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

4. The Peasants and the Ukrainian Government

Under the tsarist regime in the prerevolutionary period, Ukrainian leaders lacked governmental sanction, nor did subsequent circumstances enable them to face the problems of the peasantry to attempt land reform. Consequently, it was difficult to find the wise, determined leadership that the critical conditions during the Revolution demanded. Of the the three major political parties, the Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor party had the most intellectual and experienced leaders; however, it was unprepared to face the agrarian problems that the Revolution had exacerbated and had no ready program for land reform. The smaller Ukrainian party of Socialists-Federalists, although it had well-qualified cadres of intellectuals, had no clearly defined land program either, until the beginning of the hetman period, in the late spring of 1918. The third and largest party, the Ukrainian party of Socialist Revolutionaries, whose members were brought under the influence of Russian Socialist Revolutionary ideology, was more influential among the peasants than the others because it called for more radical reform.1 However, even this party had no clearly defined land program. One of its leaders wrote:

On the agricultural question the Congress, [which met on April 1718, 1917] . . . stood, in its majority, on the point of view that under the conditions of Ukrainian economic reality it is difficult to carry out desired land reform, namely socialization of the land, and that the party . . . will insist on transferring all state, crown, and private land in Ukraine into a Ukrainian Land Fund, from which the land should be redistributed (for utilization) through public organizations among peasants. The question of compensation for the owners . . . was blurred by a vague phrase that the "expenses of carrying out the land reform must be debited to the account of the state."2

On the peasant question, the Central Rada reflected, in general, the attitude of its parties. In the spring and summer of 1917, the Rada had to devote most of its attention to political problems. In the fall, the Rada, under the combined pressure of the peasants' national and local congresses and the propaganda of the Bolsheviks, who were trying to undermine the Rada's position by alienating the peasants from it, turned its attention to socioeconomic problems. The Third Universal of November 20, 1917, abolished the right of private ownership of land:

. . . within the territories of the Ukrainian People's Republic all existing rights of ownership in land belonging to [landowners] ... as well as udal, monastery, cabinet, and church lands, are abolished. . . . the land is the property of the whole working people. . . . the Ukrainian Central Rada . . . instructs the General Secretariat of Agriculture to work out immediately a law for the administration of these lands by land committees. . . .*

The delayed land law was finally passed hurriedly at the end of January 1918, under the threat of chaotic and arbitrary distribution of landlords' land and tools, as had occurred in some areas, and, above all, in the face of th'e Bolshevik invasion. On January 22, 1918, the Rada proclaimed in its Fourth Universal:

The commission for the settlement of the land question . . . has already worked out a law for the transfer of lands . . . without compensation; this law is based on the principle of the abolition of the right of ownership and of socialization of land. . . every effort will be made to enable the committees to transfer the land to the toiling peasants before spring work begins.5

The belated socioeconomic reforms merely added fuel to the Bolshevik propaganda fire and weakened the ties between the Rada and the active revolutionary elements of the peasants, workers, and soldiers, turning some to indifference and even hostility toward the Rada.

The Bolshevik invasion, interference in Ukrainian affairs, and the fall of the Rada prevented the plan from being carried out. On the day of the establishment of the hetman state, the hetman dissolved all the land committees and annulled the land law:

The right of private property, which is the basis of civilization and culture, is hereby fully restored. All [previous] ordinances . . . insofar as they infringed upon the right of private property, are declared null and void. Complete freedom to buy and sell land is also reestablished. Measures will be taken toward the alienation of lands of large landowners at their actual cost and toward their distribution among needy peasants.^

On June 14, a provisional law was issued, permitting free sale and purchase of land to a maximum of twenty-five dessiatines per person. On August 23, a State Land Bank was opened to help finance the distribution of parts of the large landed estates. These laws reestablished the right of the landowners to their land and made it possible to receive payment for the property from the state treasury. The hetman's agricultural policy, like Stolypin's, was designed to create a large number of small and relatively prosperous landholding peasants who would provide a stable social basis for the political order. Although it promised a new and just land reform, the commission selected to draft the land law sabotaged it by not appearing until November, on the eve of the fall of the government. The land reform, if carried out, might have satisfied a large portion of the peasants, but instead the hetman's government faced violent peasant insurrections, which played an important role in bringing about its downfall.

