Comrades of the sea

September 27, 2017 is continuing its ongoing series 1917: The View from the Streets with excerpts from a firsthand account of the revolution by socialist journalist Albert Rhys Williams, written for the New York Evening Post and published as a book in 1921. Along with the more famous Ten Days That Shook the World by fellow journalist John Reed, Williams' Through the Russian Revolution provides a riveting picture of the struggle to create a new society as Russian workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants began seizing control over every aspect of their daily lives.

In the excerpt below from chapter five, Williams describes meeting the rebelling sailors of the Russian Navy, who became one of the hearts of the revolution. SW's series on 1917 is edited by John Riddell and co-published at his website.

WHEN THE news of Kornilov's advance on Petrograd was flashed to Kronstadt and the Baltic fleet, it aroused the sailors like a thunderbolt. From their ships and island citadel they came pouring out in tens of thousands and bivouacked on the Field of Mars. They stood guard at all the nerve centers of the city, the railways and the Winter Palace. With the big sailor Dybenko leading, they drove headlong into the midst of Kornilov's soldiers exhorting them not to advance. They put the fear of the Revolution into the hearts of the Whites and the fire and zest of the Revolution into the blood of their fellow Reds.

In July Trotsky had hailed them as "Pride and Flower of the Revolutionary Forces!" When they had been damned on all sides for some brash deeds at Kronstadt he had said: "Yes, but when a counterrevolutionary general tries to throw a noose around the neck of the Revolution, the Cadets will grease the rope with soap, while the sailors will come to fight and die with us together!"

So it proved in this adventure of Kornilov. And it was always so. All over Russia I had met these blue-bloused men with the roll of the sea in their carriage and the tang of the salt winds in their blood. Everywhere they went expounding the doctrines of socialism. I had heard them in forum and marketplaces stirring the sluggish to action. I had seen them in remote villages starting the flow of food to the cities. Later when the Junkers rose against the Soviets I was to see these sailors heading the storming party that rushed the telephone station and dug the Junkers from their nests. Always they were first to sense danger to the Revolution, always first to hurry to its rescue.

Sailors at the Kronstadt base during the Russian Revolution
Sailors at the Kronstadt base during the Russian Revolution

The Revolution was precious to the Russian sailor because it meant deliverance from the past. That past was a nightmare. The old Russian naval officers came exclusively from the privileged caste. The count against them was that they imposed, not a rigid discipline, but one that was arbitrary and personal. The weal of a sailor was at the mercy of the whims, jealousies and insane rage of petty officers whom he despised. He was treated like a dog and humiliated by signs that read: "For Dogs and Sailors."

Like the soldier's, the sailor's replies to his superior were limited to the three phrases: "Quite so" (tak tochno) "No indeed" (nekak met) "Glad to try my best" (rod staratsa), with the salutation, "Your nobility." Any added remark might bring him a blow in the face. The most trivial offense met with the most severe penalty. In four years 2,527 men were executed, sent to the penitentiary or to hard labor. All done in the name of the Czar. Now the Czars were gone; their very names were being blotted out. The ships were being re-christened with names fitting the new republican order.

What else to read

Read other leaflets, statements and documents from the Russian Revolution in this series titled "1917: The View from the Streets" edited by John Riddell.

Bolshevik leaflet
To the revolutionary students of Russia

Mezhraionka leaflet
The day of the people's wrath is near

Menshevik leaflet
Only a provisional government can bring freedom and peace

Bolshevik leaflet
For a provisional revolutionary government

Mezhraionka leaflet
A day to prepare for conquering the enemy

Mezhraionka leaflet
For a general strike against autocracy

Mezhraionka leaflet
Soldiers, take power into your own hands!

Polish socialist workers' appeal
The only guarantee of Polish independence

Petrograd Soviet appeal
Joining together to achieve peace

Petrograd Soviet Executive appeals
Calling for peace...and renewed offensives

Bolshevik and Petrograd Soviet Executive appeals
A Bolshevik appeal finds an echo in the streets

Bolshevik and Petrograd Soviet Executive appeals
Responses to the July Days uprising

Bolshevik leaflets
The Bolsheviks retreat in order to advance

Albert Rhys Williams
On the left sat the Bolsheviks

Albert Rhys Williams
The soldiers in revolt

Albert Rhys Williams
Comrades of the sea

Albert Rhys Williams
The mighty cry of "All power to the Soviets"

Albert Rhys Williams
Making a new date in history

Albert Rhys Williams
The taking of the Winter Palace

Albert Rhys Williams
The red convicts of Cherm

By this ceremony the Emperor Paul the First became The Republic. The Emperor Alexander II emerged from its baptism of paint as the Dawn of Liberty. Here was revolution enough to make these ancient autocrats turn in their graves. But it was even harder on the living Czar and his son. The Czarevitch was renamed the Citizen, while Nicholas II came forth as the good ship Comrade. Comrade! This ex-Czar, now living in exile in Tobolsk, knew that the meanest coal-heaver was now a "Comrade."

