Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 (1947)
Struggle for the Real Social Revolution
Mass Movement in the Ukraine
This chapter puts me in a quandary.
If I devoted a hundred or so pages to the Kronstadt movement, a proper treatment of the events in the Ukraine would require at least five times as much space, in view of their scope, their duration, and above all their revolutionary and moral importance. But this is impossible.
Besides, my documentation on this movement is limited to the outstanding work of Peter Arshinov: History of the Makhnovist Movement.1 And in my present circumstances I cannot complete Arshinov's work. On the other hand, filling pages with documents that have already been published -- even if we take into account their specific character and the bibliographical rarity of the work -- seems exaggerated.
I can obviously enrich the study with two important elements: (1) certain facts set forth in volumes II and III of the Memoirs of Nestor Makhno, initiator and military leader of the movement, which have been published only in Russian (in 1936 and 1937); (2) certain personal experiences of my own, since I took part in this movement on two occasions, at the end of 1919 and at the end of 1920, for about six months.
As for the Memoirs of Makhno: the death of their author ended the work at its very beginnings (Makhno died in Paris in 1935). The three volumes which have been published (the
first in Russian and in French, long before the following two) only treat the period 1917-1918; they stop precisely on the threshold of the real movement, of the most characteristic and important events (1919-1921).
The account of my own personal experiences would be extremely useful if it could be inserted into a general and complete history. Detached from this whole, they do not have the same importance.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to speak of the mass movement in the Ukraine, especially if one studies the Russian revolution from the perspective which I have in mind.
This movement played an exceptionally important role in the Revolution: even more important than that of Kronstadt. This importance is due to its extent, its duration, its essentially popular character, its clear-cut ideological standpoint, and finally the tasks it set out to accomplish.
For reasons that the reader of this book will easily understand, all the available literature, of whatever type, makes absolutely no mention of this movement. Or if it does, it does so in a few lines and solely with a view to slandering it.
In the last analysis, the Ukrainian epic has until today remained almost completely unknown. And yet, among the elements of the "Unknown Revolution," it is certainly the most remarkable.
In fact, even the work of Arshinov, nearly 400 pages long, is only a summary. If the Ukrainian movement were treated as it deserves, it would fill several volumes. The movement's documents, which are of enormous historical value, would alone fill hundreds of pages. Peter Arshinov was only able to reproduce a very small number of them.
A work of this magnitude will have to be undertaken by future historians who have all the required sources at their disposal. Our present task is to shed as much light as possible on this movement.
All these contradictory considerations finally led me to make the following decision:
1. To urge every serious and genuinely interested reader to read the basic work of Peter Arshinov. This book cannot easily be found, having been published in 1924 by a small libertarian bookshop. But the reader will not regret the time
he spends looking for it in bookshops, along the quais of Paris, or in large libraries.
2. To communicate to the reader the most important aspects of the movement, by drawing heavily from Peter Arshinov's documentation.
3. To complete the exposition with certain details drawn from N. Makhno's memoirs.
4. To complete it with personal experiences, with my personal impressions and evaluations.
The name Ukraine (or Little Russia) designates a vast region of south-western Russia whose area is about 450,000 square kilometers (nearly four-fifths the size of France) and which contains about thirty million inhabitants. It includes the departments, or "governments," of Kiev, Tchernigov, Poltava, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, Kherson and Tauride. The latter lies at the entrance to the Crimea, from which it is separated by a part of the Black Sea, by the Perekop Isthmus and by the straits of the Sea of Azov.
Without getting involved in a detailed account of the Ukraine, I will briefly mention several characteristic features of the country which the reader should know in order to be able to understand the events which were unfolded there between 1917 and 1921.
It is one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the world. The rich and fertile black soil yields incomparable crops. Once the Ukraine was called "the granary of Europe," for it was a very important source of wheat and other agricultural products for several European countries. Besides grain, Ukraine is rich in vegetables and fruits, in fertile steppes, and pastures, in forests and waterways, and finally, in its eastern part, in the coal of the Don Basin.
By reason of its exceptional richness, and also because of its geographical location, the Ukraine has at all times been a particularly tempting prize for neighboring and even distant countries. For centuries the Ukrainian population, ethnographically mixed but very much united in its firm desire to safeguard its liberty and independence, experienced wars and struggles against the Turks, the Poles and the Germans, and particularly against
its powerful immediate neighbour, the Great Russia of the Tsars. Finally, it was incorporated partly by conquest and partly voluntarily (since it felt an imperative need to be effectively protected by a single and powerful neighbour against the various competitors for its wealth), into the immense Russian Empire.
