The revolt on the armoured cruiser "Potemkin" was but one of the links in the long chain of the development of the first Russian Revolution—the Revolution of 1905. This revolution was the first lesson, and a tremendous object lesson it was, in the study of the struggle, for the broad masses of workers and peasants.
The revolt on the armoured cruiser "Potemkin" was but one of the links in the long chain of the development of the first Russian Revolution—the Revolution of 1905. This revolution was the first lesson, and a tremendous object lesson it was, in the study of the struggle, for the broad masses of workers and peasants.
The Revolution of 1905 brought face to face the struggling classes of capitalists and workers, landlords and peasants, the Tsarist monarchy with its powerful apparatus of oppression, and the revolutionary masses of the people as a whole. It compelled various social classes, parties and groups to state openly for the first time—in the Press, at meetings—what was their attitude to the Tsarist monarchy, on whose side they would fight, and whom they would support in this struggle. In a brief period, this revolution taught even the most backward masses of the workers that they could not improve their lot, or remedy their oppression by means of requests and prayers. It opened the eyes of the masses to the fact that the chief enemy of the workers and peasants was the Tsarist Government together with the landlords and the capitalists, and that this enemy could only be overthrown by violence, by armed struggle.
Before January 9th, 1905, great masses of the workers, even in St. Petersburg, with the exception of the class-conscious minority, still had a blind faith in the Tsar and hoped that they would be able, by peaceful means to beg concessions from him, which would improve their difficult material and legal position. They marched in a great mass of 200,000 people to the Tsar's palace under the leadership of the priest Gapon, intending to speak to the Tsar himself and present their demands in the form of a petition. However, as we know, the Tsar did not show himself to the workers, but gave orders that soldiers should be stationed to prevent all access to him. When the workers attempted to make their way to the palace, the soldiers opened fire on them, and over a thousand people were killed and injured. Such was the heavy price which the ignorant workers paid for their faith in the Tsar. They now understood as the result of their own experience that the Tsar was their most ferocious enemy, and that they would have to improve their situation not by means of requests but by struggle.
The events in St. Petersburg roused the working masses, and continuous strikes took place all over Russia throughout 1905—not only in the big works and factories, hut also in the small handicraft workshops, where the workers were ignorant and uncultured and where their situation was particularly unbearable.
In 1904 the Tsarist Government, for the purpose of enriching itself and also for the purpose of lulling the impending revolutionary storm, engaged in war with Japan. The war demanded ever-increasing sacrifices from the peasants and the workers, and at the same time exposed the utter rottenness and imbecility of the Tsarist Government. The embezzlers of the Government funds, the plunderers of the national wealth—the officials and the generals—brought the army and the fleet to such a state that the Tsarist Army met defeat after defeat and the newly-built navy was sunk in a single day by the Japanese, in the battle of Tsu Simo.
The war became hateful not only to the workers and peasants, but even the bourgeoisie raised loud shrieks about the embezzlements in the Government, and the incapacity of the rulers.
In industry, stagnation and crisis; accentuated by the war, made the atmosphere even tenser. The cost of living rose from day to day. The discontent among the masses grew greater each day. The broad masses of the people unanimously hoped for the defeat of the Tsarist Army, and demanded the rapid ending of the war. This tense situation in the country was bound to have its effect on the army and navy, which consisted principally of peasants and workers. They began to be infected with the growing discontent of the masses, and everywhere there was a ferment amongst the troops. A revolutionary movement grew up amongst those advanced regiments which had most contact with revolutionary propaganda and agitation.
The tremendous wave of strikes which broke out in the towns was joined by the peasant agrarian movement in the villages, and this shook the stability of the firmest and the last bulwark of Tsarism—the Tsarist Army.
In the army and the navy, a period of military revolts commenced. One of the most prominent of these and the one that is best known in the history of the 1905 Revolution, was the mutiny on the armoured cruiser "Potemkin" of the Black Sea Fleet.
Our Party was in contact with the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet and made preparations for a general mutiny in the navy somewhat later, timing it to take place at the time of the naval manoeuvres. However, the incredibly hard and oppressive conditions of life, and the inhuman and humiliating treatment of the sailors by the naval officers, caused the revolt to take place on the "Potemkin" somewhat before the expected date. We give below a picture of this revolt as described by one of its leaders, Afansy Matushenko, the torpedo quartermaster.
The revolt on the armoured cruiser "Potemkin"
In June, the squadron was awaiting orders to be sent out of Sevastopol for practice manoeuvres. On June 13th, the "Potemkin," an armoured cruiser of the squadron, which had just been refitted, was ordered to proceed to Tender Island for gun tests and target firing. This isolation of the "Potemkin" served as the indirect cause which upset the appointed plan of revolt.
On the day when the "Potemkin" arrived at Tender Strait (June 13th), Torpedo-boat No. 267, which accompanied it, was sent to Odessa for provisions, and on the evening of the same day returned with supplies which were duly transhipped to the cruiser. The meat for the soup was hung up on hooks on the spar deck. Early in the morning of June 14th (old style), during the usual cleaning up of the ship, one of the sailors noticed that there were maggots on the meat. The discovery was soon made known to the whole crew. Groups of sailors began to gather round the meat, and muttered curses and threats were heard:
"Those scoundrels of officers don't want to pay attention to the sailors' food."
"Show it to the doctor, and let him have it thrown overboard."
Hearing of the unrest among the crew, the Captain of the "Potemkin," Golikov, sent the senior surgeon of the ship, Honourable Counsellor Smirnov, to examine the meat. He approached the meat, put on his pince-nez so as to see the maggots better, twisted it round in front of his face, sniffed and said that the meat was very good, that the crew was merely faddy and therefore did not want to eat it. All that was necessary was to wash off the maggots with water, and the meat would be excellent. After this decision by the senior surgeon, Captain Golikov ordered a sentry to be stationed by the meat, and supplied him with a pencil and paper. The sentry was instructed to write down the names of all who came to look at the meat and afterwards to report them to the Captain.
The crew knew well the habits and views of the Captain, and were afraid to approach the meat. The Captain ordered dinner to be prepared, but the excitement among the sailors did not die down.
"How can we serve in the navy now? How can we fight, when the prisoners in Japan are better treated than we are?" was heard among the crew.
