WWI Centennial: Russian Black Sea Fleet Mutinies
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 280th installment in the series.
June 18-24, 1917: Russian Black Sea Fleet Mutinies
The Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, had long been notorious as a source of revolutionary ferment, most notably during the 1905 Revolution, when the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied against their officers and attempted to spark an uprising in the nearby port of Odessa before the disorder was finally crushed. In June 1917 mutiny erupted once again – but this time against the already fragile authority of the Provisional Government, casting doubt on its ability to maintain the war effort amid the growing chaos and dissension at the front.
As always, it wasn’t hard to discern the mutineers’ motives: while conditions aboard ship and in the naval barracks had improved somewhat since the Revolution, they were still squalid, and the sailors also feared that their officers intended to reassert their authority and maybe even stage a counterrevolution, due to the refusal of some officers to give up their personal firearms or remove their badges of rank. The sailors were further alarmed by rumors that the Provisional Government was finally going to order the long-planned amphibious attack on Constantinople, with the goal of seizing the Turkish straits – an “annexationist” goal opposed by socialist rabble-rousers in the ranks.
In fact the mutiny came just as Lenin’s Bolsheviks were planning violent demonstrations against the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, supposedly on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet but in reality in a bid to seize power themselves. Although the demonstrations were called off at the last minute due to opposition from the more moderate factions in the Soviet, the Bolsheviks were quietly creating a rival power base outside the Petrograd Soviet by establishing local factory committees in the provinces, forming their own paramilitary units (supposedly to protect the factories from saboteurs), and taking control of the regional soviets that sprang up across Russia following the Revolution.
They were also busy infiltrating the armed forces: although most rank-and-file soldiers and sailors still supported the Provisional Government – as long as it agreed with the Soviet, that is – in the summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks’ calls for an immediate end to the war and “All Power to the Soviets” found an increasingly receptive audience among troops reluctant to sacrifice their own lives just as a bright new revolutionary dawn seemed to be arriving. The Provisional Government added to its own woes by transferring some radical revolutionary sailors from the mutinous Baltic Sea Fleet in an attempt to restore some semblance of order there – only to have them spread the rebellious impulse to their comrades in the south (top, sailors rally in Sevastopol for May Day celebrations).
General Anton Denikin recalled the subversive efforts of the Bolsheviks, who worked with the “soldiers councils” to stir up dissent, for example by distributing thousands of copies of various newspapers with the title “Pravda” or “Truth”:
The total of evil done by the committees is difficult to estimate. No firm discipline any longer exists. If a patriotic and soldierly decision is made by a majority vote, this amounts to nothing. Another vote will soon change it. Hiding behind their privilege as members of the committee, the Bolshevik’s sow revolt and trouble everywhere… There arrived 7,000 copies of the Pravda, 2,000 copies of the Soldatskaia Pravda, and over 30,000 of the Social Democrat, between March 24th and May 1st. Between May 1st and June 11th there were again 7,000 copies of the Pravda, 32,000 of the Social Democrat, and over 61,000 of the Soldatskaia Pravda. These sheets were handed out to every one by the soldiers themselves.
Desertion and insubordination were widespread by June 1917, according to Dmitri Fedotoff-White, an officer in the Russian Navy, who was conducting the American Admiral James Glennon on a tour of the Russian rear areas at that time, and recalled an incident in Moscow:
There was an inordinately large crowd of soldiers on the platform, all intent on going somewhere, regardless apparently of the direction of the train. As I opened the door of our car, followed by one of the American naval officers, a large beefy soldier without shoulder straps on his tunic made to rush the car, shouting to others to follow him and “throw the damn bourgeois out!” I realized what his success would mean as soon as I saw him, and as there was not time to lock the door I swung out, hit him squarely on the jaw, and threw him off the step of the car… Because of this incident my stock skyrocketed among my fellow officers.
Coincidentally, the American naval mission arrived in Sevastopol just as the mutiny was erupting, to the great embarrassment of Fedotoff-White and his fellow officers:
The morning we were approaching Sebastopol, I noticed that the trains we passed at the stations were crowded with well-dressed people obviously agitated and nervous. I saw a naval officer on one of those trains going from Sebastopol north, and went out to speak to him to find out what was causing this exodus. He told me that the bluejackets had gout out of hand, that [fleet commander Admiral] Kolchak had been arrested by the Soviet, and that men were disarming officers.
