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


The developments in Ukraine during the Revolution were to a great extent the result of the Ukrainian political, cultural, and socioeconomic heritage. Through the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich and the autonomous hetman state, Ukraine was deprived of its defensive force and of its political and cultural institutions. Large estates were carved out of the lands of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, mainly as grants to court favorites and later for the foreign elements that were settled there. The Cossack officers in the former hetman state were tied to the interests of the Russian Empire as a result of receiving the privileges of the Russian nobility, whereas the peasantry was reduced to serfdom, widening social differences between the classes and weakening the unity of the Ukrainian people.

The submission of the metropolitan of Kyiv to the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Moscow dealt a severe blow to the Ukrainian Orthodox church. In addition, the Ukrainian schools, because their curricula were subjected to hostile Russian censorship, were forced to become instruments for denationalization. The institutions of higher learning and secondary schools, which were founded by the church and were open to all classes, gradually decayed when the Russians seized church properties.

The combination of resentment at the oppressive measures against Ukrainian national life, the influx of new ideas from the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the Polish uprising in 1830—31, stimulated the national revival. The Crimean War and Russia's defeat brought about far-reaching reforms. Ukrainian scholars and litterateurs strove for a cultural revival by collecting various documents and studying national history, folklore, and language. Educational and cultural activities were launched among the emancipated peasants to improve their difficult economic condition and to increase their national consciousness. Similarly, in the cities, societies were organized to foster national consciousness among the population. The Russian government, seeing a threat to the unity of the empire in these activities, initiated a period of systematic persecution of the national movement that lasted, except for brief interludes, until 1917.

At the turn of the century, awareness of national identity increased, stimulated by the revolutionary activities in Russia, the growth of industrialization, and the construction of railroads. However, industrial expansion also altered the composition and distribution of the population. The Russian and other non-Ukrainian population increased substantially, the new socioeconomic structure strengthened ties with Russian interests and, to some extent, handicapped the national movement. Its full impact, however, was not evident until the Revolution in 1917. Although the Revolution of 1905 and the October Manifesto awakened great expectations among national leaders, their hopes soon vanished when the brief respite of the Revolution regressed to an even more oppressive policy. The outbreak of the First World War only intensified coercive measures against Ukrainian national life.

At the time that the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the establishment and maintenance of the Ukrainian state was proving difficult. The struggle for national revival prior to the Revolution was confined primarily to the cultural sphere and offered its devotees little practical administrative and political experience. Although initially the national-political aspirations of the Ukrainian people were unequivocally manifested in the creation of the Central Rada, which ultimately directed its efforts toward attaining the complete independence of Ukraine, the Rada was unable to translate them into a concrete program of administrative, social, and military reform. The interference of the Russian Provisional Government in Ukrainian affairs, the presence of Russian armies in Ukraine fighting on the Austro-German fronts, and the Rada's inability to train and establish a strong administrative apparatus prevented it from firmly establishing its power. Because of its broad interpretation of democracy, the Rada did little to stop the activities of hostile elements against Ukrainian statehood. Nor did it build a military force that could lend muscle to the national struggle, thinking in terms of a militia rather than a standing army. Moreover, the Ukrainian educated class was divided over the conflicting currents of national independence and socialist internationalism. Thus the national leaders failed to unite the nation under one leadership or to organize one front to defend the state.

Although the patriotic slogans employed by the Rada were appealing to the middle class and to educated peasants and workers, many of the peasants were captivated by the Bolshevik promise of land. The outlook of the Rada was constantly lagging behind the rapid advance of the Revolution, particularly with regard to the agrarian question, for the leaders of the Rada were not yet prepared to face the peasant problem.

The cumulative weight of the internal obstacles to national unity was very serious, and the newly established state was immediately challenged by the Bolshevik invasion. The Austro-German troops invited to help repel the invaders overthrew the Rada, which was supplanted by the hetman government.

