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

18. Makhno's Army Outlawed by the Bolsheviks

The rapidly changing military situation soon caused a change in the Bolsheviks' attitude toward Makhno. The advance of the Red Army southward in pursuit of Denikin, like the Denikin offensive earlier, was facilitated by Makhno's harassment of the retreating Denikin troops and by peasant uprisings. On December 8 the retreat of the Denikin army forced Makhno out of Katerynoslav, whence he retreated to the region of Melitopil', Nikopil', and Oleksandrivs'k to regroup. On December 24 Makhno's troops met the Bolshevik Fourteenth Army in Oleksandrivs'k and its commander, Ieronim Petrovich Uborevich, admitted Makhno's service in defeating Denikin. Although the Bolsheviks fraternized with the Makhno troops and the commander even offered cooperation, they distrusted Makhno, fearing the popularity he had gained as a result of his successful fighting against Denikin. A member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Fourteenth Army, Sergei Ordzhonokidze, wired the Central Committee of the Russian Communist party, and the editorial staff of the newspapers Pravda, Bednota, and Izvestiia:

In the central publications, especially in Bednota, they emphasized Makhno's role in the uprisings of the masses in Ukraine against Denikin. I consider it necessary to point out that such a popularization of Makhno's name, whose attitude toward the Soviet government is inimical as before, brings about in the rank and file of the army undesired sympathy toward Makhno. Such a popularization is particularly dangerous at [the time of] our advance into the region of partisans. In reality, Makhno was not leading the uprisings. The mass of people in general are rising against Denikin for the Soviet government.1

The Bolsheviks had no intention of tolerating Makhno's independent policy, but hoped at first to destroy his army by removing it from its own base. With this idea in mind, on January 8, 1920, the Revolutionary Military Council of the Fourteenth Army ordered Makhno to move to the Polish front via Oleksandria-Cherkasy-Boryspil'-Chernihiv-Kovel'.2 The author of the order realized there was no real war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks at that time and he also knew that Makhno would not abandon his region. In a conversation with Iona E. IAkir, the commander of the Forty-Fifth Division of the Fourteenth Army, Uborevich explained that "an appropriate reaction by Makhno to this order would give us the chance to have accurate grounds for our next steps." IAkir answered that he knew Makhno personally, and was sure that he would certainly not comply. Uborevich agreed but concluded: "The order is a certain political maneuver and, at the very least, we expect positive results from Makhno's realization of this."3

As expected, Makhno and the Revolutionary Military Committee flatly refused to leave the territory. In their opinion the commander of the Fourteenth Army had no authority over the Makhno army; a large number of the partisans, including Makhno, who was in a near coma most of the time, were sick with typhus; the fighting qualities and effectiveness of the troops were greater on their own territory; and Makhno realized that an expedition against Poland would mean losing his base of power and exposing his territory to a Bolshevik invasion. Consequently the Bolsheviks declared Makhno's army outlawed. On January 14, 1920, Makhno gave up his camp and set out for Huliai-Pole without serious opposition. Some detachments that remained in the rear were seized by the Bolsheviks.4

After the defeat of the Denikin forces and their retreat to the Black Sea, Makhno had to face the Red troops. The winter of 1920 was a very critical period. His partisan army was disorganized and under strength. About 50 percent of the troops contracted typhus and went to the villages for cure, while others simply hid in the villages, or went home. Thus the strength of Makhno's forces was substantially lower than in late 1919. The Bolsheviks, however, were in a far stronger position than the previous year; they had more, better equipped, and better supplied troops at their disposal.

When the Bolsheviks' attempts to transfer Makhno to the Polish front failed, they made a great effort to destroy him. In mid-January this task was assigned to the Forty-Second Division of the Thirteenth Army, stationed between Mariupil' and Taganrog. The division was ordered to advance toward Perekop across the Makhno region. It was transferred to the area of Volnovakha-Kurakhivka, whence the Third Brigade was dispatched to the area of Andriivka—Oleeksiivka—Velyka Mykhailivka—Huliai-Pole; while the Second Brigade was concentrated in the area of Staryi Kermenchyk—Turkenivka—Huliai-Pole. The strength of these two brigades was 4,000, plus a number of support units. The First Brigade was held as reserves between the others in the area of Maiorske—Sanzhanivka— Huliai-Pole. The task of the Red troops was to surround Huliai-Pole and destroy Makhno.

