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Red Sailors, Part One

The storekeeper in the small town just south of Petrograd was adamant. Pavel Dybenko might call himself Commissar for Naval Affairs, or Tsar, or any other title he wished. To him Dybenko was just another disheveled sailor, and he wasn’t giving away free sausage to anyone.

Fortunately for Dybenko (right), who hadn’t eaten since leaving Helsinki two days before to join in the Bolshevik overthrow of Russia’s tottering Provisional Government, American journalists John Reed and Albert Rhys Williams handed over a few rubles and the commissar got his dinner. They piled into a car taken from the Italian Embassy and headed for the Pulkovo Heights, where a motley collection of troops and Red Guards were forming to fend off the regular army’s III Cavalry Corps heading for the city to quash the revolution.

Driving on, Dybenko repeatedly leaned out of their car’s windows to shout, “The sailors are coming!” at the various soldiers and workers milling about. On the heights, he found groups of pro-Bolshevik soldiers digging trenches – but they had no weapons. His fellow commissar, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, told the men he’d send written orders to bring weapons from Petrograd – but found neither he or Dybenko had any paper or a pencil. Once again, the American reporters stepped in to save the revolution.

The attackers arrived on the morning of 12 November 1917, five days after sailors, workers and soldiers stormed Petrograd’s Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government’s ministers. Gen. Petr Krasnov’s Cossacks launched a furious charge. Workers and soldiers broke and fled. Not the sailors, holding the right flank of the Bolshevik line.

“The sailors went over to the offensive,” Krasnov wrote later. “With great skill they began to mass on both flanks. I ordered a withdrawal.”

In the Imperial Palace at Gatschina, a few miles further south, Dybenko negotiated Krasnov’s surrender. The first serious challenge to Bolshevik power had been turned back by the Baltic Fleet’s sailors. Vladimir Lenin and the rest of the party leadership would have a chance to consolidate their hold on Petrograd before having to face other military adventurers.

There might well have been a Bolshevik-inspired revolution in Russia without the intervention of radical Russian sailors. It probably wouldn’t have succeeded. During the vital ten days, only the sailors provided the Bolsheviks a reliable military force.

The Russian Navy founded by Peter the Great, despite amazing victories over the Swedes in the Great Northern War, never became a very good fleet and his attempts to force his way into the Black Sea were smashed by Turkish sea power. But under his successors the Russian Navy became a major force by the late 18th Century, and fought savage naval wars with Sweden and Turkey at the end of the century. The early Russian fleets, manned by drafted peasants, showed a lot of fighting spirit but an almost total lack of seamanship. Russian shipbuilding wasn’t much better – a squadron of new Russian frigates and ships of the line purchased by Spain in 1818 to aid in suppressing colonial rebels had to be scrapped on arrival because all of the ships but two were thoroughly rotted.

Economic progress and increased interest in the Far East sparked a naval building program at the end of the 19th Century. In 1898 the Russians seized the strategic port of Port Arthur in Manchuria, and a naval law was issued calling for eight battleships, 17 cruisers and 50 destroyers. The Russian Pacific Squadron was soon roughly equal to the entire Imperial Japanese Navy.

The inevitable war with Japan came in 1904. Many ships of the Russian Pacific Squadron were damaged in a surprise torpedo attack at the start of the war and quickly bottled up in Port Arthur. When they steamed out to do battle after repairs, the Japanese defeated them at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. To avenge the defeat, the Russian government sent the Baltic Fleet around the world to crush the Japanese upstarts. But refitting the fleet had proved so profitable that influential industrialists convinced the Tsar’s ministers to tack on a worthless additional squadron of ancient coast defense ships. Those ships were refitted at great expense – and great profit – and sent after the main force, but represented only a hindrance.

The combined squadron met disaster at Tsushima in May 1905 – a battle fought after the fall of Port Arthur to the Japanese. Yet Russian honor would not allow a retreat, and only three cruisers, Askold, Jemtchug and Aurora, survived the attempt to fight through to Vladivostok. The war also brought revolution at home, with riots and strikes breaking out even before the fleet reached Tsushima. News of the battle sparked several mutinies in the fleet.

The Russian Navy performed well at times – the heroism of Admiral Stepan Makarov particularly stands out. His energy and brilliance revived the Pacific Squadron after the Japanese attack, and he soon cleared Port Arthur’s harbor, got several battleships repaired and brought his force’s shattered morale back up to par. Then his flagship hit a mine, and he and 600 sailors were blown to bits.

