Makhno & The Makhnovshchina
Myths & Interpretations
What would you do if you came across a photograph of a fictional character?. I mean a character not an actor in the role of that character but the actual individual who you believed was purely the invention of an author, It happened to me. The author Michael Moorcock used Nestor Ivanovich Makhno as a fictional supporting character in his fantasy ‘The Entropy Tango’. Makhno is portrayed as a romantic revolutionary active in 1940’s Canada and as an old man in 1970’s Scotland. A couple of years after reading ‘The Entropy Tango’, I was reading through ‘Red Empire’, a book about the history of the Soviet Union, and ‘BANG’, a photograph of Makhno smiling at the camera. There was no real mention of Makhno in the book other than the caption to the photograph, indeed there is usually little on Makhno in book’s written about the Russian Civil war other than a paragraph or two. For a writer researching a work on the Civil war they have to rely on sources that are usually either propaganda or based on propaganda from either Bolshevik or White Russian sources, both Whites and Reds had reasons to slander Makhno and his Makhnovshchina. Voline writing in the Preface for Peter Arshinov’s ‘History of the Makhnovist Movement’, (both men having been involved in the movement) describes the Makhnovshchina as;
“an event of extraordinary breadth, grandeur and importance, which unfolded with exceptional force and played a colossal and extremely complicated role in the destiny of the revolution, undergoing a titanic struggle against all types of reaction, more than once saving the revolution from disaster”.
Words you would perhaps expect from someone involved in the movement but no less true for that. Politically Makhno was an Anarchist and he has become a sort of saint to some Anarchists, while his detractors, the political inheritors of the Bolsheviks and Ukrainian nationalists still portray him as a bandit, as in many things the truth lies somewhere in-between these two extremes.
What do I hope to achieve?. The Makhnovist movement left little evidence and few traces and no monuments to its existence, most were destroyed along with much of the Ukrainian peasantry by the Bolsheviks, famine and war. The history of the movement has either been written by Bolshevik historians seeking to justify its destruction or by Makhnovist exiles, who sought to counter the ‘official’, version of events in the Ukraine coming from Soviet Russia. I want to show how and why different interpretations and myths about the Makhnovists and Makhno came about. The Makhnovists have been portrayed as little more than ignorant Kulak bandits yet they fought as a division in the Red Army. Allegations of Anti-Semitism have commonly been levelled at the Makhnovists yet many Jews were involved in the movement. The Makhnovists Anarchism has also been questioned not just by White Russians who claimed it was simply justification for banditry but also by Russian Anarchists. Nestor Makhno himself as the most potent and colourful symbol of the movement that bears his name has been a target for attack and for works of fiction. I hope to draw some conclusions on these issues. Voline’s Preface to Arshinov’s history asks the reader to consider the following of the book which can be applied equally to this project;
“is it a serious and conscientious analysis, or a fantastic and irresponsible fabrication? Can the reader have confidence in the author, at least with respect to the events, the facts and the materials? Is the author sufficiently impartial, or does he distort the truth in order to justify his own ideas and refute those of his opponents?”.
CHAPTER 1. The Makhnovist Movement and Nestor Makhno
The Makhnovist Movement grew out of the traditions of the peasantry of the South East Ukraine, a tradition of freedom and autonomy that had been suppressed by over two hundred years of foreign rule from Russia but had not been destroyed. The driving force behind the movement was born into this tradition and it shaped his life as he shaped the movement that bears his name. During three years of constant military campaigns the Makhnovist army was not defeated, it was destroyed by the collapse of its support due to exhaustion and war-weariness and the overwhelming power of the massive Bolshevik Armies.
To understand the Makhnovist movement it is necessary to first look at its origins. The movement grew in the South Eastern Ukraine an area that had a tradition of peasant independence and rebellion. The Southern area of the Ukraine comprised almost a third of the Ukraine, and has a tradition different to that of the rest of the country, and a history of independence. The Cossack republic of the Zaporozhian Sich existed in the area until it was destroyed in 1775, the Sich was a self governed community of Cossacks (run-away serfs and their descendants) who raided the Turkish communities along the Azov, Crimea and north Black sea coasts for centuries. This independent area was destroyed by the Imperial Russian army, its lands distributed among the Russian nobility and incoming settlers, and as in the rest of Ukraine its language and culture suppressed. When the Russians came they attempted to impose Serfdom upon the Ukrainian peasantry however the traditions of the Sich remained strong and the system of Serfdom was not as widespread or as exploitative as in the rest of the Ukraine. Even before the 1861 Reform’s banning Serfdom most peasants paid their landlords with money rather than with labour. While the majority of peasants in the South East remained Ukrainian, settlers from Germany, Greece and many Russian Jews started agricultural colonies encouraged by the Russian government to settle in this vast under exploited region. Newly raised industrial towns attracted many ethnic Russians to the Ukraine in the late 19th century. During this period a line was drawn in the popular mind of the Ukrainian peasant between the Ukrainian village, economically and nationally oppressed, and the non Ukrainian town as the agent of that oppression.
For the Ukrainian peasant of the South East the traditions of the Zaporozhian Sich and the Cossacks remained strong. Land and the freedom to be left alone to order their own affairs were important issues in which sides they offered support to in the Civil War, as was a mistrust of outsiders and a hatred of foreign invaders. The Makhnovists Anarchism appealed to these sentiments, land was distributed when it was taken and the movement was home-grown rather than imposed. The peasant supporters of Makhno were not Anarchists, rather they recognised that the Anarchists would give them what they wanted namely an end to outside interference and land.
Nestor Ivanovich Mikhenko (Makhno) was born on 27 October 1889 the fourth son of a peasant family just outside the large village of Gulyai-Pole in the province of Ekaterynoslav. His father died when he was less than a year old, and he was raised by his mother. Between seven and thirteen he attended school during the winter and drove oxen carts during the summer. On leaving school he first worked herding cattle, then at seventeen as a cart painter and then later as a labourer in an iron foundry. While in the foundry he joined a local Anarchist group that was involved in local propaganda funded by criminal activities. In 1908 the group robbed a post office cart carrying money to the railway station five miles outside of Gulyai-Pole, during the robbery a police guard was killed and the group went underground. Makhno was arrested in August 1908 and kept in prison until his trial in 1910 before a Court Martial of the Odessa military district. Condemned along with fifteen other Anarchists to death for various crimes, Makhno’s sentence was commuted to life in prison due to being under twenty at the time of the offences. Makhno was sent to Butyrki prison in Moscow and it was his prison experience that shaped his later activities. Here he met Peter Arshinov a former metal worker and revolutionary Anarchist who gave Makhno what formal education and Anarchist theory he had. Long periods in solitary confinement also led to Pulmonary Tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. Following the February revolution of 1917 Makhno and Arshinov were released under a general amnesty for political prisoners and Makhno returned to Gulyai-Pole.
Back in Gulyai-Pole he helped organise a peasants union with himself as chairman, this organisation was the power base from which he built his influence. The peasant union forcibly removed the land from the local landowners and distributed it among the peasants, in open defiance of the orders of the Russian Provisional Government who had failed to establish control in the Ukraine as did its Bolshevik successor, leaving the way for the Ukrainian Central Rada (a grouping of various nationalist parties and organisations) to declare independence from Russia in January 1918. To defend themselves from the Bolsheviks the Rada called in the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) to prevent the Bolsheviks conquering the Ukraine. In the face of the Central powers who occupied Gulyai-Pole, Makhno escaped to Bolshevik controlled Ukraine and then Moscow. While in Moscow he met with both Lenin and Peter Kropotkin. By the time he had returned to Gulyai-Pole in July 1918 the Bolsheviks had signed the Brest Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, giving Germany and Austro-Hungary control over the Ukraine and they had replaced the Central Rada with Hetman Skoropadsky;
“the Central Rada was dispersed by a German Lieutenant and its place taken by the Ataman of the free Cossacks, General Skoropadski. His Highness, of course was subject to the will of the Lieutenants and carried out all their orders”.
Makhno organised partisan groups round Gulyai-Pole to fight the Hetman’s forces and his German and Austrian allies. In October 1918 after an attack on the garrison in Gulyai-Pole Makhno and 50 partisans fled to Dibrivki forest closely followed by a large force of Austrian infantry, cavalry and artillery. Hopelessly outnumbered Makhno and his men charged head on at the Austrians as they camped in the church square of the village of Velyka Mykhailivka routing the enemy in panic. This battle made Makhno a local hero. Makhno’s support among the peasants was not total however one Austrian officer reported talking to peasants in Gulyai-Pole reported a peasant saying;
“Oh, he should die this Makhno, so much trouble and misfortune he has brought us, but he also is defending us from plunderers, Bolsheviks and all other rascals”.
With the Armistice and the end of World War One the Central Powers withdrew from the Ukraine and the Hetman’s regime collapsed.
Following the collapse of the Hetman there was a power vacuum in the Ukraine, in the South East the Makhnovist insurgents moved unopposed into the villages and towns while in the rest of the Ukraine Petliura’s Nationalist Directory seized power. In January 1919 the Bolshevik Red army captured the capital Kiev and the Nationalist forces fled to Western Ukraine and the Bolsheviks increased their control over Ukraine. The Makhnovists signed an alliance with the Bolsheviks becoming a Brigade in the Red Army to fight General Denikin’s White Army who were advancing from the Caucasus. The Bolsheviks were short of troops to fight the Whites so they were forced to allow Makhno and other Ataman’s a degree of autonomy in return for their support. The Makhnovists were aware of the threat the Communist authorities posed towards their regional autonomy but they hoped that as Arshinov say’s;
“that the struggle with the Bolsheviks could be confined to the realm of ideas”.