From the outset the hetman worked under difficult conditions, being hemmed in between conflicting foreign and national interests. The presence of Austro-German troops limited his sovereignty and at the same time the reactionary members of his cabinet and administration, consisting to a great extent of Russians or Russified elements, tolerated the hetman state only so long as international politics made it necessary. Furthermore, they made efforts to discredit the hetman government and Ukrainian statehood in the eyes of the populace. In contradistinction to German and Russian goals, the Ukrainians hoped the hetman would maintain order, preserve their freedom, and provide security from Austro-German interference and the Bolshevik threat.

Although the hetman intended to give his government a national character and to pursue an independent national policy, he had only partial success. The reactionary nature of the regime's new policies turned the progressive majority, and hence the whole population, against the hetman. Moreover, favoritism toward the upper class, especially the landlords, who collaborated with the Austrian and German troops to organize punitive expeditions against the peasants, made the situation worse. There was passive resistance at first, and subsequently a self-defense force, the partisan movement. After the defeat of the Germans by the Western powers in 1918, the hetman regime was overthrown by the troops of the Directory.

The Directory had to face even more serious domestic and foreign problems than its predecessor. The consolidation of power started by the Rada had been interrupted by the Austro-German and Russian interference. Some of the administrative personnel of the hetman period left the country or went into hiding, leaving the Directory with still fewer trained personnel. Moreover, leaders in distant provinces seeking to establish contact with the Directory were cut off from the center by the lack of communications and by enemy invasions, and the Directory was unable to establish its power in the country. Some of the distant provinces were controlled by various partisan leaders, who worked with the Directory; other partisan leaders were unwilling to subordinate themselves to the Directory, and some even followed independent courses of opposition. The constant change of authority and the interminable warring created apathy among the population. The peasants, in particular, had considered the Austro-German troops and the landlord-police punitive detachments their enemies, and they fought them desperately. When those enemies were gone and the Russian Communists were not yet a threat, most of the partisans who fought under the banner of the Directory left the army, feeling that their war was over.

The country was threatened from all sides. The most serious threat came from the new Soviet Russian invasion and the French intervention assisted by the Denikin troops. One view expressed in the Directory favored an understanding with the Bolsheviks against the French; the opposite, common action with the French against the Bolsheviks. When the latter view prevailed, the Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries withdrew from the Directory, which then sought the active support of the Entente against the Bolshevik invasion. The Entente, however, adhered to the policy of a "united and indivisible Russia." As a result of negotiations with representatives of the Entente, the Directory undermined its own unity and aroused opposition from Ukrainian parties of both the Right and the Left. It also gave the Bolsheviks material for propaganda, for they accused the Directory of inviting a new foreign invasion, and rekindled the fear that Denikin, now associated with the Entente, would restore the rule of the landlords.

The Directory was further weakened when the two main partisan leaders, Hryhor'iv and Makhno, whose objectives appeared to have greater appeal than those of the Directory, joined the Red Army instead of the Directory in its fight against the invaders. Thus the Directory struggled against overwhelming odds, without adequate arms, military equipment, or medical supplies, and with, in the midst of all this, a devastating typhus epidemic. Consequently the superior invasion forces of the Bolsheviks and Denikin compelled the exhausted Ukrainian Army to retreat to the western limits of Right Bank Ukraine and seek the support of the Entente through alliance with Poland.

Meanwhile, the Directory reorganized its forces for guerrilla warfare. Although allied with the Poles, at the sacrifice of Ukrainian territory, and together with them fighting the Bolsheviks, the Directory failed to gain the support of the Entente, and the Polish government, ignoring the Directory, made its own separate peace settlement with the Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1920.

The Ukrainian governments were not able to establish firm authority in the country and to defend it, not only because they and the people were ill-prepared for statehood, but also because Ukraine was an object of foreign invasions, a battleground of the Russian Civil War, and a highway for invading forces. The Russian anti-Bolshevik movement, which was organized outside Russia proper, seriously affected the Ukrainian Revolution, for although Denikin's primary aim was to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in Russia, he first fought to destroy Ukrainian statehood.

