Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin
by Neal Bascomb, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2007, $26.
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.