At the usual hour the call to "dine and wine" was sounded, but one part of the call remained unanswered. Every sailor took a piece of bread and a mug of water, dipped the bread in the water and let this serve as his dinner. The cauldrons of soup which had been put out in the caboose (the ship's kitchen) were left untouched. This was reported to the Captain, and soon Chief Officer Giliarovsky, followed later by Captain Golikov, arrived to restore order. In reply to the question of the senior officer as to why the crew did not eat their dinner, the cook replied that they did not want the soup and asked for tea to be made and butter issued. The Captain had by that time arrived, and when he heard from the Chief Officer what the trouble was, he turned to the sailors with the question:
"Why don't you eat the soup?"
From the crowd of sailors was heard the reply:
"Eat it yourself, and we will eat bread and water."
The officers decided to put down the opposition. Golikov ordered all hands on deck and had the whole crew drawn up in front of him, addressing himself to them as follows:
"I have repeatedly said that such disorder is inadmissible on a warship of the navy. For such things your kind can be strung up there," (pointing to the yardarm). "Now, men, whoever is willing to eat the soup, step forward."
Only the "long service men," the bosuns and some of the petty officers responded, while the mass of the sailors remained motionless. Golikov gave another command:
"Turn out the guard," and in a minute the guard, armed with rifles, were drawn up before the parade of sailors. The next moment, the sailors, expecting arrest and possible shooting, ran to the gun tower in a disorderly crowd. Chief Officer Giliarovsky, seeing this and wishing to catch some of the "guilty" persons, shouted "Halt," and together with the officer of the watch, barred the path of those sailors who had not had time to join their comrades (thirty in all). He ordered the guard to surround them.
The crew stood there, pale and terribly worked up, when they saw their comrades surrounded by the guard. Amid the deathly silence was heard the order of the Chief Officer: "Bosun, hand out the tarpaulin."
The order given to the bosun meant that these comrades would be covered with a tarpaulin, and, in this helpless situation, volleys would be fired into them. This infamous order decided the matter. Matushenko stepped out in front of the sailors, and appealed to the guard with the words:
"Comrades, don't forget your oath—don't shoot at our own men."
The muzzles of the rifles dropped to the deck—they had refused to shoot at their comrades. Next minute there was a shout:
"Comrades, look what they are doing to our fellows! Grab rifles and cartridges, shoot them down, the swine."
This was the same Matushenko, and his call served as a signal for revolt. As if they had been waiting for the command, all the sailors rushed to the gun deck, seized rifles, loaded them, and ran out to their comrades who stood surrounded by the guard.
The sailors who were running with loaded rifles to liberate the prisoners were met with threats and curses by the Captain and the Chief Officer. But in reply to this, a loud "Hurrah" ran through the "Potemkin," and shouts of "Long live freedom! Down with the war! Down with the Tsar!"
Captain Golikov threw himself on Matushenko with the order:
"Drop your weapons," and in reply heard: "I will drop my weapons when I am no longer a living being but a corpse. Get off the ship. This is the people's ship and not yours."
The Captain fled. The revolt spread like wildfire, and shots and volleys could be heard.
The mighty force of the spontaneous outburst can be understood from the fact that even the religious sectarian sailors took part in the shooting, though up to that time, in the frequent discussions with the Commandant of the "Potemkin," they had been stubbornly against the permissibility of "shooting at their fellow men."
Chief Artillery Officer Neopkoev, who was in company with the Captain, fell under the bullets of the rebels, and immediately afterwards, Chief Officer Giliarovsky was killed. The latter was found by Matushenko with a rifle in his hands at a gun-tower standing by the corpse of the sailor Vakulinchuk, who had been killed by him, and who had been among those who had been sentenced to be shot. Giliarovsky shot at Matushenko but missed him. He turned to flee, but Matushenko's bullet finished him. The bodies of the officers who had been killed were thrown overboard.
It was a terrible but a triumphant picture. Eight hundred men were shouting: "Death to the tyrants! Long live freedom!" and shots rattled in the direction of the officers who were trying to save themselves by swimming to the Torpedo-boat 267.
A torpedo officer, Lieutenant Ton, came towards the sailors. The crew, recognising an officer who had been brutal to them, shouted: "Overboard with him!" But Ton came up to Matushenko and said: "I want to speak to you." Matushenko asked the sailors to stand on one side and went with Ton into the gun-turret.
Ton at that moment pulled out his revolver and shot at the man who had trusted him. His bullet wounded a sailor who was standing nearby in the arm. The next moment the officer fell under a hail of bullets.
Then came the turn of the Captain. First of all, he hid in the Admiral's cabin, but seeing the hopelessness of the situation, he came on deck to express his belated repentance. Evidently looking on Matushenko as the leader of the revolt, the Captain of the "Potemkin" rushed to him, threw his arms round his knees, and cried:
"I am greatly to blame for my attitude to the crew. Forgive me, comrade."
"Personally, I have nothing against you, it depends on the crew."
"Hang him on the yardarm," shouted the crew. "He threatened us with the yardarm!"
"Don't waste time," voices were heard. "Shoot him."
The tyrant Captain was led away, a volley was heard, and the corpse of Golikov was thrown overboard. He was the last.
Meanwhile, the officers who had swum to Torpedo-boat No. 267 were hastening to escape. They had already raised the anchor so as to steam to Sevastopol, but shots from the 47mm and 75mm guns of the cruiser made them stop, and at the command of the "Potemkin," Torpedo-boat No. 267 came alongside the mutinous cruiser. The Captain and two other officers were taken from the Torpedo-boat, but the demands of part of the crew to throw them overboard was not supported by the majority.
"Overboard with them all!" cried the sailors, indignant at their attempts to escape on the Torpedo-boat. But other voices were heard: "There has been enough bloodshed. The ship is now in our hands and these creatures are not dangerous to us. Let us wash the decks down." The crew obeyed. They limited themselves to arresting the officers from the Torpedo-boat and locking them in a cabin. Soon they were joined by several others from the "quarterdeck" who had hidden themselves in any place they could find in their fright at the moment of the revolt. Twelve persons were arrested in all, and their fate was to be decided later.
After the officers and those of the petty officers who were not thoroughly trusted had been arrested and the sailors had become the masters of the powerful cruiser, the Torpedo-boat crew began to raise steam and prepare to sail, while the fighting crew cleared the ship for action, in expectation of the meeting with the squadron which had remained in Sevastopol.
From the "Potemkin" the Red Flag fluttered victoriously.
