Court-Martial in Russia and the Mutiny on the Potemkin

About the mutiny on the Russian ship Potemkin which resulted from terrible living conditions, the subsequent court-martials.


It was June 13, 1905, 12 years before the Russian Revolution, but already coming events were casting their shadows. Separated from the Black Sea fleet off Sevastopol, a single Russian cruiser, the Potemkin, on a gunnery exercise, bobbed gently at anchor in the waters of Tender Strait. The crew of 800 conscripted farmers suffered from harsh, inhumane treatment, hunger, and seasickness.

On deck, 2 sailors swabbed halfheartedly, their stomachs churning spasmodically with each roll of the ship. Aft, on hooks along a spar, joints of meat swayed slowly. A heavy crust of maggots gave them a most bizarre appearance. The swabbies called to their comrades, especially to Afansy Matushenko, their spokesman.

He quieted the tempers of the angry men and sent for Dr. Smirnov to inspect the meat. The doctor declared it fresh and edible. Dissatisfied, the men refused to accept his assurance. Chief Officer Giliarovsky commanded the men to disperse. Tempers flared. The crew became a mob. Captain Golikov put in one of his rare appearances, and armed seamen temporarily routed the dissenters. Golikov ordered a tarpaulin thrown over the crewmen remaining on the deck. They were to be shot.

Then Afansy Matushenko reappeared, shouting epithets inspired by the creed of a growing socialist democratic movement. A fight ensued. Captain Golikov was killed and his body thrown overboard. Mutineers took command of the Potemkin.

By June 17, 5 ships of the Black Sea fleet arrived from Sevastopol to quell the mutiny. One of the ships, George the Conqueror, joined with the Potemkin, and both ships escaped to Romania. There the Russian battleship, Tchesme, caught up with the Potemkin and 75 of the mutineers.

The Court-Martial. Fifty-two mutineers were sentenced to imprisonment and 3 to death. Afansy Matushenko escaped; he was never heard of again. After the trial, a bulletin was released by Russian authorities in which it was stated: "The Czar was far more impressed by the mutiny of the men of the Potemkin than by the disaster at Tsu Shima."

Significance. The Potemkin mutiny proved, as did that of the Bounty, that men of every nationality have a limit to their endurance. The disaster at Tsu Shima, mentioned in the Russian authorities' bulletin, referred to the Battle of the Sea of Japan in which the entire Russian fleet met destruction.

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