Leon Trotsky



The Red Fleet

* * *

“Revolution,” old Suvorin, that arch-reptile of the Russian bureaucracy, wrote at the end of November, “gives an extraordinary élan to men and gains a multitude of devoted, fanatical adherents who are prepared to sacrifice their lives. The struggle against revolution is so difficult precisely because it has so much fervor, courage, sincere eloquence, and ardent enthusiasm to contend with. The stronger the enemy, the more resolute and courageous revolution becomes, and with every victory it attracts a swarm of admirers. Anyone who does not know this, who does not know that revolution is attractive like a young, passionate woman with arms flung wide, showering avid kisses on you with hot, feverish lips, has never been young.”

The spirit of mutiny swept the land. A tremendous, mysterious process was taking place in countless hearts: bonds of fear were being broken, the individual personality, having hardly had time to become conscious of itself, became dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan. Having freed itself from inherited fears and imaginary obstacles, the mass did not want to, and could not, see the real obstacles in its path. Therein lay its weakness, and also its strength. It rushed forward like the ocean tide whipped by a storm. Every day brought new strata of the population to their feet and gave birth to new possibilities. It was as though some one were stirring the social cauldron, right to its very bottom, with a gigantic spoon. While liberal officials were cutting and re-cutting the as yet unworn robe of Bulygin’s Duma, the country did not know a moment of quiet. Workers’ strikes, incessant meetings, street processions, wreckings of country estates, strikes of policemen and janitors, and finally unrest and mutiny among the soldiers and sailors. Everything disintegrated, everything turned to chaos.

Yet at the same time within this chaos there arose a need for a new order, and elements of that order began to crystallize. Regularly recurring meetings in themselves introduced the principle of organization. The meetings elected deputations, the deputations grew into representative assemblies. But just as spontaneous indignation outpaced the work of political consciousness, so the desire for action left the feverish attempts at organization far behind.

Therein lies the weakness of the revolution – any revolution – but therein also lies its strength. Anyone who wants to play an influential part in a revolution must grasp the whole of it. Those wise tacticians who think that revolution can be treated like a stick of asparagus, the edible part being separated at will from the useless part, are condemned to play the sterile role of mere reasoners. Since no revolutionary event creates “rational” conditions for the application of their “rational” tactics, such are fatally doomed to remain outside and behind all events. In the end nothing is left for them but to repeat Figaro’s words: “Alas, there will not be a second performance in which we can give you reason to forget the shortcomings of the first.”

Our aim is not to describe nor even to list all the events of 1905. We are drawing a very general sketch of the progress of the revolution and, moreover, if we may so express ourselves, on the scale of Petersburg although from the viewpoint of the nation as a whole. But even within our chosen framework we cannot leave aside one of the most important events of the fateful year which took place between the October strike and the December barricades: the military rising in Sevastopol. It began on November 11, and on the seventeenth Chukhnin was already reporting to the Tsar: “The military storm has abated, not so the revolutionary storm.”

The traditions of the Potemkin were still alive in Sevastopol. Chukhnin had dealt cruelly with the sailors of the Red Battleship: four were shot, two hanged, several dozen were sent to hard labor, and finally the Potemkin itself was renamed Panteleimon. But he failed to instill terror in anyone, and succeeded only in intensifying the mutinous feelings within the navy. The October strike started a phase of colossal street meetings, with sailors and infantry soldiers acting not only as constant participants but also as speakers. A sailors’ orchestra played the Marseillaise at the head of a revolutionary demonstration: in short, total “demoralization“ reigned. An order forbidding military personnel to attend popular meetings led to special military meetings being held in the courtyards of naval and army barracks. The officers did not dare to protest, and the doors of the barracks were open day and night for the representatives of our party’s Sevastopol committee. The committee had continuously to contend with the impatience of the sailors, who demanded “action.”