It sailed to Odessa.
The "Potemkin" at Odessa
Having risen and seized power in their own hands, the sailors of the cruiser "Potemkin" elected a Ship's Committee consisting of twelve men who henceforth directed the ship.
The first decision of the Committee was to sail for Odessa, to get into contact with the workers, and after receiving reinforcements to take further action.
At the time when the events already described were taking place on the "Potemkin," there was taking place in Odessa a fierce struggle between the workers and the capitalists, first in the form of a general strike and from this spontaneously passing over into armed rebellion.
Owing to the poor preparations of the proletariat in Odessa, the events took place spontaneously. This was inevitable, owing to the fact that most of the industry in Odessa consisted of small plants. The following organisations existed there, each of them claiming the leading role: (1) The committee of the RSDLP (the majority fraction); (2) the group under the CCRSDLP (minority fraction); (3) the Bund Committee; (4) the committee of the Socialist Revolutionary Party; (5) a group of Anarchist-Communists; and (6) the Poale-Zionist group. All these organisations were hostile to each other and struggled for the supremacy.
The Bolsheviks were organised worst of all. They advocated an armed insurrection, while the Mensheviks were trying to direct the movement along peaceful lines. However, the Bolsheviks were not strong enough to get the movement into their hands. For several days there had been clashes between the workers, the troops and police. Several workers had been killed by the sabres of the Cossacks, and the bullets of the gendarmes. Exasperation had reached a tremendous height. The workers demanded arms, but there were none. The situation was becoming hopeless. Naturally the course of events in Odessa changed radically with the arrival of the "Potemkin." The feeling of the workers became bold and confident.
The workers welcomed the arrival of the "Potemkin" with tremendous enthusiasm when they heard of the events which had taken place. The Ship's Committee of the "Potemkin" decided: (1) to send parties on shore early in the morning to buy provisions; (2) to get the necessary amount of coal; (3) to send the body of Vakulinchuk on shore with a manifesto to the population; (4) to draw up a detailed statement of the events at Tender and to examine all the officers; (5) to draw up an appeal to the population of Odessa, to the Cossacks and to the French Consul, and (6) to get into contact with the Social-Democratic Parties. A decision was also made to put on shore those officers who would not agree to support the "cause of the people." Only a few officers, who agreed to help the revolutionary cause, remained on the cruiser. The engineer, Kovolenko, Lieutenant Kaluzhny and Doctor Galenko, who deliberately joined the rebels so as to betray them later, were set free. Midshipman Alexeyev, who had been set free earlier, was appointed as captain of the ship under the observation of the crew; he also became a provocateur to save his own skin.
Early in the morning on June 15th (old style) three sailors went on shore for the provisions. They carried out their tasks without difficulty. The body of Vakulinchuk was carried ashore and put into a tent made of sails. On his breast, over his crossed hands, was put the appeal to the population of Odessa.
A. P. Brzhezovsky, one of the participants in the "Potemkin" revolt, describes the events of June 15th (28th) around the body of Vakulinchuk, in his book Eleven Days on the "Potemkin" as follows:
"A tremendous crowd gathered, so that it was impossible to move. Everyone wanted to look at the dead man. Many people approached, took off their hats, crossed themselves and bowed down to the earth before the victim of savagery and tyranny. Women wept and kissed the hand of the dead warrior of the people. Sobs were heard, and there were tears in the eyes of many men. Near the tent, on a heap of barrels and on every available platform, orators were speaking on behalf of the various revolutionary groups. Fierce and passionate speeches poured forth to the tremendous gathering of people. Merciless exposures of the barbarity and the bloodshed caused by the Government were drowned from time to time by thunderous applause and revolutionary shouts: 'We have waited long enough! Death to the tyrants! We will die for freedom!' mingled with the deafening shouts of the excited crowds of workers who surrounded the platform. Their faces were bright with earnestness, indignation burned in their breasts, and all around could be felt a determined feeling of readiness to march immediately to the fight. Involuntarily I gave way to the general excitement and rushed to the platform.
"'Comrades,' I shouted. 'There are thousands of us here, and we cannot bear the slavery and oppression of the Government any longer. Let us withdraw the workers from the ships and all the port-workers, and let us march altogether into the town. With arms in our hands and under the protection of the sailors and their guns, we shall win our freedom, we shall win a better life.'
"A deafening roar arose before I could finish. The whole crowd moved as one man through the port, past the ships and the steamers. The sailors were withdrawn from their work on the ships. Hundreds of whistles were sounding wildly, deafening everyone. The crowd flowed like a wave from side to side, attracting everyone into their ranks as they moved along."
When the Ship's Committee heard of the shootings which had taken place by the Cossacks on the previous day during a demonstration in the streets, it sent the following proclamation to the Cossacks and the soldiers, on behalf of the crew of the "Potemkin":
"The sailors of the 'Potemkin' appeal to you, soldiers and Cossacks, to put down your weapons and to let us win freedom for the people. We request the peaceful citizens of Odessa to leave the town, because in case of any violence being attempted against us, we will reduce Odessa to a heap of ruins."
The commander of the troops in Odessa, General Kokhanov, did not trust the troops and applied for reinforcements—from Tiraspol, the 15th Artillery Brigade, the Voznesensk Dragoon Regiment from Belets, and several infantry regiments from Vender and Ekaterinoslav. Martial law was declared in Odessa. The Government attempted to seize the body of Vakulinchuk and to drive off the guard, but the crew of the "Potemkin" would not allow it.
In order to work out a general plan of action, the Ship's Committee got into contact with the Social-Democratic organisations of Odessa and asked them to send representatives on board the cruiser. At this time, a preliminary meeting of representatives of three organisations—Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and the Bund— prepared a plan which they intended to submit to the sailors of the "Potemkin."
In this plan, it was decided to land a strong party of sailors, who would march at the head of a demonstration of thousands of workers through the main square of the town to bury their dead comrade. At the first clash with the troops, the sailors would call on the soldiers to fraternise with them and to come over to the side of the people. In addition to getting the soldiers on to our side, one of the main tasks was to disorganise all the resources which the Government possessed to crush the rebellion—destruction of telegraph and the telephone wires, tearing up the railway lines, the arrest of all Government representatives, the liberation of prisoners from the prisons, etc. The cruiser would remain as a threat to the town all the time and would fire warning shots. If the plan failed to the slightest extent, it would begin to bombard the town. Then four representatives were chosen to go to the cruiser and inform the sailors of this plan, but in view of the fact that the circumstances were changing every minute, they were given powers to change the plan of action to suit the new conditions.
