Historical Narrative in The Battleship Potemkin

     "What are a few maggots?"(1) asks Richard Hough in his book, The Potemkin Mutiny. He answers with the powerful story of the 1905 mutiny of the sailors of the Potemkin in their struggle against the repressive officers of the Russian Imperial Navy. In 1925, the Soviet government commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to direct a film commemorating the events of the 1905 revolution. Due to time constraints, he had to limit his film to just the Potemkin mutiny. His depiction of these events, in his film The Battleship Potemkin, has many significant differences with the historian's perspective that Hough offers in his book. Contrary to the belief of many modern critics, the actual historical events and details are impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt, but "there is no dispute on the main events, and their sequence."(2) However, although Hough and Eisenstein differ, they both offer legitimate perspectives. Even if the events are agreed upon, "one and the same event may be incorporated in a work...in different guises: in the form of a dispassionate statement or in that of a pathetic hymn."(3) Eisenstein is creating a narrative film, and Hough purports to write a history, but both are stories of the event with an intended audience and an intended effect. The small differences between the two perspectives offered by Hough and Eisenstein is significant and colors what the audience thinks of the mutiny and how they identify with it.

     The mutiny on the Potemkin began after the ship took on some rotten meat. The men complained when they saw the meat hanging out on deck. The doctor was called, and determined that the meat was perfectly fine. The men were clearly not convinced, as they did not eat the borscht made with that meat at the next meal. When the captain and higher officers found out about this refusal, roll was called on the quarterdeck. Some men were chosen to represent those who refused to eat the borscht. The guard was called, and were told to bring a tarpaulin. The first mate gave orders to fire, but the guard did not, and the men mutinied. They took control of the ship and went to Odessa, where insurrectionist activity was also occurring. Three civilians were established as liaisons to the on-shore revolutionary parties. One of the men who died in the mutiny, Grigory Vakulinchuk, was put in state on a quay in the Odessa harbor. The people of the city went to see his body, and the area became a hotbed for the revolutionary factions in the city. The military in the city violently cracked down on the insurrectionists, and the Potemkin replied with some gunfire. The rest of the Russian fleet arrived, still in the control of the authorities, to subdue the Potemkin. The fleet and the Potemkin made one pass at each other, but neither side fired a weapon. Another ship, George the Conqueror, joined the Potemkin in revolt briefly before running itself aground. The Potemkin had many troubles, and after many tribulations, eventually turned herself in to the Romanian government, and the sailors were given asylum in Romania.

      Many modern day film critics assume that historians have deduced the actual concrete events of the Potemkin mutiny down to small details and thus assume that Eisenstein's creation "owes more to mythmaking than to historical fidelity,"(4) but their attitudes refuse to acknowledge their distance from the subject and the confused nature of the event. James Goodwin claims that Eisenstein "confused the historical record....The massacre on the Odessa Steps was often attributed by critics to Eisenstein's creation and he did little to correct that impression."(5) David Bordwell says that the film "takes great liberties" with historical fact. Andrew Sinclair says, "Eisenstein's version departs from the facts for the purposes of propaganda and art."(6) However, these perspectives assume a certain historical record and leave relatively little room for historical uncertainty and conflicting primary sources. Hough makes a detailed report of the events, but he acknowledges the uncertainties that underlie his narrative. He says that the Potemkin mutiny "must surely be among the most inaccurately recorded events in naval history....descriptions of the event written by the same eye-witness on different occasions are at variance in detail."(7) Surely if the primary sources disagree with each other one latter day film critic cannot determine exactly what happened and make a judgement upon the historicity of the film. Hough says of the creation of his history, "Where there are conflicting reports I have done my best to reconcile them, and, where necessary, to keep a reasonable balance between supposition and probability."(8) He has done the research, consulted the primary sources, acknowledged the uncertainty of his endeavor, and then offers us his best perspective on the events, working entirely from his sources and reconciling them as best he can. Eisenstein had Konstantin Feldman, a student agitator who functioned as a liaison from the shore revolutionaries, as an actor and historical advisor. He also had the explicit sanction of the Soviet government to create this movie and thus access to all of the historical archives of the government. Bordwell even admits that "Eisenstein was proud of his research into records and mutineer's memoirs."(9) These facts indicate that both Hough and Eisenstein have legitimate reasons for their perspectives on the "reality" of 1905 irrespective of the general critical condemnation of Eisenstein's account. The two accounts agree on the major facts, and the differences between the two accounts represent alternative interpretations of the information available.

