Christian Rakovsky

The Origins of the Potemkin Mutiny


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002, pp. 65–74.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT is well-known that the Potemkin mutiny was not an unexpected event. It was the premature and isolated explosion of a courageously prepared plan for a general rising which was intended to ignite the Black Sea fleet within its iron ring. By seizing naval bastions, the Russian revolution would have had at its disposal an impregnable base for further conquests. By moving from the shelling of the shores to sieges of the garrisons, it would have covered all the South, and from there spread across the rest of the country. This rising was planned for July, at the time of the major fleet manoeuvres. At the agreed signal – two rockets fired one after the other from the deck of the battleship Catherine II – the sailors involved were to arrest or kill their officers ‘in the name of the people’, and to seize all the ships and take command of them. In fact, the unfortunate incident of the spoiled meat provoked a premature revolt on the Potemkin, and the whole plan collapsed.

The other ships, unprepared, were not warned; the only ones among them able to take part in the movement were the Georgi Pobedonostsev, which remained loyal to the revolution for 24 hours, and the training ship Prout, which tried in vain to find the Potemkin in order to give it support. Mention should also be made of the Sinopia, which also joined up with the Potemkin, but moved away on instructions given unexpectedly by Admiral Krieger to go to Sebastopol when the minority of revolutionary sailors had not yet managed to overcome the hesitations of the undecided and fearful majority. The most unfortunate case was the putting out of action of the battleship Catherine II, ‘Katia’ as the sailors commonly called her. ‘Katia the Red’ was prepared to take the most decisive step, and fell victim to its own revolutionary enthusiasm. When the mutiny erupted on the Potemkin, there was a minor conflict between the sailors and the officers of the Catherine II, a ridiculous incident in comparison with the rôle which the battleship could have played two days later, but which resulted in the majority of the crew being sent ashore. Thus the most revolutionary of the battleships was obliged to remain in Sebastopol, while the other ships were sent to Odessa against the Potemkin.

But there is a question to be asked: would the general rising have succeeded if the events on the Potemkin had not taken place? Could the fleet have achieved success in its attempt to take possession of the coastal towns and arouse the working-class population there?

When we learn from Kirill’s account [1] the details of the overwhelming, dramatic story of the struggle of the revolutionary sailors and discover how close they were to success when only a single vessel had mutinied, we are practically convinced that a general rising could have been successful … From a purely military and technical point of view, it was an excellent idea to launch a general armed revolt by means of a rising in the fleet: first of all, because the sailors were the most receptive of all the armed services to socialist propaganda, and, above all, because a fleet which has mutinied is in a better position to defend itself than any other formation. A victory of the mutiny in the fleet would have created an unprecedented situation in the history of civil wars. Russian absolutism, with all its army, would have proved impotent in the struggle against this handful of men. Ruling-class Russia would have found itself in the same ridiculous situation as Romania when the Potemkin came into view off Constanza: the whole garrison was mobilised, even … the cavalry.

But the real historical interest of the fleet mutiny lies in understanding its causes. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, and especially its organisation in the Crimea (the Social Democratic Union of the Crimea), through its activity over a long period made a large contribution to the emergence of revolutionaries in the ranks of the sailors. But it was the structure of the Russian state, and especially the regime in the barracks, which aroused their spirit and taught them to understand revolutionary and socialist ideas. It is impossible to understand the revolutionary rising in the fleet or other comparable movements without taking these elements into account. When we understand just how seriously revolutionary action was blocked in Russia, at the price of how many victims and of what efforts it took for every step – victims of whom only a tiny minority would see the achievement of their goal and the majority of whom would fall in the very first battle against the multitude of obstacles set up by the political regime – then we realise that at the root of the sailors’ revolt were above all their conditions of life.

