The Potemkin as Revolutionary Catalyst
Russia in the early 20th century was a powerful empire. It controlled vast expanses of forest, steppe, and tundra stretching from occupied Poland in the west to the Pacific Ocean and Bering Strait in the east. But underneath its powerful, industrializing image was the domineering control of the Tsars. These imperial leaders ruled Russia from Moscow but were increasingly disconnected from the concerns of their own people. By the 1900s and 1910s this disconnect was to have fatal consequences for their regime.
In 1905 Russia and Japan were engaged in a war that, to outside observers, ought to have been a quick and easy conflict. Japan was only a few decades out of its self-imposed isolation from the world and still feared European domination. Russia was a mature empire with vast tracts of land, resources, and military power. But the course of the war belied this paper mismatch. Japan tore the Russian Pacific Fleet apart and destroyed a reinforcing fleet sent from the Baltic Sea. Russia, far from crushing its vastly smaller opponent, was dealt crushing blow after crushing blow. Its military and citizenry were demoralized, and long standing internal pressures threatened to destabilize the Tsarist state itself.
The Russian battleship Potemkin, a pre-dreadnought vessel smaller than many heavy cruisers of latter decades, found itself in the center of a revolutionary maelstrom in 1905. The successful mutiny of its crew and subsequent rebellions in cities near to the Black Sea marked a dangerous moment for the Tsars. And although they prevailed in 1905 and maintained their rule, in later years the revolt of the Potemkin was held by the Soviet Government to be one of the key sparks that ignited and fed the Russian Revolution of 1917 which defeated the Tsars once and for all.
Potemkin and the Russian Navy in 1905
When most people try to think of a famed Russian battleship, they will find they have a difficult time coming up with a name. Russia has operated relatively few battleships during the course of its naval history, and by the Second World War only three aging pre-World War I battleships of the Gangut Class were operated by the Soviet Union in the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets. The most modern battleship ever used by the Soviet Union was actually a British dreadnought that was transferred to Russia’s Northern Fleet during World War II.
Due to the cancellation of the Sovetsky Soyuz class during the 1940s, Russia and the Soviet Union never built modern battleships as did Japan, Britain, the US, Germany, France, and Italy. Probably the best known ships that come close to battleships in size and power are those of the Kirov Class, which were heavy guided missile cruisers built during the Cold War. So with such a lack of modern, big-name battleships to choose from, it is little surprise that the most famous Russian battleship is probably the Potemkin, and that fame is due to her role in the 1905 rebellion.
In early 1905 the Russo-Japanese War had left Russia’s navy reeling. Battleships had been lost to Japan in the Pacific, both those of the native Pacific Fleet as well as those of the powerful Baltic Fleet that were sent on the long voyage to the Pacific as reinforcements. That Russia, as a great power, would suffer such losses at the hands of the Japanese had been unthinkable. The course of the war was so shocking that morale in the Russian Navy was at a deep low. And not that it had ever been particularly high to begin with- the Russian fleet was notorious for its poor conditions, horrific disciplinary measures, and geographic dispersion that made coordination difficult.
Russia was and remains unique among the world’s navies because it defends not just one or two but a full four different coasts geographically separated by thousands of miles. Traditionally it has maintained four fleets: the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific. Mutual reinforcement is nearly impossible due to the distances involved, the choke points between the Baltic and Black Seas and more open waters, and the ice that threatens the bases along the Barents and Pacific coasts.
The Potemkin Revolt
Potemkin is unique both as a famed Russian battleship and as a battleship that played a key role not in any battle but in a political struggle. All major capital ships are symbols to some degree- note Germany changing the name of the pocket battleship Deutschland during the Second World War to avoid the ignominy of having a ship named after the fatherland sunk in battle- but most are symbolic due to their combat power and imposing features.