In May 1919 another allied insurgent leader Hyrhor’iv revolted against the Bolsheviks and the Red army had to withdraw troops from the Southern front to deal with him. This withdrawl weakened the Bolsheviks front and led to Denikin advancing into the Ukraine. The Makhnovists had been acting as the anchor for the Red Army’s left flank and were pushed back by the Whites retreating 23 miles in one day. The Bolsheviks took this opportunity to order the arrest of the Makhnovist leadership under Trotsky’s notorious order 1824, banning the Makhnovists fourth peasant conference. Makhno ordered his troops to continue to fight with the Red Army against the Whites and with his personal bodyguard the ‘Black Sotnia’, fled to an area of the Ukraine controlled by Hyrhor’iv. Hyrhor’iv a former Czarist officer wanted an alliance with Makhno, but the Makhnovists were uneasy due to Hyrhor’iv’s Anti-Semitism (many of Makhno’s senior staff and insurgents were Jewish). Due to the circumstances however an agreement was signed. On 27th July 1919 in the village of Sentovo a congress of insurgents and peasants was called, attended by nearly 20,000 people, Hyrhor’iv spoke first calling for an alliance with Denikin against the Communists, the next speaker one of Makhno’s lieutenants Chubenko argued violently with Hyrhor’iv during which Hyrhor’iv was shoot dead. With the death of their leader many of Hyrhor’v’s men joined Makhno who soon after recalled his troops from the Red Army, by August he had an estimated 15,000 soldiers including several Brigades of Red infantry who arrested their staff officers and commissars and defected to the Makhnovists. Makhno was now fighting the retreating Bolsheviks and Denikin’s advancing Whites (his army avoided confrontation with the Nationalists). The Makhnovists had to retreat 400 miles in four months in what Voline described as “a Kingdom on Wheels”. By late September they were camped in the villages of Perehonivka and Tekucha surrounded by White troops who attacked on the 25th of September before dawn, the insurgents fell back after bitter fighting and prepared to fight to the last man, then at 9.00am Makhno and the insurgents cavalry managed to attack the White infantry from the rear scattering the enemy in confusion, completely destroying the Whites 1st Simferopol and 2nd Labzinski Regiments. This was a major victory for the Makhnovists and led to a general advance into the Whites rear. Denikin was advancing on Moscow and seriously threatened the Bolsheviks position, Makhno’s campaign in his rear threatened Denikin’s line of supply. On the 10th of October 1919 they captured the port of Berdyansk, Denikin’s main artillery dump. The Whites had to send troops from the Moscow front to deal with the Makhnovists and this and the disruption in supplies gave the Red Army the time to organise a counter attack;
“It is certain that Denikin’s defeat owed more to the peasant insurrection under the black Makhnovist banner than to the successes of Trotsky’s regular army. The Makhnovist bands tipped the scales in favour of the Reds, and if Moscow may now want to forget the fact, impartial history will remember it”.
With the White’s retreating towards Crimea and the Red’s advancing across the Ukraine the Makhnovists had to withdraw from most of the Ukraine to the region surrounding Gulyai-Pole. During this retreat the Makhnovist army was ravaged by a Typhus epidemic effecting half of the Makhnovist troops, and continuously fighting both Reds and Whites. During early 1920 the Makhnovists engaged in Guerrilla warfare against the Bolshevik civil authorities, Red Army and the White Army now commanded by Baron Wrangel. In the summer of 1920 the Whites began to gain the upper hand threatening the entire Donets Basin. In October the Bolsheviks and the Makhnovists signed an agreement guaranteeing autonomy for the area controlled by the Makhnovists in return for their help in the defeat of the White army. The Makhnovists were attached to the Red fourth Army and helped drive the Whites back to their prepared defences lines protecting the Crimea peninsula. In November the Makhnovists re-enforced the Red units penetrating the Whites defences across the Gulf of Sivash, with the White army evacuating the last of their strongholds the Bolsheviks prepared to destroy the Makhnovist movement who had outlived their usefulness. On the 26th November the Makhnovists were outlawed by the Bolsheviks who sent three armies including the elite 1st and 2nd Cavalry armies to the Ekaterinoslav region to deal with the insurgents with orders to shoot any Makhnovist prisoners. At 11am on the 26th the Red army launched simultaneous attacks on the Makhnovists in Gulyai-Pole and those still fighting alongside them in the Crimea of who only 250 of the 1500 cavalry escaped. The Red Army swept into the Makhnovist region and pursued the insurgents relentlessly, The Makhnovists manoeuvred across South Ukraine slowly being worn down by Red attacks. For ten months operating in small detachments the Makhnovists fought a Guerrilla war against the Red army who began garrisoning villages with infantry to stop the peasants from giving the insurgents support or supplies. Without supplies from the villages the insurgents could not operate effectively and the Red army hunted down those insurgents not forced to surrender by starvation or forced into exile. On the 28th of August 1921 Makhno, his wife and fifty of his cavalry bodyguard crossed the river Dniester into Rumania, the Makhnovist movement was at an end. Makhno was first interned by the Rumanians and then expelled into Poland in 1922, the Poles immediately arrested Makhno worried that he may cause trouble among the Ukrainian minority in recently acquired Eastern Galicia. Imprisoned, tried and acquitted on treason charges, Makhno left Poland in 1924 and arrived in Paris via Berlin where he was to spend the rest of his life in poverty, dying of Pulmonary Tuberculosis in July 1934, his ashes interred in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery (Cemetery of the Paris Commune).
The Makhnovist movement flourished in the Ukraine at a time of disruption and instability caused by foreign invasion and almost constant warfare, the nationalists who had been suppressed under Russian rule failed to gather the support of the Southern peasants, instead they rallied behind the banner of Anarchism flown not by intellectuals but by peasant activists. The activities of the Hetman’s regime in attempting to re-impose the power of the gentry, supported by foreign troops created the conditions for a vigorous partisan movement that continued to operate on a much larger and more permanent footing in opposition to other outside forces. The activities of the Bolshevik food detachments who robbed the peasants of grain and livestock to feed the cities and the excesses of the Cheka caused huge resentment in the countryside and prevented the Bolsheviks from winning over Makhno’s body of supporters the peasants. Instead they had to destroy the Makhnovists because they were a threat to the Bolshevik government’s domination of the Ukraine.
CHAPTER 2. Makhno, Bandit or Batko.
The Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine has been maligned by its enemies, the Bolsheviks have dismissed it as “Anarcho-Kulak Debauchery”, while the Whites labelled the Makhnovists as drunken bandits;
“deserters from both sides wearing bandoleers over women’s fur coats and reeking of vodka and onions”.
The Makhnovists were peasants and their failure to understand the needs of urban workers, and to expand their support further from their home region contributed to the failure of the movement to survive. The Makhnovist movement was Anarchist, it opposed any kind of state which was regarded, what ever its political colour as a form of oppression and sought self governing communities who would cooperate with each other without the need for external interference. A Makhnovist proclamation of 1920 called for the peasants to ignore all Communist decrees that conflicted with the interests of the peasants, redistribute the land each peasant having as much as he could work with his own labour, workers to directly run the factories, the creation of free Soviets without representatives of political organisations involved, total freedom of speech, assembly and press, the abolition of the military and the police and free exchange of goods and products. Another proclamation of June 1920 aimed at members of the Red Army summed up the movements aims;
“Our frank ideal is the achievement of a non-authoritarian laborers’ society without parasites and without commissar-bureaucrats. Our immediate goal is the establishment of a free soviet order, without the authority of the Bolsheviks, without pressure from any party whatsoever”.
But this anarchism was based more on a natural peasant instinct for freedom and independence rather than on any deeply thought out political platform. The Makhnovists redistributed the land to the peasantry and attempted a similar redistribution of wealth in urban areas but with less success. Makhno was nicknamed ‘Batko’, meaning ‘little father’, a term of respect given to him for his military skills. It is also a term indicating traditional social hierarchy, given to a dominant figure, and Makhno sometimes succumbed to the dictatorial antics of a warrior chief, forgetting his egalitarian beliefs in the difficult circumstances of Civil War and making arbitrary decisions without consulting the movements supreme decision making body the ‘Regional Congress of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents’. He was no mere bandit but a guerrilla leader who successfully fought off attempts to defeat his movement until the Bolshevik Red Army could concentrate all its time to his destruction in 1921.
For most of the period of activity the Makhnovists operated as partisan groups against their many foes, raiding small enemy targets in their home area of Ekaterinoslav. These partisan units of up to 100 would disappear into the general peasant population when not fighting;
“In the villages it is absolutely impossible to distinguish the bandits and their horses from peaceful peasants and theirs”.
The partisan unit of the village of Zhmerinka was set up by the locals following the occupation of the Central Powers and operated independently of the Makhnovists until the retreat of 1920 . The Partisans often relied on stealth to attack superior forces, using enemy uniforms to gain entrance to defended buildings and springing ambushes on numerically larger forces. Makhno also operated at night or in bad weather when the enemy would not be expecting an attack.
As the civil war progressed the different armies uniforms became almost indistinguishable from each other, infantry dressed in ragged greatcoats and what ever else they could get from civilian or military supplies of ally or enemy. Add to this the fact that by April 1919 there were as many as 93 separate groups operating in the Ukraine against the Bolsheviks and the situation was ripe for confusion. In these conditions Makhno’s insurgents used a Red flag or a revolutionary song to gain contact with the Bolshevik enemy. For most of the Civil War the Makhnovists were mainly a cavalry based force, recruited from the local peasantry in the Gulyai-Pole area, using a system of horse exchange in the local villages the Makhnovists could mass and disperse troops quickly for operations. One of the most important elements of the Makhnovist tactics was the use of the Tachanka, these peasant carts had four sprung wheels and were pulled by two horses, the Makhnovists either used them to carry infantry who could support the cavalry in battle or Machine guns, giving the Makhnovists manoeuvrable fire power. The use of horses and Tachanka gave the Makhnovists the speed to outpace Advancing enemies and avoid encirclement by cavalry. While the rifle was the main weapon of all the armies in the Civil War, Makhno’s insurgent Army made the Machine gun the hallmark of their attacks. In the Autumn of 1919 the Makhnovists had some 1000 Machine guns, mainly mounted on Tachanka and the Makhnovist forces in the Crimean campaign had machine guns in a ratio of 1:24, compared to 1:67 for the Red Army units involved. This firepower gave the Makhnovists an advantage over larger forces, though they had to rely on captured weapons and equipment as they had no regular supplies from outside their home area. The Red Army supplied the insurgents with a few thousand Italian rifles during their time as a Red Army formation, but ammunition was almost impossible to come by for these weapons. During 1919 when they Makhnovists fought along side the Red Army and operated behind Denikin’s lines a number of Red Army infantry Regiments fought under and then as part of the Makhnovists forces. These infantry units made up a significant part of the insurgents forces, until the Bolsheviks final campaign against the Makhnovists, when again they became a mainly cavalry then partisan force recruited from their home region. The use of four captured armoured trains, four armoured cars, forty eight pieces of field artillery and a captured aeroplane (used to foil an attempted Bolshevik coup in April 1919) shows that the Makhnovists had a level of technical and military expertise far higher than any of the other ‘Green forces’, active in the Ukraine. The Makhnovists were certainly a proletarian organisation but were more than the drunken bandits or debauched kulaks of White and Red propaganda. Though the Makhnovists did their share of drinking, and looting as all armies in the Ukraine did.
When looking at the Makhnovists it is difficult to estimate the size of their military forces. At the start of the movement against the Skoropadsky regime and his German, Austrian and Hungarian allies Nestor Makhno had 100 to 200 men, at the movements height in Autumn 1919 the ‘Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovist)’, had under its command between 14,000 to 6,000 cavalry and 40,000 to 15,000 infantry, some estimates are higher but the higher figures quoted here are reasonable considering the size of the area controlled by the Makhnovists. By the time Makhno crossed into Rumania in 1921 he was left with between 50–250 of his personal bodyguard. For the most part the Makhnovists were recruited locally from the Ekaterinoslav region especially Gulyai-Pole, only from Autumn 1919 did outsiders from the Red Army and Hryhoriyiv’s partisans change the local character of the insurgents. After the start of the Bolshevik campaign in 1920 the movement reverted to its local support due to military losses and disease.
