Thoughts on Battleship Potemkin and Propaganda

By the 1890s, the technology of photography had evolved to a point where motion pictures were possible, and it didn’t take long for mankind to realize the enormous potential of the medium for propaganda. Motion pictures were easily understood for all levels of education, in spite of a silent screen, and could reach the masses in minimal time. Within 30 years of the first motion picture ever filmed, Russian movie maker Sergei Eisenstein had directed Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) with the purpose of creating goodwill for the Bolsheviks and building resentment towards the Tsarists.

Eisenstein attempted to edit the film in such a way as to produce the greatest emotional response, so that the viewer would feel sympathy for the rebellious sailors of the Battleship Potemkin and hatred for their overlords. In the manner of most propaganda, the characterization is simple, so that the audience could clearly see with whom they should sympathize (“Battleship Potemkin,” 2016)

For a Hall of Propaganda, Battleship Potemkin merits a centerpiece position because it is a prime example of manipulating an audience with a controlled message. No dialog is needed to show Battleship Potemkin’s audience that sailor Vakulenchuk is the hero. He inspires his men to mutiny against the evil Tsarist officials who would have them eat maggot-ridden meat.

Russian Imperial_Family, 1911
Russian Imperial_Family, 1911

Upon viewing this film, it seems logical that most would perceive Vakulenchuk’s cause as just, and to recognize the ultimate price he paid. Conveniently forgotten for most viewers is that these are the same Bolsheviks who showed no mercy when, in July 1918, they murdered a whole family of seven along with their four servants (“Execution of the Romanov family,” 2017). Eighty years later, in July 1998, the remains of the imperial Romanov family were officially buried in a state funeral (BBC, 1998).

Propaganda often succeeds

Such is the intent of propaganda. More often than not, it succeeds. When watching movies, people are distracted from real life; they are relaxed and being entertained. How easy it is to manipulate a passive state of mind. Before we even sit down to watch Battleship Potemkin, we are already familiar with the character Vakulenchuk, who has been represented in any number of familiar stories. He is King David’s battle cry against Goliath. He is a humble carpenter whose teachings frustrated the powers-that-be until Pontius Pilate, between a rock and a hard place (Roman Caesar Tiberius and Jewish Caiaphas) had Him, the son of God, hung on a cross and crucified. The Bolshevik sailor, Vakulenchuk, has the audience sympathizing with his plight from the beginning, thus he has won them over.

The 20th century was shaped by a handful of Vakulenchuks. Mahatma Gandhi preached non-violent ways to gain India’s independence from Great Britain; Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. followed this example to lead the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Despite Gandhi’s and King’s peaceful protests, both suffered brutality by the governments they defied, and both were assassinated. Nelson Mandela sacrificed 27 years of his life in jail in order to end apartheid in South Africa. These real-life leaders shouldered the burden of their causes to the point where they became the uncontested symbols of their movements. There is no surer way to cement the loyalty of followers than martyrdom.

The intent to avoid martyrdom is precisely why in 2011 the US. Military, under President Barack Obama’s orders, swiftly conducted an Arabian Sea burial for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Otherwise, the body or grave site of this 9/11 Mastermind would have intensified the jihadists’ revenge towards the United States. In Battleship Potemkin, the body of Vakulenchuk drew out legions of people from Odessa in solidarity with their martyr, only to be trampled by the authoritarian Tsarists. Our collective attention is on Vakulenchuk and away from the the harsh reality—the relentless Bolsheviks were subsequently responsible for The Red Terror, a campaign of mass killings that resulted in the deaths of 10,000 to 15,000 people. Propaganda is not only deceiving, it can be deadly!

Yet, it can be enlightening too. Patriot Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called “Common Sense” to advocate for formal independence from Great Britain. A persuasive writer, Paine appealed to the colonists for support in the cause of self-government. He wrote in language that was on the average colonist’s reading level. Despite not being religious himself, Paine quoted the Bible throughout “Common Sense,” knowing that God’s Word was important to them (“Thomas Paine’s common sense,” 2008).

Not everyone in the Thirteen Original Colonies wanted a formal separation from Great Britain, so this little pamphlet of propaganda helped turn the tide of support. Then, seven months after “Common Sense” was published in January of 1776, the “Declaration of Independence” was written and signed by our Founding Fathers.

Wrote Thomas Jefferson to James Madison in 1787, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical” (“Founders online: From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison,” 1787). Without it, we would be singing, “God Save the Queen” (The 2016 US Election had some joking about just that, e.g., Borowitz, 2016, Oct 26), the French would still be scavenging for bread, while descendants of Marie Antoinette would be eating cake at Versailles. Who knows how many pairs of shoes Imelda Marcos would have by now? Propaganda is sometimes necessary to rally people to a just cause of revolution—to overthrow a government or a ruler who is not adequately leading or representing them.

