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Prelude to revolution

The 1905 mutiny aboard the warship Potemkin was an early strike against the czarist regime

The Potemkin mutiny, Bascomb writes, 'became one of the [Russian] revolution's most symbolic and seminal moments.' The Potemkin mutiny, Bascomb writes, "became one of the [Russian] revolution's most symbolic and seminal moments." (Central Naval Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin
By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin, 386 pp., illustrated, $26

Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin," a milestone in film making, depicted the 1905 mutiny on Russia's most powerful warship as a triumphant forerunner of the revolution 12 years later. It was all unclouded resolve from the moment the crew rose up against the ration of maggoty meat that neatly symbolized the far vaster decay of the czar's empire. The movie ended on a shining prophetic note on the mutiny's fifth day, eliding the depressed capitulation that came six days later.

Neal Bascomb's reconstruction makes the heroism more impressive, in a way, by making it more human. Set in a great fog of hesitation, misinformation, and blunders on both sides, the book fits more exactly with history's rueful comedy than with propaganda's exultant tragedy.

Take those maggots, brought aboard in Odessa along with 1,000 pounds of meat that the ship's doctor pronounced perfectly fit to eat so long as bits were cut off and salt rubbed in. Bascomb , like Eisenstein , sees them as a telling symbol of rot -- but they also managed to gnaw at the mutineers' own uncertainties.

A circle of revolutionary sailors had earlier laid plans for a general uprising in the Black Sea fleet. Grigory Vakulenchuk , leader of the Potemkin cell, initially resisted a plea from his hot-headed deputy to act at once, using the crew's anger over the food. He wanted to wait until the other ships were ready to mutiny. In any case, he argued, the anger would not disappear, because "the maggots will grow bigger."

Again, taken symbolically, it would be 12 years before they grew big enough, despite all that was rotten in 1905: the Japanese defeat of Russia's ossified military; widespread strikes, rioting, and an abortive up rising; the obdurate refusal of Czar Nicholas II to liberalize.

As for the Potemkin's particular maggots, the blind arrogance of Russia's naval hierarchy enlarged them quite enough to set off the ship's dizzily zigzag ging venture. When the sailors refused to eat their borscht, the officers prepared to shoot a few of them . Even the more hesitant revolutionaries were left with no choice but to carry out their previously planned tactics, seiz ing weapons, kill ing the officers who resisted, drag ging the cowering captain from his hiding place to shoot him, and imprison ing the others and put ting them ashore.

Vakulenchuk died in the fight, and Afanasy M a tyushenko, his deputy and a one time factory worker, led the committee that took over the ship. (Bascomb notes that if the Russian Navy was more radicalized than the army, it was because warships require a cadre of trained workers, and those on the ship had been more exposed to revolutionary ideas than the mainly peasant soldiery.)

After a tautly vivid rendering of the mutiny, Bascomb writes of the 11 strange days that followed. Sometimes he over writes or over dramatizes, as in a stagily intercut series of contrasts between the czar's luxuriant passivity and what was happening on the ground and at sea.

For the most part, though, Bascomb's account is both thrilling and judicious. With a wealth of detail, he tells of the Potemkin anchoring in Odessa, its guns threatening the authorities who were struggling to put down riots and demonstrations. The military commander set a cordon around the port ; fires broke out, and when the crowds sought to flee they were massacred on the high steps leading into town (a climactic scene in the Eisenstein film).

Delegations of workers and soldiers came aboard, urging the sailors, backed by the big guns, to take the city. Matyushenko, resolute but no longer a firebrand, insisted on awaiting the arrival of other warships that presumably would have mutinied as well. They arrived, but still under the shaky command of their officers.

Shakiness was the key, on both sides. The naval authorities twice sent the fleet from Sevastopol to capture or sink the Potemkin. Twice it ignominiously turned back, the commanders complaining they couldn't count on their own crews not to mutiny. For their part, Matyushenko and his revolutionaries couldn't be sure their own men would fight. (One battleship briefly joined them, until its petty officers staged a counter mutiny and regained control.)

It was a double whammy , and the high point in a book of many excellences is its account of the standoff between the astonishing, even comical incompetence of the authorities and the quandary of contradiction in which the mutineers found themselves . The regime was rotten, but the revolution was still green.

Low on coal and supplies, the Potemkin steamed around the Black Sea, finally putting in at Constanza, in R omania. In a lovely touch of unwarlike impractical ity , the R omanians offered to buy it. Angrily declining, Matyu shenko put to sea again but, out of alternatives, he eventually returned and surrendered . The R omanians kept their word by granting the crew asylum and ignoring czarist demands to return it.

Many remained , but Matyu shenko eventually slipped back into Russia, hoping to encourage another mutiny. He was caught and hanged at the age of 28.

Richard Eder writes book reviews for several publications.