Makhno led his army from the front but he also ran it with few concessions to his political beliefs, discipline was harsh and often terminal. The Makhnovist military forces were commanded directly by Makhno and his staff with only lip service paid to the ‘Regional Congress of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents’, who theoretically controlled them. Makhno’s General staff were chosen by him and were mainly Gulyai-Pole men that he new and trusted, this group despite its lack of trained career officers was the backbone of the Insurgent Army. So successful was Makhno’s tactics and organisation that the White’s believed he had a professional staff pressganged from captured officers, rumours spread that Makhno was advised by Colonel Kleist a member of the German General Staff. In reality the Makhnovists had no professional officers among their army, captured officers and NCO,s were shot and the ordinary soldiers either joined the Makhnovists or were disarmed and released after being distributed Makhnovist propaganda. Though the Staff officers were appointed by Makhno, on a Regimental level officers were elected by the men from their own ranks and were mostly ex-soldiers. As to Makhnovist order of battle it is confusing, certainly troops were organised into regiments, but it is unknown if they were all of the same size or organisational structure. Specialised units included eight Machine gun regiments of 300 men each, and two Artillery divisions. Former Red army infantry Regiments fighting with the Makhnovists would be of between 400 to 1,000 men. Regiments seem to have been quite large and when fighting on the front organised into Corps of six regiments. The confusion over the Makhnovists order of battle probably has more to do with the destruction of almost all of the records of the insurgent Army and the deaths of most of its commanders than with any problems of organisation. As well as the fighting forces the Makhnovists had their own intelligence service the Kontrazvedka who gathered intelligence from the villages and arrested Bolshevik and White spies, foiling several attempts on Makhno’s life by the Bolshevik’s. The Makhnovists while certainly not in the same league as the Red Army organisationally did have an organised senior military staff, a civilian political organisation and unit organisation at regimental level . Indeed for several months they were part of the Red Army fighting on the southern front against Denikin and later the Makhnovists activities in the Whites rear forced Denikin to divert forces from the Moscow front to deal with the insurgents. these were hardly the actions of counter revolutionary kulaks.
The Makhnovists described themselves as Anarchists but this has been denied by critics and indeed contemporary Anarchist supporters of the Makhnovists. The 3rd Nabat (Confederation of Anarchist Organisations of the Ukraine)Conference in Kharkiv held in September 1920 reported that;
“As regards the ‘Revolutionary Partisan Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovites)....it is a mistake to call it anarchist....mostly they are Red soldiers who fell into captivity, and middle peasant volunteers”.
As regards the insurgent army this is basically true many Red army men captured by the Makhnovists decided to stay and fight and the majority of Makhno’s cavalry were middle peasants, due to the agricultural development in South East Ukraine commercial grain farming in an area of low population wages were higher and there was a far larger number of middle peasants than in other areas of the Ukraine. Makhno was undoubtedly an Anarchist of deep conviction he had spent nine years in prison for his involvement with crimes committed while a member of an Anarchist Communist group in Gulyai-Pole and had his beliefs strengthened and sharpened by his time in prison with other Anarchists. On leaving prison he worked in Gulyai-Pole to set up organisations based on Anarchistic principles and attempted to apply his beliefs to the Makhnovshchina. Makhno was no ideologue following the teachings of any one Anarchist ideology he believed that Anarchism was not a doctrine but a way of life;
“Anarchism does not depend on theory or on programmes which try to grasp man’s life in its entirety. It is a teaching which is based on real life, which outgrows all artificial limitations”.
Makhno failed to do much to put into practise a free, non governmental society, but this is understandable when he was fighting for his very survival against overwhelming odds. Those free communes that were organised were destroyed by the Bolsheviks when they took control of the Makhnovist area (the Rosa Luxemburg commune with 300 members was one of at least four agricultural communes). For the most part the peasants farmed as much land as they could without hired labour, sharing tools and other materials amongst themselves, similarly those industrial concerns in captured towns and cities were run by workers councils. Each community set up its own free soviet which in turn elected a delegate to the ‘Regional Congress of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents’, these congresses were the supreme decision making body with delegates from 72 districts representing more than two million people. Only three of these Congresses were ever held as the fourth called for June 1919 was outlawed and its delegates marked for arrest by the Bolsheviks, on orders from Trotsky. As well as the lack of stability in which to build anarchist communities the movement also lacked intellectuals and agitators to help build them, Makhno appealed to anarchists to come and help the Makhnovist movement but only few including Voline and Arshinov responded to the call. The majority of Anarchist theoreticians had their origins in the intelligencia and were unable to respond to a purely peasant movement whose Anarchism lay more in the rough and ready democracy of the Cossack Sich than in the teachings of Kropotkin. In May 1919 the Ukrainian Anarchist Nabat sought to become more involved in the Gulyai-Pole region but the advance by White forces into the region and the Bolsheviks attacks on Makhno prevented any larger link up from happening. While in the countryside the Makhnovists at least allowed the peasants natural instinctive anarchist tendencies towards communal organisation and the removal of outside interference to be realised, in the large towns and cities they failed to build any real support. Partly this was due to the short periods of time that the Makhnovists occupied any large town, but it was also due to the lack of understanding of urban economies. The Makhnovists allowed freedom of the press, assembly and speech in all towns that they captured but this lack of control also applied to money. All currencies issued by Nationalist, Bolshevik forces was to be accepted (some reports state that Makhno printed his own money, which on the back stated that it was permissible to forge it). This mass of different types of notes, all off which were acceptable led to inflation which alienated urban workers who needed a stable currency to buy food. The Makhnovists were primarily a peasant movement, peasants could largely do without money if they had access to the land to grow food, they failed to understand that workers needed payment in a strong currency to survive. The Makhnovists were not a fully Anarchistic movement but they did try to create free organisations without outside interference from non members. As Peter Arshinov who played an important part in the movement in its Cultural- Educational section said;
“In the Makhnovshchina we have an anarchist movement of the working masses not completely realised, not entirely crystallized, but striving toward the anarchist ideal and moving along the anarchist path”.
How does the Makhnovshchina compare to other contemporary peasant movements?. In Russia the most striking comparison is with the Antonov rebellion in Tambov province South East of Moscow against the Bolsheviks, with as many as 40,000 volunteers started in August 1920. The rebellion targeted state farms and the Bolshevik authorities in retaliation for food requisitioning and the collectivisation of peasant land. Antonov’s movement was like Makhno’s almost exclusively peasant, but although calling himself a Social Revolutionary his political platform was less defined calling for land to be given to those who worked it and the abolition of soviet power. The rebellion was crushed in May 1921 by the Red Army. The Antonov rebellion like the Makhnovists was confined to its home province in which it had popular support. The failure to spread the rebellion led to its isolation, containment and eventual destruction by the Red Army. In Central Asia the Bolsheviks had to deal with the Basmatchi, these peasant partisans like the Makhnovists fought mainly from horseback and operated with the support of the villages in their home region. Originally started in the Fergana valley a rich area of cotton plantations the Basmatchi spread to other areas of Russian controlled Central Asia. The Basmatchi fought against collectivisation and requisitioning by the communists, but it was also a nationalistic and religious movement against the Russian non-Muslim occupiers. Unlike the Makhnovshchina the Basmatchi never became a unified army under one command structure due to religious and tribal differences. The Basmatchi also had an advantage that the Makhno never had being able to operate across borders from neutral territory in Iran and Afghanistan.
To compare the Makhnovists and foreign peasant movements one should look to Mexico and the Mexican Civil War which gives two peasant movements to compare with Makhno’s. That of Doroteo Arango (Pancho Villa) and Emiliano Zapata. With the fall of the dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910 Mexico fell into confusion with peasant rebels, constitutional reformists and reactionary supporters of the old regime vying for control over the country. Villa operated in the Northern state of Chihuahua an area mainly of cattle ranches and dominated by the landed upper classes. Labour was scarcer and more expensive than in the rest of rural Mexico and the independently minded cowboy’s and bandit’s provided Villa with supporters susceptible to revolutionary propaganda. These hard core of supporters provided Villa with cavalry, and like Makhno his was a war of manoeuvre. Villa unlike Makhno could obtain weapons and equipment from outside his own area across the border in the United States. Villa like Makhno was a peasant who while in Prison gained what political education he had from Gildardo Magana an intellectual involved in the Zapatista movement. By 1914 he commanded 40,000 troops in the North of Mexico. Although he paid lip service to the land reform program of Zapata he never carried out any agrarian reforms, due partly to the difficulties of dividing cattle estates up viably among peasants and cowboys . In the South of Mexico, Emiliano Zapata led a peasant partisan army that had perhaps more political similarities to the Makhnovists than any other. Operating in their home region of Morelos the Zapatistas redistributed the land of the huge estates (Haciendas) to the local peasantry and sought to build self governing village communities similar to those advocated by Makhno. Indeed the Zapatista’s rural anarchism resembled that of the Makhnovists. Like the Makhnovists the Zapatistas had to rely on what materials and supplies they could capture and operated in their home region with some success eventually capturing the capital Mexico city. The Zapatistas fought mainly a defensive guerrilla campaign which was unable to defeat superior government forces in open battle. Both the Zapata and Villa movements failed to become more than peasant rebellions concentrated in their home regions, and both failed to gain support among the urban working class. The constitutional government who gained power with the help of these two movements then turned on them killing Zapata in an ambush in 1919 and making peace with Villa who was later assassinated in 1923.
The Makhnovshchina was a peasant movement based mainly on the support gained from around its centre, Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding province of Ekaterinoslav. The Makhnovists redistributed the land to the peasantry and attempted to run its affairs in an instinctive Anarchistic fashion, despite the lack of intellectuals among their ranks. While the Bolsheviks attacked them for being petty-bourgeois Kulaks and agents of French and Belgian financiers, they were quite happy to accept the Makhnovists help against the White armies of Denikin and Wrangel. The Makhnovshchina was a regional phenomenon which failed to gain support in urban areas, it did succeed in winning the support of the Ukrainian peasant by addressing their needs and organising in ways they could recognise and relate to from their own experience of village life. But its strength in the countryside, the movements understanding of peasant life was its weakness when trying to organise in the urban environment.
CHAPTER 3. The Makhnovshchina and Allegations of Anti-Semitism.
Neither Nestor Makhno or the movement that bore his name were Anti-Semitic, but many of his followers were, anti-Semitism was deep rooted among the peasants of the Ukraine and effected Makhno’s forces as it did all others involved in the civil war. Pogromists among the Makhnovists were ruthlessly dealt with and efforts were made to make the movements position clear through propaganda work. However violent Anti-Semitism did effect elements within the Makhnovist insurgent army. The movements aims, leadership and political activists were not anti-Semitic. Jewish peasants and workers were involved in the movement at all levels as activists and as fighters and the Jewish colonies had equal status with every other community in areas controlled by the Makhnovshchina. The Pogroms perpetrated in the Ukraine stained every army, but the Makhnovists like Trotsky’s Red army did not try to profit through stirring up anti-Semitic feelings among their followers, and both made strenuous efforts to stamp out anti-Jewish activities. Pogroms and other anti-Semitic acts carried out by the Makhnovist and Red army members happened despite both movements avowed commitments to end anti-Semitism. Pogromist activity among the Makhnovists was an aberration rather than a deliberate policy to build support, and allegations against the movements leadership have been based on propaganda produced by the movements enemies.
