Comparison between Mazower’s Dark Continent and and Eisenstein’s Potemkin

The 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein portrays a 1905 mutiny of the Russian naval ship Potemkin based on a true story. Set outside Odessa during the 1905 revolution Eisenstein shows the narrative of the social cultural history of time through a settled Soviet Russia viewpoint. Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent follows many of same issues of the Russian revolution and later political instabilities of Europe discussed through the film.
The causes of the mutiny portrayed in the film track the themes but not completely time specifics of Mazower’s history of the Russian revolution. The low quantity and low quality of food available on the ship created issues between the officers and the crew. This issue is similar to the food shortages seen by the peasants and proletariat in 1905. The film notes the failures of the Russo-Japanese war and the undesirable conditions leading to such poor moral. A picture of Tsar Nicolas in the officers’ cabin over top of the piano is subtly inserted with the goal of showing the overall enemy or “executioner” that is not truly labeled in the movie.
Mazower describes many of the overall sentiments and goals of the communist revolutionary movement primarily later in 1917. First you can see the same class structures social differences experienced on the battleship. The separation between classes discussed by Mazower is mirrored with the disgust for which the officers have for their soldiers, and how the people are angered at the wealthy man in Odessa (which is possibly religious based anti-Semitism). Second the common use of violence as a first mean of control is brought up in Mazower speaking to the Cheka and use of state terror. In 1905 the bloody Sunday event of state terror was a catalyst for the first revolution and the history of the Potemkin. In the film the command to kill the sailors came fairly easily and the Cossacks to put down a rebellion killed citizens indiscriminately, accurate to some Tsarist policy.
Some of the things I found difficult to understand were who, besides the officers that tried to execute the sailors, were the opposition that the public was upset with? While they blame the Jews and yell at what appears to be the bourgeoisies group, the people look to be an eclectic group of society including both spectrums of social classes. Obviously the Cossacks showed extreme violence as to show the Tsar again to be the enemy but as a film it was never said the antagonist outright. Also the religion aspect of the film seemed to the excess of Soviet propaganda. Mazower’s work does not describe that much hatred of clergy and Orthodox Church by 1905. I instead understood later anti religious politics to be the intellectuals’ policy for a more efficient communist system.

Two Portraits of Revolution (Re-post)

Revolution has proven to be an incendiary topic throughout history, thus becoming the subject of countless different interpretations across various mediums.  Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, a rigorous portrait of early twentieth-century European governments, and Battleship Potemkin, a Russian propaganda film relating the story of a Russian sailing crew’s mutiny against the ship’s oppressive officers, present two equally informative images of the Russian revolution that vary drastically in perspective.

Mazower’s text revisits the topic of interwar European government from a perspective that does not presuppose the primacy of democracy.  Consequently, he presents the Russian revolution as a quasi re-imagination of liberal democracy.  The author recounts the revolution’s optimistic origins as a move toward the unification of Russia behind the “‘universal democratic soul’” described by Prince Lvov (Mazower, 10).  However, Mazower acknowledges the divisions that arose due to the ambiguity of the revolution’s goal (i.e. “‘bourgeois democratic’” vs. “‘proletarian socialist’”) and how this ultimately led Russia to be “squeezed increasingly tightly between the twin extremes of communism and fascism” (Mazower, 10 & 13).

Conversely, in Battleship Potemkin, the sobering relative objectivity that pervades Mazower’s work vanishes into overt propaganda.  The plot is simple and quickly established by the on-screen dialogue, which is dominated by rallying cries for revolution such as “All for one and one for all!” and “Let nothing divide us!”  These lines originate in the mouths of the mutinous sailors and eventually find their way to the people of Odessa, who rally against the Tsarist regime upon hearing the story of the death of sailor Vakulinchuk (“Killed for a plate of soup”).  This text in conjunction with the insistently dramatic bombast of the score and several poignant images (the destruction of the Odessa Opera House, a baby carriage careening down a flight of steps in the midst of a riot) creates a poignant albeit transparent appeal to the pathos of the viewing audience in an attempt to glorify the concept of a Russian revolution.

