviks.
Bascomb has written a remarkable book about an episode that, once historians get it right, will rank next to Spartacus' uprising against Rome.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and author, most recently, of the memoir "A Woman of Uncertain Character." He wrote a version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.