The Jewish population in the Ukraine, at one and a half million was the largest in post World War One Russia after Poland gained her independence. The majority of Ukrainian Jews had been forcibly resettled from Poland during the early 19th century as part of a Tsarist government plan of ‘Russification’, to bring its Jewish subjects into Russian culture and convert them to Christianity. The Russian state severely restricted the freedoms of its Jewish population placing tight restrictions on Jews from living outside of the Jewish ‘Pale of settlement’, which covered Poland and parts of West Russia. The Jewish settlers in the Ukraine were set up in agricultural colonies in the country and encouraged to assimilate. The policy of resettlement was also meant to change the economic role of the Jewish community, Robert Weinberg states that the authorities hoped to assimilate them not only into Russian culture and religion but also into the peasant economy;
“One aspect of the Jewish question, as defined by Tsarist officials, was the perceived unproductive nature of Jewish economic life. As a group of people heavily involved in lease holding, commerce, money-lending, and the sale of vodka, Russian Jews were regarded as parasites who exploited the defenceless peasantry. Some Tsarist policies....strove to ‘normalise’, the socio-economic profile of Russian Jewry by encouraging Jews to become agricultural colonists and small-scale manufacturers”.
Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 (one of the conspirators was Jewish) a wave of Pogroms (anti-Semitic violence) in which thousands were killed spread across the Ukraine. The government and the police turned a blind eye to anti-Jewish incidents, and reversed some of the relaxation’s of restrictions on the Jews. The ‘May laws’, of 1882 banned Jews from civil service and academic employment and re-enforced the ‘Pale of settlement’. Another wave of Pogroms followed Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan in 1905 and the failed Revolution that followed. The outbreak of the First World War again saw the Tsarist authorities attempt to scapegoat the Jews as enemy sympathisers, in an attempt to divert blame for the many military defeats due to the incompetence of the military staff. Publications and correspondence in Yiddish were banned in 1915 to prevent secret communications and Jewish soldiers were blamed for treachery. The Tsarist secret police produced and disseminated ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, after the 1905 Revolution, a document supposedly produced by leading Rabbi’s about secret Jewish world domination, this forgery is still used by Anti-Semitic groups and was widely disseminated in Russia after 1917 by White forces. Because of the persecution suffered by the Jewish community a large number of Jews became involved in radical political organisations including the Bolshevik party. With the fall of the Tsar in March 1917 one of the first acts of the Provisional government was the emancipation of the Jews. In the Ukraine the various nationalist organisations and parties entered the Ukrainian Central Rada who declared independence from Russia, included among them were Jewish political parties who were guaranteed thirty seats. In January 1918 the Central Rada established legal protection for the Jews against Anti-Semitism, recognised Yiddish as an official language and established Jewish schools. These positive steps towards equality were destroyed by the outbreak of the civil war.
Anti-Semitism in the Ukraine was so vicious and marked that some writers have seen it as part of the national character. While there is nothing intrinsic in the Ukrainian culture to make it Anti-Semitic there is certainly a history of violent anti-Jewish incidents in the Ukraine. What were the motives of the Pogromists and why did they find such fertile ground in the Ukraine?. At the outbreak of revolution 83% of the Ukrainian population were illiterate, the majority of the population were peasants, ethnic Ukrainians while the majority of the urban population were either Russian, Polish or Jewish. Religion played its part in the encouragement of Anti-Semitism the Jew seen as Christ killer a view encouraged by the Orthodox church. This view had an effect in areas where religious observance was strong, however the Orthodox church was seen by many in the Ukraine as one of the principle agents of ‘Russification’, (the suppression of national cultures and languages other than Russian) which effected the Ukrainian language and culture as well as that of the Jews. Nationalist and ‘racial’ feelings were more influential on Ukrainian anti-Semitism, the Jew was seen as an outsider, an exploiter, an easy target for pent up frustrations and anger at war and revolution. Those few Jews who converted to Christianity were immediately free from official Tsarist persecution but like secular Jews, those who had given up religious observance including many left wing intellectuals and activists, they continued to suffer from persecution from the Ukrainian population. Ukrainian folk tradition saw the Jew as a ruthless profiteers mercilessly fleecing the poor honest Ukrainian peasantry. This view of the Jews was common in the countryside and was encouraged by the Tsarist authorities who sought to scapegoat the Jewish communities to take pressure of themselves for social injustices. Even Ukrainian politicians accepted that Anti-Semitism was widespread, Vinichenko a Ukrainian Nationalist leader wrote;
“Sons of shop keepers, kulaks, priests and Christians, they had from childhood been infected with the spirit of anti-Semitism”.
Anti-Semitism amongst the Ukrainian peasantry was widespread and had been encouraged by the Tsarist government and its supporters, indeed it was accepted by the majority in society a ‘social norm’. So why did pogroms occur at intervals rather than being a constant feature of life, and how could peasants with strong anti-Semitic feelings work and trade with Jews ? Frank Wright in his book ‘Northern Ireland a comparative Analysis’, uses the theory of ‘Communal deterrence’, to explain how two communities can live together despite violent animosity. If you have two clearly defined communities an individual member may be ‘punished’, as a representative of their community. Violence of this nature is controlled because it can set of an endless chain of reprisals in which any member of either community may be a target for reprisals for something done in their name without their approval. This can suppress the acceptability of actual violence among members of either community who fear reprisals and allow members of both communities to work together while the stalemate continues. If some form of authority is present it must be able to pursue and punish acts of violence committed by either side to have any credibility with both communities. In the Ukraine under the Tsarist government, the authorities condoned certain Anti-Semitic acts when it was politically expedient, while during the Civil War any form of authority was removed. In areas controlled by White or nationalist forces anti-Semitism was condoned again for political expediency while in areas where either Bolshevik or Makhnovist authority was firmly in control anti-Semitic violence was suppressed. Pogromist activities by Red and Makhnovist forces happened in unstable areas where social relationships had been disrupted by warfare.
The role of Jews in prominent positions in the Bolshevik party gave a weapon to the White and Nationalist forces who exploited the links to paint the Bolsheviks as a Jewish take over of the Ukraine. Elias Heifetz a Red Cross investigator believed that the presence of Jews on Bolshevik executive committees in villages led the peasants to believe that the Jews intended to dominate Christian Ukraine. The Jews in the Ukraine were blamed for all the excesses of the communists and not only by the Ukrainian peasantry In his report to the Foreign office in June 1919 the Rear Admiral commanding the British Black Sea fleet wrote;
“They found that their own local Soviets were formed, for the most part, of the hated Jews: that these Soviets carried out their requisitions on the workers and peasants...rightly the blame is apportioned to the Jews and there are signs of a violent anti-Jewish movement spreading all over the South of Russia”.
The Times newspaper also reported that the Jews were somehow partly responsible for their own fate;
“Alone the Jews, who either as commissaries of the people or as profiteers have filled their pockets since the revolution, are left to be robbed. Hence Sokolovski, Makhno, Zaleny, and the other cut-throat adventurers who lead these bands are conducting one enormous Pogrom throughout the Ukraine”.
There was widespread Anti-Semitism among the Ukrainian peasantry but there were equally areas were Ukrainians lived peacefully along side Jewish families and Jewish colonies. Partly this was due to who controlled the region and whether or not they tolerated Anti-Semitism. Thus ensuring the continuation of ‘communal deterrence’.
Both the Nationalists and the Whites stirred up Anti-Semitic feeling to destabilise and discredit the Bolsheviks in areas where no firm control had been established amongst the peasantry who equated Bolshevism with Judaism.
The Pogroms carried out in the Ukraine were far more extreme than any previously carried out under the Tsarist regime, an estimated 180,000 to 200,000 Jews were murdered between 1919–21 in 1,300 separate Pogroms in the Ukraine. Whole peasant communities took part in these massacres against neighbouring Jewish colonies as did troops and partisans of all armies and all political persuasions. The Bolsheviks, perhaps because of the number of Jews in the party committed fewer than the Whites or the Nationalists who had the reputation for being particularly bad, Petliura the nationalist leader lost control of his soldiers who slaughtered the Jews who they regarded as Bolshevik supporters, Petliura feared that if he attempted punish the Pogromists he would lose control of his army;
“It is a pity that pogroms take place, but they uphold the discipline of the army”.
The White armies also committed atrocities while they tried to cover them up to placate their foreign backers who sustained the White movement. On the 15 September 1919 the War office received a Telegram from the British High Commissioner in Constantinople reporting allegations by Zionist representatives regarding Pogroms in Ekaterinoslav and Kremenchug carried out by Denikin’s volunteer army. On the 18th of September the military representative in Taganrog interviewed General Denikin, based on this interview he sent a report to the Secretary of State for Foreign affairs stating that;
“Makhno, Gregoriev and the Petliurists are known to have carried out pogroms before the advent of the Volunteer Army which is now being blamed for acts by certain people”.
The Secretary of State Lord Curzon wrote in his minutes on 7 October 1919 that;
“There can, I think, be little doubt that Gnr: Denikin’s troops have committed atrocities, and that pogroms have been quite frequent occurrences”.
The various Ataman’s fighting during the war were particularly seen as perpetrators of pogroms and there is much truth in this, made up of peasants and deserters and without the discipline of the various armies, and often at the whims of their commanders the ‘Greens’, and partisans loyal to either Nationalists, Bolsheviks or White committed many of the pogroms, some like Hryhoryiv (Grigorieff) revelled in their prejudice. Contemporary White Russian sources blame the Makhnovshchina for many pogroms. While a pamphlet by the Kiev Pogrom Relief Committee makes no mention of Makhno, Major-General H.C. Holman chief of the British military mission to General Denikin in his report to the Foreign office reports Makhno’s victims unnumbered. Despite the lack of any figures the reports from British officials and officers in contact with the White forces make many references to the fact that the Makhnovists are anti-Jewish and committing pogroms. Reports of interviews with Denikin’s staff officers on board HMS Caradoc put Makhno’s popularity down to his extreme anti-Jewish policy. While General Keyes the British consul in Novorossisk in March 1920 reporting on Pogromist activity by the Volunteer army stated;
“No direct evidence re districts formerly occupied by Denikin now available but insistent reports that Makhnoasts bands are exterminating Jews”.
