“Myself and the Military Boat”

A meeting with the only living survivor of the Potemkin.

An interview between Ivan Beshoff and international journalist Enzo Farinella produced for the Italian News Agency (ANSA) in 1987 and published in several Italian newspapers. This copy was published in La Sicilia (June 14th, 1987) and reproduced with the author’s permission.

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The massacre on the steps of Odessa recounted in the principle scene of the most famous film of all time, never happened: so says Ivan Beshoff, who is 104 years old and lives in Dublin.

“In this turbulent year 1905, we were about three kilometres from Odessa on the Potemkin, which had been launched two years previously and was considered to be the pride of the imperial Tsarist fleet. There were 155 of us on board and we had 32 heavy weapons, of which six were large ones. At Odessa there were only two shots fired and these were not even in the city. We remained outside the port for three days. We needed supplies, water and coal, and the people of the city had given these to us. The nobles, against whom we were fighting, had fled from the city. There was no point therefore to bomb and kill our working brothers”.

And so saying, Ivan Beshoff, a lively elderly man who notwithstanding his age lived alone in his house in Artane on the northside of Dublin, brusquely interrupted his account to ask “Do you feel cold” as he was always concerned about everyone. Then, tightening the belt around his jacket while the fire warmed up the sitting room on a typically miserable Irish afternoon he continued.

“The nobles were everywhere and untouchable. They controlled all the wealth and any one of them could own up to 2,000 hectacres of land in the Ukraine. The labourers worked for a pittance. They had moreover to provide their own food and their working day was 12 hours long. Their conditions were pitiful. They had no boots, no shoes and no bed where they could sleep. They did not have toilets and to wash themselves they went to the river. They were like slaves. The nobles whipped those who showed signs of weakness or those who did not work quickly enough.

At Odessa the soldiers had started to fight together with the common people to overturn a bad situation. The Potemkin however always remained at a distance of two to three kilometres. The film (depiction) is partly true, and partly not.

All Russia was in revolt. 3,000 people were killed in this inauspicious year of 1905 in almost any part of Russia. This was the time when the rule of Tsar Nicolas was breaking down. According to a common plan, the navy was to block the ports of the Black Sea, while on land the revolutionaries were to rise up. But the plan did not work. Particular circumstances led to mutiny on the Potemkin.

We arrived at Odessa by the Black Sea, returning from the mutiny on the Potemkin which in part reflected the conditions of Tsarist Russia. This first mutiny woke up the people who were sleeping. The revolt started at lunchtime, at 12 o’clock. There were maggots in the food. The meat was rotten and the bread was hard. The officer had ordered the cooks to cook it nevertheless. At that time no one could speak up or contradict an order. They would be immediately arrested and put shore, where they would be sentenced to 30 days in prison. But Varukinciuk, a sailor friend of mine, had the courage to protest against these living conditions to an officer whom he found on the bridge at the time.

This man, a real tyrant, a Polish man, suddenly took out his pistol and left Varukinciuk laid out on lifeless. This was the beginning of the rebellion and the crew mutinied. Matiuscenko took command of the mutineers and ordered them immediately to force open the armory on board and to take possession of the arms and munitions. Some officers opposed this and a scuffle broke out with continuous gunfire in which the some ended up in the sea, alive or dead.

The mutiny lasted only one day. It was a protest against the food and conditions in general. The crew earned only a schilling a month. They were only allowed to go ashore on the first Sunday of the month if they had behaved themselves well.

This mutiny and the election of a “Committee of the people” on the Potemkin were the prelude to a more bloody revolution which followed 12 years later. In 1905 separate sections of the Socio-democratic party had already formed on board many ships of the tsarist fleet, but numerous spies had infiltrated the crew and every time they stopped in the ports of the Black Sea dozens of sailors were arrested and tried.

Ivan Beshoff was one of the protagonists of this mutiny and he is the only witness still in alive in the world. On the Potemkin life was hard, but well organised. Only the best and the strongest gained entry.

“I enlisted in 1902 after being on a small ship the year earlier” recounted Ivan, his small penetrating eyes again reliving the experiences of that time – “I was 20 years old. After three months training I was assigned to the fleet of the Black Sea. In general you were sent to a ship but my first destination was a torpedo boat, not anchored, with about 50 people on board. There was a certain period at sea and then you returned ashore for two or three weeks. My rank on board was that of sergeant major. During my career on the torpedo boat I was court martialled, accused of conspiracy while I was ashore. The court wished to know the names of the people whom I met or with whom I had contact. I could not say anything and neither were they able to prove anything. Nevertheless they kept me confined in a hole for 30 days. They gave me bread and water twice daily. Every third day I received a bowl of soup and a cup of milk. During these 30 days I never saw the light of the sun. After being released they assigned me to the Potemkin where I became a mechanic in the machine room. This was 1905.

After Odessa there was continuing travel for Ivan Beshoff. No one had dared to attack the Potemkin, which had set sail for Romania. For 11 days we were going around without provisions. Then we docked in Romania where we stayed for three weeks, before opening the doors of the ship, allowing it to sink and scattering. The Romanian government were not interested in us and they left us free to circulate as we wished. After a few days some of my fellow sailors went to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany and about 40 went to England, from where they reached South America. Years later, in 1924, I met 40 of them in Rosario in one of my visits to that city.

After the end of the first world war many were already well organised and settled down and the majority of them worked at cereal farming. Some of them had asked Stalin to be allowed to return to Russia but they had never received any answer.

From Romania, I ended up in Turkey, hidden in the coal bunker of a German ship. Only one sailor knew of my presence there. From Turkey, as a free citizen, I reached Antwerp, where I found work as an engineer, and from there I went to Rotterdam.