The Prout, transformed into a hard-labor prison ship, which was cruising nearby, served as a constant reminder that the victims of the June rising were still suffering for their part in the Potemkin affair. The Potemkin’s new crew declared their readiness to take the battleship to Batuiri in support of the Caucasian rising. The recently built cruiser Ochakov showed equal readiness to fight. But the social-democratic organization insisted on wait-and-see tactics, and suggested the creation of a Soviet of soldiers’ and sailors’ deputies in close liaison with the workers’ organization, and a naval rising in support of the imminent political strike of the proletariat. The sailors’ revolutionary organization accepted this plan. But the revolution went beyond it.

Meetings continually became larger and more frequent. They began to take place in the square lying between the naval barracks and those of the Brest infantry regiment. Since the military were not allowed to attend workers’ meetings, workers in the thousands began coming to the soldiers’ meetings. The gatherings included tens of thousands of people. The idea of joint action was enthusiastically received. The most progressive companies elected deputies. The military authorities decided to take measures. Officers’ attempts to make “patriotic” speeches at the meetings yielded lamentable results. The sailors, well-versed in the art of discussion, put their superiors to shameful flight.

Then it was decided to ban all political meetings. An armed company was posted at the gate of the naval barracks on November 11. Rear Admiral Pisarevsky, in everyone’s hearing, issued the following order: “No one to be let out of the barracks; in the event of insubordination, fire.” Petrov, a sailor in the company which had just received this order, stepped forward, charged his rifle in sight of everyone and, with one shot, killed Major Stein of the Brest regiment, and with a second shot wounded Pisarevsky. An officer immediately ordered “Arrest him!” No one moved. Petrov threw down his rifle. “What are you waiting for? Take me.” Petrov was arrested. Sailors came running from all sides, demanding his release and offering to stand surety for him. The excitement reached a peak.

An officer, trying to find a solution, questioned Petrov:

“Petrov, did you fire accidentally?”

“How, accidentally? I stepped forward, I charged my rifle, I took aim. What’s accidental about that?”

“But they’re asking for your release ...”

And Petrov was released. The sailors were eager to go into action at once. All officers on duty were arrested, disarmed, and locked in the office. In the end, influenced by a social-democrat speaker, the sailors decided to await the next morning’s meeting of deputies. About forty sailors’ representatives met all night. They decided to release the officers from arrest but not to allow them to enter the barracks. They also decided to continue carrying out the duties they considered essential. A gala procession with bands was to go to the infantry barracks to involve the soldiers in the movement. In the morning a workers’ deputation arrived for consultation. A few hours later the entire port was at a standstill; the railways also stopped operating. The situation was developing fast. Semi-official telegrams reported:

“Inside the naval barracks, perfect order reigns. The sailors’ conduct is extremely correct. No drunkenness.” All sailors, without arms, were divided into companies. Only one company left behind to protect the barracks against sudden attack was armed. Petrov was elected its commander.

Some of the sailors, led by two social-democrat speakers, went off to the neighboring barracks of the Brest regiment. The soldiers’ mood was far less certain. Only under strong pressure from the sailors was the decision taken to disarm the officers and remove them from the barracks. The officers of Mukden surrendered their sabers and revolvers without any resistance and, saying: “We’re unarmed, you aren’t going to touch us,” passed through the soldiers’ ranks. But the soldiers were hesitant from the start and it was at their insistence that a few duty officers were allowed to remain in the barracks. This had a tremendous influence on the subsequent course of events.

The soldiers began to form ranks, intending to march through the town together with the sailors to the barracks of the Belostok regiment. As they formed ranks, they made sure that any “freemen” (civilians) should march separately and not join them. At the peak of these preparations, the fortress commandant Neplyuev, together with General Sedelnikov, a divisional commandant, drove up in his carriage. He was asked to remove the machine guns which had been placed on Istorichesky Boulevard since morning. Neplyuev replied that this did not depend on him but on Chukhnin. Then he was asked to give his word of honor that, as fortress commandant, he would not make use of the machine guns. The general showed sufficient courage to refuse. It was decided to disarm and arrest him. He refused to hand over his arms, and the soldiers could not make up their minds to use force. Finally a few sailors had to jump into the carriage and drive the generals across to their own naval barracks. There they were disarmed immediately, sans phrases [1], and placed under arrest in the office. Later, however, they were released.