Potemkin’s mutiny and revolt began primarily as a fight against the incredibly vicious conditions aboard Russian naval vessels at the time. The crew, while on a routine training mission, found itself ordered to eat meat that was filled with maggots. Many crewmembers apparently refused, and the senior officers on board appear to have ordered armed marines to execute sailors who wouldn’t comply with the order. Fearing a massacre, dozens of sailors broke into the armory and fought back, killing or arresting almost every officer on board. From there they held a council and elected one of their own to lead the ship as captain. They chucked the portrait of the Tsar overboard, raised a red flag, and proclaimed to the people of Odessa that they were rebelling against the Tsar.
From the historic record it appears that the mutiny was not entirely spontaneous; there had already been meetings ashore with people in Odessa regarding a possible revolt. Members of the crew had already been considering mutiny, and the mad order to eat maggot infested food or face execution simply provided the spark. But the rebellion on the Potemkin spread to other ships of the Black Sea fleet and ashore as well, and the Russian government found itself faced with a major insurrection.
Cossacks were sent to attack Odessa and other ships of the Black Sea Fleet were sent to retake or destroy Potemkin. But the example of the battleship did not go unnoticed by other crews, and the squadron sent to engage the ship refused to open fire. Some crews even launched temporary mutinies of their own. But the rebellion soon became more of a symbol than a real threat. Potemkin was just one ship trapped in the Black Sea, and soon ran low on coal, water, and food. The ship evacuated to Romania twice, and the second time surrendered to Romanian authorities.
Legacy of the Potemkin Rebellion
With overwhelming power streaming south to reinstate the Tsar’s rule, the Potemkin had nowhere to go and no hope of surviving on its own. Ships, for all their obvious power, have a key weakness: their crew and their engines need supplies which by and large are found only at dedicated ports and naval bases. Without a safe haven on land, Potemkin could only rebel for so long before surrendering.
But although it gave itself up to the Romanian authorities, who granted the crew asylum and returned the ship itself to Russia, the Potemkin’s example resounded through the succeeding years. With Russia on the edge of catastrophe during the First World War after losing battle after battle to Germany, 1917 saw a revolution take place that was partly inspired by the Potemkin’s example and rapidly involved the military itself. The Tsars were overthrown and the Soviet Union was founded. In later years the Soviets would point to the Potemkin’s example as an inspiration due to it being one of the first times that enlisted personnel and conscripts of a military unit got rid of their officers and took charge. It was the armed forces that backed up the 1917 Revolution and allowed the revolutionaries to force the Tsar to flee. And even that revolt was sparked, in part, by a Russian cruiser of the Baltic Fleet that followed Potemkin’s example and rebelled against its masters.
Indeed the legacy of the Potemkin as Russia’s most famed battleship is in large part due to its being held as a guiding inspiration for Russia’s successful revolution. It was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s epic propaganda film, The Battleship Potemkin, in 1925. It became part of the Soviet Union’s founding mythology much in the same manner that American political mythology looks to the Boston Tea Party and the stand of the Minutemen against British soldiers outside Concord as being the starting inspirations of their own founding revolution.
Potemkin itself was to meet with a less glamorous fate. With its name changed by the Tsarist government and its deployments limited, Potemkin was seized by ant-Bolshevik fighters during the civil conflict that followed the Revolution. They scuttled the ship to prevent its symbolic recapture.
As for the crew, most of them lived out their lives as Romanian citizens. One made his way to London, where he started a restaurant and lived to be over 100 years old.
Famed Russian Battleship: The Potemkin
- Ivan Beshoff, Last Survivor of Mutiny on the Potemkin, New York Times via the Associated Press, October 28, 1987
- IMDB, The Battleship Potemkin
- All images are in the public domain of Russia and the United States, 1 and 2 appear to be by the Russian Government, 3 and 4 are movie posters by Goskino Films. All images accessed via Wiki Commons
- A Wordsworth Colour Guide Modern Warships; 1993 Wordswordh Editions LTD
- Janes Fighting Ships of World War II, 1946 Janes Publishing Company, 1994 reprint edition
- John Jordan: An Illustrated Guide to the Modern Soviet Navy; 1982 Arco Publishing