Allegations of Anti-Semitism were vigorously denied by the Makhnovists and there is much evidence to show that Anti-Semites were punished for their actions. Two of the most often quoted are the sign seen by Makhno at the railway station of Verkhnii Tokmak saying ‘Death to Jews, save the revolution, long live batko Makhno’, the writer of the sign was found and shot. The second incident happened in May 1919 when twenty Jewish people were shot at the Jewish agricultural colony of Gor’kaya in an area controlled by the Makhnovists, a commission was set up by the Makhnovist staff to investigate this pogrom and seven peasants from a neighbouring village were executed. Both these incidents show that anti-Jewish feelings were prevalent among Makhno’s supporters and that the military staff and activists sought to stop any expressions of these views. The peasant’s involved in the Makhnovshchina had the same anti-Jewish prejudices as peasants in the rest of Ukraine. The severe punishment meted out to those anti-Semites caught shows how seriously such incidents were judged. The incident at the railway station may also show that only through strict discipline could Anti-Semitic elements be suppressed, even the smallest anti-Jewish action had to be stopped to stop it spreading amongst a population who for at least a hundred years had been encouraged to hate the Jews. Makhnovist activists sought an end to all forms of religious or ethnic prejudice the executive committee of the peasant and insurgent congress issued proclamations against anti-Semitism;
“Peasants, workers and insurgents! You know that the workers of all nationalities-Russians, Jews, Poles, Armenians, etc.-are equally imprisoned in the abyss of poverty... You know how many honest and valiant revolutionary Jewish fighters have given their lives for freedom”.
Evidence of Makhno’s personal feelings comes from Alexander Berkman a Russian born American Anarchist who was working for the Bolshevik government at the time, while in the city of Nikolayev in September 1920 talked to a girl who saw Makhno speak while he held the town who he reports as saying;
“I heard Makhno himself speak, it was on the square, and some one held a big black flag near him. He told the people they had nothing to fear, and that he would not permit any excesses. He said he would mercilessly punish anyone attempting a pogrom. I got a very favourable impression of him”.
The fact that the Makhnovists issued many proclamations against Anti-Semitism shows that they were worried about it amongst their own supporters. As in the Red army activities against Anti-Semitism had an effect on the Makhnovists even if it only suppressed openly anti-Jewish violence, while not effecting underlying prejudices. Some Makhnovist fighters and supporters as well as deserters and partisans recruited from other armies, who had been encouraged by their previous commanders into action against the Jews carried out pogroms. But they had no support from the movements core supporters or activists, Pogromists caught by the military leadership were harshly dealt with indeed they were usually shot.
One sign that the Makhnovist movement was not inherently anti-Semitic was the large number of Jews involved in the movement, this does not signify that the movement did not contain anti-Semites but it does show that Jews played an important role in the Makhnovshchina. Jewish colonies participated in the Peasant, worker and insurgent congresses, sending delegates. In the military structure many Jews fought along side Ukrainian insurgents and indeed an Artillery Battery was recruited exclusively from the local Jewish colonies. Many Jews served in important positions in the movement, Kogan served for a while as the chairman of the peasant congress’s Executive, while Aron Baron was a leading Anarchist agitator, Elena Keller served in the cultural-educational section as did Sukhovol’sky, Aly-Sukhovolski and Yossif the emigrant who Berkman knew from America and who he saw while in Kiev denied that the Makhnovists committed pogroms and blamed them on the ‘Greens’, (independent partisan groups) and bandits. One of the most powerful men in the movement was also Jewish, Lev Zadov-Zinkovski headed the counter intelligence service the Kontrrazvedka. Jewish Makhnovists like their counterparts in the Red army may have been working alongside Anti-Semites, Issaak Babel who was with the Red army’s first cavalry army used a Russian name to hide his Jewish roots though few were fooled. The first cavalry army was recruited mainly from Ukrainian Cossacks, indeed former Makhnovists served with Babel;
“the Cossacks just the same, the cruelty the same, it’s nonsense to think one army is different from another”.
While the most that Babel and other Jews in the first cavalry army had to deal with was verbal abuse, Jewish civilians were attacked, robbed, raped and even murdered. The Red Cossacks made distinctions between ‘our’, Jews in the Red army and Jewish civilians, as did Babel who watched the victimisation of Polish Jews by the Cossacks and stood back and did nothing. Similar things probably happened amongst the Makhnovists. If anti-Semitism was a social norm in the Ukraine and if we are to believe the theory of ‘communal deterrence’, then pogroms committed by the Makhnovists would of occurred either in areas were the Makhnovists had not fully taken control or in periods of rapid change either in retreat or in advance. In areas that achieved stability under the Makhnovists serious acts of anti-Jewish violence did not occur unpunished. This suggests that the Makhnovist organisation had the will and authority to pursue and punish violent anti-Semites. Jewish Makhnovists who escaped the movements destruction denied the claims that the Makhnovists were Pogromists, and while pogroms were carried out by members of the movement the movement itself always sought to prevent anti-Semitic behaviour and violence. Voline in his book ‘The Unknown Revolution’, quotes an interview with the Jewish historian M. Tcherikover who had studied the pogroms of the civil war and had no political axe to grind, stated that the Makhnovists behaved better as regards the civilian population including the Jews than any other army involved in the Ukraine.
Allegations about the Makhnovshchina and Makhno personally have, and indeed continue to persist both White and Red propaganda claimed that the Makhnovists were Anti-Semitic and carried out many pogroms. Makhno never denied that anti-Jewish violence took place in areas controlled by the insurgents, but he did deny that the movement was supported such actions. The Bolsheviks sought to discredit him and his movement both at home and abroad and to smear him as a Pogromist was one way to do so, the Soviet historian Yaroslavsky blamed Makhno personally for pogroms, while Makhno himself credited Gerassimenko a ’lick spittle lackey of the Bolsheviks’, and the journalist Arbatov;
“who unashamedly credits me with all manner of violence perpetrated against a troupe of ‘performing dwarves’ “.
During the periods of co-operation with the Makhnovists several commissars sent to work within the movement reported anti-Semitism within the Makhnovist forces but there are no specific allegations, and hostility against the commissars would be found without it being the result of anti-Jewish feeling. From reading Issaak Babel’s diary it is likely that the level of anti-Semitism would be similar within Red army forces who after all were recruited from same social groups and classes and areas to those in the Makhnovshchina. British officers with the White army of Denikin reported Makhno as carrying out Pogroms, but these reports came at the same time as concern by the British government over the Volunteer army’s activities. British intelligence was reliant totally on the White’s intelligence reports and if Denikin could blame his enemies for his own as well as pogroms carried out by the nationalists, Greens and Makhnovists then Denikin could calm concern from his foreign backers. The Bolsheviks had many Jews in powerful positions and western governments were unlikely to believe they were exterminating Jews, especially when many of the British reports show signs of prejudice as regards the number of Jews involved at high levels amongst the Bolsheviks. Petliura’s nationalists had backing from the French government and their own representatives abroad to deny allegations, while Hryhoriyiv and Makhno could be blamed for the Whites own pogroms without fear of contradiction. The Communists blamed the Makhnovists to discredit them as a revolutionary movement, portraying them as pogromists like Hryhoriyiv. While the Whites who after the civil war were reliant on western government’s who would be uneasy about supporting pogromists, could blame their own crimes on Makhno. The Makhnovists own propaganda always denied that they carried out pogroms perhaps fearing that if they admitted that some of there followers had massacred Jews that the lies of both Whites and Reds would be believed. Members of the Makhnovshchina did carry out pogroms and anti-Semitism was prevalent amongst Makhno’s followers, but like the Red army their prejudices were suppressed and their excesses where found were punished.
Both Red and White Russians had reasons to spread the lie that the Makhno was a Pogromist, the Reds sought to discredit Makhno and his movements revolutionary character and justify its destruction both internally and internationally. While the White army of Denikin and Wrangel relied on the support of western governments for their survival and after the war on their charity. The public of most of the ‘liberal’ democracies were shocked and revolted by the Pogroms and the White forces hoped to hide their own guilt by blaming their pogroms on the ‘Green’, forces and the Makhnovists. The stories about the Makhnovists pogroms are partly based on the truth that some of the insurgents carried out violent acts of anti-Semitism, but their activities were dealt with if they were caught and by no means were there actions an accepted by the movement as a whole.
The Jewish colonies provided the Makhnovists with many fighters and activists, and Jewish Anarchists from Russia and the Ukraine were actively involved and supported the movement, this support would not have been there if the Makhnovists had been inherently anti-Semitic or if the movement as a whole had condoned the violence. This is not to say that there were no pogroms carried out by the insurgents. No combatant force in the civil war was innocent of violence against the Jewish population of the Ukraine but the Makhnovists like the Red army who both had many Jews among there ranks did not pursue anti-Semitism as a deliberate policy or condoned it when it happened. The truth concerning the Ukrainian pogroms of the civil war is so highly propagandised by all sides involved that it is perhaps impossible to tell what truly happened or to make judgements on who carries what proportion of blame. However while both the Bolshevik Red army and the Makhnovist insurgents carried out pogroms both of these two forces saw them as failings of discipline and not as deliberate tactics.
CHAPTER 4. Nestor Ivanovich Makhno.
The figure of Nestor Makhno is an extraordinary one, a peasant born Anarchist revolutionary leader who fought both Whites and Reds with great success and ingenuity. Makhno and his movement have many similarities with Emiliano Zapata and his peasant movement of the Mexican civil war, yet while Zapata is seen as a Mexican hero, Makhno is virtually unknown outside of histories of the Revolution and Civil War and Anarchist groups who claim Makhno and the Makhnovshchina as forebears. Many myths and false claims have been made about Makhno, some are due to the confusion of the civil war while others are pure fabrication. Indeed Makhno has been the subject or featured in works of fiction, even during his own lifetime. The purpose of this chapter is to look at some of the myths surrounding Makhno and his use in fiction, and to answer why he is such an attractive figure for writers and folklore.
During the Civil war, many stories about Makhno grew up on all sides, British forces in the Black sea reported him as being an ex-sailor robber chief, confusing him with Fyodor Shchus Makhno’s cavalry commander who served in the Russian navy on board the mine layer ‘Ioann Zlatoust’, and wore a sailors peakless cap or ‘Beskozirka’.
Some reports and writers say that Makhno was originally a school teacher in Gulyai-Pole this is untrue, Makhno did however travel on false papers given to him in Moscow describing him as a school teacher and this is were the confusion arises from.
The White armies also believed that due to his successes he must have professional officers serving in his staff which is also untrue. Makhno’s early has also been reported differently, the Anarchist Emma Goldman who met Nestor’s wife claimed he was arrested for the attempted assassination of a Tsarist spy, while most sources say his arrest followed his involvement in the death of a Policeman and activities involving the Gulyai-Pole anarchist group. The historian W.E.D. Allen in his 1940 history of the Ukraine is scathing of Makhno and extremely inaccurate he describes him as being exiled to Siberia for the murder of a policeman and on returning to the Ukraine;
“he had been cunning enough to assume a deep red colouration”.
Allen also claims that in Paris Makhno earned his livelihood as a ‘Cinema studio figurant’ (extra). None of this is correct, Makhno was imprisoned in the Butyrki prison, Moscow, his politics were sincere (his interest in Anarchist ideas began before his imprisonment) and he was a committed activist for most of his life.