When they arrived at the cruiser, it was made clear at the meeting of the Ship's Committee that this plan was not advisable. Firstly, the sailors were opposed to an armed descent on the town. They said that the crew of the ship should not be split, because there would not be sufficient men left to serve the ship and keep it ready for action. Secondly, if they were separated and the boldest and the most reliable sent on shore, then those who were left on the ship would not act with sufficient determination at the critical moment. They were strong only if they remained united.
Many Social-Democratic workers came with the representatives of the organisations, and related the events in the town. The more backward section of the sailors, under the provocation of the petty officer who had been liberated from arrest, began to show their dissatisfaction at the presence of "strangers" on the ship, saying that the events on the "Potemkin" only applied to the sailors. As a result, the session of the commission was broken up and it was decided to leave only a few comrades on the cruiser while the remainder should leave for the time being.
On the evening of June 15th, the "Potemkin" captured a small war vessel, the "Vekka," which was bound from Nikolayev to Odessa. It was converted into a hospital ship, while the captain and the officers were arrested. Soon the officers were put on shore without arms, while the crew joined the sailors of the "Potemkin."
On the same day, a delegation from two regiments, the "Ismail" and the "Danube" regiments, arrived at the ship, and on behalf of the organised part of their comrades in the regiments, they stated that they were prepared to join the crew of the "Potemkin" as soon as the latter took decisive action.
"We, comrades, will support you on the shore. No longer are we prepared to kill peasants or workers, and we shall not fire at you if you come to occupy the town," said one of the delegates. (Kirill, Eleven Days on the "Potemkin.")
Besides these friendly visits, the gendarmes and the police made attempts to get on to the "Potemkin," but at the orders of the sailors, they were compelled to throw their swords into the water and beat a shameful retreat.
Meanwhile, bloody events were taking place in the town and the port. The soldiers and the police lost their heads at first, but when they saw the inaction of the "Potemkin," they began to rally their forces and to prepare for a new slaughter. As darkness fell, attempts were made to start a Jewish pogrom, but without success. One of the speakers who was calling for the pogrom was badly beaten up, and another was killed by a shot from the crowd. Then the provocateurs turned all their energy to the port. The police got cases of vodka ready to make the hoodlums drunk so as to get them to participate later in the pogrom. After the end of the meeting near the body of Vakulinchuk, the crowd at the port consisted mostly of curious middle-class elements and hoodlums. There were very few workers and all their attempts to hold back these people or to interfere with them were hopeless. The drunken crowd went to the liquor stores, and after a speech from some unknown person with a direct appeal to plunder, they began to break up and burn everything which came under their hands. A big fire commenced in the port and a panic started. The fire brigade arrived, but the police compelled it to turn back. The wild and drink-maddened crowd were at the mercy of the flames. The soldiers who were at hand, began to shoot right and left at everyone in the port. Here is how one of the eye-witnesses describes the events of that night:
"Volley after volley was fired at the thousands of people who were looting the storehouses. The soldiers fired with rifles and machineguns. They fired on all sides…the cannonade continued through the whole night. Horror followed on horror…"
The police discovered a crowd of workers who were trying to make their way through the town. They sent the soldiers against them, describing them as looters, and many were killed as the result of the shooting. At the same time, in a Jewish settlement of Odessa—Moldavanka—the police openly commenced a Jewish pogrom.
About 2,000 persons were killed by the shooting or as the result of the fire.
The morning did not bring a return of quiet. The fire in the port had not yet died down, the corpses had not been removed from the sea-front, and Cossack patrols were shooting people who went to the smoking ruins to seek for their dead relatives.
The funeral of Gregory Vakulinchuk took place on the same morning. In spite of the fact that martial law had been declared in the town, in spite of the bloody events of the preceding night, the commander of the troops permitted the funeral procession to pass through the whole town, insisting only on the delegation from the "Potemkin" being restricted to twelve sailors (the sailors had demanded that one hundred of them should take part in the funeral procession), and that they should be unarmed. But the safety and freedom of the delegates was guaranteed, so great was the fear of the authorities before the "Potemkin."
Matushenko describes the funeral of Vakulinchuk as follows:
"I have never seen such a solemn sight as the funeral of our dear comrade, or so many genuine tears as were shed over the body of a sailor, hitherto unknown to them. When we left the boat and went on shore near the body of Vakulinchuk, there was a mass of people, just as on the previous day. Immediately several persons lifted up the stretcher with the body and the long procession marched through the town in the direction of the cemetery. In the streets new masses of people joined us. On the balconies, in the windows and on the roofs of the houses, there were crowds of people. Shouts could be heard: 'All honour to the dead hero!' 'Down with the tyrants!' 'Long live the "Potemkin"!'"
This continued along the whole route, until the procession had passed through the town and arrived at the cemetery.
"After the funeral we drove back to the port, but on the way we were stopped by a company of soldiers which blocked the road. We were in a hurry and continued our journey on foot. But as soon as we drew level with the soldiers, a signal was given and they opened fire on us. We were unarmed, and could do nothing but run. I was behind the others, and saw that no one had been killed, although bullets pierced my trousers. I think that the soldiers deliberately fired wildly. However, when we arrived at the landing stage, there were only nine of us. I do not know what happened to the other three."
In the evening of the same day, the "Potemkin" began to bombard the town.
It has not been discovered exactly why this bombardment was commenced. One of the participants in the rebellion, Kovalenko, explains it by saying that the crew of the "Potemkin" wished to help the workers of Odessa who were being threatened with shooting at the orders of the Military Council which was sitting at that time in the town theatre, headed by the commander of the troops. It was expected that the shells would be fired chiefly at the Military Council.
Five shots in all were fired from the guns of the cruiser "Potemkin"—three blank shots and two 6-inch shells. The firing was supposed to be aimed at the Town Theatre where the Military Council was in session. But the shells did not reach their target owing to the deliberately incorrect aim of the spy and traitor, Signaller Bedermeyer.
In spite of the fact that the shells did not reach their mark, they roused tremendous enthusiasm among the working masses of Odessa, giving them hopes of victory.
