Neal Bascomb

Author Q&A on Red Mutiny

What drew you to the story of the Potemkin mutiny?

As a student in 1992, I traveled to Russia for the first time.
Glasnost had only just begun to lift the Iron Curtain, and
there was still a real sense of what it was to live in the Soviet
state. The border guards had a starched skepticism about
them. The family I stayed with was reluctant to speak openly.
Away from the double arches above Tverskaya Street in
Moscow, there were few signs of the much debated policy of
perestroika. And Lenin’s tomb in Red Square remained a site
of imposed reverence, an honor guard of soldiers watching
us closely as we stepped around the embalmed, waxy white
face of the father of the Bolshevik party.

Back then, my perception of the Soviet Union was rooted in
fear, thanks to classroom exercises of ducking for cover
under my school desk. My knowledge of its history was
limited to Cold War propaganda. I understood little of the
Russian Revolution being a “people’s tragedy”—as English
historian Orlando Figes incisively labeled it—and how the
overthrow of Nicholas II began as a struggle for many of
the same principles of equality and freedom held dear in
the West. Only when I began studying Soviet history
during my weeks in St. Petersburg and Moscow did it
become clear that the course of Russia in the 20th century
could have gone so differently. My fascination, therefore,
focused on the revolution’s early days, specifically the
1905 upheaval. This led me to the tale of the sailors of
the battleship Potemkin. Sailors seizing control of Russia’s
most powerful battleship to spark a revolution—I had to
know more. And this is how it always begins for me.

How was researching this story in Russia?

Well, I was accused of being a spy at the first archive I visited
in Moscow and searched by guards with automatic weapons
slung over their shoulders. And then securing entry to the
naval archives in St. Petersburg was an exercise in patience
and persistence, but eventually I won access to everything
I needed. And it was a gold mine of material. At the naval
archives, I combed through ship logs; telegrams between
the Admiralty, Black Sea squadron, Odessa officials, and the
Tsar; summary reports by the naval commanders; sailor
memoirs, and a trove of court martial records.

The challenge was not finding material as much as sifting
through contradictory reports and recollections, trying to
ascertain what was the most accurate information. For
instance, Vice Admiral Krieger, who was in charge of the
squadron that took on the Potemkin, wrote a long report
on his involvement in suppressing the mutiny, but he was
fighting to keep his post, so he shifted blame and cast
himself in the best possible light. That said, I loved the
research end of this story, managing to find details in the
most interesting of places. For a photograph of Aleksandr
Kovalenko, we (I had some great assistants on this project)
tracked down a small museum dedicated to him in the
obscure little Ukrainian village where he was born. A local
beermaker happened to have a scanner and sent us his
picture. I think it’s the first published of Kovalenko. That’s
the pleasure of researching a story. You slowly put
together the research, and each scrap of information,
comes together to reveal a story that I hope breathes
on the page.

Any revelations in your study of the Potemkin?

RED MUTINY is the first book in English published on the
mutiny in fifty years, and the first enjoy to full access to
the Russian naval archives. Of course, there have been
numerous accounts researched and written by Soviet
scholars, but these were always filtered through their
political lens. What will first surprise most readers is that
the mutiny was not launched because of some maggot-
infested meat. This was only a pretext. A band of
revolutionary sailors had long planned an uprising in the
Black Sea fleet, believing their rebellion could result in
the downfall of the Tsar. Second, I shift the narrative
back and forth between the battleship, naval command,
and the Tsar, because it is clear how profoundly the
mutiny scared Nicholas. This is an often overlooked,
underappreciated element of the story, not to mention
the shockwaves caused by the sailors throughout the
world. Third, I focus a good deal of the story through
the eyes of Afanasy Matyushenko. The mutiny’s leader,
he has been excoriated by Soviet historians because he
refused to join the Bolshevik party, but in my view, he
was the true hero of the Potemkin. Through the sheer
force of his will, he sustained the mutiny for eleven days;
he risked his life at every turn; and perhaps most
importantly, he chose not to decimate Odessa, an act
that would have killed thousands of innocents, to realize
his ambitions. Curiously, it was this act of noble restraint
that earned him such disdain by Lenin and others. Aside
from these larger themes, there are scores of scene
details and character insights that have escaped other
histories on the mutiny.

Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin – Fact or Fiction?

More than any other question, this cuts to the heart of the
Potemkin story, at least in terms of how it has been
represented in history. Eisenstein was a brilliant director,
his cinematic innovations with his film were incredible, but
the chief reason it is studied in every introductory film class
is that it was the first great propaganda film. Ever since
1905, Lenin co-opted the Potemkin mutiny for his own
purposes. In essence, Soviet historians and Eisenstein
hijacked the event, declaring their leadership in its
successes and blaming its failures on the lack of Bolshevik
faith among some of the sailors. One of my intentions in
this book was to set the record straight. Sailors like
Matyushenko were risking their lives for a voice in their
government, not unlike our own revolutionaries of 1776.
What occurred afterward would have made them shudder. Furthermore, Eisenstein certainly took some pretty wide
creative license. For instance, the famous scene where the
sailors are covered with a canvas tarpaulin before a firing
squad, thus stirring the crew to mutiny—never happened.
This was for dramatic effect. In fact, the tarpaulin never
reached the quarterdeck, where in reality it would have
been placed underneath the sailors’ feet, so as not to stain
the deck with their blood…equally chilling in my estimation.
You’ll be curious to know that one of the crewmembers
actually acted in the film, Konstantin Feldmann, the Odessan revolutionary who came on board when it reached the port.
Talk about the blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

Skycrapers, runners, battleships—broad subject range?

Guilty as charged. Right now I’m in the middle of researching
my next book, the story of the flight and capture of Adolf
Eichmann, so I have to invest in a whole new library No doubt
there is value in being a specialist in one subject, not only in
terms of scholarship, but also you have an easier time keeping
hold of your readers. But what I enjoy in researching and
writing these books is the process of discovery, of diving into
a subject and immersing myself in a new body of knowledge.
For the past three years, I’ve studied little else than Russian
history, particularly 1905, and it’s been wonderful, but for the
sake of my own sanity, it’s probably time to move on. What I
hope my readers find is that there is a fundamental
connection between the stories that I tell. Whether it’s
architects, Mossad agents, runners, or Russian sailors, I choose
strong narratives with individuals driven by powerful
motivations. Another common thread is that although the
events that I write about may be well known, for one reason
or another, they have been understudied and are ripe for
revelations and new scholarship.

How is story of the Potemkin mutiny of relevance today?

You know what they say about those who ignore history…That
aside, the subject of mutiny is certainly of continued
importance today. Every government is supported, to one
degree or another, on the loyalty of its troops. Mutiny is a
compelling, complicated dynamic that can shake governments
to their very core. How they develop, what is the catalytic
moment that leads to insurrection, and why are some able
to succeed in their intentions is of profound significance.
Hypothetically speaking, of course, if a large group of U.S.
or British soldiers in Iraq were to refuse their orders and
stage a protest, even a non-violent, passive one, I would
bet you there would be a major push for policy shift. Nicholas
was not personally threatened by a mutiny occurring hundreds
of miles away, but he knew well its gravity, and as I argue in
the book, the Potemkin pushed him toward peace with Japan
and agreeing to a State Duma. An uprising by mutineers
seldom last long (at eleven days, the Potemkin sailors
managed one of the longest) but they never go ignored.