     One of the major differences between The Battleship Potemkin, and Hough's account is the amount of time related by each. Although both works begin with the rotten meat, the film ends after the Potemkin has made one pass of the fleet with no shots being fired. Hough continues the narrative until after the sailors had given themselves up to the Romanians. Eisenstein's "early ending" has been much commented upon and prompted him to write an essay entitled Constanta (Whither The Battleship Potemkin')(10) in 1926. In this essay he says that he stopped "the event at this point where it had become an asset' to the Revolution" and by this creates the story of the Potemkin as "an objectively victorious episode, the harbinger of the triumph of the October Revolution."(11) Eisenstein wanted the story of the Potemkin to be seen as a "dress rehearsal" for the 1917 revolutions, as Lenin did when he wrote "without the dress rehearsal' of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible."(12) To convey this meaning Eisenstein does not alter the facts of the story, he merely considers what happened after the confrontation with the fleet to be irrelevant. To end the story with the sailor's surrender to the Romanians would have indicated failure, to continue the story through the revolution of 1917 would have made for too long a movie, but to end the movie with the morale building victory over the fleet created the right feel for Eisenstein. Hough wanted to look at the event of the mutiny, so he continued the story until the mutineers were off the boat and followed them briefly into their post-Potemkin lives. The effect of this is that Eisenstein's audience would come away feeling much better about the revolution and proud of the mutineers, whereas the readers of Hough's book will come away with "an anecdote, albeit a sublime and tragic one, about a 'wandering ship.'"(13)

     The two accounts have a very different view of individuals in the mutiny. Hough tries to acquaint us with all of the individuals and their characters, in however brief a time. The events are seen to occur because of the actions of individual people for the most part, with the mass mind merely reacting to the prodding of individuals. After the end of the armed mutiny against the officers, Hough says, "considered in their total, the problems facing Matushenko could send the mind reeling."(14) He considers the mutiny to be Matushenko's responsibility, and the problems are facing him, and not the entire mutinous crew of the Potemkin. He is the face of the revolution. On the other hand, Eisenstein's history of the event is a collective one, with little individuation of characters. We know very few of the characters by name from Eisenstein as compared to those that Hough tells us. Eisenstein names Captain Golikov, Dr. Smirnov, Chief Officer Gilyarovsky, Matushenko and Vakulinchuk. This is very few names on a boat with a crew of over 700, not to mention all the people on shore who played a large role in influencing events. Hough acquaints us individually with many more people, even when they are only mentioned in a cursory fashion. He names and describes Josef Dymtchenko, one of the Deputy Chairmen of the Committee, as "a good-natured, sentimental peasant, broad shouldered and muscular."(15) This description individuates Dymtchenko in our minds, even though he is not important to the story and, in fact, is not mentioned so extensively again. Eisenstein never names people like Dymtchenko, and the role that individuals do play in his version is much less. Although Vikulanchuk is named and is seen making individual decisions, as when he makes the decision to call out to the firing squad not to kill their brothers, he is merely seen as an instigator, and the revolution soon becomes collective. In Hough, the individuals instigate or fight the masses having a revolution, but in Eisenstein the mass of people have the insurrection, and the individuals are of secondary importance. Eisenstein's movie creates a greater sense of collectivism than Hough's account.

