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R. A Forczyk
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Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
In Red Mutiny, Neal Bascomb provides a dramatic account of the rebellion of the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea in June 1905. Although the author has done considerable historical research for this volume, it is essentially a journalistic account and it lacks the objectivity and detail that one might find written by a professional historian. Reading this book, it is clear that the author has two objectives: to present the human drama of the mutiny and to depict the mutiny as a vital precursor to the revolutions of 1917. Essentially, the author casts the leader of the mutiny - sailor Afanasy Matyushenko - as the underdog fighting for "freedom" and Tsar Nicholas II and his naval officers as the oppressive "bad guys." Indeed, this book is virtually set up as a `morality play' - just minus the actual moral lessons. The author writes very well and he does succeed in constructing a page-turner narrative that flows well, but along the way he seems to have lost his moral compass and I just couldn't stomach having people who murder helpless human beings presented as "heroes." This book is based on the best Marxist tradition of `the ends justifies the means.'
Before getting into the mutiny itself, the author spends a brief time laying out background events such as the Russian naval defeat at Tsushima and the early life of mutineer Matyushenko. Early on it is apparent that this is a Tsarist-bashing account that lacks any pretense of objectivity, when the author refers to Russia starting the war with Japan (the war began with a Japanese sneak attack) and that "the tsar allowed the butchery of his own people." The author makes generalizations such as, "many [Russian] officers were boorish tyrants with a cruel streak," that sounds like it was written by Bolshevik propagandists in 1919 rather than a modern historian. The author paints an exceedingly grim picture of life in the Imperial Russian Navy and the hardship endured by Matyushenko and his peers, but this doesn't square well with his off-hand comment that some sailors re-enlisted and were made petty officers. If service was so horrible, why would anyone re-enlist? Throughout the volume, Bascomb deplores the poor living conditions of the average Russian, but makes no effort to compare their lot with their peers in other countries. In fact, conditions in many other countries for industrial workers was almost as bad, evidenced by the large number of strikes in the United States, Italy and France - and the Tsar was not the only one to authorize his troops to fire on striking workers. For example, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops in to end the Pullman Strike in 1894, killing 13 strikers.
On the Potemkin, the author spends very little effort telling us about the officers, other than that they were either incompetent bullies like Captain Golikov or "good guys" like Lieutenant Kovalenko, who sympathized with the mutineers. While the author makes clear that the mutiny was part of a wider conspiracy brewing among the crews in the Black Sea Fleet, the specific spark came as a result of the crew supposedly being forced to eat rotten meat. The reader is only given one version of the outbreak of the mutiny - essentially that of the mutineers - and since it is clear that the mutiny was pre-meditated, it is not so clear that the officers actually provoked the mutiny as provided an excuse for it to begin. I must admit that I found the author's description of Matyushenko's motivations and behavior increasingly repugnant, beginning with his murder of his unarmed captain and tossing the body overboard. Throughout, I found the description of Matyushenko's behavior to be violently anti-social and akin to the murderous rage of a Charlie Manson. Despite the author's flattering depiction of him as a freedom fighter, it is clear that Matyushenko was more of an anarchist who always had a chip on his shoulder and who wanted to kill anyone who tried to force him to adhere to rules. He fought to exact `revenge' on those he felt had wronged him, not for any love of freedom or concern for others. Furthermore, the ease at which Lieutenant Kovalenko - who as an officer had higher responsibilities - slides in with the rebels and abandons his country and family is nauseating. The Potemkin mutiny was a typical Russian peasant mush of mindless mob violence and ignorance, for no higher purpose. Once they killed their officers, the crew had no idea what to do and simply thrashed about the Black Sea, looking for somewhere to go and something to do.
The author's description of events at riot-torn Odessa when the Potemkin arrived flying the red flag of mutiny are also rather credulous. Despite the fact that it was rioting workers who started the fires along the docks, he blames the local garrison commander for the death of over 1,000 citizens in the resulting conflagration. In this book, everybody in the regime is just guilty, guilty, guilty, while everyone who fights the regime is a hero. At one point in Odessa, Matyushenko asks why he is being treated like a criminal - which is rather funny given that he had already committed multiple murders, kidnapping and grand theft (he took 24,000 rubles from the ship's safe). The denouement of this tale is rather abbreviated, in that we do learn about Matyushenko's execution in 1907 but otherwise only the briefest information on the fates of the mutineers is provided. Overall, this is an excellent read but readers should be cognizant that the author has sympathized too closely with the mutineers, at the expense of truth.