The cruiser "George the Conqueror" joins the "Potemkin"
Early in the morning of June 17th, a cypher telegram was intercepted, showing that the Black Sea squadron was drawing near to the "Potemkin." At the orders of the Ship's Committee, the emergency steamer "Smely" was seized for scouting purposes. The whole of the crew was taken from the ship and replaced by sailors from the "Potemkin," and the steamer itself was sent to scout in the direction of the Tender Strait. On returning, the scout gave information that the squadron was in sight not far from Tender. It was evident that the squadron had been sent from Sevastopol to quell the mutiny on the "Potemkin." In order to give an accurate description of the events and the details of the preparations which were made to quell the mutinous "Potemkin," we will quote the words of one of the sailors of the cruiser "Rostislav," who fled abroad:
"On June 21st (old style) the squadron was to have proceeded to Tender Island to join the "Potemkin" for instructional manoeuvres. On June 15th, a signal was raised, unexpectedly for all, from the flagship 'Rostislav': 'The Admiral requests all the Captains to come to the flagship,' and a second signal to the cruisers 'Holy Trinity,' 'Twelve Apostles,' 'George the Conqueror,' 'Catherine II,' to get up steam and prepare to sail.
"The sailors were astonished at this, because everyone knew that we were due to go to Tender Island on the 21st. Some of them began to guess that something wrong had happened on the 'Potemkin,' while others said that this was merely a practice manoeuvre and nothing else. In short, the forecastle split into several groups. The crew began to make various comments on the proposed cruise.
"Meanwhile, the Captains gathered together. Their meeting lasted two hours. We do not know what was said, but after the meeting another signal was raised: 'The "Catherine" is not to leave port.' We afterwards learned the reason for this from the comrades on the 'Catherine.' On the previous day, i.e., the evening of June 14th, the crew of the 'Catherine II,' having sung prayers 'Our Father' and 'Hail, Mary,' in a half-hearted way, they absolutely refused to sing 'God Save the Tsar,' and when five or six singers nevertheless started to chant the prayer, the others began to whistle and howl. When the Captain (Senior Captain Drijenko) appeared, the crew made demands of a purely economic character. He laughed at them and hurried into his cabin. For this reason the 'Catherine II' did not go with the squadron.
"At 11 o'clock at night, the three cruisers 'Holy Trinity,' 'George the Conqueror,' and the 'Twelve Apostles,' together with the light cruiser 'Kazarsky' and four torpedo-boats left under the command of Vice-Admiral Vishnevsky. The next day, i.e., June 16th, at about 11 o'clock in the morning, a signal was raised: '"The Rotislav" and the "Sinop" to get up steam and prepare to sail.' They began to prepare. They took provisions for three days and weighed anchor soon after 6 o'clock.
"All this time the officers were terribly uneasy, walking about in a dispirited manner and whispering together. The class-conscious sailors, of whom there were only about ten on the 'Rotislav,' guessed that we were going against the 'Potemkin,' and began to agitate openly, for which they fell into the hands of the authorities. I was one of them, but I afterwards escaped. The agitation was not very successful. The majority did not believe that the 'Potemkin' had gone over to the side of the people, but at last we managed to convince many of the sailors of this, and they replied: 'If it is true that we are going against the "Potemkin," we will refuse to fire on it, because they are our brothers.'
"Shortly after 9 o'clock in the morning we approached Tender Island to join the squadron which had left before us, but it was not there. On the horizon, in the direction of Odessa, several lines of smoke could be seen. It was our squadron. We followed it and joined it at 11 o'clock. The captains of all the ships gathered for a meeting on the flagship 'Rotislav.' We heard from the sailors who rowed the Captain to the flagship, that the 'Potemkin' was in Odessa, and when they had tried to approach Odessa, the 'Potemkin' had raised the signal: 'Surrender or we will fire.' They hurriedly retreated.
"The meeting of captains lasted not more than half-an-hour. Then the squadron drew up in battle line and set out for Odessa at a speed of 10 knots. Soon after 1 o'clock, the shore came in sight, and the smoke from the 'Potemkin' could be seen." (Iskra, no. 105)
The meeting of the "Potemkin" with the squadron is described by Kovalenko as follows:
"Every minute they drew nearer. Soon they were so near that we could distinguish the ships. The cruisers 'Rotislav' and 'Sinop' had just joined the squadron. All the ships were steaming towards us, drawn up in two columns. In front were the armoured cruisers and the light cruiser, and behind were the torpedo-boat destroyers. The 'Potemkin' accompanied by the torpedo-boat, which kept close alongside all the time, drove straight at the middle of the first column. Soon it was possible to distinguish that the ships of the squadron, like the 'Potemkin' were cleared for action. The boat davits had been taken down and the guns were pointing out over the sides. But when the squadron was 100-150 fathoms away from the 'Potemkin,' a movement could be observed on the 'George the Conqueror', the 'Twelve Apostles' and the 'Sinop.'
"Crowds of them rushed up through the hatchways and soon the decks of these cruisers were covered with sailors. We had already drawn level with the squadron and the 'Potemkin' cut through the middle of it. The guns of the 'Potemkin' were slowly directed towards the passing ships. The 'Rotislav' and the 'Holy Trinity' in dead silence, replied in the same manner, but on the decks of the remaining cruisers the crew could be seen in obvious disorder. Suddenly from the upper deck of the 'Potemkin' rang out the cry: 'Long live freedom! Hurrah!' In answer to this, a mighty 'Hurrah' burst like thunder from the three cruisers."
Fearing that the mutiny would spread through the whole squadron, Admiral Krieger ordered the squadron to steer at full speed through the open sea to Sevastopol.
The "Potemkin" once more cut through the lines of the squadron and turned sharply in chase.
One of the cruisers suddenly separated from the squadron, turned round and steered straight at the "Potemkin." The signaller of the Potemkin distinguished the name by means of his telescope. It was the "George the Conqueror," the same ship whose crew had refused to take part in the unrest in the naval barracks at Sevastopol in November, 1904, owing to which there had been bad blood between the crews of the "George the Conqueror" and the "Potemkin" which had taken part in this affair.
Naturally the crew of the "Potemkin" had no reason to trust the "George the Conqueror" or to believe that its intentions were peaceful. Not wishing to allow the ship to approach too close, the "Potemkin" signalled to it to cast anchor.