However, the ethnic composition of the Ukrainian population, their peculiarities of character, temperament and mentality, their traditional contacts -- through warfare, commerce, etc. -- with the western world, together with certain geographical and topographical features of their region, resulted in the maintenance under the Tsars of a fairly marked difference between the situation of Great Russia and that of the Ukraine.
Certain parts of the Ukraine never allowed themselves to be wholly subjugated, as had happened in Great Russia. Their population always preserved a spirit of independence, of resistance, of popular rebellion. Relatively cultivated and refined, individualistic and capable of taking the initiative without flinching, jealous of his independence, warlike by tradition, ready to defend himself and accustomed, for centuries, to feel free and his own master, the Ukrainian was in general never subjugated to that total slavery -- not only of the body but also of the spirit -- which characterised the population of the rest of Russia.
This applied particularly to the inhabitants of certain sections of the Ukraine, who had even obtained a sort of tacit habeas corpus, and lived in freedom, since their country was relatively inaccessible to the armed forces of the Tsars, rather like the maquis of Corsica.
On the islands of the lower Dnieper -- in the famous Zaporojie district -- men in love with liberty had organised themselves, from the 14th century, in exclusively masculine camps, and struggled for centuries against the attempts at enslavement by various neighbouring countries, including Great Russia.2 Finally, this warrior population had to submit to the Russian State. But the tradition of the volnitza (free life) was perpetuated in the Ukraine and could never be stifled. No matter how great were the efforts of the Tsars since Catherine II to wipe from the spirit of the Ukrainian people
all trace of the traditions of the Zaporoj Republic, this heritage of past centuries (14th-16th) remained.
Serfdom, pitiless in Great Russia, had a somewhat more "liberal" appearance in the Ukraine, by reason of the constant resistance of the peasants. Thousands of them escaped from lords who were too brutal, fled to the bush and took refuge in the volnitza.
In Great Russia itself, all those who did not want to be serfs any longer, those who wanted more liberty, those who loved the independent life, those who had difficulties with the police or fell under the knout of the Imperial laws fled to the steppes, the forests and other inaccessible regions of the Ukraine, and there began a new life. Thus for centuries, the Ukraine was the promised land of fugitives of every kind. The proximity of the sea and the ports of Taganrog, Berdiansk, Kherson, Nikolaiev and Odessa, the nearness of the Caucasus and Crimea, regions distant from the centres and full of hiding places -- increased the possibilities for strong and enterprising individuals to lead a free, unsubjugated life, breaking with existing society. Some of these men later provided a nucleus for those vagabonds (bossiaki) who were so masterfully depicted by Maxim Gorki.
Thus the whole atmosphere of the Ukraine was very different from that of Great Russia, and down to our own time, the peasants of the Ukraine have preserved a particular love for freedom, which has manifested itself in the stubborn resistance to all powers that have sought to subjugate them.
In view of these facts the reader will understand why the dictatorship and statism of the Bolsheviks encountered a much more determined and prolonged resistance in the Ukraine than in Great Russia. Other factors favoured this attitude:
1. The organised forces of the Communist Party were weak in the Ukraine, in comparison with those in Great Russia. The influence of the Bolsheviks over the peasants and workers there was always insignificant.
2. For this and other reasons, the October Revolution took effect there much later; it began at the end of November 1917 and was still going on in January 1918. It was first the local nationalist
bourgeoisie -- the Petluristi, or partisans of the "democrat" Petlura -- who retained power in the Ukraine, parallelling the power of Kerensky in Great Russia. The Bolsheviks fought this power more on military than on revolutionary grounds.
3. The unpopularity and the impotence of the Communist Party meant that the taking of power by the Soviets was carried on quite differently than in Great Russia.
In the Ukraine, the Soviets were in a much more real sense meetings of workers' and peasants' delegates. Not being dominated by a political party -- for the Mensheviks, likewise, did not play a significant role in the Ukraine -- these Soviets had no means for subordinating the masses. Hence, the workers in the factories, and the peasants in the villages felt themselves to be a genuine force. In their revolutionary struggles, they were not accustomed to yield the initiative to anyone, or to have by their side a constant and inflexible tutor like the Communist Party in Great Russia. Because of this, a much greater freedom of spirit, of thought and action took root. It inevitably manifested itself in the mass revolutionary movements.
All these factors made themselves felt from the beginning. While in Great Russia the revolution was brought into the orbit of the Communist state quickly and without difficulty, this process of statification and dictatorship met with considerable obstacles in the Ukraine. The Bolshevik "Soviet apparatus" was installed primarily by military force.