As a result of the terror and exploitation of the invasions and the residue of military experience and arms brought from the war, a partisan movement came into existence, particularly in Left Bank Ukraine. These partisans were isolated from one another and were never organized into a single nationwide force. Moreover, some of the partisan troops failed to coordinate their actions with the Ukrainian regular army. The" strongest partisan force that led its warfare independently from other partisan groups and the Ukrainian army was that of Nestor Makhno.

Makhno was a product of an environment that had nearly lost its national identity. The absence of Ukrainian schools and cultural and political organizations, as a result of Russian policy, left people, especially the younger generation, without strong national leadership. Political terror perpetrated by the regime, especially during the Revolution of 1905, led Makhno, like other young men, to radical, non-nationalist organizations and to terrorist actions, resulting in imprisonment. Although during his years of imprisonment in Russia Makhno matured intellectually by reading, conversation, and introspection, the environment distracted him from Ukrainian national life and problems. Moreover, the experience in prison increased Makhno's bitterness against prisons and governmental authority. In prison Makhno solidified his anarchist ideology and developed a sense of sociopolitical mission that he manifested later in his activities.

Makhno was freed after the February Revolution and he arrived in his native town as a political hero, subsequently playing a leading role in shaping the sociopolicial life of his town and gradually of the region. He initiated the peasants' movement, confiscating and distributing landlords' land and goods, and encouraging the workers to take over factories and workshops, at first "legally" and later by force. Undoubtedly the terrorist actions were the continuation of Makhno's prearrest period but on a larger scale. To carry on his actions more effectively, Makhno organized armed detachments, making raids upon landlords' estates, depots, freight and passenger trains, expropriating goods and terrorizing the owners. Attempts of the local authorities and patriotic Ukrainians to prevent Makhno from destructive involvement failed, while he was hardly aware that he spread destruction; he believed he was building a new and better world.

The vicissitudes of the Revolution, the Bolshevik invasion, and the arrival of the Austro-German troops halted Makhno's terrorist activities. The overthrow of the Central Rada and the establishment of the hetman regime, however, created conditions that brought Makhno back into action, in what became known as the Makhno movement. The hetman's policies created adverse conditions that were particularly manifested in the Austro-German and landlords' punitive expeditions against the countryside. Such policies brought about spontaneous peasant uprisings that played into Makhno's hands, giving him a cause and new strength.

During this period of his activities, Makhno was no longer a terrorist, but rather a popular leader fighting the enemies of the people, defending their properties and freedom. With the development of the Revolution, Makhno became more conscious of his movement's role and task. New obstacles spurred him to greater efforts in which he displayed unusual cunning, initiative, bravery, will power, and great resourcefulness. Makhno learned to make quick decisions in critical situations. In time, the confidence the partisans had in him bound the movement together and his terrorism and dictatorial inclination were substantially checked by the increasingly constructive and patriotic attitudes of the army, the population upon which Makhno heavily depended, and the cause for which he was fighting.

Makhno was keenly aware of the importance of an effective military force to defend the achievements of the Revolution. In contrast to other partisan leaders and some national leaders, Makhno devoted his ability, energy, and time to this goal and managed not only to unify all the partisan groups in southeastern Ukraine, but to organize and discipline them into a most effective partisan army. Moreover, together with his associates, Makhno invented new tactics for the conditions he faced: swift and maneuverable light carts armed with machine guns, clever ruses in military operations, disguises, and infiltration in enemy ranks—all of which brought terror to the hearts of his adversaries. The population not only supported the partisans, giving them lodging, food, and horses, but also put pursuing enemy troops on a false trail, while the partisans remained in the village, or went in the opposite direction.

As an anarchist Makhno strongly opposed not only the landlords and factory owners, but all governments, native or foreign, because he felt that all forms of government represented the violence of a minority over the majority. Makhno was the veritable incarnation of the peasants' social revolutionary spirit. He fought in the name of what he, and the peasants supporting him, believed was freedom. The peasants should look after the land, the workers after the factories, and if there were any problems they should get together and decide what should be done. Such ideas were appealing to the peasants and made Makhno popular.