The "George the Conqueror" stopped and began to signal by semaphore. "The crew of the 'George the Conqueror' requests the 'Potemkin' to send some comrades on board." Not knowing the real intentions of the "George the Conqueror," the crew of the "Potemkin" replied by semaphore: "Arrest your officers and send delegates to us." To these demands, the signaller replied: "Things are going badly here. We are not all agreed. We cannot manage ourselves. Send help quickly."
Then the members of the Ship's Committee of the "Potemkin," armed with rifles and revolvers, went over on the torpedo-boat to the "George the Conqueror." Owing to the determination and boldness of the detachment from the "Potemkin," the officers of the "George the Conqueror" were arrested and put ashore. After this the "George the Conqueror," joined the "Potemkin." While carrying out this operation of clearing out the counter-revolutionary officers, a tremendous mistake was made that afterwards destroyed the whole revolt which had commenced so brilliantly.
Some of the Potemkinites were so incautious as to believe the assurances of the good-natured sailors of "George the Conqueror" that the petty officers on their ship were reliable. Therefore these hypocrites were not put on shore together with the officers and were not even arrested, but were left at complete liberty to carry on quiet counter-revolutionary agitation.
The tremendous victory of the cruiser "Potemkin" increased its strength and at the same time raised the spirits of the crew and gave them the hope of successfully completing the mutiny which had commenced so well. This victory not only brought joy to the crew of the "Potemkin," but also to the workers in Odessa, whose spirits rose once more and who once more hoped for a favourable conclusion to their struggle. One of the participants in the mutiny of the "Potemkin", Kirill, describes the feelings of the "Potemkin" after it had been joined by the "George the Conqueror" in the following words:
"Our minds were at ease, and the constant nightmare of fear that the business would fail was replaced by a complete confidence in a rapid victory over our ancient enemy and the apostles of darkness and violence.
"Now we had our own revolutionary squadron—two cruisers with six 12-inch guns, a torpedo-boat and the "Vekha." Under such conditions, the idea of establishing political freedom for all South Russia and extending it over the whole of Russia seemed perfectly feasible at that moment, and in our thoughts we were already living in the new kingdom of liberty.
"Tomorrow we shall go to Odessa and take it, establish a free Government, join the free soldiers, organise a people's army, march on Kiev, Kharkov and other towns, join the peasant masses in the villages, and then we shall march to the Caucasus along the shores of the Black Sea and everywhere announce independence and freedom from the old chains of slavery! Then to Moscow and St. Petersburg!"
But, unfortunately, all these were mere dreams, phantasies, having no connection with reality. Our people argued, discussed, raved, expressed the most florid dreams, but they very slightly understood the real state of affairs, what should be done, how to fight against the enemy, how to act so as to overcome this great enemy.
The enemies—the servants of the Tsarist monarchy—had not the feelings of victors. Feelings of depression reigned among them. But, nevertheless, in most cases the servants of the Tsar were men of action, practical men, and therefore they energetically organised resistance to the mutinous sailors who were preparing to defeat them.
General Kakhanov describes the events at Odessa as follows:
"During June 16th and 17th, I was visited by the Consuls of France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria and Italy. They expressed anxiety for the safety of the consulates and for their nationals, and also demanded various explanations. I told the Consuls that they should apply for explanations to Yurenev, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to whom I should send information of the state of affairs in Odessa. To guard the consulates, I appointed two infantry soldiers to each of the eighteen consulates in Odessa.
"When it was found in the evening that the crew of the "George the Conqueror" had also mutinied and that the squadron had returned to Sevastopol without crushing the crew of the "Potemkin" and even reinforcing them by a cruiser, I had to reckon without the help of the Admiralty in my further actions, and to fight against the two cruisers by my own forces alone. Owing to this, I ordered the second battalion of sappers to be brought from camp to erect a battery on the Jevaka Hill for eight 9-inch mortars. The commander of the fortification stores in Odessa directed this battery to be armed with the guns in the stores, ordering shells to be brought for these guns from Ochakov, and also bringing the commander of the engineer battalion from that fort to decide whether it was possible to blow up the mutinous cruisers by means of the equipment at Ochakov. Finally, a telegram was sent to the War Minister, requesting long-range guns to be sent from internal storehouses."
As the reader will see, though the enemy did not feel himself to be in good shape, nevertheless, preparations for the forthcoming struggle were carried on in a businesslike and well-thought-out manner. Comrade Lenin has repeatedly pointed out in his numerous articles on the preparations for an armed rebellion, that we have much to learn from our enemies, because it is only by learning and adapting the methods and means of planned preparations for war and planned warfare with our enemy, the monarchy, that we can defeat it and overcome it.
The desertion of the "George the Conqueror" and the end of the revolt
July 18th was the culminating point in the history of the revolt on the cruiser "Potemkin" and at the same time, this day marks the turn of the tide in the direction of the downfall and disintegration of this revolt. During the night, the position of the "George the Conqueror" had changed considerably, for the worse. As was to be expected, the hypocritical counter-revolutionary petty officers who had been left at liberty, openly commenced to urge the crew to return to Sevastopol. They succeeded in splitting the crew into two sections, one of which was openly hostile to the "Potemkin," and the other which was undecided and hesitating. The Ship's Committee of the "Potemkin", hearing of the state of affairs, decided to send a deputation of several sailors to the "George" with an armed guard to arrest the petty officers and bring them to the "Potemkin."
Unfortunately for the deputation, two sailors who were almost unknown, and Doctor Galenko, accompanied it. From the very beginning, they had been planning treachery.
Matushenko and Kirill were unable to go with this deputation, because they had completely lost their voices owing to addressing so many meetings. As for the other energetic representatives, Doctor Galenko, though not objecting to them coming, nevertheless arranged matters in such a way that they were not included in the delegation.
When the delegation from the "Potemkin" arrived at the "George," Doctor Galenko suddenly announced impudently to the sailors that the crew of the "Potemkin" had decided to surrender, and to ask the crew of the "George" to go with them to Sevastopol; that only a few men who kept the whole crew in their hands wished to fight any longer, but that in a day or two the sailors would overthrow their power and return to Sevastopol.
Such a speech from the accredited representative of the "Potemkin" produced a disastrous effect on the crew and irretrievably decided the whole matter. Doctor Galenko was energetically assisted in his treachery and provocation by the petty officers and by the bosun Kuzmin.