Today it is more than ever necessary to understand the nature of the barracks system in Russia. When peace is concluded and the Constituent Assembly is established, the political parties will have to reconstruct the country in a radical fashion. But Russia will not really be transformed until it is liberated from the errors of the past. We want … to describe, on the basis of documents in our possession, the rôle played in the revolt by conscious factors, that is socialist propaganda, and by unconscious factors, that is, the military system in Russia. The barracks system is only a reflection of the social and political structure of a country, and the conditions of life on board the Potemkin were the same as in the whole of the fleet. The same abuses were encountered everywhere. On the part of the officers, especially of the senior officers, there was everywhere the same stupid cruelty, and the same refusal to understand the need for a more humane behaviour towards the sailors. Any attempt on the part of the latter to gain a more bearable existence merely evoked from the officers the obstinate determination to punish them even more severely. Thus the sailors could not feel favourably disposed towards their superiors. On the surface, they were docile, out of fear of repression, but, at bottom, they hated and despised the ‘dragons’ and ‘scorpions’, terms they did not hesitate to use at the slightest opportunity. During the mutiny of 3 November, the sailors chased their officers, throwing stones and hurling crude insults at them. In any case, the insults were so common that the officers were used to them and pretended not to hear them … The hostility and distrust between officers and soldiers are general phenomena in all armies, but they were more acute in the Russian armed forces. The unbridgeable gulf between them became deeper with every political event, and ended up with the soldiers being despatched against strikers and demonstrators …

To explain this distrust, as well as the contemptuous hatred felt by the sailors for their officers, we must remember, as well as political reasons, the specific faults of the Russian officer corps, especially in the fleet, where officers were recruited exclusively from the nobility. The military colleges were inhabited by the ‘dregs’ of industrial society. As for the honest and competent youth, they generally inhabited Russian jails, and made inroads into the intellectual professions. Only incompetent and servile people turned to careers in the bureaucracy and the armed forces … These officers considered their position as a means of survival, and strove to work as little as possible for the greatest possible personal advantage. It was on this basis that the relations between officers and sailors developed, often with catastrophic consequences.

But to return to the battleship Potemkin. The most brutal corporal punishments were commonplace. Despite the appearance of a secret circular insisting on the need to ‘respect the human dignity of subordinates’, the naval officers continued, as if by habit, to deal out slaps and blows. Sailors have told me of having their eardrums burst by such violent blows … But above all they suffered from insults and humiliations of every sort which attacked their human dignity. You had to see the arrogance with which those who are called ‘aristocrats’ treated their underlings to understand the strength of the hatred which the latter felt for them …

Anyone who has lived in Russia has perhaps seen, in some public parks, the barbaric notice: ‘Entry strictly forbidden to dogs and lower ranks.’ Admiral Chukhnin managed to invent an even worse rule for the sailors of Sebastopol. Order no. 184 of 29 April 1905 banned sailors ‘on pain of imprisonment’ from walking on two boulevards, two avenues and a street. A few days later a group of disabled sailors, back from Port Arthur, passed along one of these boulevards in which stood the monument commemorating the siege of Sebastopol in 1855. They met an officer who challenged them in crude terms: ‘How dare you come here? You know the boulevard is banned to lower ranks!’ One of the sailors replied: ‘Do we have the right to tread our native soil, for which we have shed our blood?’ ‘You have the nerve to argue, scum!’ And a series of blows enabled these returning ‘heroes’ to taste the joys of a grateful homeland. The mutiny of 3 November was provoked by an order from Admiral Chukhnin forbidding the sailors to go into the town without special permission, the so-called ‘red ticket’.

Measures like these would not have had such serious consequences a few years earlier. We can even claim that the result would have been the same if there had been an improvement and not a deterioration in the conditions of life in the fleet: above all, it was the sailors themselves who had changed and matured. During some five or six years, their sense of personal dignity had ripened … To take one instance typical of the new generation. The 1904 recruits of the Thirty-Sixth crew – that of the Potemkin – even before they had sworn allegiance, presented their superiors with a set of demands. The powerful shock sent throughout Russia by the workers’ movement in the five preceding years had aroused in the sailors hope for a new, better and free life. As a result of the conditions of work, the battleship was in fact a floating factory; the sailors were closer to the working class than to any other. From the large number of punishments for reading, which, while legal, was not approved by the officers, we can judge the level of interest in science and literature among the sailors, as well as their thirst for knowledge. Their quest for a better future ran up against the officers … who personified absolutism.