However, before they could effect this plan, Makhno retreated from Huliai-Pole, leaving a large amount of supplies and eight guns to the Bolsheviks. Toward the end of February the Red Army command transferred the Forty-Second Division as reserve to the Taganrog area because the situation in the North Caucasus became critical. Its place was taken by the Estonian Division, which was concentrated in the area of Huliai-Pole—Polohy—Kinski Rozdory—Tsarekonstiantynivka. In the meantime, Makhno harried the Red troops, destroying their staff and agents, supply base, smaller separate units, blowing up railroad lines, bridges, and means of communication, and conducting intensive propaganda among the troops. Late in February, Makhno in five days slipped his detachment secretly into Huliai-Pole and disarmed one brigade, destroying its headquarters. Some men joined Makhno while others were dispersed. Although the Red Army command dispatched a cavalry regiment that seized large supplies and killed some partisans, including Makhno's oldest brother, Sava, who was living with his family, Makhno managed to retreat safely.

After these setbacks, the Bolsheviks decided early in March to organize a special task force of rear-area commanders to fight Makhno. This force, under the direction of the commander of the Thirteenth Army rear area, consisted of a cavalry division under Blinov, the 126th Brigade of the Forty-Second Infantry Division, several battalions of the Internal Security Troops of the Republic, one Cheka battalion from Kharkiv and garrisons of Hryshyne, Pavlohrad, Synel'nikove, Lozova, and Oleksandrivs'k. The plan was to surround the region of Makhno's activities and divide it into three areas (Chaplino, Hryshyne, and Vol-novakha) in order to prevent Makhno's escape. The 126th Brigade and an armored train remained in reserve while the cavalry division was to hunt and liquidate Makhno.7 Although Makhno knew about this plan, he paid little attention to the surrounding forces except for the cavalry division and during the spring and summer avoided major frontal battles against superior Bolshevik forces.

Although Makhno's struggle was a war of small engagements, it was marked by extremely violent fighting. On encountering larger enemy forces, including armored trains, Makhno would skillfully retreat in a loose formation at great speed. With the same speed, he would reappear in the rear of the enemy, attacking military staffs and base areas. An eyewitness recalled:

As our units were advancing on the left flank, suddenly machine guns began firing at our base. Shouts: "band!" caused a panic. Even though our artillery men opened fire against Makhno's men, the Makhno cutthroats spread out, slashing and shooting everyone who came within their grasp. This attack cost very dearly.9

Such operations were usually successful because Makhno used cavalry units and troops on carts with machine guns. His campaign was largely confined to surprise attacks on isolated Red Army units, small garrisons, requisition agents, Bolshevik militiamen, political commissars, bridges, railroads, and Bolshevik supply bases.10 In the course of the campaign, especially during the raids, which sometimes covered distances up to 1,200 to 1,500 versts, the partisans carried on intensive anti-Bolshevik propaganda among the population. Although Makhno was merciless with the captured Red Army officers, ordinary soldiers were either incorporated into his army or released as soon as they were taken.11 During one encounter when Makhno captured eighty Bolshevik prisoners, an eyewitness said Makhno "showed a human heart toward those prisoners." He delivered a speech to them saying: "I am freeing you, and your duty must be to tell everywhere who Makhno is, for what he is fighting and how he is fighting." After those joyful prisoners had been freed, Makhno went on:

Those eighty souls will be the best agitators in my behalf. To some they will tell what I am fighting for, to others, how I am fighting. There will be more benefit for me from that than if I had them shot.12

The objectives of the Bolsheviks were to capture Makhno, to destroy his partisans and his influence in the countryside. To prevent fraternization between the Red Army troops and Makhno's partisans, the Bolsheviks extensively employed against the latter divisions of Latvian and Estonian sharpshooters and Chinese detachments.13 Employing other new tactics, the Bolsheviks attacked not only Makhno's partisans, but also villages and towns in which the population was sympathetic toward Makhno. They shot ordinary soldiers as well as their commanders, destroying their houses, confiscating their properties, and persecuting their families. Moreover the Bolsheviks conducted mass arrests of innocent peasants who were suspected of collaborating in some way with the partisans. It is impossible to determine the casualties involved: according to moderate estimates, more than two hundred thousand people were executed or injured by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine during that period. Nearly as many were imprisoned or deported to Russia and Siberia.14