An autonomous movement of the masses, especially the peasant masses, entirely neglected by the political parties, developed parallel to the process of statification. This independent movement had already appeared under the "democratic republic" of Petlura. It developed slowly, feeling its way, but it seems to have existed from the first days of February 1917. It was a spontaneous movement which was groping for the overthrow of the serf economy and the creation of a revolutionary system based on the common ownership of the means of production and the principle of exploiting the land by the masses themselves.
In the name of these principles, the workers in many places drove out the proprietors of factories and put the management of production under the control of their class organisations: the new
unions, factory committees, etc. The peasants took possession of the land of the gentry and the kulaks (rich peasants), and, by reserving the use of it strictly for the workers themselves, outlined a new system of agrarian economy. Naturally, this process spread very slowly, in a disorganised and spontaneous manner. These were the first clumsy steps towards a larger, more conscious, and better organised future activity. But the masses intuitively felt that the road along which they were travelling was the right one.
"This practice of direct revolutionary action by the workers and peasants," says Peter Archinov, "developed in the Ukraine almost unobstructed during the whole first year of the Revolution, thus creating a precise and wholesome line of revolutionary conduct for the masses. Each time some political group or other, having taken power, tried to break this line of revolutionary conduct on the part of the workers, the latter began a revolutionary opposition and struggled in one way or another against these attempts.
"Thus, the revolutionary movement of the workers towards social independence which had begun in the first days of the revolution, did not weaken, no matter what power was established in the Ukraine. It was not even extinguished by the Bolsheviks, who, after the October uprising, tried to introduce their authoritarian statist system into the country.
"What was especially characteristic about this movement was its desire to attain the real goals of the working class in the revolution, its will to conquer labour's complete independence, and finally its defiance of the non-labouring social groups.
"Despite all the sophisms of the Communist Party, seeking to prove that it was the brain of the working class and that its power was that of the workers, every worker or peasant who had retained his class spirit or instinct was more and more aware that in fact the party was turning the workers of the cities and the countryside away from their own revolutionary tasks; that power had them under its control, that the very fact of a statist organisation was a usurpation of their right to independence and to the free disposition of their labour.
The aspiration to independence, to complete autonomy, became the basis of the movement born in the depths of the masses. In all kinds of ways their thoughts were constantly rooted in this idea. The statist action of the Communist Party pitilessly stifled these aspirations. But it was precisely this action of a presumptuous party, intolerant of any objection, that clarified the minds of the workers and drove them to resist.
"In the beginning, this movement confined itself to ignoring
the new power and performing spontaneous acts whereby the peasants took possession of the lands and goods of the landlords. They found their own ways and means."
(Peter Archinov: The History of the Makhnovist Movement, pp 70-72)
The brutal occupation of the Ukraine by the Austro-German troops after the peace of Brest-Litovsk, with all its terrible consequences for the working people, created new conditions- in the country and hastened the development of this movement of the masses. Here, I will take the liberty of quoting almost an entire chapter from Peter Archinov's work. A better exposition of the events which followed the peace of Brest-Litovsk cannot be given. Let us recall that the principal clause of the peace treaty gave the Germans free access to the Ukraine, from which the Bolsheviks retired.
Archinov's acount is rapid, substantial and penetrating. 1 need not improve or add anything. It is absolutely correct factually, and each detail is important if the reader wishes to understand subsequent events.
"The Brest-Litovsk treaty concluded by the Bolsheviks with the Imperial German government opened wide the doors of the Ukraine to the Austro-Germans. They entered it as masters. They did not confine themselves to military action, but became involved in the economic and political life of the country. Their purpose was to appropriate its products.
"To accomplish this easily and completely, they re-established the power of the nobles and the landed gentry who had been overthrown by the people, and installed the autocratic government of the Hetman Skoropadsky.
"Their troops were systematically misled by their officers, who represented the situation in Russia and the Ukraine as an orgy of blind, savage forces, destroying order in the country and terrorising the honest working people. By this process, they provoked in the soldiers a hostility towards the rebel peasants and workers, thus helping the action (an action of absolute heartless, common robbery) of the Austro-German armies.
"The economic pillage of the Ukraine by the Austro-Germans with the connivance and help of the Skoropadsky government was colossal and horrifying. They carried off everything -- wheat, livestock, poultry, eggs, raw materials, etc. -- all in such quantities that the means of transportation was not sufficient. As it was
brought to the immense depots which were given over to the loot, the Austrians and the Germans hastened to take away as much as possible, loading one train after another. Hundreds, even thousands, of trains carried everything off. When the peasants resisted this pillage, and tried to retain the fruits of their labour, floggings, reprisals, and shootings resulted.