In Makhnovist controlled areas Makhno acted on his Anarchist convictions, he opened and then destroyed the prisons , granted all political organisations and parties freedom to operate but prevented them from imposing their views or seizing political power and issued money which stated on the back that no one would be prosecuted for forging it. Makhno’s political writings while in exile show his Anarchy was no mere camouflage for a bandit . Other sources say while in Paris he worked as a house painter and in rail yards plus various other jobs, though I have found no other reference to him working as a film extra. During the civil war many stories circulated about Makhno and his activities, Alexander Berkman recorded in his diaries a conversation with Petrovsky Chairman of the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee in July 1920 after Makhno had been outlawed by the Bolsheviks;
“Many legends have grown around his name, and to some he appears almost a heroic figure. But here in the Ukraina you will learn the truth about him. Just a robber ataman, that’s all he is. Under the mask of anarchism he conducts raids upon villages and towns, destroys railroad communications, and takes a fiendish delight in murdering commissars and communists”.
Many stories told about Makhno and the Makhnovists activities are similar to those told about Robin Hood and Pugachev, sharing captured wealth with the peasants, capturing towns and enemy soldiers by stealth and cunning. While there is certainly truth behind some of these stories (his capture of Ekaterinoslav using a commuter train full of soldiers for example), others are likely to be pure invention. Arshinov in his ‘History of the Makhnovist Movement 1918–1921’, draws comparisons between Makhno and Pugachev the leader of a Cossack rebellion in the 18th century. While both Michael Malet and Orlando Figes quotes Russian Material that tells of folk verses at weddings that concerns Makhno, and mothers threatening their children with his name;
“If you don’t go to sleep, Batko Makhno will be coming here this minute; he’ll give it to you”.
The truth, stories, mistakes and both positive and negative propaganda surrounding Makhno have been mixed up and have led to varying reports of Makhno all of which claim to be the truth.
Such a ‘colourful’ (sic) figure as Makhno, a peasant Anarchist who led a Cossack army against both White and Red attracted many writers of fiction during Makhno’s lifetime. Issaak Babel who had served with the Russian First Cavalry Army as a Bolshevik news service correspondent in both the Ukraine and Poland wrote several short pieces dealing with the civil war. In ‘Italian Sunshine’, a delirious soldier mixes up his memories of the civil war and the role of Anarchists within the Bolshevik government with a book he has just read about the Vatican;
“And only Volin is still there. Volin dons the sacerdotal vestments and climbs up for anarchy to the Lenins. Awful. And the Batko listens to him, strokes his dusty and wiry locks and emits from between his decayed teeth the long snake of his moujik’s sneer”.
Babel’s ‘Discourse on the Tatchanka and other Matters’, deals with Makhno’s use of the peasant carts and the advantages of manoeuvre they gave him over regular troops;
“This Makhno is as many-sided as nature herself. Hay-carts, disposed in battle array, took towns; a wedding procession approaching the headquarters of a district executive opened a concentrated fire; and a meagre little monk, waving above him the black flag of anarchy, ordered the authorities to hand over the middle-classes, the proletariat, wine and music”.
Babel while working with the first cavalry army came into contact with soldiers who had fought against Makhno and former Makhnovist partisans now with the Red Army. So his work may have been informed by conversations with them. Babel saw little difference between the Cossacks who fought for the Red Army and those who were with other armies. Babel describes the Cossacks as anti-Semitic (Babel was a Jew though he attempted to hide this fact by using a false Russian name, Lyutov while with the army). Babel’s portrayal of Makhno may of been coloured by contact with men who had fought with or against the Makhnovshchina. Joseph Kessel’s book ‘Makhno et sa Juive’ published by Eos in 1926, depicts Makhno as an Anti-Semite charges that Makhno strenuously denied claiming that Kessel had based his novel on work by Colonel Gerassimenko a former White officer who was convicted of being a Bolshevik spy by the Czechoslovakian courts, indeed Kessel credits Gerassimenko in his introduction. Other writers contemporary to Makhno wrote stories around him including Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’. Unfortunately like Kessel’s ‘Makhno et sa Juive’, I have been unable to find English translations and have had to rely on what little I could translate from Kessel using a French-English Dictionary, with some unusual results;
“le trahit et l’assasine, massacre les Juifs, les bourgeois, les officiers, les commissaires, bref, pendant deux anees, terrorise l’Ukraine”.
“The traitor and assassin, massacred the Jews, the bourgeois, the officers, the commissars, briefly, while two donkeys terrorised the Ukraine”.
It is unusual to see writers base works of fiction on living people, but Makhno had few supporters and no option of legal action against such writers due to his poverty while in exile in Paris.
Makhno has also been used by modern writers, the most famous novelist to use him as a character is Michael Moorcock who has written about him not only in historical novels set during the Russian Civil War but also in his works of fantasy. In ‘Byzantium Endures’, set in the Ukraine during the civil war Moorcock’s character ‘Pyat’, finds himself in the Anarchist region ‘the only territory where peace reigned’, after a rather dull encounter with Makhno ‘Pyat’, finds his childhood sweetheart who is working with the Makhnovist Cultural-Education section. Moorcock portrays Makhno as a rapist an allegation made by Bolsheviks and by Voline;
“Makhno? He saved my life, she said. It was not much of a rape. It was a token. His wife knows what he does. She tries to stop him. He Feels bad afterwards. He’s drunk”.
Moorcock paints a sympathetic picture off Makhno and his movement despite the portrayal as a drunken rapist, and in the books introduction he thanks Leah Feldman who he interviewed for the book, Feldman who was possibly the last survivor of Makhno’s army always denied that Makhno was a rapist;
“Did he change when he became a railway worker in Paris?...Who in Russia is he supposed to have raped? His wife was always riding on a horse beside him, and she would soon have put a stop to that”.
While in his book set during the Civil War, Moorcock bases his descriptions of the Makhnovists on research and interviews in his fantasy’s he uses Makhno as he would a purely fictional character. Michael Moorcocks ‘Jerry Cornelius’ stories which he started in 1965, experiment with non-linear techniques of narrative and alternative histories, comment on the hypocrisies of liberal Bourgeoisie of the time. Moorcock’s work began in the 1960’s and 1970’s while he was involved with the alternative press ( he edited ‘New Worlds’ magazine) and experimental music projects (with the rock band ‘Hawkwind’). In ‘The Entropy Tango’, Moorcock portrays an alternative 20th Century where Russia is controlled by the inheritors of Kerensky’s Provisional Government and Makhno succeeded in liberating the Ukraine. Makhno turns his energies to other countries;
“Leaning against the damp draining board Una read the ‘Manchester Guardian’, she had bought at Croydon. Makhno’s ‘insurgent army’, consisting predominantly of Ukrainian settlers, indians, metis (pushed out of their homelands), and some disaffected scots and french, had won control of rural Ontario”.
Moorcock portrays Makhno as a romantic revolutionary figure, a man driven by his political ideals and a committed internationalist;
“There are lots of anarchists in Scotland now, said Una. You know the one I mean. Makhno should still be there, I’d like to look him up. He’s getting on now, you know. Must be at least eighty”.
Michael Moorcock’s interest in Nestor Makhno may well come from his political outlook, many of his books show sympathy for anarchist ideas and his time spent editing ‘New Worlds’, at a time of political radicalism and experimentation may well have introduced him to Makhno and the Makhnovist movement via the Anarchist movement which revived during the same period.
Nestor Makhno is an extremely colourful character, in a bloody civil war he stands out as a leader of extraordinary capacity, he built an army from the peasants of his home region using machine guns on peasant carts ‘tatchankas’, to fight German, Austrian and Hungarian invaders and their Ukrainian lackeys, Nationalists, White Russian, Bolsheviks and western interventionist armies. Makhno was only twenty seven when at the height of his career and had almost no formal education. His political beliefs which motivated his actions and influenced the movement that bore his name were Anarchist, seeking total freedom from all authority.
For modern writers such as Moorcock, Nestor Makhno offers a revolutionary hero untainted by Leninism or the spectre of Bolshevik oppression. His followers peasant inheritors of Cossack traditions and deserters from both Whites and Reds also are attractive to writers who were involved in the politics and culture of the sixties and seventies, W. Bruce Lincoln describes the Makhnovists as;
“Armed to the teeth and dressed in wildly outlandish clothing gathered from the closets of lords and the shelves of tradesmen, the Guliai Pole peasants resembled their boisterous Cossack forebears of the Zaporozhian Sich”.
Novelists contemporary with Makhno used him in their fiction for two reasons, within the Soviet Union fictional accounts of Makhno’s life could be used to help discredit him, and help glorify the role of the Red Army in his destruction, though Babel’s stories attack the Makhnovists there is also I believe grudging admiration for his exploits and tactics, possibly due to Babel’s own contact with ex-Makhnovists. Writers working in the west did not have the same motives as those in the Soviet Union, unless like Colonel Gerassimenko they were working for the Bolsheviks seeking to destroy the reputation of a possible enemy. Makhno as a former ally of the Bolsheviks and a vehement enemy of the counter-revolutionary Whites, might carry some credibility in his criticism of the communists. So the Bolsheviks would encourage western anti-Makhnovist writings. Joseph Kessel however had no links with the Bolsheviks, his book ‘Makhno et sa Juive’, was based on information on the Makhnovists available to him in 1926 most of which was either produced by the Bolsheviks or the Whites. Arshinov’s sympathetic history was published in 1923 in Russian but I do not know if Kessel would have had access to a French edition. Makhno claimed that most of Kessel’s information came from the work of Gerassimenko, in which case it would be influenced by Bolshevik propaganda. Kessel’s book was written in 1926, the same year that Arshinov published in Paris his ‘Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists: Draft’, which caused great controversy throughout Anarchist circles. The ‘Platform’, called for a general Union of anarchists with a central executive committee to co-ordinate policy and action. Its detractors accused Arshinov of abandoning Anarchism for Bolshevism by calling for a strict party structure. The only prominent Anarchist to support Arshinov was Makhno, it is possible that Kessel’s interest was aroused by the debate over the ‘platform’. When writing about the Civil war whether in fiction or in fact, the Ukraine was the central battlefield for all sides, Makhno was certainly the most colourful leader in that conflict and the Makhnovist forces fought all sides and changed the course of the war on several occasions. A novel set in the Civil war is likely to cover Makhno even if only in passing. Moorcock’s use of him in fantasy owes some thing to the writers background in the alternative publishing and rock music scene of the sixties and seventies. Though in Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’, books that deal with the collapse of civilisation what better supporting characters to have than the anarchist revolutionary Makhno and his unruly peasant followers.
The folk tales and legends that have grown around Makhno owe much to stories told about previous peasant rebels most noticeably Pugachev, indeed Berkman reports the comparison being made between Makhno and Pugachev, and Arshinov makes the comparison in his history of the movement;
“The following legend about Pugachev is told among the peasants of Great Russia. After his uprising he fell into the hands of the authorities. He told the noblemen sitting around him ; ‘in this uprising I only gave you a foretaste. But wait: soon after me will come the real broom- it will sweep all of you away’. Makhno showed himself to be this historic broom of the people”.