In 1906, travelling from Rotterdam to London, I heard of Lenin and a certain Russian organisation which existed in London. I wished to meet with him and we had lunch together at No. 27 Commerical Road; I can never forget it. To tell the truth I did not know then who he was! My situation was precarious; I had no money and no work. I was like a dog and moreover I did not speak English. In London, where there was a restaurant and a Russian circle, fugitives from Tzarist Russia, I remained only for a day, having to return to the ship. Anyway I came across Lenin again in the English capital in 1911, when I was introduced to the founder of the Trade Unions in Ireland, Jim Larkin.

I worked then as an engineer on a ship and travelled around the whole world, but always far from Russia. Before the 1914-1918 war it was not possible for me to return and also I did not like Stalin. In 1927, 1937 and 1962 I made short visits to Russia. My family were dead. Many people were killed during the first world war. My father was dead, my mother also; she died before the revolution. An older brother of mine was killed during the first world war. Indeed I saw my two sisters again, the last time in 1927. They were married with two daughters and their husbands were killed in the second world war. The daughters who returned to Russia from Germany mysteriously disappeared. It was said that they either returned to Germany or were killed. Anyway I knew nothing more of them. Many people begged me to return to Russia assuring me by saying “Stalin will pardon you” and also later I was promised honours and a life of financial security, but for the love of liberty I chose another country.

In 1911 I was in Italy on the ship where I worked. We had started a journey to Rosario carrying chocolate and barley to make beer. We were docked in Italy in a small port whose name I cannot remember. In Italy we loaded barrels of wine.

I reached Ireland in 1913, tired of the continuous travelling at sea at the service of others. I wished to make a new life for myself. I searched for work in Dublin without success. The Catholic Irish people from the start of the 20th century had more than a little doubt and an open distrust of the Russian Bolcheviks.

On one occasion they needed an engineer on a ship in Dublin but when they realised that my name was Russian and that I came from Russia I was turned down for this work.

Anyway the young Ivan worked very hard in Ireland and worked first for a small distributor of oil and, having made his mark in this activity, he was introduced in Ireland (to a new career) by Italian people from Lazio, the famous people who were frying fish and chips. Soon he found a wife, a beautiful girl from Tipperary called Nora Dunne. “She gave cookery lessons in a school run by nuns near Dublin Bay”, said Ivan, pointing with his finger at a photograph of his beloved Nora, who had died in 1975. “She had thought of becoming a nun but she changed her mind when she met me”, he added jokingly at his great age of 104 years! “Nora was a Catholic and I remained Orthodox but we went to church together and the parish priest was always my very good friend”.

In Ireland Ivan Beshoff made many friends. “I knew Eamon De Valera, Countress Markievicz, George Shannon and many others. All my life I had to suffer a lot. Immediately after the Civil War of 1922 I was arrested by the Fine Gael Government as a spy. George Shannon had me imprisoned for a month while my friend De Valera had me arrested in Galway in 1932, holding me at the prison in Limerick”.

“I worked at this time with oil products from Russia. At the beginning of the second world war the oil company had stopped working in Ireland. It was then that I opened my first fish and chip shop in North Strand Road that unfortunately was bombed by the Germans. From there I transferred to another place that now I have passed on to my son Anthony. For this reason we know the Italian community in Dublin well.”

Ivan Beshoff was born five kilometres from Odessa, 104 years ago in 1882. His longevity it seems is a family gift. “My father who fought against the Turks died at 106 years, my grandmother at 113”. During his marriage to Nora Dunne he had five sons (one died at the age of 6; Frederick, the oldest lives in Canada; Ivan in London, while Tony and Anthony live in Ireland) and a daughter who lives in London.

He is deaf as a bell but his mind is still fresh, his intelligence lively, his two small eyes transmitting sparks of goodness. He still retains contact with Russia through a pair of friends and receives post and magazines. He remains above all profoundly loyal to his beloved Odessa and to Ukraine which he declares is the best land in the world.

Despite his age he was always ready to make a joke. “Would you like to take a photo – Ah, don’t bother!” A few days previously he was the guest of honour at a breakfast of fish and chips and champagne at 9 in the morning to celebrate the opening of his nephew Gerry’s new fish and chip shop in the centre of Dublin. People present for the occasion included Charles J. Haughey, the Mayor of the city, the Chief Justice and various deputies. Ivan Beshoff drank a toast with everyone as he moved around the room, assisted by his stick but always standing upright. He loved to chat with everyone and naturally he loved the company. “Come back and I will tell you many other things about my life and the Russia I left a long time ago”. He often makes his day, which is spent in front of the TV which is always on, happier with a glass of something. Then spontaneously at the end of the interview he asked “A drink?” His offer is sincere, his smile disarming. The words crash onto each other from his mouth, sometimes in a different language following images that get lost in time and space. His English is unusual, but from his gestures, from his eyes, his expression, one can understand what he is saying or wants to say in words that are incomprehensible. In the house where he still lives alone (having always refused to go and live with one of his children) he runs to catch the ghosts of his youth across the wide expanse of the sea, and also the memories of his life in Ireland and most of all the memories of his beloved wife Nora to whom he still feels close in the intimacy of his home.

After the interview he wished to accompany me to the door of the house and while I was going to the car, parked outside the little garden, he repeated Goodbye in Russian many times: “Dosvidanie”, “Spassibo”.

Mr. Beshoff will be a guest on Italian TV around the end of January.

(Ivan Beshoff died on Oct 25th 1987)

Image of the article in La Sicilia. Image of the article in La Sicilia. Image of the article in La Sicilia. Image of the article in La Sicilia.