The Potemkin uprising was sparked by a disagreement over food, but it was anything but accidental. Morale in Russia’s Black Sea fleet had long been at rock-bottom lows, spurred on by defeats in the Russo-Japanese War and widespread civil unrest on the homefront. Many navy ships were teeming with revolutionary sentiment and animosity toward the aristocratic officer class. One of the Potemkin’s lead radicals was Afanasy Matyushenko, a fiery quartermaster known for railing against the brutal discipline of navy life. In early June 1905, he and Potemkin crewman Grigory Vakulenchuk joined with other disgruntled sailors in plotting a fleet-wide mutiny. Their audacious plan called for the rank and file to rise up and strike a concerted blow against the officers. After commandeering all the navy ships in the Black Sea, the conspirators would enlist the peasant class in a revolt that would sweep Czar Nicholas II from the Russian throne.
The mutiny was scheduled to begin in early August aboard the fleet flagship, but events conspired to see that Potemkin took the starring role. The trouble began on June 27, a few days after the ship set sail from Sevastopol to conduct practice maneuvers. That morning, a group of conscripted crewmen discovered that the beef intended for their lunchtime borscht was crawling with maggots. The sailors complained to their officers, but after an inspection by the ship’s doctor, the meat was deemed suitable for consumption. The Potemkin’s 763-man crew was left seething with rage. Led by Matyushenko and Vakulenchuk, they resolved to protest by refusing to eat the tainted food.
When lunch came and Potemkin’s crew ignored the vats of borscht, Captain Yvgeny Golikov had them line up on the main deck. He and his short-tempered first officer Ippolit Gilyarovsky both suspected the protest was tied to revolutionary factions lurking in the bowels of the ship, and they were determined to single out the ringleaders for punishment. After threatening the men with death, Golikov gave a simple order: “Whoever wants to eat the borscht, step forward.” Many sailors lost their nerve and complied, but the hard-liners stubbornly held their ground. When Golikov called out the ship’s marine guards—a sign that he was prepared to resort to a firing squad—a few of the conspirators broke rank and took cover at a nearby gun turret. “Enough of Golikov drinking our blood!” Matyushenko bellowed to his fellow sailors. “Grab rifles and ammunition…Take over the ship!”
Before the officers could react, Matyushenko, Vakulenchuk and a few others ran to the weapons room and armed themselves. A vicious firefight broke out when they tried to force their way back onto the deck. First Officer Gilyarovsky succeeded in mortally wounding Vakulenchuk, but he and several other loyalists were promptly gunned down and pitched overboard. As the battle raged, Potemkin’s stunned officers found that very few of the ship’s marines and conscripted sailors were willing to come to their aid. Matyushenko and his revolutionaries took advantage of the chaos and fanned out across the ship. After 30 frantic minutes, they had commandeered both Potemkin and the Ismail, a small torpedo boat that served as its escort ship. The surviving officers were rounded up and placed under guard. Captain Golikov was shot dead after he was found hiding in a stateroom.
The Potemkin uprising had been premature—the planned revolt was not supposed to unfold for another week—but Matyushenko was determined to press on. “All of Russia is waiting to rise and throw off the chains of slavery,” he told his comrades. “The great day is near.” After convincing more crewmen to join the cause, the mutineers elected a 25-man democratic committee to run the ship’s affairs. As its first order of business, the committee voted to set a course for Odessa, a Black Sea port that was in the grip of mass protests and strikes by workers. There, they planned to stock up on supplies and seek out the support they needed to spread their revolution to the mainland.
The Potemkin arrived in Odessa’s harbor that same night. In the hopes of rallying the workers, a few men rowed ashore and laid Vakulenchuk’s corpse near the Richelieu Steps, a famous stairway that served as the gateway to the city. “Citizens of Odessa!” read a note pinned to his chest. “Before you lays the body of the battleship Potemkin sailor Vakulenchuk who was savagely slain by the first officer because he refused to eat borscht that was inedible.” The funeral bier quickly attracted onlookers, and it wasn’t long before thousands of citizens arrived to voice their support for the mutineers. As the masses gathered in Odessa, word of the Potemkin revolt finally reached Nicholas II. The Czar ordered his military to quash the mutiny at all costs. “Each hour of delay may cost rivers of blood in the future,” he warned.
By late afternoon the following day, the Odessa waterfront had swelled with protesting workers. Many of them urged the Potemkin’s crew to join them in taking over the city, but as night fell, the crowd began to riot and set fire to nearby buildings. Acting on Nicholas II’s orders, the city’s military garrison streamed into the harbor, pinned the mob against the waterfront and began indiscriminately firing on them. A particularly gruesome scene unfolded on the Richelieu steps, where mounted Cossack guards cut a bloody swath through the crowd with their sabers. Fearful of hitting civilians, Potemkin’s gunners held their fire and waited for the mayhem to subside. By the time it finally did, some 1,000 Odessans lay dead in the streets.
The Odessa massacre broke the spirit of many of the rebels, but Matyushenko and the other diehards were still counting on spreading the revolt to the rest of the fleet. When the Czar’s Black Sea squadron came to intercept them on July 1, they sailed Potemkin out to meet it and made two seemingly suicidal passes through the center of its battle formation. Sympathetic crewmen refused to fire on the rebels, and before the fleet could withdraw, sailors aboard the battleship St. George overran their officers and cast their lot with the mutineers. The Potemkin and its new sister ship steamed back to Odessa in triumph, but their victory was short lived. The St. George revolt had involved only a small faction of rebels, and many of its crew still harbored Czarist sympathies. Shortly after arriving in the harbor, the loyalists staged a counter-mutiny, recaptured the ship and surrendered it to the city’s military garrison.
The sudden reversal of fortune was a bitter blow to the mutineers. The St. George’s treachery was proof that the fleet-wide revolt would never materialize, and with Odessa now under guard, the Potemkin’s crew had no way of replenishing its stock of coal and fresh water. That evening, the sailors weighed anchor and retreated from the harbor. They wandered the Black Sea for the next several days in search of supplies and support, but found neither. A final blow came during a stopover at the Crimean port of Feodosia, where some two-dozen crewmen were killed or captured while trying to procure coal. Faced with dwindling fuel and the threat of capture by the navy, the sailors finally voted to call it quits. On July 8, they sailed to the Romanian port of Costanza, where they surrendered Potemkin in exchange for political asylum. As a final act of rebellion, they opened the ship’s seacocks and flooded it with water before abandoning it.
After calling off their revolt, the Potemkin mutineers went their separate ways. Many of the men chose to live out the rest of their lives in exile, but a few returned to Russia to face military justice. Matyushenko became something of a celebrity revolutionary and even met with Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland. He later snuck back into Russia to continue his fight against the Czar, only to be captured and executed in October 1907. Ten more years would pass before Nicholas II was finally deposed, but following the rise of communism, Soviet propagandists repackaged the Black Sea mutineers as early heroes of the revolution. In 1925, their deeds were even recreated on the silver screen in the famed silent film “Battleship Potemkin.”