Ultimately, Mazower’s view of the Russian revolution is one of factual pragmatism that benefits from several decades of hindsight and research, while Battleship Potemkin (much like Triumph of the Will) is equally useful as an image of one faction’s ambitions created in the climate of the revolution it advocated.

Comparing Mazower and Battleship Potemkin

In the film Battleship Potemkin the sailors of the vessel revolt and over throw the command after being severely mistreated and abused. In the opening scene of the movie a caption appears saying “there’s a limit to what a man can take,” in reference to his constant struggle and pattern of harassment. The mutiny that takes place on the ship is representative of the same struggle that occurs on the soil of the Russian homeland. On the boat it is the common sailors vs. their oppressive officers, and on the mainland it is the workers vs. the Tsarist regime. This film could be considered a piece of revolutionary propaganda because it glamorized the working class by showing a banded, cohesive group of like minded people rising up and taking things into their own hands through power in numbers.

While Mazower’s Dark Continent does not go into much detail about Russia prior to WWI, there are a lot of recurring themes and similarities that exist, principally dealing with violent overthrows instigated by the middle and working classes. Although Battleship Potemkin is set in 1905, the Russian people are still dealing with very similar issues in both time periods. Some similarities that I noticed in the two works is how Mazower wrote, in reference to Tsarist times compared to communist rule, “but it differed too in its conception of revolutionary politics as civil war, wherein state terror had a special role as an instrument of class struggle” (p.12). The sailors on the Potemkin were victims of this when some of the sailors were designated for execution for refusing to eat the rotten meat. In response, the sailors dealt their superiors a crushing blow by rousing a mutiny and symbolically tossing them overboard, cleansing themselves of their oppressive regime.


FUN FACT: Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, proclaimed the film to be “A marvelous film without equal in the cinema … anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film,” even though there was a man in the film who made an anti semitic slur during the rally and was beaten in the street by the mob. This scene highlighted how the Russian cause did not discriminate in terms of race or ethnicity, it was solely about class struggle and united all workers.             … Quite ironic

How propaganda was used: Mazower’s “Dark Continent” and Eisenstein’s “October”

October: Ten Days that Shook the World, directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century illustrate differing perspectives of Russia’s October Revolution–the film is clearly a work of propaganda. The film shows exclusively positive elements of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The film tries to express the ‘unilateral’ support of the Proletariat at a time when Stalin was fighting to gain complete and undeniable control over the country. For this reason, Trotsky has a minimal role at the beginning of the Revolution. The film uses words to update the audience on changes, but offers no further explanation of why Trotsky, for instance, wanted to postpone an armed uprising. Stalin’s government wants to stop Trotsky’s influence to help cement his own claim to the Soviet Union. The film, in condemning the opinions of Trotsky, places Lenin as the hero of the revolution. This idea was used to aid Stalin at the beginning of his reign so that he could gain more legitimacy–he was following in the footsteps of Lenin. Eventually, this type of propaganda will change as Stalin begins to distance himself from Lenin and Lenin’s plans for the USSR–namely, the New Economic Plan for Collectivization and Dekulakization.

The film clearly exaggerates certain events: the toppling of the czar’s statue in the first few moments of the film is a key example of this. This film celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the Revolution. To do this successfully, the film needed to show that the Revolution had broad and sweeping support. Each time opponents of the Revolution are shown, words such as “traitors” and “turncoats” are flashed across the screen to show that these men and women have betrayed their country. Moreover, the film shows violent confrontations unfolding as the Bolsheviks win control over St. Petersburg/Petrograd and the Winter Palace–an event that occurred without violence and bloodshed.

Furthermore, all representations of the Provisional Government show a lazy group that does not fight for all the people. Near the end of the film there are many words shown across the screen that show the Provisional Government as wanting to discuss the changes and negotiate, rather then implement changes. The strongest image is when the screen says the Provisional Government is trying to save itself, but flashes to an empty office.

The film ends with the win of the Bolsheviks. This win is displayed “across the world” with the use of clocks to show that this is a monumental step for the entire world. The other countries will soon follow the example of the USSR and communism will become the new world order. The film presents a romanticized perspective of the Revolution and one that is extraordinarily different from the history described by Mazower. In Dark Continent, the Revolution is placed within the context of the extreme political change and radical political sentiments that were shaking Europe as WWI unfolded and ended. None of this was explored within the film because it would have undermined the struggle of the people that the Soviet government wanted to propagate.