The new government, the Directory of the Ukrainian People's Republic, prepared a land reform based, with certain changes, upon the law of the Rada. On January 8, 1919, the land law was approved by the Directory and subsequently by the Congress of Toilers. It provided for nationalization of the land with all small-scale landholdings up to fifteen dessiatines remaining the property of their former owners. The larger estates, including church, monastery, and state lands, were transferred to the land fund to be distributed largely among the poor and landless peasants, at not less than five and no more than fifteen dessiatines each, for permanent use. A subsequent law of January 18, 1919, provided two additional dessiatines for those who would enlist in the Republican Army. In general, the land law was received favorably by the parties and the peasants, but its implementation was possible only in a limited area because of the Bolshevik invasion in December 1918. The main objective, the occupation of the Left Bank, was accomplished by means of revolts in the Ukrainian rear combined with frontal attacks.

The Central Rada and the Directory failed to solve the agricultural problem; the hetman government did worse. It was constantly a step behind the revolutionary spirit of the peasants. Its policy was to carry out the land reform legally for approval by a future Constituent Assembly. For this reason it was not able to compete with the Bolsheviks, who were promising the land to the peasants immediately, or even with Makhno, who was giving the land to the peasants as soon as it was captured. For the peasants, the land was a primary question and those forces that would not interfere in the division of land would get their support. In Left Bank Ukraine, in particular, where the Bolshevik invasions occurred and the subsequent Russian Civil War raged, the Ukrainian government did not have sufficient time for a normal agrarian reform. In a revolutionary period, radical peasant attitudes demanded swift and decisive action. Moreover, in Katerynoslav and Kherson provinces the Cossack traditions of independent military communities and freedom both from landlords and governmental bureaucracy survived more than in any other part of Ukraine.

Although Huliai-Pole was established at the end of the eighteenth century, after the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, the Cossack traditions there were strong. During the Revolution Huliai-Pole was still divided into seven territorial areas, called sotnia (hundred), which in Cossack times meant a military unit, a company, including a territorial administration. The spirit of the Cossack tradition is evident in the reaction of the people in Huliai-Pole, as described by Makhno, against the temporary Bolshevik authority at Oleksandrivs'k (Alexandrovsk), who seized the textiles they had exchanged for flour with the workers in Moscow:

This was a gathering of a real Zaporozhian Sich, this, of which we are reading only now. . . . They met to decide a problem, not of "religion" and "the church" no, they met to decide a question of abuse of their rights by a bunch of hired governmental agents; they met quite impressively. 12

The attitude of the peasants toward the Makhno movement might be described as ambivalent. It reflected the circumstances in which they lived and the degree and nature of their contact with him. To illustrate, the railroads were the main means of transportation for Austro-German troops in Ukraine. Hence the trains were the main target of the Makhno partisans who were seeking arms. Along the Synelnikove-Oleksandrivs'k (Sinel'nikovo-Alexandrovsk) railroad line, Makhno encountered troop trains, attacked, and forced the Germans to abandon large amounts of arms, goods, and food expropriated from the people in Ukraine. Makhno took the arms and munitions and distributed all other materials among the peasants, especially the poor.13 It would not be difficult to guess the feelings of these peasants about Makhno. In the village of Volodymyrivka, near Huliai-Pole, a group of partisans attacked a sleeping Hungarian unit and killed eighty men. Subsequently an Austrian punitive expedition executed forty-nine innocent peasants and set the whole village on fire. A few days later a Galician Ukrainian officer of the Austrian Army, who participated in the punitive expedition, came to Huliai-Pole to obtain fodder for horses. While discussing the incident with some of the peasants, one of them stated: "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 the other rascals!"14

The Cossack tradition of social and political freedom survived in the memory of the people in the region of the Makhno movement more than in other parts of the country and helped to shape their thinking. For the peasants the questions of landownership and human rights were a predominant concern and no regime had solved them satisfactorily. Years of struggle for land and freedom had left a strong mark on popular consciousness. Although the region was rich in military potential, with strong historic traditions that could have served the national cause, it was nationally and politically undeveloped,15 with not enough military and political leaders who could inspire, organize, and lead the peasants against the country's enemies. The leadership therefore devolved on partisan leaders such as Makhno, Hryhor'iv, and others who fought only for their own limited purposes and thus contributed to the fall of the independent Ukrainian state.


