Maggoty Meat Makes Mariners Mutiny

Rancid rations rile Russians: revolutionary rehearsal results.

Published May 30, 2016

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

Life aboard the Imperial Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet during the Russo-Japanese War was harsh. But it wasn’t the cramped conditions or brutal discipline that provoked the crew aboard the battleship Potemkin to revolt against the officers on June 27, 1905—it was bad meat.

Although the Black Sea Fleet didn’t participate in the war, news of Russian losses in the Far East fueled the already brewing discontent among the sailors. Influenced by the growing social unrest among Russia’s peasantry and working class, many ships seethed with revolutionary sentiment. Radical leaders had been planning for a coordinated, fleet-wide mutiny, so when maggots were seen crawling in the meat intended for the Potemkin crew’s lunch, Afanasy Matiushenko and his cadre of about 100 revolutionaries saw it as a call to action.

Spurred by sailors, one of the cooks reported the bad meat. The ship’s commander, Evgenii Golikov, dismissed all concerns and ordered the meat to be cooked. The crew refused to eat it. The conflict escalated when Golikov ordered them to eat it or be punished, but 25 sailors stood fast. Golikov then asked for tarpaulin to be brought on deck and called for the ship’s marine guard—a sign that he may resort to a firing squad. Matiushenko didn’t wait to see what would happen. “Grab rifles and cartridges, shoot them down, the swine,” he shouted to his supporters, according to some accounts. The mutiny later hailed by Vladimir Lenin as an “attempt to form the nucleus of a revolutionary army” and the “dress rehearsal” for the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution was underway. 

After less than an hour of fighting, five officers, including Golikov, were killed. Matiushenko’s fellow radical leader Grigory Vakulenchuk had been shot in the back of the head and killed. Now in control of the ship, the rebels sailed to Odessa, a Black Sea port that had been seeing its own share of protests against Tsar Nicholas II. Early the next day, the mutineers brought ashore Vakulenchuk’s body to garner support for their cause. All day long, people streamed to the foot of the Richelieu steps, the large staircase that acts as the formal entrance to the city from the sea, to pay their respects. Then the crowd grew restless and a violent confrontation with tsarist troops followed.

In the next few days, Potemkin’s radicals tried to spread the revolt across the Black Sea Fleet by provoking mutinies on other ships. While they succeeded in one case—the sailors on Georgii Pobedonosets also overthrew their officers, albeit temporarily—that success was short-lived. After a few days of wandering the Black Sea for supplies and support and finding neither, Potemkin sailed to the Romanian port of Constanța and surrendered on July 25.

The Potemkin mutiny came to be remembered as “the prototype of class exploitation and lower-class rebellion,” says Donald J. Raleigh, director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Over the years, eager to exploit that memory, the Soviet state commemorated the rebellion with six editions of stamps. While four of them—including the 1972 stamp featured here—depicted the ship, the other two reproduced images from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. Commissioned by the Soviet propaganda machine to make the mutiny into a revolutionary legend, the film inspired more than one generation of loyal communists and was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958.