The soldiers, with bands playing, marched out of their barracks. The sailors, in strict marching order, came out of theirs. Masses of workers were already waiting in the square. What a moment! The encounter was enthusiastic. Handshakes, embraces. The air was filled with fraternal greetings and solemn promises to support one another to the end. After re-forming ranks, the procession set out right across the town to the barracks of the Belostok regiment. The soldiers and sailors carried St. George’s banners, the workers those of the social-democratic party. The semi-official agency reports: “The demonstrators held a march through the town in exemplary order, with a band at the head of the procession and with red banners.” The way lay along Istorichesky Boulevard, where the machine guns were. The sailors appealed to the machine-gunners company to remove the machine guns. They did. (Later, however, the machine guns reappeared.)

“Armed companies of the Belostok regiment,” the agency reports, “in the presence of their officers, presented arms and allowed the demonstrators to pass.” A grandiose meeting was held outside the barracks of the Belostok regiment. The success, however, was incomplete; the soldiers vacillated; some expressed solidarity with the sailors, others merely promised not to fire. In the end the officers actually succeeded in marching the Belostok regiment out of the barracks. The procession did not return to the naval barracks until evening.

Meanwhile the social-democratic banner had been run up on the Potemkin. The Rostislav signaled back: “I see you.” Other warships failed to respond. Reactionary elements among the sailors protested because the revolutionary banner had been placed above the St. Andrew’s flag. The red banner had to be taken down. The situation still remained uncertain. But already there was no turning back.

A commission made up of sailor and soldier delegates from different units, including seven warships, and of several representatives of the social-democratic organization who had been invited by the sailors, was in constant session in the offices of the naval barracks. A social-democrat was elected its permanent chairman. Here all information was collected, and from here all decisions came. Here, too, the special demands of the sailors and soldiers were formulated and combined with general political demands. For the broad masses these special demands took first place. The commission’s chief worry was its shortage of ammunition; the number of rifles was adequate, but cartridges were very scarce. “The lack of a leader well versed in military matters,” writes an active participant in the events, “was also acutely apparent.”

The deputies’ commission urgently insisted that the naval units should disarm their officers and remove them from the ships and barracks. This was an essential measure. Those officers of the Brest regiment who had remained in the barracks were having a very disruptive effect on the soldiers. They made active propaganda against the sailors, the “freemen,” and the “yids,” and they added ample supplies of alcohol to their rations. At night, led by these officers, the soldiers shamefully fled to a camp – not through the main gate but through a hole in the wall. Next morning they once more returned to barracks, but took no further active part in the struggle. The indecision of the Brest regiment was bound to affect the mood of the sailors.

On the next day, however, success returned like the sun: the sappers had joined the rising. They arrived at the naval barracks in marching order and bearing arms. They were enthusiastically received and quartered in the barracks. The mood rose once more. Deputations came from all sides: the fortress artillery, the Belostok regiment and the frontier guards undertook not to fire. The authorities, no longer relying on the local regiments, began to draw in troops from the neighboring towns: Simferopol, Odessa, Feodosia. Active and successful revolutionary agitation was carried on among these newcomers. The commission’s communications with the naval ships met with many difficulties, especially because the sailors were unable to read signals. Even so, assurances of complete solidarity were received from the cruiser Ochakov, the battleship Potemkin, the torpedo-boats Volny and Zavetny and, later, from several other torpedo-boats. The other vessels hesitated and, in their turn, merely promised not to fire.