1. Illia Vytanovych, "Agrarna polityka ukrains'kykh uriadiv rokiv revoliutsii i vyzvol'nykh zmahan', 1917-20," UI, nos. 3-4 (15-16) (1967), pp. 19-27.

2. Khrystiuk, Zamitky imateriialy, 1:37.

3. Bunyan and Fisher, Bolshevik Revolution, pp. 43536.

4. Shul'hyn, "The Period of the Central Rada (Council)," 1: 743.

5. Bunyan and Fisher, Bolshevik Revolution, p. 446.

6. Bunyan, Intervention, pp. 1617.

7. Shul'hyn, "The Period of the Hetmanate," 1:747; Vytanovych, "Agrarna polityka ukrains'kykh uriadiv," p. 50.

8. Ibid.; Bunyan, Intervention, pp. 3032; Panas Fedenko, "The Period of the Directory," in UE, 1: 75657.

9. M. Irchan [M. Babiuk] , "Makhno i makhnovtsi," IKCK 1936, p. 116. The British war correspondent with the Denikin troops, John E. Hodgson, reports that Makhno "in an endeavour to bind the poorer people to his cause, distributed spurious charters which claimed to grant free tracts of land to all and sundry. I have seen one of the documents. It was elegantly worded and bore Makhno's signature" (John Ernest Hodgson, With Denikin's Armies, p. 119);Mazepa, Ukraina v ohni, 1 :62; Mazepa, "Zymovyi pokhid i partyzans'kyi rukh," p. 92.

10. Nestor Makhno, Russkaia revoliutsiia na Ukraine, 1:14.

11. Makhno himself was a replica of a well-known Zaporozhian Cossack leader Ivan Sirko (d. 1680) who was born in Merefa in present Kharkiv province. Avery active and brave military leader, Sirko's main aim had been preserving the Orthodox religion and attaining personal fame in the struggle against the Turks and Tatars. He organized over twenty large expeditions and many smaller campaigns against the Turks and Tatars by way of the Dnieper and the steppes, gaining great respect among the Cossacks and fear among his enemies. Sirko, however, like Makhno, was a primitive statesman who contributed greatly to the destruction of Ukrainian political independence. Sirko saw no problems other than his campaigns. He damaged the plan of Hetman Ivan Vyhovs'kyi in his war against Muscovy in 1659, by attacking his allies, the Tatars. He did similar harm to Hetman Petro Doroshenko in his joint struggle with the Turks and Tatars against Poland in 1668 (Krypiakevych [Kholms'kyi], Istoriia Ukrainy [Munich: Nakl. Naukovoho-t-va im. Shevchenka, 1949] , pp. 26566; IEvhen Onats'kyi, "Nestor Makhno," Ukrains'ka mala entsyk-lopediia [Buenos Aires: Nakl. Administratury UAPTs v Argentini, 1965] , p. 1748).

12. Makhno, Russkaia revoliutsia, 1:14.

13. Nestor Makhno, Ukrainskaia revoliutsiia, 3 : 149.

14. Pavlo Dubas, "Z raionu Makhna," LCK, no. 3 (1932), p. 8.

15. Although the Russian peasants had been living under a national government for several centuries, their national and political attitude toward their country was not much different from the attitude of the Ukrainian peasants in the region of the Makhno movement: "The War and the Revolution revealed, indeed, an astonishing absence of civil spirit in even the educated classes of Russia; but the simple peasant soldiers had not even the most elementary notions of patriotism. Denikin quotes a story, often told in Russia during the war, about a group of peasant soldiers who had been listening to talk about the danger of the Germans overrunning Russia. 'We are from Tambov,' they said, 'the Germans will never advance as far as Tambov'" (Michael S. Farbman, Bolshevism in Retreat [London: W. Collins, 1923], p. 30).