Propaganda utilized by governments

Unfortunately, propaganda is also utilized by governments for the opposite effect: to lure the people to their cause only to suppress them after achieving power. Just like the Russian Bolsheviks, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Cuba all used propaganda in all its available forms for this purpose. Once the people are under absolute control with no freedom of press, no freedom of speech, and no right to bear arms, there is no hope for a revolution. Escape or defection then becomes the only recourse for those who understand the situation and are willing to take the risk. Recently, the North Korean Deputy Ambassador to London defected to South Korea, and he is stating that a higher flow of information is all it will take to bring down the ruthless Dictator Kim Jong Un (Hu, 2017).

Advertising, public relations, politics—it’s all propaganda. Consider the British monarchy. It has been 20 years since the tragic death of Princess Diana, resulting in mass grief on a scale likely never seen before. In deep shock, people laid an ocean of flowers at Kensington Palace, while Queen Elizabeth II and other Royal Family members remained out of reach in Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The news media reported widespread anger towards the House of Windsor as the people strongly criticized Queen Elizabeth II for not traveling to London to grieve with them.

In response, Queen Elizabeth II was asked (or maybe pressured) to make a special live broadcast to address the princess’s death, only the second time in her long reign to speak to her subjects other than the annual Christmas speech (“Elizabeth II,” 1983). At the funeral, Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of Princess Diana as “the people’s princess.” Her brother, the Earl Spencer, said “she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.” While sitting stoically in the pews with the whole world watching, the Royals listened to these words that implied their aloofness to their subjects, their emotional distance and lack of warmth. The Royal House of Windsor was in an existential crisis.

Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II, 2009

Now, look at what has transpired since then. Queen Elizabeth II has a approval rating of 90% or above; it is as high as it has ever been in her 65 plus year reign (Perlman, 2016). Prince Charles and his paramour, Camilla Parker-Bowles, a woman Diana accused of crowding her marriage, are well established as Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. If Prince William looked around the world, he might not have found a more perfect woman to marry than Kate Middleton. Royal Family members work hard through engagements and charity to remain relevant in Great Britain. Among the many other factors that go into this are patience, luck, and lots of smart public relations planning.

Recent media and entertainment portrays the Windsors in a sympathetic light. In 2006, Stephen Frears’ film,The Queen, seems to justify the reaction of Queen Elizabeth II to Princess Diana’s death (O’Rourke, 2007). In 2010, in The King’s Speech, Colin Firth portrays King George VII as a calm, humble, and good leader—like his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Now there is a Netflix series, The Crown, that puts the Queen on a pedestal. I also suspect that the Masterpiece Theater series, Downton Abbey, had something to do with promoting the House of Windsor, because the show simultaneously glamorizes and humanizes the aristocracy. It took a little propaganda over the years to persuade us, but the mission is accomplished. The world reveres Queen Elizabeth II, and her eventual death may consequently rival Princess Diana’s in its massive scale of solidarity and grief.

Social media, a powerful tool for propaganda

Another powerful tool for propaganda has exploded on the scene—social media. Facebook is a prominent example. It is likely that Mark Zuckerberg’s product surpasses film in its effectiveness with propaganda today. Any active Facebook aficionado can easily start propaganda that may spread to over 1.79 billion people via users who are all connected to the same network. It does not take much imagination to persuade Facebook “friends” to believe whatever you wish concerning any aspect of your life. A quick scroll through your newsfeed reveals advertisements galore, happenings in your local town, friends’ family pictures, your cousin’s vacation updates, what your next-door neighbor served for dinner, your college roommate’s political views, links to blogs, and exponentially more. Comments, “likes” and “shares” help to spread each of the above faster than wildfire.

In 2012, two-year-old Tripp Halstead from Winder, Georgia was playing outside when a tree branch fell on his head. While he was fighting for his life at Atlanta’s Egleston Hospital, his mother’s friend started a Facebook Page called “Tripp Halstead Updates,” which garnered many likes from concerned family and friends. After the local news picked up the heart-wrenching story, the page snowballed into over 1 million likes from around the world. From as far away as Japan, people were pulling for the little blond-haired boy with the adorable smile who survived and is an inspiration. While the story of Tripp Halstead is not propaganda, it is an example of Facebook’s powerful potential for it.

Facebook has also become a primary source of news for many users, and with no oversight on the validity of articles, users are at high risk of staking their political opinions on false information. “Fake news” (or lying, if you wish to shed the euphemism) is extremely serious, as it has spread to the mainstream media, which has been long-considered sacrosanct.

