Andrew Osborn








History of the Russian Revolution: POTEMKIN THE MUTINY, THE MOVIE, AND THE MYTH

The Independent, 14th June 2005 12:54

One hundred years ago, sailors serving on a Russian battleship rebelled against the harsh regime run by their Tsarist officers. Eighty years ago, the Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein turned their story into an cinematic masterpiece. So why is no one celebrating? Andrew Osborn reports from Odessa

Everyone knows the story of the battleship Potemkin, whose sailors mutinied after they were given maggot-infested meat to eat and rebelled in an ultimately unsuccessful but heroic act of defiance. It spawned one of world cinema's most critically acclaimed films, fired the imagination of revolutionaries around the world for decades and was considered to be one of history's defining moments by all good Communists everywhere.

However, the people of Odessa, the Ukrainian port city in whose waters and streets the actual events unfolded 100 years ago today, have realised that there is one crucial problem with the widely accepted account of what happened. It isn't true.

To their horror the Odessans have realised that they were sold a terrible lie by Communist propaganda chiefs. It was a lie that began with Sergei Eisenstein"s superlative 1925 silent black and white film The Battleship Potemkin (pronounced "Potyomkin" in Ukraine) which purports to faithfully chronicle the uprising.

Cinema-lovers and historians in the West have long known that the film was shot in a highly emotive manipulative agitprop style. Its aim after all was to glorify, to immortalise and to convince.

But what many have not realised is the extent to which Eisenstein twisted the truth and fabricated key scenes and how mendacious much of the technically brilliant film is. Knowing that you are watching something whose presentation and context is seriously skewed is one thing, but according to the Odessans The Battleship Potemkin is little more than a fairy tale for adults.

Like a lover who has just discovered he or she has been deceived for years, the Odessans are bitter and feel humiliated that they were duped for so long. Today, 14 June, will mark the centenary of the beginning of the mutiny (according to the Julian calendar which was then in use). But the day will pass in Odessa like any other.

"There won"t be anything. The question hasn"t even been raised. The centenary will not be observed," says Eduard Scheglov, head of the City Hall"s information department, a historian and self-confessed Ukrainian nationalist. Though he concedes that Eisenstein's film is "a masterpiece", he says he finds the extent of its falseness offensive.

Eisenstein's version of events is utterly unambiguous. It cannot fail but leave anyone who has seen it fuming about the purported cruelty of the Tsarist regime and the justness of the mutineers' cause. The film opens with life on board the Battleship Prince Potemkin Tavrichesky, named after a favourite of Empress Catherine II whose erection of fake villages to impress his blue-blooded benefactor gave the world the phrase "Potemkin villages." Life on board is tough.

Eisenstein has his "Potemkinites" - many of whom were not professional actors but local Odessans - sleeping fitfully below deck in a warren of sweat-drenched hammocks. One sailor is beaten by an officer as he wakes, apparently for no reason, forcing tears of pain and humiliation. "How much of this can a man take?" he asks through the on-screen sub-titles.

The sailors' grimy, downtrodden features contrast sharply with those of the officers, immaculate and cruelly imperious in their starched white uniforms. Trouble begins when the men examine two hunks of meat they are expected to eat, only to discover they are crawling with maggots which writhe before the audience's eyes. When the sailors complain, the ship's doctor, a small, arrogant man, tells them the meat is fine and that what they believe are maggots are in fact harmless flies' eggs.

In the film the mutineers, led by a sailor - one Grigory Vakulenchuk, a man who later became a martyr in Communist folklore - protest loudly. So loudly in fact that the ship's captain promises to shoot the dissenters "like dogs" and orders some of the sailors to be executed, a decision that sparks a fully fledged mutiny when the firing squad falters.

In the dramatic scenes that follow, Vakulenchuk is shot dead, and the captain and his officers tossed overboard and killed as the ship passes from Tsarist control into the hands of the revolutionaries. The sailors then go ashore in Odessa and lay out the body of Vakulenchuk for the townspeople to see. "He died for a spoonful of soup," says a poignant note pinned near his body, a reference to the fact that the rotten meat was destined for the sailors' borscht.

In the film the Odessans, who have already been in a state of unrest for two weeks over abject economic conditions, are seen fraternising and sympathising with the Potemkinites. The beginnings of their revolutionary spirit are swiftly crushed, however, in one the most famous cinema scenes of all times - the massacre on the Potemkin Steps.

To say that the scene - one of the most brutal representations of political violence ever - is powerful would be an understatement. A faceless phalanx of Tsarist Cossacks methodically advances down the steps, shooting everyone in their path, as mounted Cossacks wield their sabres without mercy. It is the archetypal slaughter of the innocent. A legless cripple is seen fleeing. An old woman is shot in the eye. A woman and a sick child she is cradling in her arms are shot at close range. A child's body is trampled underfoot by the terror-stricken crowds whose faces are contorted in fear and horror.

Eisenstein's pièce de résistance, however, and a scene that has since been copied by Hollywood directors and others, is the pram sequence. A young mother is shot and slowly dies. As she falls, she nudges the pram holding her baby, which then bounces down the Potemkin Steps past various scenes of carnage.