The new names appeared in gold on the jaunty ribboned caps of the sailors. And the sailors appeared everywhere as missionaries of Liberty, Comradeship and the Republic.

To make these changes in the names of the ships was very easy. Yet they were not mere surface changes, but symbolized a change in reality. They were the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual fact--the democratization of a great fleet.

The Sailors Rule the Navy

In September I had my first contact with the sailor at home. It was at Helsingfors where the Baltic fleet stood as a barricade on the water-road to Petrograd. Tied up to the dock was the Polar Star, the yacht of the former Czar. Our guide, an old ex-officer, pointed out a strip of yellow wood that ran around the ship.

"That molding is of best mahogany," he whispered to us. "It cost 25,000 rubles, but these damned Bolsheviks are too lazy now to keep it polished, so they painted it yellow. In my day a sailor was a sailor; he knew that his job was to scrub and polish, and he tended to his job. If he didn't we knocked him down. But the devil is loose among them now. Think of it! On this very yacht belonging to the Czar himself, ordinary seamen sit about making laws for managing the ships, the fleet and the country. And they don't stop there. They talk about managing the world. Internationalism and democracy they call it, but I call it downright treason and insanity."

There in brief was the issue between the old regime and the new. In the old order, discipline and control were superimposed from above; in the new, they proceeded from the men themselves. The old was a fleet of officers, the new a fleet of sailors. In the change a new set of values had been created. Now the polishing of the sailor's wits upon democracy and internationalism had higher rating than polishing the brass and mahogany.

The second index of the temper of the new fleet came to us as we climbed the gangway of the Polar Star, where Rasputin and his associates once had their fling. Here Bessie Beatty, the American correspondent, was gravely informed that the presence of her sex upon the ships was taboo--it was one of the new rules of the Soviet of Sailors. The captain was polite, much adorned with gold braid, but very helpless.

"I can do nothing at all," he explained dolefully. "Everything is in the hands of the Committee."

"But she has come 10,000 versts [6,600 miles] to see the fleet."

"Well, we can see what the Committee says," he answered. The messenger came back with a special dispensation from the Committee and we were on our way again. Everywhere members of the crew would challenge the presence of a woman in our party, politely capitulating, however, as the captain explained, "By special permit of the Committee."

This Central Committee of the Baltic Sea, or, as it was familiarly known, the Centrobalt, sat in the great cabin deluxe. It was simply a Soviet of the ships. Each contingent of 1,000 sailors had a representative in the committee, which consisted of 65 members, 45 of whom were Bolsheviks. There were four general departments: Administrative, Political, War and Marine, transacting all the affairs of the fleet. The captain had one of the former princes' suites, but from the great cabin he was debarred. Happily my credentials were an open sesame to the committee and the cabin.

The irony of history! Here in these chairs a few months ago lolled a medieval autocrat with his ladies and his lackeys. Now big bronzed seamen sat in them, hammering out problems of the most advanced socialism. The cabin had been cleared for action. The piano and many decorations had been placed in a museum. The tables and lounges were covered with brown canvas burlap. The grand salon was now a workshop. Here hard at work were ordinary seamen suddenly turned legislators, directors and clerks. They were a bit awkward in their new role, but they clung to it with desperate earnestness, 16 hours a day. For they were dreamers gripped by an idea, the drive and scope of which appear in the following address:

To the Representative of the American Social Democracy, Albert Williams, in Reply to his Greetings.

The Russian democracy in the person of the representatives of the Baltic Fleet sends warm greetings to the proletariat of all countries and hearty thanks for the greetings from our brothers in America.

Comrade Williams is the first swallow come flying across to us on the cold waves of the Baltic Sea, which now for over three years has been dyed by the blood of the sons of one family, the International.

The Russian proletariat will strive, up to its last breath, to unite everybody under the red banner of the International. When starting the Revolution, we did not have in view a Political Revolution alone. The task of all true fighters for freedom is the making of a Social Revolution. For this the advance guard of the Revolution, in the person of the sailors of the Russian Fleet, and the workmen, will fight to the end.

The flame of the Russian Revolution, we are sure, will spread over the world and light a fire in the hearts of the workers of all lands, and we shall obtain support in our struggle for a speedy general peace.

The free Baltic Fleet impatiently awaits the moment when it can go to America and relate there all that Russia suffered under the yoke of Czarism, and what it is feeling now when the banner of the struggle for the freedom of peoples is unfurled.


-- The Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet, Fourth Convention

On this table where in good will and amity they had written this address to me, these sailors dipped their pens in vitriol and wrote another. It was addressed to their Commander-in-Chief, Kerensky. He was unable to explain his part in the Kornilov mix-up and had just made an offensive reference to the sailors. They returned the compliment in this wise:

We demand the immediate removal from the government of the "Socialist" political adventurer, Kerensky, who is ruining the great Revolution by his shameless political blackmail in behalf of the bourgeoisie.

