Eleven Fateful Days on
The Battleship

Neal Bascomb
(Houghton Mifflin)
The faithful would have you believe that the sailors of the Potemkin were filled with revolutionary fervor when Captain Golikov (also known as "The Dragon") told them that he was cutting off their bathing privileges. But their fervor had more to do with the fact that when lunch was served, it was borscht pot pie aswarm with maggots. As bad as Russian cooking gets, it usually doesn't includes worms in the main course.

Eat the borscht or be damned was Golikov's message to the sailors. If they didn't do as told, he would shoot thirty of them. They would have none of it. Shots were exchanged; Golikov was taken prisoner. Suddenly, a crew of 300 owned their own battleship.

Afanasy Nikolayevich Matyushenko's had been elected chairman of the "Potemkin's Sailors Council." Golikov was brought before him. "The captain represented the very system that had oppressed and exploited Matyushenko throughout his life."

    Now the Potemkin was theirs. Matyushenko could easily arrest Golikov, as they had the other captured officers and lock him away until they decided what to do.

But he deferred to the sailors, "The crew must decide," he said. And the crew voted to kill the captain.

The uprising was born of fear and hate for a system that made the crew (mostly poor serfs) hostages to the officers (mostly upper class). The common sailors were treated no better than slaves. The revolt that brought the Potemkin into their hands, in turn, created more violence, not the least in the streets of Odessa. When the battleship arrived and anchored on 15 June 1905, the city went into ecstasy. The ecstasy turned violence, and the police were quick to quell it. It turned into a police riot.

The sailors' problem was this. If they intervened in Odessa, they would probably murder thousands of innocents. They had other problems: what do you do when you find yourself adrift with a 12,800 ton brand-new state-of-the-art twin-screw tub awash in guns and torpedo tubes?

There was too the small matter of the Russian navy, eager to chase them around the Black Sea beyond Sevastopol and Yalta. There were the 22 boilers that had to be filled with coal. How about food? Worse, the sailors are not at all sure they want to be in the vanguard of an upcoming Revolution. Then there's the name: Everyone called it the Potemkin. It's real name was Knjas Potjomkin Tawritscheski (Prince Potjomkin of Taurien). Imagine Eisenstein using that as the handle for his movie.

The crew dawdled about the Black Sea for eleven days and finally they took the Potemkin to Constanza, Romania where they did what they should have done at the beginning: they opened the petcocks and adjourned to shore. King Carol the First (and Last) gave them asylum and the Rumanians (who didn't much care for Nicholas II) feted them with piroski and maggot-free borscht.

Afanasy Nikolayevich Matyushenko went off to America. After two years, he returned to Russia where he was promptly got nabbed and hung. Within two decades, the Russian director Sergey M. Eisenstein immortalized the rebellion and the Richelieu Steps of Odessa where the Cossacks murdered hundreds of those who had risen up to celebrate the arrival of the battleship.

Bascomb's book is a careful reappraisal of an event that was used by revolutionaries everywhere to further their cause, though there was no clarity of purpose in the uprising. Despite this, there is a real tension in the story of those eleven days ... the bitter conflicts; the virulence of the forces of the Tsar; the indecision of the "revolutionaries." Overall it is an fascinating study of a flagging mutiny, one that came well before its time. The story of the confrontation between the Potemkin and a dozen or so other ships of the Black Sea fleet --- hundreds of sailors unwilling to fire on their own --- is grippingly told, still manages to defy belief.

--- Nick Hoppin, USN Reserve