     Another major example of difference in the works creating meaning for the viewer is in the perspective from which each story is told. Hough gives us an omniscient perspective that proposes to know what all of the characters are thinking and feeling. Eisenstein limits his perspective to the 'good" characters in the film. We never see the admirals of the fleet plotting their counterattack. We know it must be coming, but until the ships arrive in sight of the Potemkin, we don't see them. Also, when the Cossacks start their massacre, that is the first time that we have see them, and there are no shots from their perspective. The camera never chases the people down the steps, but, in longer shots, is always looking across the steps or up them. Hough tells us about Kokhanov, the general in charge of Odessa, and his decision to "order a sotnia of Cossacks from the Cathedral Square, where they were bivouacked, to quell any further disorders, "(16) and also about the Cossacks were "held back in a state of frustration from breaking up demonstrations on Tuesday."(17) Hough gives us a look into the minds of all of the figures in the events of 1905. The fact that Eisenstein tells the story purely from the perspective of the positive characters makes the audience more willing to identify with them. He tries to get the audience to live through this historical moment as he believes that "Living through an historical moment is the culminating point of the pathos of feeling oneself part of the process, of feeling oneself part of the collective waging a fight for a bright future."(18) Eisenstein is trying to celebrate the Potemkin mutiny, which means that he focuses on the victories won by the mutineers in spite of their opposition, and not so much on the evil perpetrated by the authorities. He certainly includes atrocities, the Odessa steps massacre among them, but his primary objective, as seen through his use of time, is to celebrate the power of the mutineers. Hough's account let's us in on the workings behind the scene of all sides of the action. We still sympathize with the insurrectionists, but that is because the looks behind the scenes at the reactionary forces do not present a flattering picture. The authorities are shown to be malevolent and incompetent. However, one feels less part of the rebellious movement, and instead feels more pity towards it.

     The two accounts offered by Eisenstein and Hough on the Potemkin mutiny in 1905 are both historically viable interpretations of evidence. However, the way in which this information is conveyed is different in the two stories. These differences creates differences in the meaning of the episode for the audience. The viewers of Eisenstein's movie will tend to come away with the feeling that the mutiny was a collective effort that served as a valuable prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution, whereas Hough's readers are more likely to feel that the mutiny was a failed attempt by revolutionary individuals to create a revolution from the warships of the Russian Imperial Navy, even though they were justified in rebelling against a repressive and incompetent officer class. The fact that this difference in view exists may lead to some film critics to dismiss Eisenstein's work as pure propaganda, but that is an incorrect assumption given the uncertain nature of history, especially that of revolutionary events.


  1. Hough, Richard, The Potemkin Mutiny, 1960, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London, p.11.
  2. Hough, p.9
  3. Eisenstein, Sergei, The Battleship Potemkin, 1968, tr. Gillon R. Aitken, Lorrimer Publishing Limited, London, p.13.
  4. Bordwell, David, The Cinema of Eisenstein, 1993, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, and London, England, p.62.
  5. Goodwin, James, Eisenstein, Cinema, and History, 1993, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, p.58.
  6. Sinclair, Andrew, History, in Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin, 1968, p.6.
  7. Hough, p.9.
  8. Hough, p.9
  9. Bordwell, p.62
  10. Eisenstein, Sergei, Constanta (Whither The Battleship Potemkin'), 1926, in S.M. Eisenstein, Selected Works, 1988, ed. and tr. Richard Taylor, BFI publishing, London, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, p.67-70.
  11. Eisenstein, Sergei, The Twelve Apostles, in Notes of a Film Director, 1945, ed. R. Yurenev, tr. X. Danko, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, p.29, as quoted in Bordwell, p.63.
  12. Lenin, V.I., The Lenin Anthology, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 1975, Norton, New York, p.555-6, as quoted in Goodwin, p.57.
  13. Eisenstein, Constanta (Whither 'The Battleship Potemkin'), p.67.
  14. Hough, p.37
  15. Hough, p.54.
  16. Hough, p.70.
  17. Hough, p.70.
  18. Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin, p.16.

This essay (C) 1998 by Gregg Severson

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