After this, it was decided to return immediately to Sevastopol. Steam was raised on the "George the Conqueror," and it steamed out into the open sea. The "Potemkin" began to hoist threatening signals but the "George" continued to steam ahead. Then the "Potemkin" hoisted its battle-flag and the "George the Conqueror" turned sharply around, steamed to the harbour and ran on to a shoal.
Naturally, the "Potemkin" should have immediately sent the torpedo-boat to the "George the Conqueror," to arrest the petty officers, to put the guards at the guns and then compel one of the steamers in the harbour to tow the cruiser off the shoal and not allow the soldiers to join with it. But the ruling power—the Ship's Committee—did nothing. Their feelings had fallen catastrophically. A pitiful confusion reigned.
Suddenly a shout was heard "Sail to Romania," and in a minute or two almost all the crew, shaken by the treachery of the "George the Conqueror" was repeating these words. Even Matushenko gave way to these feelings of despair and began to repeat these ominous words: "To Romania."
The order was given to raise steam, and as soon as the deputation returned from the "George the Conqueror," without the provocateur, Doctor Galenko, of course, the "Potemkin" set out in the direction of Romania. The cruiser "Potemkin" which had lost its faith in the favourable outcome of the revolt, had hardly departed for Romania, when, a few hours later, a small training ship, the "Prut," arrived at Odessa to join the "Potemkin." The quality of the crew of the "Prut" from the point of view of revolutionary preparation, was fairly high, and therefore as soon as they heard of the mutiny off the "Potemkin," they rose under the leadership of the most active sailors, and arrested the officers, of whom two were killed. The Red Flag was raised and the ship set out in search of the "Potemkin."
It was a great tragedy for the crew of the "Prut" when they arrived at Odessa and found that the "Potemkin" had left for Romania to disarm. Most of the command began to hesitate, feeling uncertain of their strength and of the result. After long arguments and discussions, the minority gave way to the majority, the Red Flag was hauled down, the officers were liberated, and the "Prut" set out to Sevastopol.
The defeated minority still held to slight hopes that they would be able to cause a revolt in the whole squadron on arriving at Sevastopol. But alas, these hopes were fated to disappointment. On its way, the "Prut" was met by two torpedo-boats and taken under control. On arriving at Sevastopol, the crew of the "Prut" on the demand of Admiral Chukhnin, handed over forty-two of the "ringleaders" who were sent for trial by court-martial.
The Tsarist Court meted out stern justice. Four were sentenced to death and thirty-eight to penal servitude. Although the defence and the court applied for mercy, Nikolai II handed over the whole matter to the discretion of Admiral Chukhnin, who confirmed the sentences completely.
When the "Potemkin" had left, the police, the gendarmes, the Tsarist generals and capitalists felt themselves to be masters of the situation, and carried out a devilish revenge on the revolting workers, repaying them for the terror and excitement through which they had lived.
We will not go into details as to the further fate of the cruiser "Potemkin" or describe its double journey to Romania and its disarmament at Constance, but will conclude its tragedy of struggle, with the words of Lenin:
"The passage of the 'Potemkin' to the side of the rebellion was the first step in converting the Russian Revolution into an international force, bringing it face to face with the European countries."
The lessons of the mutiny of the "Potemkin"
There were many causes for the defeat of the revolt on the cruiser "Potemkin." But the chief and most fundamental reasons were as follows:
Firstly, the masses of soldiers and sailors were not class-conscious, were ignorant and had no experience whatever of revolutionary struggle. They were easily roused to hatred and anger against their oppressors, and were easily roused to spontaneous protests and mutinies. They were easily fired by the flames of revolt, but they had no revolutionary solidity, firmness, reliability and determination, no planned preparations. In short, they had none of those qualities which are given by a long political revolt in the process of the revolutionary class struggle and which are so necessary for a victorious armed rebellion.
Secondly, the leadership of this revolt was weak and incapable, not understanding the seriousness of the situation.
Without wasting valuable time, they should have immediately used their arms to catch the enemy unprepared and disorganise them. But the leaders did not make a unanimous decision on a single question. The Social-Democratic organisation of Odessa, consisting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, was not prepared and did not show sufficient activity and determination. It did not even set up a leading military centre. At the moment when rapidity, decision and boldness were necessary, as one of the contemporaries, bitterly states, in reality there was only a foolish, helpless and mistaken attitude of waiting for "something."
In general, neither the leaders of the workers' organisations, nor the leaders of the sailors held in the slightest degree to the golden rule which had been pointed out by Marx long before, as to how a victorious armed revolt ought to be organised.
"Revolt, like war, is a science," said he, "and therefore we should never 'play at rebelling,' but once we have commenced, we should know thoroughly that we have to carry it through to the end.
"It is necessary to collect a great superiority of forces at the decisive spot, at the decisive moment, otherwise the enemy, who has better organisation, will destroy the rebels.
"Once the rebellion has commenced, it is necessary to act with the greatest determination and immediately take up the offensive. Defence is the death-blow to an armed rebellion.
"We must try to catch the enemy unawares. Every day some successes, however small, must be obtained, so as to maintain the moral superiority at all costs."
Comrade Lenin, throughout the whole course of his revolutionary activity, untiringly urged these golden rules of Marx, on our Bolshevik comrades. Therefore it is not to be wondered at that we conquered in October, 1917, under his talented leadership.
On the other hand, in all the events which took place in Odessa, there can clearly be seen the imprint of Menshevik tactics, according to which a revolt is a process. They tried to utilise the revolt of the cruiser for agitation, for arousing the masses against the monarchy, but they did not wish to take the responsibility of organising a revolt, of making technical preparations for it, or giving it the necessary correct direction.
The Bolshevik organisation as well was evidently weak and could not take charge of the rebellion.
Comrade Shapovalov, who was in Odessa at the time of the "Potemkin" mutiny, gives the following account of the situation in the Social-Democratic organisations:
"The united commission (composed of representatives of the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks and the Bund) committed an inexcusable mistake when they decided to direct the activity of the cruiser from the shore. On the first day they lost six hours of valuable time in quarrels as to what to call it. The Bund and the General Workers' Union on the first day proposed that the sailors should bombard the town and then send a landing party. The representatives of the organisations were against the bombardment, on the grounds that it was too harsh. Then the sailors refused, very sensibly, to leave the ship before the arrival of the rest of the squadron. Then for two or three days, the commission and the representatives babbled irresolutely, and for humanitarian reasons set the officers free on the shore. During all this time the meetings were systematically broken up by the conciliators. They only gathered when one cruiser had gone and the other had surrendered. The workers of Odessa were waiting for the bombardment like manna from heaven, but the Social-Democrats, together with the bourgeoisie, were against the bombardment of the aristocratic sections of the sea-front. Now the reaction will set in, because it can be seen that the organisation is weak. Oh, now it will be harder to drive out the intelligentsia, the conciliators, the traitors to the workers."
