In 1905, Russia fought a war with with Japan and lost. The Japanese victory — which sent most of the Russian navy to the bottom of the Tsushima Strait — weakened the prestige of Czar Nicholas II’s autocratic government. In response, the Russian people rose up and forced the Romanovs to establish a limited, and very shortly-lived constitutional monarchy.
Even though it was brutally suppressed, the Russian Revolution of 1905 is usually considered the dress rehearsal for the great Russian Revolution of 1917. One of its most famous incidents took place on a clunky, Pre-Dreadnought battleship in the Black Sea Fleet, the Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheskiy, or, as it is better known, the Battleship Potemkin. With the majority of Russia’s experienced crews having sailed to Japan with Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, the Potemkin was staffed mainly by raw recruits and bottom of the barrel officers. At the same time, the Social Democratic Organization of the Black Sea Fleet was preparing for a general uprising.
On June 27, as the ship was at gunnery practice near Tendra Island off the Ukrainian coast, many of its crew refused to eat Borscht made with meat that had been infested with maggots. To say that Ippolit Gilliarvosky, the Potemkin’s second in command, overreacted would be an understatement. He ordered a group of the rebellious sailors wrapped in a tarp, so that they could be shot without staining the deck with blood, and summoned a firing squad. At this point, Gregory Vakulinchuk, a radical sailor of indeterminate politics, decided that the time for the planned uprising had come, and started the a mutiny that saved the men about to be summarily executed. Ippolit Giliarovsky — who is described on his Wikipedia page as a “a tall, thin, autocratic officer who fantasized about killing anti-war liberals” — then murdered Vakulinchuk, and was, in turn, killed by the mutinous crew. They killed seven more of the ships eighteen officers, and sailed into the port of Odessa flying a red flag.
Afanasi Matushenko, a Sociel Democrat, now leading the uprising, brought Vakulinchuk’s body on shore, where the political uproar around his funeral became part of the general strike that had already been under way. There was no massacre on the Odessa Steps as depicted in the film, but the Potemkin did shell the theatre where a number of high ranking military officers were meeting in retaliation for the attempts by the police to kidnap sailors who came ashore to view Vakulinchuk’s body. The Social Democrats had also begun to make progress organizing in the rest of the Black Sea Fleet since 5 more battleships sent by the czarist authorities to sink the Potemkin refused to fire on the mutinous vessel, which was then able to slip out of Russian waters and scuttle itself just off the Romanian port of Costanta. Afanasi Matushenko was captured by police and executed after he returned to Russia in 1907 under a false name.
It’s undoubtedly a testament to the ability of capitalism to coopt and neuter subversive culture that Battleship Potemkin is better known in the United States for being taught in film classes than it is for its politics. But it goes beyond transforming a consummate piece of communist agitprop into a tutorial on the “5 types of montage.” Indeed, one of the best known films influenced by Battleship Potemkin is Brian DePalma’s Untouchables, as much an ode to the FBI and the Chicago police as Eisenstein’s film was to the revolutionary sailors of the Revolution of 1905. The most vivid and most justly celebrated scene in Battleship Potemkin — the purely fictional Odessa Steps sequence — shows a group of women murdered by the relentless, almost robotic march of cossacks repressing a political demonstration. Untouchables takes the same sequence, and reconfigures it to celebrate the heroism of FBI agent Elliott Ness, who manages to save the baby killed in Battleship Potemkin even as he shoots it out with the bad guys. Eisenstein shows us female heroism mowed down by the autocratic state. DePalma celebrates the authoritarian state in the form of macho, gun toting cops.
The Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin is a fictionalized event within a very real, very historical Revolution of 1905. I experienced a much less dire, but similar event in the Fall of 2011, the suppression of Occupy Wall Street and its satellite occupations by militarized big city police departments. Eisenstein got everything right. You don’t even have to watch the whole movie, just the clip of the attack on the demonstrators on the Odessa Steps. After the brutal eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park on November 15, one of the things that kept me sane was watching Battleship Potemkin. Had it not been for Eisenstein’s classic film I might have been overwhelmed by the corporate media’s attempt to demonize Occupy’s protesters as dirty hippies who just needed to get jobs. Eisenstein brought me back into history, the 2 months of Occupy Wall Street in New York boiled down into the 7 brutal minutes of the Odessa Steps.
As the famous sequence opens, you can see the joy in peoples faces, the sense of possibility that they never had before. It was the same in Zuccotti Park. For a few brief weeks, people seemed to think that real change was possible, that maybe, just maybe, the United States would become a democracy again. But then we started to see the coordinated evictions on television and on the Internet, a series of attacks on peaceful demonstrators that culminated in the eviction of Occupy Oakland, and the near death of Scott Olsen after he was shot in the head by a tear gas canister. Eisenstein makes the transition in a few seconds. “Suddenly,” the title card announces before the crowd takes off in panic. We see why, a group of soldiers marching with their guns raised. As the horror unfolds, we see that these soldiers are not really men, not really human. Rather, they are the embodiment of the cold brutality of the authoritarian state, machinelike, relentless, unstoppable, “just following orders.” I remember a similar quality to the NYPD who regularly surrounded Zuccotti Park. You couldn’t talk to them. You couldn’t reason with them. They had no emotions. They were Wall Street’s muscle, capitalist tools, not individuals. When the order to evict came, they destroyed everything in their way. In The Battleship Potemkin, the Cossacks kill a mother and child. During the eviction of Zuccotti Park, the NYPD destroyed thousands of books in the “People’s Library.” I’d rather lose 5000 books than a mother and child, but it’s still a matter of degree, not kind.
In other words, after almost 100 years, Battleship Potemkin is still living history, not a dry tutorial about “5 types of montage.” Eisenstein’s second and most celebrated feature length movie is of course the technical, cinematic revolution people say it is. But for me it’s something more, something that healed my soul after watching my government attack its own people, something that was still shocking to me, even though I was in my 40s when I saw it. Maybe some day, after living through a small scale version of the Russian Revolution of 1905, I’ll get to see the Russian Revolution of 1917.