Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Neal Bascomb: Red Mutiny

Students of modern Russia know the history of the battleship Potemkin, and so do film scholars who've studied Sergei Eisenstein's groundbreaking dramatization. But the momentous events of 1905—which prefigured the Russian Revolution a decade later—finally receive a popular English language treatment in the readable (though highly ideological) history Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days On The Battleship Potemkin. Neal Bascomb's sympathies lie entirely with the mutineers who took control of the Black Sea fleet's most advanced battleship and hoped to spark a general uprising against the autocracy of Tsar Nicholas II. But he also adopts a crusade to correct a half-century of Soviet propaganda that positioned the Potemkin sailors as Bolshevik heroes.


Revolution was already in the air when Bascomb's protagonist—Matyushenko, an uneducated but passionate sailor—helped lead an uprising sparked by maggoty beef in the crew's borscht. The victorious seamen promptly formed a committee to run their ship and sailed to Odessa, where sporadic strikes hinted at widespread unrest. Perhaps the most poignant revelation of this retelling is the mutineers' rosy assumption that the rest of the Black Sea fleet would follow their example, starting a chain of events that would lead to a workers' paradise. After a few triumphant days at sea and a tense confrontation with the squadron sent to destroy them, Matyushenko and his comrades have to face the fact that their supporters, however numerous, either wouldn't risk joining them, or were stymied and betrayed by loyalist sabotage. Out of fuel, their idealism crushed, the sailors have no choice but to face the ruthless militarism of a regime desperate to regain control of history.

Every saint needs his Satan, and the villain of Bascomb's account is Lenin, who follows the mutiny in the international press while sipping tea in Genevan exile. Instead of celebrating the Potemkin's leadership, he commandeers it as a club to bash his internecine Menshevik rivals, and confidently asserts that its ignorant instigators will be only too happy to hail him as their leader. In this hypocritical elitism, Bascomb perceives the roots of the Revolution's quick collapse into renewed tyranny. To him, the heroes of the Potemkin have always deserved better than the Communist party line has granted them. While his exciting narrative churns with utopian energy, even his socialist readers may find his portrait overly hagiographic.

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