The battleship Potemkin mutiny 14 June 1905/27 June 1905 – 110 years on

1929 Soviet poster by Valentina Kulagina1929 Soviet poster by Valentina Kulagina commemorating the 1905 revolution



Glory to the people’s heroes of the Potemkin!

The battleship Potemkin steamed into the Odessa Harbour on 14 June (27 June) after the sailors took over the ship. The mutiny had begun with complaints about maggots in the meat, and the second-in-command fatally shot one of the sailors. In the end seven officers were killed. When the battleship docked in Odessa there was already rioting due to strikes. On the 15 June the coffin of the dead sailor was brought to shore and huge crowds gathered to see the revolutionary martyr. By evening the drunken crowds became violent and set the docks alight. The military was brought in, leading to a bloodbath.


Odessa docks on fire

Weinberg describes how the violence of both the Potemkin mutiny and the October pogrom played into the hands of the government, aborting any hopes of revolution.

For example, the violence which accompanied strikes reflected the radicalisation of the participants and posed a revolutionary threat to municipal authorities. This occurred in June, when arrests and shootings provoked an even more violent round of public unrest directed against employers, officials, and soldiers. From the government’s perspective, the arrival of the Potemkin fortunately diverted the populace’s attention and permitted local authorities to regroup and plan a counter-attack, which effectively drowned the strike movement and protest of May and June in a pool of blood. Similarly, public unrest and violence in mid-October again challenged the regime, when government action against student protesters led to uncontrollable street demonstrations and attacks on police officers. The issuance of the October manifesto whipped the political opposition into a frenzy as public sentiment against the regime reached a new level. But, as in June, local authorities weathered the October crisis by the timely outbreak of an anti-Jewish pogrom. (Robert Weinberg The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: blood on the steps, 1993; p 232)

While searching for information about the streets and houses of Odessa, I saw a reference ( to a famous Odessa children’s book, The lonely white sail or A white sail gleams by Valentin Kataev, (Белеет парус одинокий, Валенти́н Петро́вич Ката́ев), a semi-autobiographical novel, written in 1936 but set in 1905, framed by the Potemkin mutiny at the beginning of the story and following through the next year, including the October pogrom.  I found the book online, ( with its sequel, The house on the steppe, which begins with Tolstoy’s death in 1910.

white sail gleams 73

A white sail gleams is the story of two 9-year-old boys, one, like Kataev, the son of a schoolteacher, Petya, who lives with his father, aunt, little brother and their cook on the edge of the centre of Odessa across from the Kulikovo Field, and his working-class friend, Gavrik, who lives with his fisherman grandfather in a hut by the beach and has an older brother involved in revolutionary politics.

kataev birthplace basarnaya 1897

Kataev’s birthplace 4 Bazarnaya St

The title is a line in a poem by Lermontov, ‘Белеет парус одинокий’, which has many translations such as ‘A lonely sail is flashing white’, ‘Gleams white a solitary sail’ and ‘A sail drifts white and on its own’. The word ‘white’ (Белеет ) is a verb form which is difficult to conceive in English. The book ends with the two boys helping to save the sailor who, at the beginning of the book, escapes from the battleship Potemkin. They sail the grandfather’s fishing boat around to the seaside resort, Bolshoi Fontan, where the sailor, having escaped from prison, meets them and sails off to Romania. The boys climb up the cliff on the way back to town and see an artist working on a seascape. ‘They held their breath, spellbound by the miraculous appearance of a whole world on a little piece of canvas; a world altogether different from the real one yet at the same time exactly like it…. Just then the artist picked up a drop of white on a thin brush, and in the very middle of the canvas, in the lacquered blue of the sea he had just painted, he put a small bulging comma.’

white-sail illus Rakutin

Illustration for A white sail gleams by Rakutin

The book immersed me in a young boy’s ordinary middle-class life in Odessa the year my grandparents left. He was nearly the same age as my uncle Aron. They do not have a great deal of money and live in an area where rents are not so high. Because the aunt and the cook need their own bedrooms, the father and two boys sleep together in the room that also acts as a study, where the father marks papers until late in the night. Besides the very real characters, Kataev also describes the detail of life in Odessa in the early 1900s as understood by an observant and questioning child interested in everything from why his father keeps certain bits of ‘junk’ to remember his wife by, to the nails and screws found in the street so precious to small children.