For the Makhnovists drawing comparisons to a folk hero like Pugachev could help win sympathy and support from the peasants who had grown up with stories about his peasant revolt. The Makhnovists peasant form of Anarchism based in an area were Cossack traditions of freedom were respected also helped them to draw comparisons with the Zaphorozhian Sich. With the destruction of the Makhnovists and the entrenchment of Bolshevik authority in the Ukraine, government censorship made folk stories and songs were one of the few ways that the Makhnovists could be remembered. Many of the stories about the Makhnovists and Makhno are invention either for propaganda purposes or exaggeration, while others came through the confusion of the situation in the Ukraine during the civil war. While the Makhnovists remain largely forgotten, swamped by the victory of the Bolshevik’s in Russia some writers who have come across their story have used it in works of fiction. Because they lost in the end and that almost all traces of them were destroyed that authors have been able to use them without fearing criticism from Makhnovist supporters. The lack of evidence surrounding the movement also makes it far easier to simply imagine the actions of the Makhno without having to research huge amounts of research material.
CHAPTER 5. Makhno and the British Anarchist Movement.
Information on the Makhnovists was difficult to obtain in the west, what came from White Russian and Bolshevik sources was mainly negative propaganda, what little information from the Makhnovists point of view came from Russian Anarchist refugees most notably Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman and those few Makhnovists who managed to escape. What news there was of the movement appeared in publications whose political stance was most in sympathy with the Makhnovists namely Anarchist and far left papers and journals.
In Britain the Anarchist and anti-Parliamentary Communist movement was tiny and lost much of their support to the Bolshevik backed Communist Party of Great Britain after its formation in 1920. The coverage of the Makhnovists and of Nestor Makhno in contemporary British left-wing publications was unimportant to either the history of the Makhnovists or the British Left, but what it does show is the differences and confusion on the far left over the revolution in Russia and the nature of the Bolshevik regime. While the Anarchist paper ‘Freedom’ was quick in seeing the Bolsheviks as fundamentally opposed to Anarchist organisations and ideology and contained the most accurate information on the Makhnovists its influence was extremely small. Guy Aldred who published both the ‘Spur’ and ‘Commune’ was himself an Anarchist but he consistently supported the Bolsheviks and attacked their critics long after the rest of the British Anarchist movement had given up any support for the Bolsheviks. Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper the ‘Workers Dreadnought’ originally supported the Bolsheviks, indeed it had become the unofficial ‘organ’ of the CPGB while Sylvia was a leading member of the party until she was expelled in 1921. The ‘Workers Dreadnought’, published appeals on behalf of Russian Anarchists in Bolshevik prisons and Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a meeting in support of Makhno in London in 1923. Information in the left-wing press on Nestor Makhno and the Makhnovist movement was tied up with that of the rest of the Russian Anarchist movement, and the plight of its prisoners and refugees.
The far left including Anarchists in Britain greeted the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 with enthusiasm. The Anarchist movement believed like most of the British left that Russia held the possibility of a socialist revolution that would end the war and begin the triumphant march to socialism throughout Europe. The British left was small and fragmented at the end of the war, many of the parties amalgamated into the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. The Bolsheviks October revolution was originally reported in the west as being Anarchist, confusion reigned on the British left as to the nature of the situation in Russia. The Bolshevik party advanced the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’, in order to reach its true goal that of authoritarian rule of the Bolshevik party. There was confusion over the differences between the Soviets which were spontaneously formed workers councils, committees of recallable delegates elected by and answerable to mass meetings of working class people. Which were seen by the anti-Parliamentary Left as the means to carry out the revolution, and the Bolshevik party who claimed to represent the Soviets and had the support of several important Soviets and had seized control of the Russian government. Despite this confusion the Left united to oppose British military and economic intervention in Russia. Little information on the situation in Russia reached the west and that which did was usually highly propagandised either by the Bolsheviks or by their White Russian enemies, so any news was tainted with the suspicion that it was untrue or exaggerated. Information on the Bolsheviks anti-Anarchist activities started to emerge in the left’s publications in mid 1919 (these activities had started in 1918), though the majority of political activists took longer to convince. Many had placed all their hopes on the revolution and were unwilling to denounce it without overwhelming evidence. Articles on the Makhnovists in the British Left-wing press appear originally as part of the debate on the role of Anarchists in the revolution and Civil War. It is interesting to see that three main Anarchist publications, ‘Freedom’ and Guy Aldred’s ‘Spur’ and ‘Commune’, take opposing lines on Makhno’s role, Aldred supported the Bolsheviks and labelled the Russian Anarchists as counter-revolutionary, while the Freedom group supported the Anarchists.
The Left Communists achieved a brief period of importance at the end of the First World War. During the war the Labour party and the Trade Unions leadership lined up to support the governments war effort. The Left Communists evolved from the socialist political organisations and rejected parliamentarism as a tactic which they saw as suited only to the capitalist system and unable to be used to create a socialist order due to its very nature, the already existing working class parties were seen as class collaborators due for their support for the World War. The Left Communists welcomed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and their policy of building socialism through the Soviets (workers councils) which the left communists saw as a suitable replacement to Parliament. However the Bolsheviks sought power through any strategy including participation in Parliamentary elections. The Bolsheviks imposed the policy of parliamentary action on the newly formed British Communist party against the bitter opposition of the anti-Parliamentarians involved in the discussions over its formation. Lenin made a vicious attack on the left Communists in his “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder’, and set out his position as regards Parliamentary action and the British Communists;
“I will put it more concretely. In my opinion, the British Communists should unite their four (all very weak, and some very, very weak) parties and groups into a single Communist Party on the basis of the principles of the Third International and of obligatory participation in Parliament”.
Guy Aldred actually put forward a compromise position of standing candidates for Parliament for propaganda purposes and to test popular support but to refuse any seats if they won an election. The CPGB adopted the policy of full involvement in the Parliamentary process and also sought affiliation to the Labour party, this decision led to a polarisation of the extreme left with the withdrawal of the Left Communist elements within the CPGB and the creation of the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation.
I have included Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘Dreadnought’ group because of Sylvia Pankhurst’s involvement in support for the Russian Anarchists and for the campaign over Makhno’s trial for revolutionary activity in Poland in 1923. Pankhurst’s main strength was her political journal the ‘Workers Dreadnought’ (before 1917 the Women’s Dreadnought) around which her political supporters organised. Pankhurst was based in the East End of London and her supporters will be referred to here as the ‘Dreadnought group’, due to its frequent name changes (East London Federation of Suffragettes, Workers Suffrage Federation, Workers Socialist Federation, Communist Workers’ Party). Originally Pankhurst supported the Bolsheviks and organised the ‘Hands of Russia’ campaign and became a leading light in the early Communist Party of Great Britain, but she was eventually forced out of the CPGB in September 1921 for her continued opposition to the policy of contesting Parliamentary elections and seeking affiliation with the Labour Party and her criticisms of the party in the ‘Workers Dreadnought’. During 1919 when the Makhnovists were most active the ‘Workers Dreadnought’, reported news from the Ukraine regarding the Civil War but there is no mention of Makhno, it is likely that as the Makhnovists fought as part of the Red Army there movements would be reported as such in Bolshevik Press releases. Following Sylvia’s expulsion from the CPGB the ‘Dreadnought group’, and their paper expressed solidarity with Communist opposition groups in Russia publishing articles by Alexandra Kollontai from the Russian Workers opposition, and giving support to the ‘Group of Revolutionary left-wing Communists of Russia’, which had split from the Bolsheviks and other left wing anti-Bolshevik parties. In July 1923 Nestor Makhno was in prison in Poland;
“and is to be tried shortly on a charge of organising uprisings in Poland aided by Bolshevik money. At the same time the Bolshevik Government are asking Poland for his extradition so that they can put him on trial for his so called ‘Counter-Revolutionary’, activity in Russia”.
Russian Anarchists in London set up a protest meeting on the 27th July at the Mantle Makers Hall, Whitechapel, at which Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the speakers ( other speakers included T.H. Keell and W.C. Owen both of who were involved with the Freedom group and M. Hassine-Arnoni). The meeting passed a unanimous resolution protesting against Makhno’s imprisonment and trial. The court case was based mainly on the evidence of an agent provocateur working for Polish intelligence and after a five day trial Makhno and two other insurgents were acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence. ‘Workers Dreadnought’, in the same month as the meeting was condemning the Communist government for being ‘the dictatorship of a party clique of officials’. I do not know whether Sylvia Pankhurst had any involvement in the campaign other than speaking at the meeting in Whitechapel.
Guy Aldred published two papers during the period of the Russian revolution and civil war the ‘Spur’, which he and Rose Whitcop published as individuals and ‘Commune’, which Aldred published as the official publication of the Glasgow Communist Group (united with the Glasgow Anarchist Group at the end of 1916). Aldred supported the Bolsheviks despite their authoritarian and exclusive character mainly due to their concrete success at seizing power, and he continued to support them after the Left outside the CPGB had seized. Mark Shipway argues that Aldred’s lack of criticism of the Bolsheviks was partly due to his personal dislike for some of the people who were critical of the Bolsheviks. In 1923 Aldred criticised an article by W.C. Owen in ‘Freedom’, by questioning Owen’s revolutionary credentials. Guy Aldred also attacked Emma Goldman in the ‘Commune’ writing in December 1924 that her criticisms of the Bolsheviks were indistinguishable from White propaganda. By April 1925 he was demanding through the Pages of ‘Commune’ that the ‘Revolutionary scab’, and ‘ex-Anarchist’, Goldman be;
“Boycotted and condemned by every worker for her infamous associations. She is a traitor to Labour’s struggle who should be ‘fired’ with enthusiasm- from each and every proletarian assembly”.
As regards the fate of Anarchists in Russia, while Aldred printed letters from Anarchist organisations complaining about persecution he was not fully convinced despite the deluge of information in the early twenties he remained sceptical;
“We want the truth. The cry of ‘Safeguarding the revolution’ may be used as an excuse for tyranny. The cry of ‘Anarchism and liberty’ may conceal a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. We want to cut through phrases and get down to facts”.
By November 1925 Aldred’s line on the Russian Anarchists and the Bolshevik regime had changed almost totally, writing for the ‘Commune’ on the eighth anniversary of the revolution Aldred wrote of ‘our persecuted comrades in Russia’, and ‘our comrades rotting in the Soviet Prisons’. As regards Aldred’s coverage of Nestor Makhno and the Makhnovshchina I have found only two articles. The first in the issue of the ‘Spur’ for November 1920 is from an article by Robert Minor originally published in the American ‘The Liberator’, on the role of Anarchists in Russia. Minor puts forward the rumour that Makhno’s refusal to move his forces to the Polish front may have led to the Red Army’s defeat by the Poles;
“If the story is true, it means that the Soviet Red Army was defeated in Poland when the 75,000 men idle in the South with Makhno might have saved it”.