The sailors discussed enthusiastically the question of relations between the officers and the rank and file: the leading party of the Russia of the future must be equally concerned. We should recall that the first point of the ultimatum delivered by the battleship to the military commander of Odessa was the replacement of the standing army by people’s militias. The relations between the sailors and their superior officers were a question of the first importance. It was by observing the behaviour of a sailor towards his officers and his feelings about them that the revolutionary comrades decided whether he was fit to take part in their secret activities …

It is important to dwell on the way propaganda work was carried out on board the Potemkin. A number of sailors had already encountered social democratic ideas when they were working in the Nikolaievsky shipyards. They were in contact with civilian workers, many of whom had been influenced by socialist propaganda. Then the Potemkin crew made direct contact with the Social Democratic Party in Sebastopol, where it had already established firm links with the navy. Obviously, only a small number of sailors could be in direct contact with the revolutionaries. Among those on the Potemkin, I have identified about 15 to 20 who attended, irregularly, the secret meetings organised by the socialists. These meetings, called ‘short-lived’ when there were hardly any participants and ‘mass’ when there were a lot of them, brought together the sailors from the 50 warships anchored off Sebastopol. Originally at long intervals, the meetings become more and more frequent; in the course of the four months before the rising, there was one almost every Sunday (from 10 November to 25 March there were 11 in all). The number of sailors taking part rose from 30 to 300 or 400. In order to avoid unpleasant surprises, these meetings were held outside the town, in a forest near to the Malakhov hill. The sailors went there in small groups, first taking the Inkerman road, then splitting up to take various paths. There was a guard stationed all the way to ensure that the route was clear. When they reached the meadow which was the meeting place, they settled in as they pleased. The speeches began. The speakers, often women, explained to the sailors the causes of the existence of the unbearable oppressive authority, and proposed means to destroy it and liberate the whole country. Then they discussed, told of their experiences, and, after having adopted a resolution, they wound up the meeting with a revolutionary song. Here is the text of one of these resolutions adopted on 20 March:

We 194 sailors from the Black Sea fleet attending this meeting join our voices to those of the Russian workers represented by their revolutionary wing, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party; we demand the removal of the autocratic regime and its replacement by a democratic republic. We are convinced that only the convening of a Constituent Assembly, on the basis of direct and equal universal suffrage, with a secret ballot, can assert the power of the people. We know that the Tsarist regime went to war in its own interests. That is why we demand an immediate end to it. By joining our voice to that of Russia which is awakening to political life, we are confident that our example, the example of the protest of the Black Sea fleet, will be followed by all the Russian armed forces. The last bastion of the regime is about to crumble. Our liberation is imminent, and we call upon all those persecuted and oppressed by the autocracy to join our ranks, the ranks of our party. Our struggle will not cease until humanity has freed itself from the exploitation of the capitalist bloodsuckers. We are fighting for socialism. Down with the autocracy! Down with war! Long live the Constituent Assembly! Long live the democratic republic! Long live the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party! Long live socialism!

One hundred and fifty sailors who had not attended this meeting endorsed this resolution.