"In addition to the violence of the invaders and their cynical military brigandage, the occupation of the Ukraine by the Austro-Germans was accompanied by a fierce reaction on the part of the gentry. The Hetman's regime meant the annihilation of all the revolutionary conquests of the workers, a complete return to the past.
"It was therefore natural that this new condition strongly accelerated the march of the movements previously begun, under Petlura and the Bolsheviks. Everywhere, primarily in the villages, insurrectionary acts started to occur against the gentry and the Austro-Germans. It was thus that began the vast movement of the Ukrainian peasants, which was later given the name of the Revolutionary Insurrection.
"The origin of this insurrection is often seen as merely the result of the Austro-German occupation, and the regime of the Hetman. This explanation is insufficient and inaccurate. The insurrection had its roots in the total situation and in the fundamental nature of the Russian Revolution. It was an attempt by the workers to lead the Revolution to its natural conclusion: the true and complete emancipation and supremacy of labour. The Austro-German invasion and the agrarian reaction only accelerated the process.
"The movement rapidly took on vast proportions. Everywhere the peasants took a stand against the gentry, assassinated them or drove them away, took over their land and their goods, and paid no attention to the invaders.
"The Hetman and the German authorities responded by implacable reprisals. The peasants in the rebellious villages were flogged and shot en masse, while all their goods were burned. Hundreds of villages suffered, in a short space of time, a terrible punishment from the military and landed castes. This occurred in June, July and August, 1918.
"Then the peasants persevering in their revolt, organised as guerillas and started hedge warfare. As if by order of invisible organisations, they formed in a number of places, almost simultaneously, a multitude of partisan detachments, acting militarily and always by surprise against the nobles, their guards and the representatives of power. As a rule, these detachments consisting of twenty, fifty or a hundred well armed horsemen, would
appear suddenly where they were least expected, attack a nobleman or the [Hetman's] National Guard, massacre all the enemies of the peasants and disappear as quickly as they had come. Every lord who persecuted the peasants, and all of his faithful servants, were noted by the partisans and were in continual danger of being liquidated. Every guard, every German officer was condemned to almost certain death. These exploits, occurring daily in all parts of the country, cut out the heart of the agrarian counter-revolution, undermined it, and prepared the way for the triumph of the peasants.
"It must be noted that, like the vast and spontaneous peasant insurrections, which arose without any preparation, these organised guerilla actions were always performed by the peasants themselves with no help or direction from any political organisation. Their methods of acting made it necessary for them to look after the needs of the movement themselves, and to direct it and lead it to victory. During their whole fight against the Hetman and the noblemen, even at its most difficult moments, the peasants remained alone facing their vicious, well-armed and organised enemies. This fact had a great influence on the very character of the whole revolutionary insurrection. Everywhere that it remained to the end a 'class action', without falling under the influence of political parties or nationalist elements, it retained intact not only the imprint of its origin in the very depths of the peasant mass, but also a second fundamental trait -- the perfect consciousness which all these peasants possessed, of being their own guides and the animators of their own movement. The partisans especially were permeated with this idea. They were proud of this special quality of their movement and felt themselves capable of fulfilling their mission.
"The savage reprisals of the counter-revolution did not stop the movement; on the contrary, they provided it with a motive for enlarging and extending. The peasants became increasingly united among themselves, driven by the very force of events to a general plan of revolutionary action.
"To be sure, the peasants of the whole Ukraine were never organised into a single force acting under a single leadership. From the point of view of revolutionary spirit they were all united, but in practice, they were mainly organised locally, by regions, the small detachments of partisans, isolated from one another, uniting to form larger and more powerful units. In so far as the insurrections became more frequent and the reprisals more ferocious and organised, these unions became an urgent necessity.
"In the south of the Ukraine, it was the region of Gulai-Polya which took the initiative in unification. There, it took place not only for reasons of defence, but also and primarily for the purpose of the complete destruction of the agrarian counter-revolution."
This latter goal, more important and decisive in character, imposed on the movement towards unification of the peasant masses a larger task; that of incorporating in the movement revolutionary elements from other regions, and developing, with the participation of all the revolutionary peasants, if possible, a great organised force capable of fighting reaction as a whole and victoriously defending the freedom and territory of the people in revolt.
The most important role in this work of unification and in the general development of the revolutionary insurrection in the southern Ukraine was performed by the detachment of partisans guided by a peasant native to the region: Nestor Makhno. That is why the movement is known as the "Makhnovist movement."
"From the first days of the movement," says Peter Archinov, "up to its culminating point when the peasants vanquished the gentry, Makhno played a preponderant and central role, to such an extent that the whole insurgent region and the most heroic moments of the struggle are linked to his name. When, later on, the insurrection had triumphed completely over the Skoropadsky counter-revolution, but the region was threatened anew by Denikin, Makhno became the rallying point for millions of peasants, in the struggle against the latter."
It should be emphasised that only the southern part of the Ukraine was involved in this vast operation. "For," as Archinov continues, "it was not everywhere that the insurrection retained its consciousness, its revolutionary essence and its loyalty to the interests of the working class. While in the southern Ukraine the insurgents, increasingly conscious of their role and their historic mission, raised the black flag of anarchism and set forth on the anti-authoritarian road of the free organisation of the workers, in the west and north-western regions of the country, they gradually slipped, after the overthrow of the Hetman, under the influence of foreign elements; enemies of their class, notably the national-democrats (the petlurivtzi, partisans of Petlura). For more than two years a party of the insurgents in the western Ukraine supported the latter, which, under the nationalist banner, pursued the interests of the liberal bourgeoisie. Thus, the insurgent peasants of the governments of Kiev, Volhyny, Podoly and a part of Poltava,
while having common origins with the rest of the insurgents, were unable, subsequently, to discover among themselves either the conciousness of their historic mission or the ability to organise, and they fell under the rod of the enemies of the world of labour, becoming blind instruments in their hands.
"The insurrection in the south had an entirely different significance and took on a different aspect. It separated itself strictly from the non-labouring elements of society, it quickly and resolutely got rid of the national, religious, political and other prejudices of the regime of oppression and slavery; it based itself on the real aspirations of the proletarian class of the city and the country and carried on a bitter warfare, in the name of these aspirations, against the many enemies of Labour."
We have already mentioned more than once the name of Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian peasant who played a vast and exceptional part in the great peasant insurrection of the southern Ukraine, which all the existing literature on the Russian Revolution, except a few libertarian works, passes over in silence -- or merely mentions in a few defamatory lines. As for Makhno himself, the animator and military guide of that insurrection, if they deign to mention him at all, it is only to bestow on him such titles as "bandit", "assassin", "robber", "pogromist", etc. Always they obstinately drag him in the mud, slander him, abhor him. At best, these unscrupulous authors, without bothering to examine the facts or to separate them from fables, spread absurd and unutterably stupid legends about the life and acts of this libertarian militant.3
[This situation] compels us to record briefly the authentic biography of Makhno up to the time of Skoropadsky's overthrow. It is indispensable to know the personality of Makhno to understand the course of events.
"Makhno" says Peter Archinov, "was born on October 27, 1889, and was brought up by his mother in the village of Gulai-
Polya, in the district of Alexandrovsk, department of Ekaterinoslav. He was the son of a poor peasant family. He was only ten months old when his father died, leaving him and his four little brothers in the care of their mother.
"Because of the extreme poverty of the family, he worked from the age of seven as a herd-boy, tending the cows and sheep of the peasants of his village. At eight, he entered the local school, which he attended in winter, always serving as herd-boy in summer.
"At twelve, he left school and his family to take a job. He worked as a farm boy on the estates of nobles and [the farms of] rich German peasants (Kulaks) whose colonies were numerous in the Ukraine. Already at this period, by the age of fourteen or fifteen, he felt a strong hatred towards the exploiters and dreamed of the way he could some day 'get even with them', both for himself and for others. Until the age of sixteen, however, he had no contact with the political world. His social and revolutionary concepts formed and took place spontaneously, in a very narrow circle of peasants, proletarians like himself.4
"The revolution of 1905 made him break immediately out of his small circle, and threw him into the great torrent of revolutionary events and actions. He was then seventeen. He was full of revolutionary enthusiasm and ready to do anything in the struggle for the liberation of the workers. After having made several contacts with political organisations, he decided to enter the ranks of the Anarcho-Communists and from that moment became an indefatigable militant. He carried on a great deal of activity and took part in [some of] the most dangerous acts of the struggle for liberty.
"In 1908, he fell into the hands of the Tsarist authorities, who condemned him to be hanged for Anarchist associations and for participating in terrorist acts. Because of his youth, the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment at hard labour. He served his sentence in the Butyrki central prison of Moscow. Although prison lifw was without hope and very difficult for him to bear, Makhno used it in order to educate himself.5 He showed great perseverance, and learned grammar, mathematics, literature.
the history of culture and political economy. In fact, prison was the sole school in which Makhno acquired that historical and political knowledge which was a great help to him in his subsequent revolutionary activity. Life, action, deeds were the other schools in which he learned to know and understand men and social events.
"It was in prison, while he was still young, that Makhno endangered his health. Stubborn and unable to accept that complete extinction of personality that those condemned to forced labour underwent, he was always insubordinate to the prison authorities, and was continually in solitary confinement where, because of the cold and damp, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. During the nine years of his detention he was frequently in irons for 'bad behaviour', until he was finally released, with all the other political prisoners, by the proletarian insurrection in Moscow on March 1, 1917.
"He soon returned to Gulai-Polya where the peasant masses showed profound sympathy for him. In the whole village, he was the only political prisoner who was returned to his family by the Revolution, and for that reason he became the object of spontaneous respect and confidence for the peasants. He was no longer an inexperienced young man, but a tested militant, with a powerful will and definite ideas about the social conflict.
"At Gulai-Polya, he immediately threw himself into the revolutionary task, first seeking to organise the peasants of his village and its surroundings. He founded a farm-workers' union; he organised a free commune and a local peasants' Soviet. The problem that concerned him most was that of uniting and organising the peasants into a powerful and firm alliance so that they would be able once and for all to drive out the landed gentry and the political rulers, and to manage their own lives. It was to this end that he guided the organisational work of the peasants, both as a propagandist and as a man of action. He sought to unite them in a revolutionary way, turning to account the flagrant deception, injustice and oppression of which they were victims.
"During the period of the Kerensky government and in the October days of 1917, he was President of the Regional Peasants' Union, of the Agricultural Commission, the Union of Metal and Carpentry Workers and, finally, President of the Peasants' and Workers' Soviet of Gulai-Polya. It was in this last capacity that, in August 1917, he assembled all the landed gentry of the region, and made them give him all the documents relating to lands and buildings. He proceeded to take an exact inventory of all this property, and then made a report on it, first at a session of the local Soviet, then at the district congress of Soviets, and finally at the regional congress of Soviets. He proceeded to equalise the
rights of the landed gentry and the rich peasants (kulaks) with those of the poor peasant labourers in regard to the use of the land. Following his proposal, the congress decided to let the landlords and kulaks have a share of land (as well as tools and livestock) equal to that of the labourers. Several peasant congresses in the governments of Ekaterinoslav, Tauride, Poltava, Kharkov and elsewhere followed the example of the Gulai-Polya region and adopted the same measure.
"During the time Makhno became, in his region, the soul of the peasants' movement which was taking over the lands and goods of the gentry and even, if necessary, executing certain recalcitrant landlords. He thus made himself the mortal enemy of the rich and of the local bourgeois groups."
At the time of the occupation of the Ukraine by the Austro-Germans, a secret revolutionary committee came into immediate existence, and gave Makhno the task of creating fighting units of peasants and workers to struggle against the invaders and the native rulers.
'He did what he could," Archinov records, "but was forced to retreat with his partisans from the cities of Taganrog, Rostov and Tsaritsin, righting every step of the way. The local bourgeoisie, who had been strengthened by the military support of the Austro-Germans, put a price on his head, and he had to hide for some time. In revenge, the Ukrainian and German military authorities burned his mother's house and shot his elder brother Emelian, who was a crippled war veteran.
"In June, 1918, Makhno went to Moscow to consult several old Anarchist militants on methods and directions to follow in his revolutionary libertarian work among the peasants of the Ukraine. But the Anarchists whom he met were at this time indecisive and passive in their attitude,6 and he obtained no satisfactory
suggestions or advice."
It is worth mentioning that during his brief stay in Moscow Makhno had a conversation with the old Anarchist theoretician, peter Kropotkin, and another with Lenin. He gave a detailed account of them -- especially of his conversation with Lenin -- in his memoirs. He said that he greatly appreciated certain of Kropotkin's suggestions. As for his interview with Lenin, it dealt with four points, namely: the mentality of the Ukrainian peasants, the immediate prospects for the country, the necessity for the Bolsheviks of creating a regular army (the Red Army), and the discord between the Bolsheviks and the Anarchists. The conversation, while of some interest, was too short and superficial to have any real importance. We should mention that the Bolsheviks gave Makhno a certain amount of help in the precautions he took in crossing the Ukrainian frontier and getting home with the least possible risk.
Makhno considered the peasant mass to be a particularly potent historical force. "For a long time," continues Archinov, "he considered the idea of how to organise the vast peasant masses, in order to bring out the revolutionary energy that had been accumulated in them for centuries and to hurl this formidable power against the existing regime of oppression. He felt that the moment had arrived to put this idea into execution."
Therefore, after a brief stay in Moscow, he returned to the Ukraine in July, 1918, seeking to get back to his own Gulai-Polya region.
"The trip was accomplished," says Archinov, "with great difficulty, and very secretly, so as not to fall into the hands of the Hetman's authorities. Once Makhno was almost killed; he was arrested by an Austro-German detachment and was unfortunately carrying libertarian pamphlets at the time. A rich Jew from Gulai-Polya, who had known Makhno personally for a long time, succeeded in saving him by paying a considerable sum of money for his liberation.
"On his way back, the Communists proposed to Makhno that he should select a certain region of the Ukraine and carry on secret revolutionary work there in their name. Naturally, he refused even to discuss this offer; the tasks he had set himself to
accomplish had nothing in common with that of the Bolsheviks."
Back in Gulai-Polya, Makhno came to the decision to die or obtain victory for the peasants, and in no event to leave the region. The news of his return spread rapidly from village to village. He did not delay starting his mission openly among the great masses of peasants, speaking at improvised meetings, writing and distributing letters and tracts. By pen and mouth, he called on the peasants for a decisive struggle against the power of Skoropadsky and the landlords. He declared tirelessly that the workers should now take their fates into their own hands and not let their freedom to act be taken from them. His stirring appeal was heard, in a few weeks, by many villages and whole districts, preparing the masses for the great events of the future.
Besides his appeals, Makhno proceeded immediately to direct action. His first concern was to form a revolutionary military unit, sufficiently strong to guarantee freedom of propaganda and action in the villages and towns and at the same time to begin guerilla operations. This unit was quickly organised, for among the villages there were marvellously combative elements, ready for action. They only lacked a good organiser. Makhno was the man.
His first unit undertook two urgent tasks, namely, pursuing energetically the work of propaganda and organisation among the peasants and carrying on a stubborn armed struggle against all their enemies. The guiding principle of this merciless struggle was as follows. No lord who persecuted the peasants, no policeman of the Hetman, no Russian or German officer who was an implacable enemy of the peasants, deserved any pity; he must be destroyed. All who participated in the oppression of the poor peasants and workers, all who sought to suppress their rights, to exploit their labour, should be executed.
Within two or three weeks, the unit had already become the terror, not only of the local bourgeoisie, but also of the Austro-German authorities. Makhno's field of revolutionary military action was wide -- it extended from Lozovaia to Berdiansk, Mariupol and Taganrog, and from Lugansk to Ekaterinoslav, Alexandrovsk and Melitopol.
Rapidity of movement was his special tactic. Thanks to it
and also to the size of the region, he could always appear suddenly where he was least expected. In a short time he enveloped within a circle of iron and fire the whole region in which the local bourgeoisie were re-establishing their power. All those who, during the past two or three months, had succeeded in settling back into their old estates, all those who enslaved the peasants, stole their lands and enjoyed the fruits of their labour, all those who ruled over them as masters, found themselves suddenly under the merciless hand of Makhno and his partisans.
Swift as the wind, intrepid, pitiless towards their enemies, they fell thunderously on some estate, massacred all the sworn enemies of the peasants and disappeared as rapidly as they had come. The next day, Makhno would be more than 100 kilometres away, would appear in some town, massacre the "national guard" (varta), officers and noblemen, and vanish before the German troops (despite the fact that they were all prepared for him) had time to realise what had happened. The next day he would be 100 kilometres away, taking action against a detachment of Hungarians who were taking reprisals, or hanging some guards of the varta.
Both the varta and the Austro-German authorities were alarmed [by Makhno's activities], and several units were sent to capture him. It was in vain. Excellent horsemen since childhood, his partisans could not be caught, for in a day they could cover distances that were impossible for regular cavalry.
Often, as though to mock his enemies, Makhno would suddenly appear in the very centre of Gulai-Polya, or in Polugai, where many Austro-German troops were always stationed, or in some other place where troops were concentrated, killing the officers who fell into his hands and escaping, safe and sound and without leaving the slightest indication of the route he was taking. Or else, when it seemed to his pursuers that they had at last found a fresh trail, when they were expecting to overtake and capture him in a town that had been pointed out to them by some peasant, he himself, in the uniform of the varta, would penetrate, along with a small number of his partisans, into the very midst of the enemy, learning their plans and preparations. Then he would set out with a detachment of the guard "in pursuit of Makhno", and would exterminate them on the way.
The whole peasant population gave the partisans devoted, active and skilful support. Everywhere along their routes they were sure of finding, whenever they needed it, a safe lodging, food, horses, even arms. Often the peasants would hide them in their homes at the risk of their own lives. Many times, the inhabitants of some village put the pursuing troops on to a false trail, while Makhno himself and his horsemen were right in the village, or were going in the opposite direction to that which had been pointed out to the pursuers.
Many villages were pitilessly punished for their attitude towards the insurgents, all the men being atrociously beaten with ramrods and some of the more strongly suspected peasants being shot on the spot. Some villages were even burned down in revenge. But nothing could reduce the fierce resistance of the working people to the invaders and their agents, the landed nobility and the counter-revolutionaries.
The partisans held to the following general rule in regard to the Austrian, German and Hungarian troops they encountered: they would kill the officers and set the captured soldiers free. They would suggest that the latter should return to their own countries, tell what the Ukrainian peasants were doing, and work for the Social Revolution. Libertarian literature and sometimes money were distributed among them. Only soldiers known to have been guilty of acts of violence against the peasants were executed. This way of treating the captured Austrian, German and Hungarian soldiers had a certain revolutionary influence upon them.
During this first period of his insurrectionary activity, Makhno was not only the organiser and guide of the peasants, but also a redoubtable avenger of the oppressed people. [Through his initiative] hundreds of nests of the nobility were destroyed, thousands of oppressors and active enemies of the people were mercilessly wiped out.
His bold and resolute method of acting, the rapidity of his appearances and disappearances, the precision of his blows and the manifest impossibility of capturing him, dead or alive, soon made his name famous in the region. It was a name that made the bourgeoisie and the authorities tremble with terror and hatred. On
the other hand, among the working people, it gave rise to feelings of deep satisfaction, pride and hope. To them, Makhno had already become a legendary figure.
And in Makhno's character and his actions there were in fact qualities worthy of legend: his extraordinary boldness, his stubborn will, his resourcefulness in all circumstances and, finally, the delightful humour that frequently accompanied his actions -- all these qualities impressed the people.
But these were not all the important qualities in Makhno's personality. The warlike spirit that was shown in his insurrectionary undertakings of this early period of his activity, was only the first manifestation of an enormous talent as a warrior and organiser, only later revealed in its full scope. Not merely a remarkable military guide and organiser, but also a good agitator, Makhno constantly increased the number of meetings that took place in the region where he operated. He made reports on the tasks of the moment, on the Social Revolution, on the free and independent communal life for the workers that was the final goal of the insurrection. He also published pamphlets to this effect, as well as appeals to the peasants and workers, the Austrian and German soldiers, the Don and Kuban cossacks, etc.
"Conquer or die -- such is the dilemma which faces the Ukrainian peasants and workers at this historic moment. But we cannot all die, for we are innumerable -- we are mankind! Therefore we will conquer . . . But we will not conquer in order to repeat the errors of the past years, that of putting our fate into the hands of new masters. We will conquer in order to take our destinies into our own hands, to conduct our lives according to our own will and our own conception of the truth." Thus, in the words of one of his first appeals, Makhno spoke to the vast masses of the Russian peasants.
1 Peter Arshinov. Russian anarchist, member of the Moscow Federation, took part in the movement in the Ukraine during most of its duration. [Arshinov's Istoriya Makhnovskogo Dvizheniya was first published in Berlin in l923. The English translation of the History of the Makhnovist Movement is publislied by Black & Red and Solidarity. Detroit and Chicago, 1974. Voline's page citations refer to the French edition: P. Archinolf. L'Histoire du Mouvement Makhnoviste, Paris: Librainelnternationale, 1924]
2 One of the great Russian writers, N. Gogol (1809-52), has painted an admirable picture of the life and customs of the Zaporojie in his magnificent novel Taras Bulba.
3 See for example, certain "works" of Joseph Kessel.
4 All the versions of his life which pretend that Makhno was a schoolteacher, and developed under the influence of an Anarchist intellectual, are false, as are many others.
5 It was in prison that Makhno made the acquaintance of Peter Archinov, condemned like himself to hard labour for being an Anarchist. Archinov, who was relatively well educated, helped him in his studies.
6 This was right after the brutal repression [of the Anarchists] in April, 1918. In his conversation with Makhno, Lenin made a brief reference to this event, pretending that the Moscow Anarchists "were harbouring bandits from all over the place". Makhno asked Lenin if he had definite proof. After an evasive reply by Lenin -- he invoked the competence of the Cheka -- the conversation was broken off by the introduction of another subject by a Bolshevik [who was present]. Thus Makhno never got the matter cleared up.