The Treaty of Portsmouth left Russia humiliated internationally, with two of her three fleets completely wiped out. The Black Sea Fleet, meanwhile, had watched its best officers and ratings leave for service in the fighting fleets while it was kept out of the fighting by a treaty with the Turks forbidding its exit from the Black Sea. The Black Sea Fleet’s highly-trained ratings and warrant officers were replaced by raw recruits, and training time was cut because of the combat units’ need for money and resources.

In the Imperial Russian Army, the defeat was not nearly the burden it became for Navy officers. The Army had done passably well, and Army leaders felt they were starting to get the upper hand as more and more troops poured into the Far East. Many blamed the Navy for losing a war they believed could have been won.


Potemkin sailors inspect rotting meat. From the 1925 Eisenstadt film

In June 1905 a mutiny broke out on the Black Sea battleship Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheski over the quality of food. Food has always been a rallying point for sailors’ discontent, and there was no refrigeration in those days. Potemkin’s men refused to eat borscht made with rotten meat. In the ensuing uproar, the captain shot on ringleader. The crew in turn killed the captain, the chaplain and four other officers, and then proceeded to steam about the Black Sea before scuttling the ship in Constanta, Romania.

Other, smaller mutinies broke out in the Black Sea Fleet, most notably on the cruiser Ochakov, and also on the Baltic training cruiser Pamiat Azova. The situation calmed somewhat with the collapse of the 1905 revolution and the subsequent reforms.

As part of the 1898 naval law, the Navy had started drafting men from the more industrialized provinces rather than from Russia as a whole. Recruiting officers were instructed to assign workers and other urban dwellers to the Navy. The change was felt necessary because of the fleet’s increasing mechanization, which the urban working class was better-prepared to handle.

By 1914 factory workers made up about one-third of the fleet, compared to four percent of the Army. An even greater number were from the same class, but either held different jobs or were drafted before starting a career. In August 1914 there were 80,000 sailors serving in the Baltic Fleet, its training schools and naval infantry detachments.

The sailors were about 84 percent literate, with another 10 percent classed as “semi-literate,” compared to about 49 percent literate and 23 percent semi-literate in the infantry. The overall Russian population had an estimated literacy rate of 37 percent. The sailors were better-read than most Russians – and in the Baltic Fleet, they had plenty of time for reading – and thus were more politically aware. The change to working-class conscripts had an immediate, profound effect: literacy among Baltic Fleet recruits jumped from 49 percent in 1897 to 75.5 percent just three years later.

Compared to the Army, the Navy called up relatively few reservists in 1914. Even so, many more were called than needed in the foolish expectation that Russian shipyards would continue to launch and complete the new warships of the massive 1912 naval program (some of which required German-made components that were now highly unlikely to be delivered). Large numbers of sailors spent the war in training depots and shipyards, waiting to serve in ships that never sailed.

Ships’ crews in peacetime can’t operate too much below full complement, unlike infantry regiments. The older warships that might have been fitted out for the Baltic Fleet (and were manned by reservists in other navies) were either at the bottom of the Yellow Sea or flying the Rising Sun. In the Black Sea, however, several elderly battleships were manned by reservist crews. The need for highly-trained crewmen intimately familiar with their ship also put a practical limit on wholesale dispersal of mutinous crews.


Living conditions aboard Potemkin. From the 1925 Eisenstadt film

Since most Baltic sailors were regulars, their average age was considerably younger than the Army's average. Younger men are often more inclined to be hot-headed than settled men with farms and families to think about. And the Navy had no Cossacks to police unreliable units.

Though the Baltic Fleet recruiting area contained many Balts and the Black Sea Fleet's area mostly Ukrainians, the Russian Navy was manned almost exclusively by Great Russians. The Finns, by far the best sailors in the Empire, were exempt from the draft under concessions granted following the 1905 revolution. A handful enlisted voluntarily. Many officers came from the Baltic German nobility and others from Finno-Swedish families with names that sounded German to Russian ears. As anti-German feelings grew throughout the war, these officers were trusted less and less. Their loyalty appears to have been exemplary - they apparently worked especially hard to prove their devotion to Russia and the Tsar.

The story continues in Part Two.

Send these sailors into battle! Order Russo-Japanese War here.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold can swim but is not a revolutionary.