When the book begins the father and two boys are staying on a farm for their holiday, a boat trip from Odessa, and, on their return, as the father and sons drive in the cab from the harbour to their apartment they pass the famous flight of steps. ‘Somewhere up above, Petya knew, beyond the Nikolayev Boulevard, lay the bright, noisy, luring, unapproachable, intangible place which was referred to in the Batchei family circle with contemptuous respect as “the centre”. In the centre lived “the rich”, those special beings who travelled first class, who could go to the theatre every day, who for some strange reason had their dinner at 7 o’clock in the evening’. When they return home Petya has forgotten their apartment in the city. ‘On the farm there had been a little room with whitewashed walls and three camp beds covered with light cotton counterpanes. An iron washstand. A pine table. A chair. A candle in the glass shade. Green latticed shutters. Floorboards bare of paint from constant scrubbing…. Here everything was different. Here there was a big flat with papered walls and rooms crowded with furniture in loose-covers. The wallpaper was old and in each room it had a different design…Here lamps were carried from room to room.’

When he walks with his friend to the home of his brother in the working class area, Near Mills, Petya is fascinated by all the goods being sold on the street. ‘Gone were the elegant ‘Artificial Mineral Water Bars’ with their gleaming nickel-plated whirligigs and jars of coloured syrup standing in rows. Their place was taken by food shops with blue signs – a herring on a fork – and taverns through whose open doors could be seen white egg-shaped teapots on shelves; the teapots were decorated with crude flowers which looked more like vegetables.’

kataev near mills

Walking to Near Mills

Petya and his family see the pogromists marching across the Kulikovo Field and hide the family of the Jewish grocer who has a shop in the basement of their building. The hooligans wreck the grocery shop and then, after punching Petya’s father and being put off by the cook waving an icon, they set off to ‘get that Jew at Malofontanskaya and the corner of Botanicheskaya’. In his memoir, A mosaic of life, Kataev mentions that his building was owned by a Jewish neighbour, Goldenhorn, who lived next door, and during the pogrom, the family of the grocer, Kogan, were hidden in another apartment owned by Christians who put icons in the window. In the story, his father refused to use icons in such a way. Both in A white sail gleams and in his memoir, Kataev writes only about what he saw of the pogrom from his apartment window, all that he would have known as a child. The Odessa writer who was an adult at the time, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and who was in fact involved in Jewish self-defence since the 1903 Kishinev pogrom and was involved with the defence of Odessa, is silent about the pogrom in his novel, The Five, about a Jewish family in Odessa in 1905.

85 kanatnaia st 2

85 Kanatnaya St

L Goldenhorn (Л. Гольденгорн) is in the 1904-5 directory at 85 Kanatnaya St (Канатная ул.), above. He is not shown as owning 87 so possibly Kataev lived in the projecting part of the building to the right. The building further to the right looks like a 1930s building. In a modern map of Odessa there is no 87, the corner building facing the cross street. Across the road is the Kulokovo Field. As I studied the maps and directory, I felt that I might be tracing a small tributary of the pogrom out of Odessa.

Goldenhorn 1904-5

1904-5 directory, 85 Kanatnaya, Goldenhorn L.

odessa map kulikovo 1901

1901 Odessa map Kulikovo Field in centre, 85 Kanatnaya on its right, railway station to the left, Moldavanka far left, seaside dachas to the far right

kulikovo field

Kulikovo Field

85 kanatnaia st distant

85-87 Kanatnaya St

Slowly I began to build up a picture of what Odessa might have looked like, smelled like, and felt like in the early 1900s, from the working-class areas to the north and west teeming with people, workshops, shops and markets to the wealthy centre with its department stores, specialty shops, theatres, hotels and cafes, and on towards the sea with its more residential streets, middle-class and poorer sections cheek by jowl. It was these streets which interested me most, thinking about where my grandfather might have found a house where he could have a vegetable plot, fruit trees and grapes, similar to the house in a poor immigrant area he would find near the sea outside New York in the summer of 1906.

1 thought on “The battleship Potemkin mutiny 14 June 1905/27 June 1905 – 110 years on

  1. Pingback: Θωρηκτό Ποτέμκιν – The battleship Potemkin | ΕfiSoul63

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