Drama on the Deck- How Battleship Potemkin is an analogy for Interwar Europe

Mazower describes Europe in the years between the two world wars as a period of radical changes within the various countries due to social and economic disconnects between the ruling bodies and those governed by them. Eistenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin, specifically the 2nd scene, serves as an excellent analogy of revolutionary Europe.

If the battleship is viewed as Europe/anyone of the revolutionary countries, there is a connection between the sailors’ plight and that of the citizens of Europe. While Eistenstein deals with the oppression of civilians specifically in his movie, I feel as if the struggle the sailors undergo better represents Europe as a whole. Because they have the three basics tenets of life-Food, shelter and water- the sailors are in better living conditions than some following World War I. However, it is the quality of the trifecta that pushes them over the edge, much like the quality of life in Europe pushes many to revolt and change their system of government. The sailors deal not only with maggot-ridden meat, they have cramped living conditions and are forced to deal with an oppressive master, a master which represents the Tzar, the autocrats and the ineffective democracies of Europe.

The conflict that the sailors undergo against the officers is similar to that of the conflict Germans deal with in the 20’s and 30’s. While there is a governmental body, they have about as much influence and control over the German citizens as the officers have over the enlisted sailors. While they are able to attempt to control the sailors and even prepare to execute a few of them, it is a leader, selected from the mob of men that ends that crushing oppression, much like Hitler and the National Socialists emerged from Germany. The trends seen in Battleship Potemkin are those of a future war-torn Europe, one that was as “crippled” as Russia was at the end of the movie.

The Destruction of the Plate

When studying historical events there are many ways to learn about a certain subject. A couple of ways one can study a historical event is through the use of literature and films. While learning about the Russian Revolution, I read the section on the Russian Revolution in the novel Dark Continent by Mark Mazower and watched the silent film Battleship Potemkin directed by Sergei Eisenstein. In their own ways, both of these works touch upon the division of social classes in Russia in 1905 and the tension that accompanies the division.

Battleship Potemkin depicts the Russian Revolution on a smaller scale, through the mutiny of soldiers aboard a ship. The scene that interests me the most from Battleship Potemkin is surprisingly not one of the many gory scenes depicted in this film. It is instead of the crew members doing the dishes. One crew member comes across a plate that puts a look of anger, betrayal, and disgust on his face. I was intrigued as to what could have possibly angered him so much. This plate turned out to say “give us this day our daily bread.” He takes this plate, shows it to his fellow crew members, and then violently throws it to the ground. Although there is an obvious religious affiliation with this plate, I believe it symbolizes something other than the destruction of religion. The tension in Russia before the revolution is depicted through this poor crew member looking at the aristocrat’s plate he is being forced to wash. This man that was provided rotten meat is now supposed to clean the very plate on which his overseers, the aristocrats, had eaten a perfectly good meal on. To me, this shattering plate symbolizes the anger of the common man towards the upper class, and the hope for destruction of democracy, aristocracy, and the division of the social classes. From this disdain for the division of social classes comes the desire for equality, and a desire for a government centered around the ideas of communism.

This scene from Battleship Potemkin relates the writing of Mazower about the Russian Revolution in his novel Dark Continent. Mazower writes about the fall of democracy, aristocracy, and the rise of communism due to the peasants (or crew members in Battleship Potemkins) desires. “In the factories, in the countryside and in the ranks, social order was collapsing, and the middle ground in Russian politics disappeared (Mazower 11). The lower class wanted their “daily bread” and felt that communism would be the solution to their “starvation.” They wanted a Russia where everyone was equal; where everyone could afford land, food, and water. Aristocracy needed to come to end, and the Russian Revolution began the process of attempting to close the gap within the social classes. Russia’s current government was not adequate in providing the people what they wanted, and thus they revolted.

Socialism and Battleship Potemkin

While watching the film, Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein, I found it so interesting how it mimicked the Russian Revolution on a small scale. One of the first lines of dialogue was “We must stand in front of revolution”. This line came from one of the sailors and, in my opinion, was the most defining line in the movie. It represents the crucial role the working class played in not only this movie, or even in the revolution itself, but in socialism as a whole. With this, I can completely understand why this movie goes down in history as one of the best propaganda films of all time.