In spite of their merciless methods and intense propaganda, the Bolsheviks were not able to destroy Makhno in this period. Contrary to their expectations, his army was growing stronger and was reactivating and the Bolsheviks began to realize that military means alone were not enough to destroy the Makhno movement. To obtain a firm foothold in the villages in Ukraine, the Bolsheviks conceived the idea of neutralizing or placating the peasants. The Bolshevik authorities admitted having made a mistake in 1919 by introducing the Soviet farm system to occupied Ukraine, for "the peasants looked upon the attempts to socialize farming as a new form of Communist state enslavement." Although they modified their agricultural policy by introducing on February 5, 1920, a new land law, distributing the former landlords', state, and church lands among the peasants, they did not succeed in placating them because the requisitions, which the peasants considered outright robbery, continued. During the first nine months of 1920, about one thousand Bolshevik grain requisition agents were killed.

Subsequently the Bolsheviks decided to introduce class warfare into the villages. A decree was issued on May 19, 1920, establishing "Committees of the Poor." This practice was transplanted from Soviet Russia where the Bolsheviks had introduced similar committees (kombedy) as early as spring 1918.16 The aim was to create an auxiliary force in the villages to assist the Bolsheviks in requisitioning food and let the collectors have a share in the grain seized from the other peasants. Authority in the villages was delegated to the committees, which assisted the Bolsheviks in seizing the surplus grain and watched the well-to-do peasants to prevent their hiding food. Soviet policy was to liberate "Ukrainian poor and middle [peasants] from the ideological and material yoke of the 'kulaks' and thus to split the united front of the Ukrainian village and, subsequently, the Makhno movement as well."17

The establishment of Committees of the Poor was painful to Makhno because they became not only part of the Bolsehvik administrative apparatus the peasants opposed, but also informers helping the Bolshevik secret police in its persecution of the partisans, their families and supporters, even to the extent of hunting down and executing wounded partisans. Makhno and the Revolutionary Military Council viewed these committees as a typical Bolshevik organization, to be dealt with the same way as any other punitive organ. Consequently, Makhno's "heart became hardened and he sometimes ordered executions where some generosity would have bestowed more credit upon him and his movement. That the Bolsheviks preceded him with the bad example was no excuse. For he claimed to be fighting for a better cause." Although the committees in time gave the Bolsheviks a hold on every village, their abuse of power disorganized and slowed down agricultural life.

Peasants' economic conditions in the region of the Makhno movement were greatly improved at the expense of the estates of the landlords, the church, monasteries, and the richest peasants, but Makhno had not put an end to the agricultural inequalities. His aim was to avoid conflicts within the villages and to maintian a sort of unified front of the entire peasantry in his region. These agricultural conditions and the actions of the Makhno partisans against the Bolsheviks' attempt to entrench themselves in the villages were reflected in the relative paucity of committees in the Makhno region. On September 10, 1920, there were only 200 committees in Katerynoslav province but 1,000 in Kherson, 442 in Odessa, 945 in Kharkiv, 1280 in Poltava, and 687 in Kyiv.19

This policy of terror and exploitation turned almost all segments of Ukrainian society against the Bolsheviks, substantially strengthened the Makhno movement, and consequently facilitated the advance of the reorganized anti-Bolshevik force of General Wrangel from the Crimea into South Ukraine, the Makhno region. According to a report of Colonel Noga, the representative of Denikin's staff at the Crimean group, dated March 25, 1920, the Red Army units retreated from the Perekop Isthmus so fast that the Volunteers lost contact with them. This rapid retreat was explained thus:

In Ukraine in the rear of the Reds peasant uprising under Makhno and many other partisan detachments were staged, giving the Reds no rest. This is clear to me from the Red newspapers, letters of the prisoners, etc. And Generals Shilling [and] Slashchov view this phenomenon very favorably, but not knowing the view of the "Stavka" on this, certainly no measures had been taken to establish contact with Makhno and others. I consider this question of paramount importance because I see in it an escape from the general strategic situation. This needs full elucidation, and the sooner the better. In my opinion now the time is so critical that our motto should be: "Anyone against the Reds is with us."20
A Soviet author confirms this situation: "Makhno men, successfully maneuvered between the units of the Forty-Second Division, continued to roam in 'their' region. Meanwhile, the advance of Wrangel's units continued. Red Army units were retreating. . . . This was a very critical moment on the southern front."21


1. Nikulin, "Gibel' makhnovshchiny," p. 181.

2. Ibid.; N. Makhno, Po fjovodu "raz'iasneniia" Volina, p. 9: IAkovlev, Russkii anarkhizm, p. 25; Margushin, "Bat'ko Makhno," p. 2; Arshinov, Istoriia makhnov-skogo dvizheniia, p. 157; Rudnev, Makhnovshchina, p. 64.