Among the other sailors, propaganda was carried out by pamphlets and above all by appeals. It should be noted that the sailors asked the Sebastopol committee to draw up appeals specially for them. When the committee had established that propaganda among the sailors was effective, it made efforts to illuminate every more or less significant event in the life of the fleet. Thus two or three days after the revolt, when the sailors got up and went out into the yard, they found leaflets about the recent events scattered over the ground. The Sebastopol committee called on the sailors to give a political character to their protest. Some 1,800 copies of this appeal were distributed. All told, the committee distributed 12,000 leaflets from the beginning of November to the beginning of April. Titles include Time to Put an End to It, The Soldiers’ Manual (2,800 copies), The Two Europes, Who Will Win?, Death to Tyrants, The Tsar’s Manifesto (9 January), etc. Some dealt with the Russian regime in general, others specifically concerned the sailors. They depicted the difficult conditions of existence of the sailors, which were contrasted with the comfort and privileges which their officers enjoyed. During this time in Japan, Togo, the Admiral of the Japanese Fleet, got 5,600 roubles a year, while Grand-Duke Alexei, Admiral of the Russian Fleet, had a salary 18 times higher – 108,000 roubles. On the other hand, sailors’ pay was incomparably higher in Japan than in Russia. A sailor cost the Japanese government 54 roubles, as against 24 for the Russian government – and half of that was stolen by the officers. Special leaflets were put out when 800 sailors left for Libau, and others on the occasion of the trial of 30 sailors accused of being the ‘instigators’ of the 3 November revolt. In parallel with these specific events, questions of a general nature were raised: the war, the situation of the workers and peasants, the Russian state, etc. An end to the war was the most popular slogan. Some urged sailors to refuse to go to the Far East. One leaflet printed by the Sebastopol committee produced a particularly powerful impression. It had been drawn up and signed by ‘sailors and NCOs on the battleship Catherine II, together with the Social Democratic Party’. It was already an indication of the more important actions which would arise as a result of the defeat at Tsushima. [2]

Today, now that Russia has become an self-styled democratic state, the question of the reorganisation of the armed forces is still an important one. The sailors’ demands are all aimed at improving their conditions of life during their period of service: only at the end do they mention the close link between the social order in Russia and the military system. We should note some of these demands:

Another set of demands concerned human rights and citizens’ rights: the abolition of the formulae which sailors had to use when addressing their superiors, [3] and of the practice of giving military honours to officers. The sailors also demanded that offences be judged by an ordinary court. If military courts were to be preserved, they must be composed equally of officers and of sailors elected by their comrades …

These appeals were distributed everywhere in hundreds of copies. One day the sailors on the Potemkin awoke to be surprised by finding them on the blankets of their beds. They all picked up the ‘flyers’ and looked for ‘a private place’ to read them. Subsequently they discussed them in groups for several days. Perhaps the sailors did not understand everything. It happened that the Potemkin sailors wrote [to the committee] criticising the use [in the leaflets] of too many expressions that were incomprehensible for the majority of sailors, and asking for new leaflets. But these leaflets, small, insignificant and often illegible, printed clandestinely on primitive machines, carried out their revolutionary task. They were the living proof of the existence of a party which could not be pinned down, which stood alongside the isolated and submissive sailors to listen to their complaints and to sympathise with their sufferings. The people of this party held out a fraternal hand to the sailors, treated them as equals, and put at their disposal their time, their resources and their life; they called on them to join in a struggle against the enemy of the whole working class. It could not be expected that this propaganda would transform the sailors into conscious socialists. Yet it did a great deal by giving a political character to their vague discontent, and by popularising the slogans of the minimum socialist programme.

Initially unorganised, the sailors’ struggle became conscious. They adopted as their own the party and its programme. ‘We are 300 social democrats ready to die’; it was with these words that I was greeted by the sailor Matiuchenko when I boarded the Potemkin at Constanza. These 300 social democrats perhaps did not know everything about what their party was demanding, but the fact of being among its members gave them unlimited confidence in their own strength.

Thus, with growing energy and spirit of initiative, the sailors found within themselves what the appeals could not offer them. They completed their political training by observing facts around them, and by reading the books and newspapers permitted by the officers. Guided by a hatred of despotism, they discovered revolutionary ideas even in religious books. Anyone who closely studied everyday life on board the Potemkin could perceive their intense intellectual life. It was like a bee hive in which everyone acted to the limits of his strength. There were about 30 advocates of non-violence, who urged passive resistance to the war and a refusal to shoot at ‘human beings, God’s creatures’. Arguments broke out almost every Sunday between them and commanding officer Golikov …

If we examine the personality of the sailors, we can see that there were brilliant men among them, whose potential for playing a rôle was blocked by the social and political conditions in the country. Among them Nikichkin, a true tribune of the people, exercised a great influence on his comrades (he died heroically at Feodosia). Possessed of a great oratorical talent, imbued with that religious idealism which is deeply rooted in the popular masses, especially the peasantry, and which has not yet been undermined by superficial scepticism, and with a remarkable memory, he decorated his speeches with quotations. He initiated the style of speech which began with an extract from the gospels and ended with a revolutionary anthem.

