As for the Potemkin, posterity will always remember it as portrayed by Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein.
The mutiny Eisenstein glorifies in his "Battleship Potemkin" (1925) broke out 100 years ago, on June 27, 1905 (June 14 on the old Russian calendar).
1905 was a tumultuous year for Russia. On "Bloody Sunday" in January, troops shot and killed several hundred workers during a demonstration in St. Petersburg. A month later, the Russians lost what was then the biggest battle in their history at the hands of the Japanese at Mukden (Shenyang), Manchuria.
In May, Russia's Baltic Fleet was destroyed in the Tsushima Straits even before it could enter the Russo-Japanese War; the Black Sea Fleet never left port because the Turks denied passage through the Bosporus.
As naval historian Thies Voelker writes, the mood on the Potemkin was explosive. The warship was engaged in target practice near Odessa when the crew complained about maggoty meat in their borscht. However, the ship's doctor -- being an officer, he enjoyed better rations -- declared the food fit to eat.
Accustomed to harassment and humiliation, the crew went on hunger strike this time. The first mate, notoriously cruel, had a tarpaulin brought on board. In those days, tarpaulins were used to keep the deck free of blood during executions at sea.
That was the spark. About 100 of the 600 sailors onboard mutinied, killing most of the officers, including the captain. They formed a ship's council -- or "soviet" in Russian -- which ran affairs on the Potemkin and its escort vessel, torpedo boat No. 267.
In Odessa, there had been revolutionary turmoil for weeks. Russian troops shot hundreds of people on steps leading down to the waterfront -- an event made unforgettable by Eisenstein in his scene with a mother and pram. The rebellious sailors fired several 12-inch shells at military leaders in Odessa, but every one missed the mark.
The rest of the squadron arrived off Odessa on June 30. The Potemkin, flying a red flag of revolution, steamed straight through the formation of the three ships of the line. Had a battle ensued, writes Voelker, the Potemkin would have been doomed. But sailors on the three ships, to their officers' dismay, only waved at their mutinous comrades and did not open fire.
One ship defected and was soon run aground by sailors loyal to the tsar. The Russian admiralty quickly withdrew the others to keep them from being infected by the "red virus."
And so a "Red Fleet" was not to be. Pursued by a destroyer manned solely by officers who had volunteered for the task, the Potemkin and No. 267 steamed across the Black Sea. After two failed attempts to take on fuel and supplies at the Romanian port of Constanta, the crew of the Potemkin flooded the ship and requested political asylum in Romania. The mutiny was over.
The end of the Potemkin and its crew was inglorious. The ship was renamed, and another mutiny aboard it was nipped in the bud. Afanasy Matyushenko, leader of the Potemkin mutineers, returned to Russia in 1907, was soon arrested and hanged.
All of this would have remained a mere footnote in history had the Soviet government not commissioned Eisenstein to make the propaganda film "Battleship Potemkin." Regarded as one of the cinema's greatest works, it takes large liberties with historical facts, starkly glorifying or demonizing the various figures in the drama.
The film achieved its desired effect. It was thought so incendiary that sailors in many countries were banned from seeing it in 1926. By then the actual Potemkin had been scrap for three years.