In the 1924 July-August edition of ‘Freedom there is an article attacking Guy Aldred for a statement in the June edition of ‘Commune’ claiming that Makhno;
“proves his revolutionary heroism to-day by serving as a general in the Polish White guards, a tool of French reaction”.
The Freedom article goes on to quote Emma Goldman who they sent a copy of Aldred’s article to in Berlin, Goldman attacks Aldred for spreading Bolshevik propaganda as regards Makhno;
“As to Makhno being in the employ of the Polish white Guard or French reaction, that is all a repetition of the outrageous defamation’s spread from Moscow....His sterling honesty and his revolutionary zeal are beyond such defamation’s as repeated by Guy Aldred”.
This attack on Aldred may have led to his condemnation of Goldman in the December 1924 and April 1925 editions of ‘Commune’ (see above). Aldred’s attacks on Makhno, Goldman and the Russian Anarchists were all made in support of the Bolshevik regime. Aldred refused to believe that the Bolsheviks were persecuting revolutionaries because of personal animosity against their accusers and defended the Bolsheviks until late 1925. By which time he could no longer ignore the overwhelming evidence of Bolshevik persecution of Anarchists and other left wing opposition groups.
‘Freedom’ was a mainly theoretical Anarchist paper originally set up by Prince Peter Kropotkin and produced by the small Freedom group made up of his supporters. Kropotkin had called for Anarchists to support the first World War as a war against German Imperial aggression and this had led to a split within the Freedom group and condemnation from the rest of the small British Anarchist movement who set about propagandising against it. By 1915 ‘Freedom’ was edited and controlled by T.H. Keell originally the papers printer who had also fallen out with Kropotkin over the issue of support for the war. Keell and a close group of friends produced the paper and were very critical of the Bolsheviks and the persecution of the Russian Anarchists. From July 1919 onwards ‘Freedom’ carried articles and appeals by and on behalf of the Anarchists in Russia and identified the Bolsheviks as anti-Anarchist. In January 1922 ‘Freedom’ published a letter from Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman about the treatment of the Russian Anarchists in which they stated that some Anarchists had been officially accused of being bandits and Makhnovtsy. In April of the same year ‘Freedom’ published Alexander Berkman’s article ‘Some Bolshevik Lies about the Russian Anarchists’, a large article running to three pages which mainly dealt with the Makhnovists. Berkman states that the Russian Anarchist organisations did not accept the Makhnovists as Anarchists, seeing them as peasant rebels and deals extensively with allegations of anti-Semitism laid against the Makhnovists;
“There were, indeed, isolated cases of pogroms made by some Otryads (military detachments) of the Makhno army....was not the Red Army guilty of such incidents? ....Makhno is an Anarchist, and it is historic fact that he and his staff kept up a continuous propaganda and agitation against religious and nationalistic superstitions and prejudices”.
Berkman’s article as far as I am aware is the largest and most accurate to appear in the contemporary British press regarding the Makhnovists. The meeting set up to support Makhno in his trial in Poland in July at the Mantle Makers Hall, Whitechapel, included T.H. Keell and W.C. Owen as speakers both were involved with the Freedom group and ‘Freedom’ reported on the meeting and the campaign in the next month’s issue;
“It is hoped that the publicity given to the case will stay the murderous hands of the reactionaries who seek to revenge themselves on this gallant fighter for freedom of the workers and peasants of the Ukraine”.
There is no mention in the ‘Freedom’ volumes XL for 1926 of Peter Arshinov’s ‘Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists, which was supported by Nestor Makhno and caused controversy throughout European Anarchist circles. The ‘Platform’, called for a general Union of anarchists with a central executive committee to co-ordinate policy and action. Its critics accused Arshinov of abandoning Anarchism for Bolshevism by calling for a strict party structure. In November 1934 ‘Freedom’ published an obituary of ‘Nestor Machno’, by Sh. Yanovsky the editor of the Yiddish language paper ‘Freie Arbeiter Stimme’, which had originally been published in the ‘Watchman’ in August in which he apologises for declaring Makhno a pogromist in ‘Freie Arbeiter Stimme’, and refutes any suspicion’s that Makhno was an Anti-Semite. Yanovsky begins by writing;
“In the personality of Nestor Makhno who died last week, the revolutionary world in general and the Russian Revolution in particular, have lost one of its greatest heroes, who will during the course of time be more and more valued”.
‘Freedom’ was the most consistently supportive of the Russian Anarchists and carried the most information on the Makhnovists and Makhno due to its links with Berkman, Goldman and Russian Anarchist émigrés, originated through Kropotkin,s involvement in the paper and his role in Russia following his return in 1917.
The British Anarchist and Left Communist movements were tiny and after 1920 many of their followers and activists had gone to the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain attracted by the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia, indeed Sylvia Pankhurst had been an active member of the party and Guy Aldred had offered the Bolsheviks his full support through the pages of his publications. The CPGB’s adoption of fighting Parliamentary campaigns and seeking affiliation to the Labour party had prevented the Left Communists from joining the party. Later when the Bolsheviks persecution of Anarchists had become well known about in the west both the Freedom group and Pankhurst’s Dreadnought group both switched to attacking the Bolsheviks, while Aldred took far longer to convince of the authoritarian nature of the Bolsheviks. The Freedom group were the most supportive of the Russian Anarchists and published the most information on Makhno, but their readership and influence were tiny even compared to the rest of the anti-Parliamentary left at the time. The Makhnovist movement and Nestor Makhno had no impact on the British Left but what it does help show is the differences over attitudes to the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik regime on the anti-Parliamentary Left. It also shows that information on Anarchists in Russia during the revolution and Civil War was almost impossible to come by other than from Bolshevik or white sources, unless brought out by Anarchist refugees;
“We think that few students of the Russian Revolution are under any illusions as to the situation in Russia. The Bolsheviks and their supporters at home and abroad raised a smoke screen so dense that for some time it was almost impossible to get any reliable news”.
The Makhnovshchina and Nestor Makhno remain largely forgotten, overshadowed by the massive struggle for Russia between Red and White armies. The Makhnovists Anarchism was very much based on the traditional freedoms and organisation of the Cossack’s and raw forms of village democracy which had been influenced by the Cossack traditions and persisted in the South East of Ukraine. While in the rest of the Ukraine Nationalism, long suppressed by the Tsarist authorities gained popular support. In the South East this home grown peasant democracy radicalised by Makhno’s Anarchist beliefs took root. The majority of the movements peasant followers did not consider themselves Anarchists however with the help of the Makhnovshchina’s activists they followed a policy of redistributing the land equally amongst themselves. The Makhnovists encouraged the setting up of ‘free’, agricultural communes organised on the principles of full equality and mutual aid. The Makhnovists attempted to run both their civilian and military organisations on Anarchist principles (with varying degrees of success). The Makhnovists were a peasant movement whose main support came from the town of Gulyai-Pole and surrounding peasant communities in the province of Ekaterinoslav. The Makhnovshchina remained a regional phenomenon which was confined to this area which contained the conditions for the movements creation and development. Its failure to build support among the urban working class in towns and cities under the Makhnovistss control weakened the movement, and was due to the peasant nature of the Makhnovshchina which made it so successful in the Ukrainian countryside.
The Makhnovists were extremely successful in their military operations considering the lack of experienced commanders or military supplies. Makhno’s cunning and inventiveness in his use of the Tachanka (peasant carts) for example and the excellent quality of his locally raised cavalry forces gave him the ability to manouvre far more effectively than his enemies. This mobility plus the Makhnovists large number of machine guns helped to allow the Makhnovists to ‘punch above their weight’ against larger forces. The power vacuum in the South East left by the conditions of the Civil War allowed the Makhnovists to evolve from small peasant bands into a large military and civilian project that both the Red and White Russians had to take into account. The Bolsheviks were prepared to co-operate with the Makhnovists against the White forces of reaction, but once the threat from the White armies was removed they turned the Red Army against the Makhnovists intent on destroying a movement which they saw as a hindrance to the Communist control of the Ukraine. The White Army had to divert forces from the Moscow front to deal with the Makhnovists operating in their rear, thus weakening their major offensive against the Bolsheviks.
Anti-Semitism was widespread in the Ukraine and Makhnovist insurgents did carry out Pogroms against Jewish communities. This anti-Semitic violence however was not a deliberate policy, nor was it condoned by the Makhnovists governmental organisations or military leadership. Anti-Jewish violence was an indication of the deep feelings of hatred towards Jews among the Ukrainian peasantry. Despite this many Jews and Jewish communities were involved in the Makhnovist movement and even small anti-Semitic incidents were severely punished. Indicating how seriously the Makhnovist movement saw such acts. This severity is explained by the fear that if smaller incidents went unpunished, more severe acts might have followed by Makhno’s peasant supporters amongst who prejudice against the Jews was widespread. No army in the Ukraine was innocent of Pogroms but the Makhnovists and the Bolshevik Red army both of which had many Jews among their ranks did not carry out Pogroms as a deliberate strategy to curry favour and support from among the peasantry, who had been encouraged in their anti-Semitism by the Tsarist regime. Rather it came about when there was a break down in discipline during periods when the Makhnovist organisations were unable to impose their authority on their supporters.
The British anti-Parliamentary Left Communists and Anarchists response to the Makhnovshchina was as part of their condemnation of the Bolsheviks for the persecution of revolutionary opposition groups including the Russian and Ukrainian Anarchists and Makhnovists. The Makhnovshchina had no influence on the British left politically but the coverage of the movement in different left wing publications show the different reactions to the Bolsheviks by the anti-Parliamentary Left.
In looking at the Makhnovist Movement it is impossible not to be struck by the role of Nestor Makhno himself. This short poorly educated and alcoholic peasant was able not only to gain the support, trust and admiration of Anarchist activists and more importantly thousands of peasants who followed him through a terrible and bloody Civil War, but also defeated vastly larger and better equiped enemies his ingenious tactics. The conditions in the South East were there for a regional insurgency without the influence of Makhno Indeed many groups commonly known as ‘Greens’, grew up and fought independently from other military forces. But without Makhno’s leadership and strategic daring it is unlikely that the insurgent movement would have been so successful and it would have given its political support to either the Nationalists or Bolsheviks, which party likely depended on their policies of land reform and distribution. Makhno’s sincere Anarchist convictions shaped the movement that bore his name and as Peter Marshall states in his history of Anarchism led to the first major historical example of constructive Anarchy in action.
In November 1934 the British Anarchist paper ‘Freedom’, published an obituary of ‘Nestor Machno’, written by S. Yanovsky the editor of the Yiddish language paper ‘Freie Arbeiter Stimme’, who began by writing;
“In the personality of Comrade Nestor Machno who died last week, the revolutionary world in general, and the Russian revolution in particular have lost one of its greatest heroes, who will during the course of time be more and more valued. And more so after being misunderstood and shamefully calumniated, not only by his opponents, but by some of his own comrades”.