Anyone who’s seen Warren Beatty’s 1981 film “Reds,” which dramatized the birth pangs of the Russian Revolution, may be equally moved by “Red Mutiny,” Neal Bascomb’s elegiac and emotionally involving story of that 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.
At the time, 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 and seemed ready to collapse. Earlier in the year, the czar ordered his Cossacks to fire on petitioners carrying religious icons and singing hymns in St. Petersburg, which ended all hope of peaceful reform.
Into this epic drama stepped the hero of Bascomb’s tale, Afanasy Nikolayevich Matyushenko, a hot-tempered torpedo machinist from the Ukraine steppes. Drafted onto the nation’s proudest battleship, where sailors suffered floggings and brutal contempt by incompetent officers, the peasant boy who’d taught himself to read was like a Russian Joe Hill, preaching resistance to specific grievances and 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. “When Lenin spoke of his rivals his dark eyes hardened and then he drew back as if he was gathering venom before a strike.”
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 nobility) who can’t imagine doing anything other than beat, whip and starve their men. On pain of being punched in the face, sailors had to address their officers as “your most high radiance.”
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 revolt was on.
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. Unlike Lenin, who was of the minor gentry, these rank-and-file leaders were common folk with a knack for trusting, and being trusted by, their fellow sailors. Despite the intimidating presence of spies, shipboard debate was open and transparent. Everyone had a say, even (untrustworthy) junior officers.
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, then one sixth of the world’s land mass. Indeed, the Potemkin became a symbol of defiance – and hope for revolutionaries in other countries as well. Perhaps that’s why international public opinion – signaled by the world’s major newspapers – turned against the sailors. The New York Times argued that the sailors should be hanged; Le Figaro editorialized that the mutineers “were willing to do anything, except to do their duty!”
The czar soon sent flotillas to capture or sink the Potemkin. Outnumbered 5 to 1 in the first confrontation, Matyushenko, who was at the helm, ordered his ship directly into an oncoming squadron. “What do you want, madman?” the flotilla admiral demanded in a telegraph message. 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. The crew of one ship prevented its captain from blowing up the vessel to damage the Potemkin. Indeed, there was a fleet-wide mutiny, but it was short-lived and brutally crushed.
One of the book’s several brilliant set pieces – again echoing the Eisenstein film – is the famous “Odessa Steps” sequence when residents of the Crimean city headed down a steep granite staircase toward the port to greet the sailors, only to be mowed down by the czar’s Cossack cavalry. (Director Brian De Palma re-created the scene in “The Untouchables” with a baby carriage careening wildly down the steps as the baby’s mother, blinded by bullets, screams in terror.)
The mutiny ultimately failed because of betrayals, fatigue, poor timing and lack of support from those on land. The Potemkin, isolated and alone, wandered the Black Sea, stopping at this or that port, losing morale, sailor turning on sailor until all was lost. The ship was scuttled. In the aftermath, hundreds if not thousands of mutineers, in the fleet and the army, were shot or hanged. (Ironically, some survivors later were murdered in Stalin’s purges.) Matyushenko managed to escape and make his way to the United States, where he worked briefly at the Singer Sewing Machine company in New York. Indomitable and unrepentant, he returned to Russia to carry on the struggle, but was soon captured, tried and sentenced to death.
Wearing a heavy wool coat, Matyushenko was escorted into a prison courtyard before sunrise on a fall morning in 1907. A naval captain read aloud a list of his crimes, which took more than an hour. 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 up 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 and George Washington rallying his troops at Valley Forge.
CLANCY SIGAL is a screenwriter and author, most recently, of the memoir “A Woman of Uncertain Character.”
This review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.