In contrast to his unique military ability and success in the field, Makhno lacked the broader worldly orientation he needed to understand political problems and to make correct decisions. In that respect he was not equal to the task brought on him by revolutionary conditions, and his actions were unequal to the gravity of the situation. If two enemies .threatened his movement, Makhno would join forces with the less dangerous against the more dangerous in order to prevent strengthening both of them. Although Makhno collaborated with the Bolsheviks, he was critical and suspicious of them from the beginning. His distrust, however, was based not upon knowledge of the Bolsheviks' character, but upon his experience with them; therefore, each time he failed to take the necessary steps to secure the movement against Bolshevik betrayal. Had Makhno possessed more political sophistication, he would have placed less trust in Bolshevik promises and used his numerous victories to secure his movement against the enemy. During the earlier stage of the Revolution, Makhno assumed that the conflict with the Bolsheviks could be limited to the realm of ideas; he thought that the radical revolutionary attitude of the peasants and their resentment of the foreign invaders were the best guarantees for the territory of his movement. Moreover, Makhno naively believed that the outstanding contributions of the partisans in defeating both Denikin and Wrangel would protect his movement against Bolshevik provocations, assuming that in case of conflict the Red troops would make common cause with the partisans over the heads of their leaders when they met face to face.

The movement over-all lacked educated partisans to give it political leadership. They depended heavily upon Makhno's judgment. When they were asked: "Why do you fight?" their usual reply was: "Ask Makhno; it is his problem." Paradoxically, although Makhno's struggle against the Bolsheviks may well have prolonged the Russian Civil War, by his vital role in the defeat of the forces of Denikin and Wrangel he contributed to the triumph of bolshevism.

Although Makhno was strongly aware of the social nature of the Revolution whose instrument he was, he failed to comprehend its national aspect because of his inadequate national consciousness. Makhno, like his movement, was the outgrowth of the deplorable state of national conditions that denied him the opportunity to develop according to his ability. Nevertheless, he did retain a strong sense of nationality as a Ukrainian and not as a Russian. As for his own movement, it reflected the state of the ideas at that time of national self-determination that he himself described as "not adequately developed. Among the Ukrainian people there appeared a number of different political groups, each of which interpreted the idea of self-determination in its own way, according to their own party's interests."

This state of affairs, in both its positive and negative aspects, was strongly reflected in Makhno's activities. In most cases Makhno did not fight the Ukrainian Army because he and they had a self-imposed unwritten agreement of neutrality. But he stubbornly fought the enemies of Ukraine, the Austro-German punitive expeditions, and the Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik Russian forces, either simultaneously or by joining one against the other. Although Makhno was not a Ukrainian nationalist, he was also not a traitor to his country because he never joined the enemy with the aim of assisting them to occupy Ukraine. Thus, while fighting the enemies of Ukraine, Makhno was indirectly an ally of the Ukrainian armed forces and it was.not his fault that the Directory failed to take advantage of Denikin's defeat in Ukraine and Makhno's effective struggle against the Red troops.

Makhno's primary failure was his unwillingness to coordinate his activities with other partisan groups and the Ukrainian armed forces in fighting common enemies during a critical period of Ukrainian history. Moreover, Makhno had no positive goal either as a Ukrainian or as an anarchist. Although he led the strongest partisan movement, he was isolated from the national forces that strove to maintain the independence of Ukraine. In addition, Makhno had not worked out a plan for—and under the circumstances it would not have been possible to establish—a stateless society in the region of the movement. Although the Makhno partisan army fought very bravely, shed a great deal of blood, including Ukrainian, and destroyed material goods, it ended in ruin. Makhno was never defeated during three years of uninterrupted campaigns. His army was overwhelmed by the superior power of the Bolshevik armies and overcome by the exhaustion and war weariness of the population. To change the course of events of the Revolution would have required a much greater effort by the people and its leaders. Only the united effort of all national forces under unified leadership and with a single goal could have established and maintained an independent Ukrainian state. Thus the Makhno movement was not a constructive factor in the Ukrainian National Revolution; important as its role was in the final outcome, it reflected all too well the lack of unity, the disparate aims within Ukrainian national development.