Key Revolutionary Food

Battleship Potemkin, a silent film by Sergei Eisenstein, dramatizes historical events during the Revolution of 1905. The story tells of a crew of sailors who mutiny against their officers onboard the Battleship Potemkin due to poor conditions (primarily rotten meat). Following the mutiny, the Potemkin sails to the port city of Odessa where the sailors receive aid from the townspeople, but the ship’s arrival prompts demonstrations across the city and the Tsarist soldiers respond by mercilessly shooting into crowds of civilians on the famous Odessa Steps. The film concludes with a squadron, tasked with capturing the insubordinate battleship, ultimately joining the rebellious ship and continuing the revolution.

The fact that the Battleship Potemkin’s mutiny was caused by rotten meat demonstrates food’s enormous power. Even though morale was already low due to the recent Russian disastrous defeat at the Battle of Tsushima, it was when the sailors were given maggot-infested bread that the mutiny actually occurred. This dramatized mutiny is important because it was a significant part of the large scale Revolution of 1905. The final scene of the film, depicting the squadron escorting the Potemkin away, symbolizes the revolution at hand continuing beyond the decks of ships onto the land of Russia. While the Revolution of 1905 ultimately failed after three years, it did affect the Russian Revolution which did result in the end of the Russian Empire and the Bolshevik takeover. This means that the food on the Potemkin was an indirect cause for a major revolution in Russia that changed the world forever.

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In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto which discusses the problems with capitalism and class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeois. Eisenstein’s work portrays many of the ideas presented in the Manifesto.

One idea explored in the film is that the machinery and specialization of labor has made the work of the proletariat (the sailors) lose all of its individual character. While the machinery on the ship may not be quite as autonomous as that of the factories on land, the sense of the ship as a giant machine the men work day and night to maintain is present. By specialization of labor, each sailor has very specific duties that simply sustain the machine (ship). This indicates that the proletariat’s work has lost the charm and spice it once possessed.

Marx and Engels also assert that the masses of laborers, crowded into factories, are organized like soldiers and enslaved by their masters and work. While the sailors of the Potemkin are actually in the military, they being forced to eat maggot-infested bread as well as servicing the ship at all hours is slavery.

A third concept depicted is that the proletariat can only achieve victory through unification. The beginning of the film shows life as normal with the sailors under the unjust rule of the officers. Only when Vakulinchuk (the leader of the mutiny), is able to rally the sailors against the injustice on their ship, do the sailors (proletariat) overthrow their oppressive officers.

Eisenstein is able to incorporate the importance of food (through rotten meat given to the sailors) into a delivery of many of the ideas found within The Communist Manifesto.

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