This characterisation of the events, given by a Bolshevik worker, contains many hard phrases, under the influence of a natural irritation against the opportunist actions of the organisations. But on the whole, it is undoubtedly correct.
Comrade Lenin was abroad in exile, and followed the development of events in Odessa with the greatest intensity and interest, and even took steps to send the best Bolshevik comrades to lead the revolt, giving them instructions and directions.
It is true that before these comrades who had been sent by Lenin (Vassiliev, Yuzhin) could arrive the struggle was already over.
In an article in the Bolshevik organ, Proletary, Comrade Lenin gave the following estimate of the events at Odessa:
"The tremendous significance of the recent events at Odessa lies in the fact that for the first time a large part of the military forces of tsarism—a whole armoured cruiser—came over openly to the side of the revolution.
"There was much in the movement which was undeveloped, and in the events at Odessa there were many of the features of the old mutinies. But it signifies that the first waves of the flood have already flowed up to the very threshold of the monarchist stronghold."
In analysing these events further, Comrade Lenin draws the following instructive lessons in the same article:
"From the troops themselves, detachments of the revolutionary army are formed. The business of these detachments is to declare a rebellion, to give military leadership to the masses, which is necessary for civil war as for every other war, to form base points for an open struggle throughout the country, to transfer the revolt to neighbouring districts, to assure complete political freedom—even if only on a small part of the territory of the country at first—to commence the revolutionary reconstruction of the decayed system of the monarchy, to develop the creative efforts of the rank and file to the full.
"A revolutionary army is necessary because great historical questions can only be settled by force," Lenin teaches us further in the same article: "but the organisation of force in a modern struggle is a military organisation."
These quotations from an article written by Lenin twenty-five years ago are so modern and so obviously applicable, that when we read them, they might have been written yesterday with regard to the heroic struggle of the Red Army in China, or in any other country where the great struggle of the toilers for their freedom is going on.
More than ten years after these events, in one of his speeches abroad, Lenin again returned to the question of the methods of armed struggle by the rebellious revolutionary troops against the Tsarist Government. As an example, Comrade Lenin again gives the episode from the revolt of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol:
"Permit me to relate to you in detail one little episode in the mutiny of the Black Sea Fleet, in order to give you a concrete picture of events at the apex of their development.
"Gatherings of revolutionary workers and sailors were being organised more and more frequently. Since men in the armed forces were not permitted to attend workers' meetings, the workers began in masses to visit the military meetings. They gathered in thousands. The idea of joint action found a lively response. The most class-conscious companies elected deputies.
"Then the military authorities decided to take action. The attempts of some of the officers to deliver 'patriotic' speeches at the meetings had failed miserably: the seamen, who were accustomed to debating, put their officers to shameful flight. After these efforts had failed, it was decided to prohibit meetings altogether. In the morning of November 24th, 1905, a company of soldiers, in full war kit, was posted at the gate of the naval barracks. Rear-Admiral Pisarevsky, in a loud voice, gave the order: 'Permit no one to leave the barracks! In case of disobedience, shoot!' A sailor, named Petrov, stepped forth from the ranks of the company that received that order, loaded his rifle in everybody's view, and with one shot killed Lieutenant-Colonel Stein of the Brest-Litovsk Regiment, and with another wounded Rear-Admiral Pisarevsky. The command was given: 'Arrest him!' Nobody budged. Petrov threw his rifle to the ground and exclaimed: 'Why don't you move? Take me!' He was arrested. The seamen, who rushed from every side, angrily demanded his release, and declared that they vouched for him. Excitement ran high.
"'Petrov, the shot was an accident, wasn't it?' asked one of the officers, trying to find a way out of the situation.
"'What do you mean, an accident? I stepped forward, loaded and took aim. Is that an accident?'
"'They demand your release…'
"And Petrov was released. The seamen, however, were not content with that; all officers on duty were arrested, disarmed, and taken to company headquarters…Seamen, delegates, forty in number, conferred throughout the whole night. The decision was to release the officers, but never to permit them to enter the barracks again.
"This little incident shows you clearly how events developed in the majority of the mutinies. The revolutionary ferment among the people could not but spread to the armed forces. It is characteristic that the leaders of the movement came from those elements in the navy and the army which had been recruited mainly from among the industrial workers and possessed most technical training, for instance, the sappers. The broad masses, however, were still too naive, their mood was too passive, too good-natured, too Christian. They flared up very quickly; any case of injustice, excessively harsh conduct on the part of the officers, bad food, etc., was enough to call forth a revolt. But there was no persistence in their protest; they lacked a clear perception of aim; they lacked a clear understanding of the fact that only the most vigorous continuation of the armed struggle, only a victory over all the military and civil authorities, only the overthrow of the Government and the seizure of power throughout the whole State could guarantee the success of the revolution.
"The broad masses of the seamen and soldiers light-heartedly rose in revolt. But with equal light-heartedness they foolishly released the arrested officers. They allowed themselves to be pacified by promises and persuasion on the part of their officers; in this way the officers gained precious time, obtained reinforcements, broke the power of the rebels, and then the most brutal suppression of the movement and the execution of the leaders followed." (Lenin, The 1905 Revolution)
The revolt on the cruiser "Potemkin" in 1905 was one of the object lessons of the revolutionary struggle, in which the broad masses of workers and peasants and particularly the sailors and soldiers, learned the lesson of revolutionary struggle and the concrete tactics of armed revolt. The Bolsheviks generalised these concrete lessons and drew the necessary conclusions with regard to the further preparations for the overthrow of tsarism.
The victory of the workers and peasants in October, 1917, was not only due to the favourable international and internal political circumstances, but chiefly to the fact that they were led by our Communist Party, with Comrade Lenin at its head, which had gathered tremendous experience in the struggle against the monarchist Government during the 1905 Revolution, in the years of reaction and retreat, and especially during the time of the conciliatory bourgeois Government of Kerensky.