In fact Kolchak, who was not known for his emotional self-control, indignantly refused to turn over his own personal sidearm – a purely ceremonial golden sword presented for bravery during the Russo-Japanese War – and instead flung it into the water in a fit of pique (which probably helped provoke the sailors to attempt to place him under arrest; however he was not actually arrested). Kolchak either resigned in anger or was recalled by the Provisional Government, according to various accounts, to be replaced by Vice-Admiral Lukin.
Fedotoff-White reached the gloomy conclusion: “The picture was clear. The Black Sea Fleet, the last citadel of order and discipline of the Russian navy, had been captured by the Bolsheviks.” But just as the situation appeared utterly hopeless, in a remarkable turn of events the Russians’ esteemed guest and representative of their great new democratic ally, somehow managed to restore order, ending the mutiny:
Admiral Glennon had gone to a large public meeting attended by several thousands of seamen and soldiers… He told the men about the great American democracy, about the discipline in the American navy, about the traditions of freedom coupled with self-restraint which alone made democracy possible, called on them to desist from insulting their officers, urged that they return their weapons, and pressed upon them the necessity of accepting the rudimentary forms of discipline without which the Fleet would become worthless. He also spoke of Kolchak in terms of high praise, and pleaded with the men to be loyal to him. Glennon’s speech was superbly translated and made a deep impression on the meeting. Probably this was an instance unique in all naval history that a foreign officer made a speech that helped to quell a mutiny.
Nonetheless the mutiny of the Black Sea Fleet couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Provisional Government was planning one more great offensive, named for the charismatic Minister of War (later briefly the virtual dictator of Russia) Alexander Kerensky but under the direction of the brilliant General Alexei Brusilov, who had planned the most successful Russian offensive of the war in 1916. The big push on the southwestern front, facing the depleted and demoralized forces of Austria-Hungary, was intended to demonstrate Russia’s continued will to fight to the Allies, while enhancing the prestige and authority of the Provisional Government in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
Because discipline had vanished following the Soviet’s abolition of military ranks in March, any chance of success would depend on getting the soldiers to fight voluntarily – a tall order, following three years of misery and bloodshed, to say the least. Despite this Kerensky, a gifted public speaker with a sentimental, sometimes almost mystical tone that appealed to ordinary peasant soldiers, took it upon himself to tour the front addressing huge crowds of troops, imploring the committees to do their patriotic duty and rid the Motherland of the foreign interlopers, while reminding them that defeat might rob them of their new liberties, recently won in the Revolution.
One listener remembered his dramatic, histrionic oratorical style: “He leaves the rostrum, jumps on the table; and when he stretched out his hands to you – nervous, supple, fiery, all quivering with the enthusiasm of prayer which seizes him – you feel that he touches you, grasps you with those hands, and irresistibly draws you to himself.”
At first glance Kerensky seemed to have achieved a miracle, as whole units pledged their loyalty to the new flag of the Provisional Government and promised to attack when the time came. But according to many accounts their militant fervor faded as soon as Kerensky left to address the next crowd. General Denikin later recalled the lead-up to the offensive:
M. Kerenski, Minister of War, while on a tour of inspection, delivered an inspiring appeal to glory, and received a staunch welcome from the 28th Infantry Division. One half hour after this orator’s departure, a deputation from one of the regiments in this division was sent after him with a resolution they had taken, declaring they would not attack… On June 8th a committee at the front decided not to attack. Then, shifting, it decided for an attack. On June 1st the committee of the Second Army decided not to attack, and on June 10th changed this decision. The Soviet of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates at Minsk refused to authorize the attack, by a vote of 123 to 79…
Meanwhile the Bolsheviks, well-funded by German intelligence agents, were still relentlessly undermining the soldiers’ morale through a propaganda campaign, delivered both in print and in person. Thus the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, General Alexeyev, struck a much darker note in a meeting with his top generals in May 1917: “The Army is on the brink of the abyss. Another step and it will fall into the abyss and will drag along Russia and all her liberties, and there will be no return. Everyone is guilty, and the guilt lies heavily upon all that has been done in that direction for the last two and a half months.”