Zvenigorodsky, an apprentice mechanic from the practical school, was a different type; the son of a journalist, he himself produced papers in which he described the poverty and suffering of the sailors, and which he read to his comrades. It was thanks to his activity that numerous sailors, like Reznichenko for example, became revolutionaries. ‘We often discussed for hours on end’, the latter told me, ‘staring at the smooth surface of the sea.’ Besides these two figures, there were a whole number of active agitators, Matiuchenko, Reznichenko, Kurilov, Dymchenko, Makarov and many others. They discussed events which were agitating the whole of Russia. One of the consequences of the Russo-Japanese War was undoubtedly the emergence of social life and public opinion … The afflictions, shame and shared sufferings brought the navy and the army closer to the people … Once Nikichkin read an extract from Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, in which one of the occupants of Vassilissa’s tavern launches into a revolutionary speech: ‘Your law, your truth, your justice are not ours’, etc. Nikichkin gave his readings throughout the nooks and crannies of the ship, and his listeners were enthused with a common feeling. They went beyond words to action: collective protests became more and more frequent. They were prepared in the evening before bedtime. The sailors, assembled on the quarter deck of the ship for prayers, refused to disperse, despite the orders of the officer on guard, and began to discuss in low voices; then one of the bravest among them raised his voice and shouted slogans. When they had said all they had to say, the sailors dispersed.

It was on the evening of 3 November 1904 that, for the first time, the sailors’ protest took on a tone of impending revolt. The windows of the barracks and the lamps in the courtyard were broken, and the officers’ rooms were ransacked in a moment. The officers ran to hide anywhere possible, and managed to dodge the sailors’ anger. The soldiers, who had been called from nearby barracks, refused to shoot. The sailors and NCOs of the Pamiat Merkuria finally succeeded, after several salvoes, in dispersing the mutineers … Incidents erupted more and more frequently on the ships … The sailors of the Catherine II threatened to sink the ship if they were not paid wartime wages. The crews of all the ships supported this demand. They won, as they did also on the quality of the bread. The revolutionary sailors were generally behind these actions. Every success strengthened their influence.

But it was war which was the sharpest stimulant for the sailors. It had laid bare the innumerable failings of the army and of the navy, which the sailors attributed to the incompetence and cowardice of the ‘leaders’. The officers had lost all authority, and no longer inspired either respect or fear. For their part, the sailors had understood that resolute action leads to victory, and they had gained in daring. Acts of desertion became ever more numerous, and were openly supported by everybody.

It was in this atmosphere, where the wind of revolution was blowing and where discipline had been shattered, that the idea of a general rising was conceived. Where, when and by whom was the idea launched for the first time? Like any truly popular idea, it was probably not launched deliberately by anyone in particular, and it arose spontaneously amid the mood of hope prevailing on the ship. Already on 3 November, the sailors had asked the Social Democratic Party whether the time had not come to transform the revolt into an organised movement. The committee had advised delay until a more favourable moment. The idea of a revolutionary intervention had thus already emerged a year previously. Later, at the beginning of the year, when there was news of a pogrom of Jews carried out by the Sebastopol police, 150 armed sailors went into the town and joined the workers to defend the Jews.