Very recently, one of the biggest and fastest-planned movements in the history of mankind is reported to have started on Facebook (Stein & Somashekhar 2017). The day after the 45th President of the United States was sworn into office, Facebook walls lit up one after another, like Christmas-tree lights, with posts of women proudly marching as activists in the Women’s March in every major city in the US. This began in Hawaii, with a Facebook post by a retired lawyer, Teresa Shook. Her one single post, suggesting a pro-women’s march demonstrating resistance to the anticipated policies of President Donald Trump, then quickly grew into over over 1 million people marching all over the US. Each post about the Women’s March was propaganda in itself as pictures, words of encouragement, and reports of the widespread event had dominated the newsfeeds. Large organizations snapped to the opportunity to provide funding that would allow a platform for commercializing and promotion of espoused political positions, and created controversy and dissent along the way.

It is unfortunate that Facebook is both the best place to reach people and the worst place to conduct political discussion. Imagine any major protest in the twentieth century promoted via Facebook; there would have been no shortage of “infighting” enshrined on social media for everyone to see. (Tolentino, 2017).

Overwhelmed and under pressure, the original organizers eventually handed the reins to a diverse group of veteran female activists from New York: Mallory, the gun-control activist; Linda Sarsour executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; Carmen Perez, head of the Gathering for Justice, a criminal-justice-reform group; and Bob Bland, a fashion entrepreneur (Stein & Somashekhar, 2017).

The march thus became a catch-all for a host of liberal causes, from immigrant rights to Islam activism and African American civil rights. However, Shook remained steadfast, “We’re prepared to just keep letting our voices be heard and not relenting. We have to make it really uncomfortable for the Trump administration” (Stein, 2017).

Women (and men!) across America marched in the midst of stuffed vaginas, pink pussy hats, and signs that read, “If my uterus could shoot bullets, then it wouldn’t need regulation.” Just imagine if marchers in these numbers made it just as uncomfortable for men who force Sharia Law on women. Surprisingly contradictory, one of the leaders of the march has been accused of actually promoting Sharia Law (Asra Nomani, 2017).

In the end, more important in all the chaos of rebellion is the ability to pause before jumping on the bandwagon, and to consider the propaganda. Make the effort to learn the facts and think. That in itself determines whether or not you will allow propaganda to persuade you. It is an individual choice whether or not to accept the message being imposed, regardless of the decisions made by those around you. Then again, who wants to think actively when you can just kick back, eat popcorn, watch a movie, and behold its Vakulenchuk.

REFERENCES

Asra Nomani (2017, Feb 1). Ayaan Hirsi Ali on attacks by Linda Sarsour. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/l4za8Ts-7YU

Battleship Potemkin (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battleship_Potemkin

BBC (1998, Jul 17). Romanovs laid to rest. BBC Europe. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/133725.stm

Borowitz, A. (2016, Oct 29). Queen offers to restore British rule over the United States. Satire from the Borowitz Report. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/queen-offers-to-restore-british-rule-over-united-states

Eisenstein, S. (Director). (1925). Battleship Potemkin [Motion Picture]. Soviet Union: Goskino.

Elizabeth II. (1983). Retrieved from Encyclopedia of World Biography, http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/british-and-irish-history-biographies/elizabeth-ii

Execution of the Romanov family (2017). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Execution_of_the_Romanov_family

Founders online: From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 30 January 1787. (1787, Jan 30). Retrieved from National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0095

Hu, E. (2017, Jan 26). North Korean defector: Information flow will help bring down Kim Jong Un. Retrieved from NPR http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/26/511745886/north-korean-defector-information-flow-will-help-bring-down-kim-jong-un

O’Rourke, M. (2007, Feb 8). The Queen and I: Questions for Stephen Frears. Retrieved from Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_highbrow/2007/02/the_queen_and_i.html

Perlman, E. (2016, Apr 15). As queen approaches 90, new poll reveals her growing popularity. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/queen-approaches-90-new-poll-reveals-her-growing-popularity-448221

Stein, P. (2017, Jan 31). The woman who started the women’s march with a Facebook post reflects: “It was mind-boggling.” Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2017/01/31/the-woman-who-started-the-womens-march-with-a-facebook-post-reflects-it-was-mind-boggling/

Stein, P., & Somashekhar, S. (2017, Jan 3). It started with a retiree. Now the women’s march could be the biggest inauguration demonstration. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/it-started-with-a-grandmother-in-hawaii-now-the-womens-march-on-washington-is-poised-to-be-the-biggest-inauguration-demonstration/2017/01/03/8af61686-c6e2-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story. html

Thomas Paine’s common sense. (2008). Retrieved from US History, http://www.ushistory.org/us/10f.asp

Tolentino, J. (2017, Jan 18). The Somehow controversial Women’s March on Washington. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/the-somehow-controversial-womens-march-on-washington

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *