Michael Palij, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution, 1976.

10. The Origin of Makhno's Partisan Movement

Most of Katerynoslav and Kherson provinces had been assigned to the Austro-Hungarian sphere of influence by the Baden agreement concluded between Austria and Germany on March 2, 1918. Hence in addition to the hetman authority, there was an Austro-Hungarian garrison in Huliai-Pole. At the same time, many of Makhno's supporters (the anarchists and members of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and of the local soviet) were either executed, imprisoned, or suppressed.1 Under these circumstances, it was risky for Makhno even to reside in his home town, not to mention the danger of resuming revolutionary activity. However, he was impatient and eager to organize an independent peasant revolutionary force in the Zaporizhia -Sea of Azov region.

His first action was to issue, on July 4, a secret circular exhorting the peasants to expel the Austro-German troops from Ukraine, overthrow the hetman government, and establish a new order "on the basis of a free society, a structure that would allow those who did not exploit the work of others to live independent of the state and its agencies, including the Reds."2 The message was circulated in several handwritten copies among the more trusted peasants. Three days later, a second circular outlined a program of action:

Our primary task . . . should be to achieve a distribution of our people in Huliai-Pole such that there will be adequate numbers in each part of the village. They will be responsible for grouping around themselves a large number of energetic, daring peasants willing to make sacrifices. From these groups they should select daring men to conduct an action against the Austro-German troops in isolated areas and, if possible, against the landowners at the same time.3

Should this action succeed, the enemy's garrison was to be attacked.

Makhno, tired of inactivity in Rozhdestvenka, felt he should be in Huliai-Pole to carry on his work. Consequently, in spite of his friends' warnings of the danger to himself as well as the possibility of reprisals against his followers, one night he arrived on the outskirts of Huliai-Pole, accompanied by two armed men. He remained in hiding in a cottage for several days visiting his old friends at night to discuss the previous spring's events and organizing three-to-five man "initiatory groups" in the area. Tnis laid the groundwork for the later development of the movement.

Makhno's activity was abruptly interrupted by an uprising in the neighboring village of Voskresenka. A group of peasants who had received his earlier circulars and taken them to heart, organized a "Makhno detachment" and attacked a German punitive unit, killing the commander and several soldiers. The uprising not only prompted local authorities to launch house-to-house searches and make arrests, but revealed Makhno's presence in the area. He was hastily smuggled to Rozhdestvenka, then to Ternivka, some fifty miles away, where he hid in the house of his uncle, Izydor Peredyrii.4 Since he was using the document issued by Zatons'kyi in Moscow, his relatives accordingly spread the word that he was a schoolteacher who had left his town because it was near a war zone.

The situation in the village, however, was still precarious. Makhno hid in the countryside by day, entering the village only at night. This behavior appeared suspicious to the people, especially to the young revolutionaries, who became convinced that he was a government agent and developed a plan to assassinate him. However, Makhno unwittingly saved his own life when he made a propaganda speech against the actions of the Austro-Germans and the hetman regime that removed the doubts about his role in the village.6

Observing a fighting spirit among people in Ternivka, Makhno began to organize a paramilitary unit. At first, because premature action would only bring disaster, he intended to establish contact with Huliai-Pole and other towns. However, while he was en route to his home town the people informed him of strict repressive measures undertaken by the punitive expedition. He decided to return to Ternivka to instigate uprisings against the landowners and disperse them from their "counterrevolutionary nests."

Conflict between the peasants and landowners was growing steadily more serious. The peasants particularly resented those owners who had abandoned their holdings at the beginning of the Revolution, only to return with the Austro-Hungarian and German troops, demanding that the crops grown by the peasants in their absence be turned over to them. The landlords used their power uncompromisingly, not only taking back their estates, but robbing the peasants of their crops, and all too often beating, imprisoning, or even executing them. The peasants' bitterness was reflected in one of Makhno's slogans: "Death to all who, with the help of the German-Austrian-Hetmanite bayonets, took from the peasants and workers the fruits of the Revolution.'

Although the Ternivka detachment's stock of arms was small, consisting of weapons left by the retreating Bolsheviks, Makhno made a series of successful raids against the estates and punitive detachments. While investigating these actions, the police learned of the presence of a "strange teacher" in the village, so that Makhno had to move again, first to Slavohorod, then to Novo-Hupalivka, where he organized a partisan "initiatory group" but was discovered by the police before he could initiate any action. He then moved to the islands on the Dnieper, where he joined a group of about three hundred men from the First Cossack Volunteer Division (Blue Coats). This unit, originally formed from Ukrainian prisoners of war in Germany, had been demobilized by the Germans after dissolution of the Rada, but some had escaped, with arms, into hiding. Makhno attempted to instigate a rebellion against the "enemies of the Revolution" but the men remained loyal to their commander, who supported the hetman government, and only a few were persuaded to return with Makhno to Ternivka and Huliai-Pole.

Makhno returned to Huliai-Pole at about the same time as his anarchist friends from Russia. In discussing future courses of action, Makhno advocated an immediate armed uprising, while others believed it more practical to await the anticipated arming of the Russian anarchists by the Bolsheviks. Makhno had substantial objections to the latter alternative. First, from his own experience in Russia he knew that the Russian urban anarchists came mostly from the commercial class, who did not understand the peasantry. Moreover, they, "like the Marxists, had fallen into a stupid mistake in regard to the peasantry, considering it as a reactionary-bourgeoisie class incapable of offering active creative forces to the revolution." Thus he expected that they would not come into the countryside, but entrench themselves in the cities, as they had in 1917, contacting the peasants only through messengers, propaganda, and pamphlets.

Second, while independent anarchist forces might be welcomed, a force dependent on the Bolsheviks would be controlled by the Bolsheviks.9 Finally, he feared that to delay the uprising would be to relinquish the initiative to other political groups, especially those who expected to draw support from Moscow, whereas he was convinced that the peasants should rely only on their own strength and devices.

Makhno's view eventually prevailed, and the group began to organize combat detachments of peasants from Huliai-Pole, Marfopil, and Stepanivka. They attacked and destroyed a number of estates before the state police and Austro-German troops were able to suppress them. Again Makhno and his associates hid in the neighboring villages, where they continued to propagandize and organize small units with small arms and police uniforms. Toward the end of September they moved toward Huliai-Pole, destroying a detachment of state police en route.

A few days later, Makhno's boldness and military skill were manifested in an encounter with a combined Austro-German and state police detachment that, while patrolling, came to Marfopil, where Makhno and his men were staying. The anarchists retreated, leaving their horses but taking the rifles and one machine gun on a cart. When some twenty-five troops took up the pursuit, Makhno turned around, drove directly toward the pursuers, and identified his group as militia. This ruse enabled them -to reach almost point-blank range before the deceit was discovered and to inflict several casualties. Among the prisoners were two Galician Ukrainians, who were sent back to their Austrian units with a propaganda letter advising the rank and file to:

Disobey their officers; to cease to be the assassins of the Ukrainian revolutionaries, peasants, and workers, to cease to be the hangmen of their revolutionary liberation work; but instead to shoot the officers who had brought them into Ukraine and made them the assassins of the better sons of the toiling people; and to return to their fatherland to start a revolution there and liberate their oppressed brothers and sisters. 11

As retribution, the owner of the house where Makhno stayed was executed by the Austrian military authorities, many peasants were arrested, and the village had to pay a fine of 60,000 rubles.

After the victory the Makhno group held a meeting and decided that the men from distant areas should return to their homes to start uprisings, while Makhno's group moved to the Huliai-Pole area. Once in Huliai-Pole, Makhno called a meeting of about four hundred men in the fields to plan an attack on the garrison there. Although there were two companies of Austro-German troops and about eighty state police, the attack was successful and only the garrison headquarters' staff managed to escape to safety. The insurgents seized the post office, the press, and the railroad station. Soon after they issued two propaganda leaflets explaining the aims of the revolution and calling upon the peasants in the area to support it.

Makhno, however, realized that there was no prospect of a successful defense of the town against the regular troops; therefore, he prevented mass participation in the action to avoid subsequent reprisal by the authorities. When Makhno received intelligence from the station-master about the arrival of two Austro-German troop trains he staged a harassing attack to force their deployment, then retreated through the town destroying a number of landlords' estates and capturing horses, rifles, and machine guns. The detachment stopped in the village Dibrivka (Velyka Mykhailivka) about thirty-five versts from Huliai-Pole.12

Dibrivka proved to be a milestone for Makhno's partisan movement. From the children in the village, Makhno learned that a partisan detachment was stationed in the famous forests near the town. Its leader, Fedir Shchus', a former sailor on the mine layer loann Zlatoust and the son of a Dibrivka peasant, had taken the place of the original leader, Nykyfor Brova, who was killed in the second half of July 1918, by the hetman police and the Austrian troops at a mechetna (farm). Under Shchus's command the unit grew to about sixty effectives, plus some wounded, by the time of Makhno's arrival. It was well organized and armed with rifles, machine guns, and hand grenades, but clothed somewhat less well, in Austrian, German, or Ukrainian military uniforms, or even civilian dress.14 Although Makhno had met Shchus' during the fighting against the Austro-German troops the previous spring, and again at the Taganrog congress, he hardly remembered him. However, he immediately contacted Shchus', appealing to him to leave the forests, unite both detachments and fight "against all those who, on behalf of the authorities and the privileged bourgeoisie, were raising their swords against the toilers, against their freedom and rights."15 After a brief reflection, Shchus', with the approval of his men, agreed to join Makhno. This union at the end of September resulted in a combined force of over one hundred men.

Subsequently, the partisans moved into the village, where they remained for several days conducting propaganda meetings and sending instructions to other places concerning future actions. In these propaganda speeches Makhno spoke for the first time of a new adversary, "the restorational forces," that is, the Volunteer Army under General Denikin. He was at pains to emphasize that the new enemy was more menacing than the present ones.

Before the reorganization of the two detachments was accomplished, a combined force of Austrians, police, and landlords attacked them at Dibrivka. Under cover of night and with the use of machine guns, the partisans managed to retreat into the forests. Makhno proposed a counterattack to ascertain the strength of the enemy, but Shchus', fearing reprisals against his village, refused. When the punitive force entered the village the next day, according to peasant informers and Makhno's agents, it consisted of one battalion (about five hundred men) of Austrian troops, about one hundred state police, and some eighty landlords and German colonists. Moreover Makhno learned that the enemies were expecting further reinforcement, apparently intending to annihilate the partisans.

To thwart these plans, Makhno again proposed an attack before the reinforcements arrived. Shchus' was opposed to this idea also, so Makhno addressed both groups and rallied the peasants directly, stating:

In this complicated situation it is better to die in an unequal, but decisive fight against the hangmen before the eyes of the toiling people they have persecuted . . . than to sit in the forests and wait until the bourgeois sons come, assisted by hired hangmen, to destroy us.1"

Consequently, the partisans, the peasants, and finally the cautious Shchus', accepted his proposition, a major victory for Makhno and his leadership in both partisan groups. Both the partisans and the peasants in the forests of Dibrivka proclaimed "We are with you, comrade Makhno." And from now on you are our "Ukrainian Bat'ko, lead us into the village against the enemy."19

Subsequently, an attack was planned that took into consideration the small size and inadequate arms of the partisan group. Makhno sent Shchus' with a small unit to attack from the opposite side while he, with the main body of the partisans, moved in surreptitiously in small groups toward the main square where the punitive force was encamped. By climbing over the back walls and fences, they occupied the shops and houses overlooking the square without being detected. The troops were resting, with their arms stacked. When Makhno's men opened fire at eighty to one hundred yards' range, the panic and confusion among the troops was so great that Makhno succeeded in routing the enemy and capturing most of his arms and horses. The captured Austrian soldiers, including some Galician Ukrainians, were released; the police were executed. Makhno's victory was complete and from this time on his partisan group was known as the "Bat'ko Makhno detachment."

A few days later, a new punitive expedition, consisting of several Austrian infantry and cavalry battalions with a number of field guns, augmented by several detachments of police, together with landlords and German colonists, arrived. Part of this unit shelled the village and then set a fire that destroyed all but a few of the 608 homes. Those who did not escape had their homes burned or were whipped, arrested, or executed. Simultaneously the main force attacked the partisans in the forests under artillery support and wounded both Makhno and Shchus'. To avoid encirclement and annihilation, Makhno had no alternative but to retreat from the forests and move into other areas. They withdrew across the river Kaminka unnoticed.

For a while in the area of Dibrivka Makhno conducted partisan-style harassment operations that were very effective because the partisans were disguised in police uniforms. During this period they attacked several small groups of landlords and German colonists returning from the Dibrivka expedition. Their confessions led the partisans to their estates or settlements, which were subsequently disarmed and burned. A similar fate befell some rich peasants. The partisans also destroyed a number of lotfal police headquarters and Austro-German garrisons as well as stopping in villages and calling peasant meetings at which Makhno would deliver propaganda speeches.

The dramatic events of Dibrivka closed the formative period in the development of Makhno's partisan movement and opened a new permanent stage in the region of Huliai-Pole. The partisans became a unified combat force that steadily grew stronger in numbers and in weapons. It assumed a definite name, "The Revolutionary Partisan Detachments of Bat'ko Makhno," and a unified leadership. The river Kaminka was Makhno's Rubicon.


1. Makhno "K 10-i godovshchine revoliuts.," p. 3.

2. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3 : 8.

3. Ibid., p. 12.

4. Ibid., pp. 25-27.

5. This was one of the reasons that most of the sources dealing with Makhno portrayed him as a schoolteacher.

6. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3 : 27—30.

7. Ibid., p. 33.

8. Ibid., pp. 35-36.

9. Ibid., pp. 37-38.

10. Ibid., pp. 50 ff.; Makhno, "Zapiski," no. 2, pp. 29-30.

11. Makhno, Ukrains'kaia revoliutsiia, 3:62; see also Makhno, "Zapiski," no. 2, pp. 30-31.

12. Makhno, "Zapiski," no. 2, p. 32; Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:89-90.

13. Andrii Moskalenko to L. Bykovskyi, New York, July 18, 1971.

14. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:70—71; Omelianfevych-Pavlenko, Zymovyi pokhid, 2:25; Ivan Hnoiovyi, "Chy 'Bat'ko' Nestor Makhno—Ukr. natsional'nyi heroi?," TR, no. 38 (1966), p. 12; S. Chemomordik (Larionov), Makhno i makhnovshchina, p. 13.

15. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:73; see also Makhno, "Zapiski," no. 2, p. 33.

16. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:74—75; Makhno, "Zapiski," no. 2, pp. 34—35; Footman, Civil War in Russia, p. 91.

17. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:82—84; Makhno, "Zapiski," no. 2, pp. 36—37.

18. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3 : 84.

19. Ibid.; Belash, "Makhnovshchina," p. 208; Nomad, "Epic of Nestor Makhno," no. 6, p. 337. "Bat'ko" is an affectionate Ukrainian term for "Father" with the additional meaning of supreme military leader. Makhno took this honor seriously and retained it as his title.

20. Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:88—91; Makhno, "Zapiski," nos. 3—4, pp. 23—24; Komin, Anarkhizm v Rossii, p. 224; Arshinov, Istoriia makhnovskogo dvizheniia, pp. 57—58; Rudnev, Makhnovshchina, pp. 23—24.

21. Makhno, "Zapiski," nos. 3—4, pp. 24—28; Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3 :118—19; Arshinov, Istoriia makhnovskogo dvizheniia, pp. 58—59.

22. Makhno, "Zapiski," nos. 3—4, pp. 27—38; Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3:96-98, 104-5.