When the dust settles, Eisenstein has the sailors, who did not intervene to prevent the massacre, turn the ship"s guns on the Tsarist troops in Odessa.

The film ends on a high note. Tsar Nicholas II sends a convoy of warships to destroy the Potemkin but the sailors on board refuse to fire on their fellow seamen and the rebellious ship sails through the convoy and into history - Communist history, that is.

Eduard Scheglov is scathing about the film's historical accuracy. "There was no uprising [in Odessa] and there was certainly no massacre on the steps. It was all dreamt up by Eisenstein," he told The Independent.

"[Eisenstein] behaved like a great Hollywood director who rewrites history to make more money at the box office except that his goal was not to make money but to make an impression. He succeeded."

Odessans first began to realise that they had been duped in the late 1980s when glasnost, or openness, flourished under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Articles appeared in the press exposing much of Eisenstein's work as fiction and a succession of local historians began to openly question his version of events.

Historians without an axe to grind confirmed that there was indeed a mutiny, that it did apparently start because of poor rations and that the people of Odessa were on strike. But they questioned the massacre claim.

Tsarist troops did quell unrest using brute force, they admitted, but they did not do so on the majestic Potemkin Steps but in the streets around it. And how many people were killed, if any, remains a mystery.

The Potemkin's final end was also undoubtedly less glorious that Eisenstein would have us believe. The sailors were forced to surrender, the vessel was blown up by saboteurs a few years later and the "heroic" act did not inspire a wave of similar mini-revolutions.

Scheglov says that so great was the Odessans" disappointment that there were, and still are, moves to scrap the town"s Soviet-era monument to the mutiny and replace it with a statue of Catherine the Great. "We found it morally offensive when we discovered that the film was based on something that was 100 per cent made up. It [the mutiny] did happen, of course, but the heroic pretext and detail was dreamt up by people who specialise in theatre."

Scheglov even maintains that the meat was not infested by maggots. "Every revolution needs its heroes and if it doesn"t have them it needs to dream them up. The Bolsheviks excelled at dreaming up heroes. Look at Pavlik Morozov [the schoolboy who allegedly denounced his father for being an anti-Soviet kulak or wealthy peasant] or Alexander Matrosov [a soldier who purportedly threw himself in front of a German machine gun nest thereby saving his Second World War comrades]."

Across town, Sergei Muranov, who says his grandfather Seaman Savilyev was one of the original Potemkinites and died at the age of 104, agrees with Scheglov that many of the mutiny's details appear fabricated. "The more we know the more we are shocked," he says. "Unfortunately 90 per cent of our history is made up. We don't know what the truth is."

At the centre of a baroque square, Odessa's striking granite Soviet monument to the mutineer sailors (pictured opposite) squats incongruously in the bright sunshine. Inscribed along one side is a quote from Lenin, father of the Russian Revolution. "The battleship Potemkin remained an unvanquished territory of the Revolution," it reads, a testament to the Soviet belief that the 1905 mutiny was one of the pivotal events that paved the way for the "big one" " the 1917 Russian Revolution itself. In Soviet times, the monument was a place of worship for the party faithful. But not any more.

The foreign tourists from the nearby cruise ships moored in the azure waters of the Black Sea can't fail to be impressed. To get to the monument, they must ascend the 192 Potemkin Steps upon which Eisenstein filmed his famous massacre scene.

The monument itself does not disappoint. Six strong-jawed sailors are pictured trying to throw off a huge tarpaulin draped over them - a reference to a disputed episode in the mutiny when a group of seamen were allegedly "wrapped" in tarpaulin to keep the ship's deck clean of blood after they had been shot.

In Eisenstein's film, the firing squad refuses to shoot, however, and the sailors throw off the tarpaulin, a symbol of Tsarist oppression, and the mutiny begins.

The sculpture is typical of the Soviet socialist-realist style. But today, long-haired local youths prefer to use the monument's lengthy base as a mini skateboard park. Thick green weeds throttle the monument's paving stones, cigarette butts abound, someone has stuck a nightclub flyer to the base and there are traces of graffiti.

In a small shady square near the commercial port is another monument to the mutiny - a bust of the martyred Vakulenchuk. With his twirly handlebar moustache and his Tsarist sailor's uniform he cuts a dashing figure, but the sculpture is badly neglected. For some, such neglect and dismissal of the Potemkin mutiny is a tragedy if not a crime.

On what used to be called October Revolution Square, next to a statue of Lenin, Odessa's die-hard Communists say such talk is traitorous revisionism.

"Potemkin remained Soviet territory like Lenin said," argues Raisa Gridnev, 74, a lifelong party member handing out flyers to the accompaniment of an ageing stereo banging out Soviet wartime songs. "To say it did not happen is absurd. It was all true just like in the film." Her husband Yuri agrees. "For us, they were the first revolutionaries who weren"t afraid of the Tsar. They are an ideal to which we aspire."

In Ukraine, which lived through its own "Orange" revolution last year, the fact that the mutiny is considered tainted by Communist propaganda is understandable. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the mutiny was a noble but ultimately futile act that, rightly or wrongly, has inspired and fascinated. And that the film which it spawned is a masterpiece, both of cinematography and of propaganda. One hundred years on, for those reasons alone, the Potemkin mutiny deserves to be remembered.