On the thirteenth a naval officer came to the barracks with a telegram: the Tsar demanded that the mutineers should lay down their arms within twenty-four hours. The officer was jeered at and driven outside the gates. To protect the town against a possible pogrom, sailors formed patrols. This measure immediately reassured the population and won their sympathy. The sailors themselves guarded the liquor shops to prevent drunkenness. Throughout the rising, exemplary order reigned in the town.

The evening of November 3 was a decisive moment: the deputies’ commission invited Lieutenant Schmidt, a retired naval officer, who had gained great popularity at the time of the October meetings, to take over military command of the operations. He courageously accepted the invitation and from that day stood at the head of the movement. By the following evening Schmidt had taken up quarters on the cruiser Ochakov, where he remained until the last. He raised the admiral’s flag on the Ochakov and sent out a signal: “Am in command of fleet, Schmidt,” hoping thereby to draw the entire squadron into the rising. Then he sailed his cruiser to the Prout to release the “Potemkin men.” No resistance was offered. The Ochakov took the prisoners on board and sailed with them around the whole squadron. Shouts of “Hurrah” were heard from every ship. Some vessels, including the battleships Potemkin and Rostislav, ran up the red banner; but on the latter it remained up only for a few minutes.

Having taken over the leadership of the rising, Schmidt announced his course of action by the following declaration:

To the Mayor of Sevastopol.

I have today dispatched the following telegram to the Tsar Emperor:

“The glorious Black Sea Fleet, holding sacred its allegiance to the people, calls upon you, Sire, immediately to convene a Constituent Assembly, and ceases to obey your ministers.

Citizen Schmidt

Commander of the Fleet.”

The order to suppress the rising was telegraphed from Petersburg. Chukhnin was replaced by the hangman Meller Zakomelsky, soon to acquire his sinister fame. The town and fortress were placed under martial law and all streets were occupied by troops. The decisive hour had come. The mutineers were counting on the troops’ refusal to fire and on the remaining vessels of the squadron joining them. And indeed the officers on several vessels were arrested and placed at Schmidt’s disposal on the Ochakov; among other things, it was hoped that this measure would protect the flag cruiser from enemy fire. Large crowds waited on shore for the salute which was to announce the squadron joining the movement. But this hope was not fulfilled.

The “pacifiers” did not let the Ochakov cruise around the squadron for a second time; they opened fire. The crowds mistook the first salvo for the salute, but soon realized what was happening and fled from the harbor in terror. Firing began on all sides. Firing from the ships, firing from the fortress and field artillery guns, firing by the machine guns on Istorichesky Boulevard. One of the first salvos destroyed the electrical engine of the Ochakov. Having fired only six times, the Ochakov fell silent and had to raise the white flag. Despite this, firing against the cruiser continued until a fire broke out on board. The fate of the Potemkin was still worse. Here the gun crews did not have time to place the firing pins and locks in position, and so were completely helpless when fired upon. The Potemkin raised the white flag without firing a single shot. The sailors’ shore units held out longest, and surrendered only when they had not a single cartridge left. The red banner flew over the mutinous barracks until the end. The barracks were finally occupied by government troops at about 6:00 a.m.

When the first fear caused by the firing had passed, part of the crowd returned to the harbor. “The picture before our eyes was truly dreadful,” writes the participant in the rising whom we have quoted before. “Several torpedo boats and sloops were immediately sunk by artillery crossfire. Soon flames appeared on the Ochakov. Sailors were trying to swim to safety and calling for help. They were shot dead in the water. Boats which went to their rescue were also fired upon. Sailors who managed to swim to the shore where troops were standing were killed on the spot. Only those who swam ashore where there was a sympathetic crowd were saved.” Schmidt attempted to escape dressed as a common sailor, but was captured.

The bloody work of the hangmen of “pacification” was done by 3:00 a.m. Now they had to transform themselves into the hangmen of “justice.”