3. Semanov, "Makhnovshchina i ee krakh," p. 52.

4. Makhno, Po povodu "roz'iasneniia" Volina, p. 9; Teper, Makhno, p. 66; Grazhdanskaia voina na Ekaterinoslavshchine, pp. 210, 218,IAkir, Vospominaniia, p. 38.

5. Arshinov, Istoriia makhnovskogo dvizheniia, pp. 157—58; Gutman, "Pod vlast'iu anarkhistov," p. 68; Semanov, "Makhnovshchina i ee krakh," p. 52.

6. N. A. Efimov, "Deistviia protiv Makhno," pp. 199—204; Rudnev, Makhnovshchina, p. 67.

7. Men'chukov, Istoricheskii ocherk boev, pp. 179—81; Efimov, "Deistviia protiv Makhno," p. 205.

8. Arshinov, Istoriia makhnovskogo dvizheniia, p. 158.

9. IU. Romanchenko, "Epizody z borot'by proty makhnovshchyny," LR, no. 4(49) (1930), p. 128.

10. Sergeev, "Poltavskaia operatsiia protiv Makhno," pp. 122—23; Nikulin, "Gibel' makhnovshchiny," p. 182; Dubrovs'kyi, Bat'ko Nestor Makhno, p. 15; Semanov, "Makhnovshchina i ee krakh," pp. 52—53; "Ukraina," Volia 4, no. 5 (1920): 263.

11. Arshinov, Istoriia makhnovskogo dvizheniia, p. 165; Semanov, "Makhnovshchina i ee krakh," p. 54; Efimov, "Deistviia protiv Makhno," p. 201.

12. Meleshko, "Nestor Makhno ta ioho anarkhiia," no. 4, p. 14.

13. Voline, Unkown Revolution, p. 182; Margushin, "Bat'ko Makhno," p. 2; Peters, Nestor Makhno, p. 85.

14. Arshinov, Istoriia makhnovskogo dvizheniia, p. 160.

15. A. Manuilsky, "The Agrarian Policy in Ukraine," Soviet Russia 3, no. 16 (1920): 369; Kubanin,Makhnovshchina, pp. 130-31.

16. M. I. Remnev, "Deiatel'nost' Komitetov nezamozhnykh selian na Ukraine v 1920 godu," VI, no. 4 (1954), p. 96; M. V. Tymoshenko, "Komnesamy Ukrainy ta ikh rol' u zmitsneni orhaniv Radians'koi vlady na seli v 1920 rotsi," Pytannia istorii narodiv SRSR, no. 7 (1968), p. 33; Kubanin, Makhnovshchina, p. 136; B. M. Myhal', "Konfiskatsiia zemel'nykh lyshkiv u kurkul's'kykh hospodarstvakh na Ukraini v 1920-1923 rr.," Pytannia istorii narodiv SRSR, no. 6 (1969), p. 111; V. Bronshtein, "Komitety bednoty v RSFSR," IM, no. 5 (60) (1938), pp. 77-78; A. I. Lepeshkin, Sovety-vlast' trudiashchykhsia, 1917—1936; Mazepa, Ukraina v ohni, 3:26.

17. M. V. Frunze, Sobraniie sochinenii, 1:181; Nomad, "Epic of Nestor Makhno," p. 414.

18. Teper, Makhno, p. 19; Kubanin, Makhnovshchina, pp. 136—44; Max Nomad, Apostles of Revolution, p. 332.

19. "The Ukrainian Peasants," Soviet Russia 3, no. 22 (New York, November 27, 1920): 529; P. S. Zahors'kyi and P. K. Stoian, Narysy istorii komitetiv neza-mozhnykh selian, p. 36.

20. IA. A. Slashchev-Krymskii, Trebuiu suda obshchestva iglasnosti: Oborona i sdacha Kryma: Memuary i documenty (Constantinople, 1921), p. 6.

21. Efimov, "Deistviia protiv Makhno," p. 208.