The events of 8–12 January 1905 in Petersburg provoked high feelings among the sailors … The ‘sailors’ centre’ – the central committee led by representatives of sailors from all the ships – began seriously to elaborate a plan for a rising. This was not easy. The proposal raised a mass of concrete questions. What attitude do we take to the officers? Should we arrest them or execute them? What would be the consequences of the rising, whether successful of defeated? Would it not lead to the break-up of Russia? Each sailor gave his point of view. In a letter addressed to the Sebastopol committee … the Potemkin crew asked for a reply to all the questions which were raising doubts. But the defeat at Tsushima and the news of the massacre of 40 sailors from the Niebogatov squadron near Shanghai (published in a Russian newspaper) pushed the sailors’ patience to its limit. They said: ‘If we have to die, it might as well be in order to liberate Russia, rather than by being killed by officers or the Japanese.’ And the idea of a rising won ever more supporters.

A question arises here: how many of the sailors on the Potemkin were involved in the plot? At least half, I have been told. In fact, the revolutionary sailors did not keep their plan secret: they observed only very basic precautions. Here is a detail which shows how audacious they were: the officers of a small ship – whose name we shall not mention – one day went into town to go to a wedding: during this time the sailors held a meeting on board … It is highly probable that the officers knew what was being prepared. We know that there were some 30 informers among the sailors. But how could they thwart these plans? Who should be arrested? They did not succeed in discovering who were the members of the revolutionary committee of the Potemkin

The commanding officer of the Potemkin failed in all his attempts to restore discipline on board by traditional measures, which were ridiculous and ineffective … They tried to stop the sailors from meeting; they were even forbidden to read newspapers and magazines, and it was difficult to get leave to go into town. Golikov, who had previously often spent the night off the ship, now never left it: he inspected the cabins to check on the sailors’ timetable: ‘Why is this hammock empty? Where is sailor X?’ ‘He is on guard’, replied his neighbour, while sailor X was discussing in a dark corner with a comrade. These draconian measures made the protests even sharper. There was one particularly sharp one in the two or three days before Trinity Sunday. Golikov thought he could put an end to it by giving a speech about discipline during the festival. He told how a mutiny 20 years earlier on the Svetlana, where he had been serving, had ended up with numerous executions. ‘That is what awaits those who forget discipline’, he declared … After the defeat at Tsushima, such words were highly irresponsible. The fact of learning the risks they were running allowed the sailors to overcome their fear of the consequences of a revolt. But what could the wretched commanding officer do? Like any good soldier of absolutism, he had to defend the old Russia by any means possible. Faced with the difficulty of the task, Golikov, like the others, lost his head and merely accelerated the process. Besides, he himself was quite certain of his own impotence: ‘The revolutionary poison is spreading on the boat even among the NCOs’, he said one day to a police officer. Any attempt to root out revolution ended up in failure … Reznichenko quotes a significant example:

We were just about to start the meeting when a patrol under the command of an officer turned up. He wanted to arrest us all. One of us went up to him and, after saluting, asked him: ‘What does it matter to you that we are here?’ – ‘I order you to disperse.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘Because I am instructing you.’ – ‘But we are not doing anything criminal.’ – ‘Disperse or I shall give the order to shoot.’ – ‘Nobody will obey you. Today I am on this side, but tomorrow I may be in your patrol, and if you give the order to shoot, you will be the first one I shall shoot.’

The officer retreated without a word. The sailors moved and resumed their meeting. Baranovsky, the commanding officer of the Prout, gave a speech about these meetings in which he accused the Jews of being behind the disturbances in the fleet. He added that he would not hesitate to pronounce death sentences on all those taking part in plots with the socialists. A few days later a proclamation by the sailors appeared: ‘You were speaking the truth. We know you are an executioner. The day is coming when we shall not hesitate to strangle you. The time for payment is coming.’

A few weeks later, Baranovsky was arrested by the sailors and Golikov died, a victim of the obstinacy of absolutism.


1. Kirill was the pseudonym of Anatoly Petrovich Berezovsky, who was responsible for assembling the recollections of a sailor on the Potemkin from which this article is taken.

2. The Russian Baltic Fleet, having sailed all the way around the world, was annihilated near the islands of Tsushima by Admiral Togo on 27 May 1905.

3. Servicemen in Tsarist Russia were obliged to address officers in a particularly obsequious manner.

Last updated on 16.10.2011