The victors reported: “More than 2,000 men have been captured and arrested ... 19 officers and civilians arrested by the revolutionaries have been released; 4 banners, money safes, and a large quantity of state property, cartridges, arms and equipment, as well as 12 machine guns, have been seized.” Admiral Chukhnin telegraphed to Tsarskoye Selo: “The military storm has abated, not so the revolutionary storm.”

What a tremendous step forward compared with the Kronstadt mutiny! There, a spontaneous flare-up that ended in savage excesses. Here, a rising that developed according to plan and consciously sought to achieve order and unity of action. “In the rebellious town,” the social-democratic paper Nachalo wrote at the height of the Sevastopol events, “nothing is heard of hooligans and looters, and the number of cases of simple theft is less than normal for the simple reason that the embezzlers of state property in army and navy uniform have left this happy place ... You want to know, citizens, what is democracy backed by an armed population? Look at Sevastopol. Look at republican Sevastopol whose only authorities are elected and responsible ones.”

And yet this revolutionary Sevastopol held out for only four or five days and surrendered long before it had exhausted all its reserves of military force. Strategic errors? Indecision on the part of the leaders? Neither the one nor the other can be denied. But the final result was due to deeper causes.

The rising was led by sailors. The very nature of their activities demands from sailors a greater degree of independence and resourcefulness, makes them more self-reliant than land soldiers. The antagonism between common sailors and the closed upper-class caste of naval officers is even deeper than it is in the army, where half the officers are plebeians. Lastly, the disgrace of the Russo-Japanese war, the onus of which had been borne by the navy, destroyed any last vestiges of respect the sailors might still have had for their grasping and cowardly captains and admirals.

As we have seen, it was the sappers who were most resolute in joining the sailors; they came armed, and took up quarters in the naval barracks. The same fact can be observed in all revolutionary movements in our army: the most revolutionary are sappers, engineers, gunners, in short, not the gray illiterates of the infantry, but skilled, highly literate, technically trained soldiers. To this difference at the intellectual level corresponds one of social origin: the vast majority of infantry soldiers are young peasants, whereas the engineers and gunners are recruited chiefly from among industrial workers.

We have seen the indecision shown by the Brest and Belostok regiments throughout the days of the rising. They decided to remove all their officers. At first they joined the sailors, then they fell away. They promised not to fire, and then, in the end, they were completely dominated by their superiors and shamefully agreed to fire on the naval barracks. Later we were to observe the same revolutionary instability among the peasant-bred infantry, both on the Siberian Railway and in the Sveaborg Fortress.

But it was not only in the army that the technically trained, that is, proletarian elements played the principal revolutionary role. The same also happened within the navy. Who were the men who led the sailors’ “mutinies“? Who raised the red banner on the battleship? The technicians, the engine men. These industrial workers in sailors’ uniforms who form a minority among the crew nevertheless dominate the crew because they control the engine, the heart of the battleship.

Friction between the proletarian minority and the peasant majority in the armed forces is a characteristic of all our military risings, and it paralyzes them and robs them of power. The workers carry their class advantages with them to the barracks: intelligence, technical training, resoluteness, an ability for concerted action. The peasants contribute their overwhelming numerical strength. The army, by universal conscription, overcomes the muzhik’s lack of productive coordination in a mechanical way, and his passivity, his chief political fault, is transformed into an irreplaceable virtue. Even when the peasant regiments are drawn into the revolutionary movement on the ground of their immediate needs, they are always inclined to adopt wait-and-see tactics, and at the enemy’s first decisive attack they abandon the “mutineers” and allow themselves to be placed once more under the disciplinary yoke. It follows from this that attack is the only proper method for military risings:

attack without any interruptions that might engender hesitation and disorder. But it also follows that the tactics of revolutionary attack encounter their greatest obstacle in the backwardness and distrustful passivity of the muzhik-soldier.

This contradiction was shortly to reveal itself with full force in the suppression of the December rising, which closed the first chapter of the Russian revolution.



1. In French in the original.

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Last updated on: 22.11.2006