The movie centered around sailors uprising against the unfair treatment by the captain and his men and the disastrous aftermath in the town of Odessa. There we see the Tsarist regime massacring the city after coming together to pay their dues to the dead soldier. It is also really interesting to me how the film represented the Tsar relinquishing power. At the end, when the enemy could’ve fired at the sailors, they did not. It’s almost as if they knew there was nothing more they could do to suppress the inevitable. Similarly, in “Abdication”, the Tsar is relinquishing his power because the people are revolting due to concerns for their own welfare and disdain for the regime. With the way the Tsar was portrayed in the film, it seems absolutely reasonable that the people are calling for a revolution and moving towards communism. Grand Duke Mikhail, who accepts power from the Tsar, explains how he will rule based on “desire of the people”. It’s intriguing to see the progression of not only the people’s want for socialism, but the leader’s eventual move towards it as the revolution grows.

The entire film is about the revolution coming from the working class. Lenin’s “What Have I Done?”, is also entirely about how the revolution will come from the working class. Several times in the film we hear things like “All for one, one for all!”, and even more appropriate, “All against one, one against all”. The movie so cleverly encompassed very important aspects of socialism.

In Dark Continent, Mazower speaks about an end to “lawlessness and social anarchy through decisive state action” (p.11) , as seen in the film. The people do not want to be prisoners of their own government. I thought the main theme was portrayed perfectly of how the bourgeoisie would be no more, and that the working population will be invested in in order to unify the nation. Mazower agrees on page 12, where he talks about how priority was now given to the masses. Socialism seemed to work in Russia, as portrayed by both Mazower and the Battleship Potemkin, because the Tsarist regime (and liberal regime) failed to work. 

An aspect of the film I found really very compelling were the subtle religious references. The first being the biblical inscription on the plate a sailor smashed, which I think may have represented socialism’s disdain for religious because it divides a nation. Perhaps it could’ve also represented the class division, since they were not fed off of those plates.  The second was a anti-semmetic comment which fits the time period. However, the crowd was outraged at the comment further insuring that there is no room for inequality.



Religion in Battleship Potemkin

Traditionally, when people are in unsatisfactory situations, or are unhappy with their lives, they turn to religion. The Communist Party flips the notion of religion as a solace on its head, and preaches that religion is what keeps the lower classes appeased and prevents them from taking down those that oppress them. In Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein, this Communist ideal and its merits are displayed.

The film takes place during the 1905 Revolution, in which the lower classes rallied together to fight the Czar. The most interesting thing, to me, was the portrayal/the importance of religion in the film. Before the mutiny on the ship takes place, a sailor breaks a plate that has “give us this day our daily bread” in-scripted on it. During the mutiny, a priest stands in the way of the sailors, siding with the captain and the officers. In this way, religion is shown as a proponent of the Czar and his authority. Distain for religion is  a large part of Communism, which, at the time that the film was made, was the political ideology of the Russian government. The film was ostentatiously about the 1905 Revolution, but it was really a way to enforce the views of the Communist party, and reiterate the reasons why Russia turned to Communism in the first place.

Because they both morphed into authoritarian states, German Fascism and Russian Communism are often look at as similar forms of government; they are not. The film shows this when a Russian aristocrat says “Kill the Jews”, and all of the lower class people attack him for this comment. In Russia, everyone was supposed to be equal, and religion and ethnicity were things to be forgotten with the rise of Communism. In Russia, it was the rich and privileged who were hated, regardless of ethnicity and/or religion. In Germany, it was quit the opposite; the Germans wanted to racially cleanse their country. As Mazower explains in Dark Continent, “the law no longer protected the rights of jews and gypsies, as well as “degenerate” classes of Aryans” in Nazi Germany (Mazower 33).

This film illustrates why Communism was appealing to the Russian people. The brutal actions of the Czar’s regime are connected to religion, and both the regime and the church must lose their power for the people to gain theirs. Battleship Potemkin reminds the Russian people of the camaraderie they share under the rule of the Communist government.