To you, Kerensky, traitor to the Revolution, we send our curses. When our comrades are drowning in the Gulf of Riga, and when all of us, as one man, stand ready to lay down our lives for freedom, ready to die in open fight on the sea or on the barricades, you strive to destroy the forces of the fleet. To you we send our maledictions...

This day, however, the men were in festive mood. They were happy over a big find just raised for their soldier comrades on the Riga front, and now were playing host to their first foreign comrade. The Secretary of the Committee escorted me on the pilot-boat to his battleship, the Republic. The entire crew was on deck cheering our approach across the waters. After an official welcome there were loud demands for a speech. My knowledge of Russian was very meager then, and my interpreter knew but little English. I had to fall back on the current revolutionary phrases. But the mere reiteration of the new battle cries had power to charm these new disciples of socialism. The sounding of these slogans in my foreign accent drew an outburst of applause that echoed like a salvo from all the ship's batteries.

It was in these waters that the historic meeting between the Kaiser and the Czar had been staged. The applause could not have been more thunderous (certainly not so spontaneous) than when, as an American internationalist, I shook hands with Averishkin, the Russian internationalist, on the bridge of this battleship off the coast of Finland.

A Ship's Menu, a Club and a College

After our love-feast on deck we retired to the quarters of the ship's committee. I was plied with innumerable questions about the American navy, ranging from "Do American navy officers reflect solely the viewpoint of the upper classes?" to "Are American battleships kept as dean as this one of ours?" As we talked, eggs and steak were brought to me, while each member of the committee was served with a large plate of potatoes. I commented on the difference in the dishes.

"Yours is officer's fare, ours is sailor's," they explained.

"Then why did you make a revolution?" I asked banteringly.

They laughed and said, "The Revolution has given us what we wanted most--freedom. We are masters of our ships. We are masters of our own lives. We have our own courts. We can have shore leave when not on duty. Off duty we have the right to wear civilian clothes. We do not demand everything of the Revolution."

The worldwide rise of the workers, however, is based on their desire, not solely for the first necessities of life, but for a larger part in its amenities. Driving through Helsingfors one night we missed the usual bands of sailors rolling down the streets. Suddenly we were brought sharply up before a building with facade and dimensions of a great modem hotel. We entered and were guided by the music to the dining hall. There, in a room set with palms and glistening with mirrors and silver, sat the diners listening to Chopin and Tchaikovsky, interspersed with occasional ragtime from the American conductor. It was a hotel of the first class, but instead of the usual clientele of a big hotel--bankers, speculators, politicians, adventurers and ornate ladies--it was crowded with bronzed seamen of the war fleet of the Russian Republic, who had commandeered the entire building. Through its curtained halls now streamed a procession of laughing, jesting, arguing sailors in their suits of blue.

Outside in big letters was the sign "Sailors' Club" with its motto, "A welcome to all the sailors of the world." It opened with 10,000 dues-paying members, 90 percent of whom were literate. The dub boasted a much-used magazine room, the nucleus of a library, and an excellent illustrated weekly, The Seaman (Moryak).

They had founded, too, a "university," with courses ranging from the most elementary to the most advanced. In the committee on curriculum I blunderingly asked the chairman from what university he came.

"No university, no school," he relied regretfully. "I come from the dark people, but I am a revolutionist. We did away with the Czar, but a worse enemy is ignorance. We shall do away with that. That is the only way to get a democratic fleet. Now we have a democratic machine, but most of our officers have not the democratic spirit. We must train our officers out of the ranks." In his courses he had enlisted professors from the university, men from the scientific societies and some officers.

How did all this new discipline and comfort affect the fleet? Opinions differ. Many officers said that in destroying the old discipline the technical efficiency was lowered. Others said that considering its ordeal by war and revolution the fleet was in good trim. As the test of its moral efficiency, they pointed to the battle of the Monsund Isles. Outnumbered by the Germans, and outdistanced in speed and gun range, these revolutionary sailors had fought a brilliant engagement with the enemy. All admitted that their fighting morale was superb.

There was no doubt of the enthusiasm of the sailors for their fleet. They had a feeling of communal ownership in it. When the pilot-boat carried me away from the Republic, Averishkin with a gesture that took in all the gray ships riding in the bay, exclaimed, "Our fleet! Our fleet! We shall make it the best fleet in the world. May it always fight for justice!" Then, as if looking through the gray mists which hung above the water and beyond the red mists of the world war, he added, "Until we make the social revolution and the end of all wars."

In Russia this social revolution was coming on apace and these men of the fleet were shortly to be in the vortex of it.

Source: From chapter five of Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution. (Boni and Liveright, 1921), pages 75-85.

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