Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Nestor Makhno, Anarchist—Another Side of the Russian Civil War, Part 1

By Michael Kintopf

On 24 September 1919, the Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine, an organization of 15,000 anarchists, faced annihilation at the hands of Anton Denikin’s Russian counterrevolutionary or White Army.  Five regiments of the White Army had slipped around the anarchists’ flanks as they rested from a previous battle and grueling retreat. The Whites were slowly encircling their camp.  But rather than prepare defenses, the anarchists attacked.  Strangely, their leader, Nestor Makhno, always in the forefront of any assault, was nowhere to be found. 

Nestor Makhno is in the center, surrounded by some of
his most trusted men in various uniform states

Ukraine had long been a breeding ground for peasant uprisings.  Into this insurgent atmosphere in 1889, in the small city of Hulyai Pola, Nestor Ivanovich Makhno was born. Nestor was the fifth child, his father dying just ten months later, leaving his wife to raise the family.  At age seven, he went to work as a shepherd, attending school when he could.  Later, better paying-jobs on Polish-owned estates or in the German colonies, lured him away from education altogether.  Through those jobs he learned how much of a difference there was between a Ukrainian peasant’s lot and a rich landowner. 

At 17, while working at the iron foundry in Hulyai Pola, Makhno became an anarchist. It was natural for a person born on the steppe and in contact with the free society of the Cossacks to identify with a concept of little or no government. Two years later he was arrested and convicted after a police informant implicated him in an attack against the government. The initial sentence was death, but, because of his age, the sentence was commuted to life in Moscow’s Butyrki prison. There, he endured repeated beatings and solitary confinement, but even bad dreams have some good to them. 

Butiyki prison held many political prisoners among who were fellow anarchists. These men schooled Makhno in anarchistic ideals and supplemented his meager primary education. The years stretched out and Makhno grew in maturity and political awareness. The beginning and first years of the Great War slipped by with little notice; however, the storm of the February 1917 revolution came with lightning flashes that broke the locks of the prison and set numerous political dissidents free. Among them was Makhno, who saw himself as an organizer to the people’s revolution. 

Makhno returned to Hulyai Pola where he formed a Peasants’ and Workers’ Soviet.  As a survivor of the prison system, and somewhat of a hero because of it, he assumed the chairmanship of the Soviet.  Makhno began putting his anarchistic ideas into practice.  The property of the rich Polish and German landlords was appropriated and all titles abolished. It was amid this social restructuring that Makhno learned that Central Powers’ soldiers had invaded southern Russia.

Nestor Makhno in 1907 with His Local Anarchist Group

A Ukrainian nationalistic movement with socialist tendencies had surfaced in Kiev shortly after the February Revolution. Calling itself the Rada, its delegates had appealed to the Russian Provisional government for some autonomy. Before the government could act on the appeal, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized control. The Rada reacted to the Petrograd coup by declaring Ukrainian independence. The Bolsheviks, not willing to lose nearly a third of Russia’s resources, sent an invasion force to quell the independence movement. Without an army of their own, the Rada saw that their only salvation lay in asking the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary and Germany for help. Rada agents offered the Central Powers huge shipments of foodstuffs and coal in exchange for political recognition and help against the Bolsheviks. An agreement was signed on 9 February. Ten days later, 450,000 Central Powers soldiers marched into the Ukraine to support the Rada’s authority against the Russians and Ukrainian Bolsheviks.

Makhno was not a Bolshevik, but his revolutionary ideals were more in line with them than with the Rada’s concepts. His Soviet agreed to help the Bolsheviks. Makhno organized about 800 peasants into a military contingent, armed them, and sent them to help in the defense of nearby Ekaterinoslav and Kharkov; few of them returned home. Makhno had those who had remained behind dig trenches and set defenses. He hoped to put up a stiff resistance with weapons supplied by the Bolsheviks; however, bursting artillery shells and clattering machine guns shattered those dreams. Hulyai Pola fell. Makhno was briefly detained but managed to escape and join a Bolshevik artillery base train at Tsaritsyn. In July 1918 he returned to the Hulyai Pola area to find that the Germans had replaced the Rada with a puppet government headed by Hetman Pavel Skoropadsky.

Makhno organized the peasants and workers and orchestrated raids against Skoropadsky’s police force, called the Varta, and the occupying Central Powers soldiers. Makhno’s raiders were so effective that by early September he felt confident enough to attack a large objective. On 26 September 1918 he called together 50 guerrillas and led them in an attack on Hulyai Pola. The surprise attack stampeded the occupying Austro-Hungarian barrack and Varta who fled to Pokroski, 20 miles to the north.  Anticipating that his enemies would soon return, Makhno’s men seized abandoned arms and equipment and planned for a defense. Makhno gave rifles and pistols to many of the trusted citizens and told them that he would withdraw to the outskirts of the town as soon as the occupiers returned. He knew that his enemies would not follow him.  When they had settled into cleaning up the mess, he told the citizens, his men would launch a counter-strike. As his assault started, he asked that the armed citizens within the town attack also.  The encirclement would capture the Varta and Austro-Hungarians in a vice. Four hours after the police and occupiers took the town, the plan went into effect and the result was as Makhno had predicted. However, the long-term outcome was questionable. The anarchists had no way of taking care of prisoners. Shooting them all would have brought heavy reprisals on the citizens so Makhno turned the prisoners loose after making them promise to spread revolutionary ideals among their ranks. He then withdrew to Dibrivki Forest 40 kilometers away, where his men had built tunnels and strongpoints that would shield them for awhile.  

The Varta and Central Powers soldiers followed the anarchists to the forest where they began an encirclement of the area in which they suspected the insurgents were. Their plan was to deny escape, bring up artillery, and pound the area into match wood. With only 30 men left, Makhno knew that resistance was futile. His spirits were buoyed for a time when he discovered a group of 50 to 60 men who had been hiding in the forest from the Varta. They agreed to join Makhno, but as the pursuers closed in the new allies dwindled to seven. Makhno realized that making a stand would be futile. He told his men to make their escape as individuals through the many gaps that existed in the encirclement and head. Most succeeded in evading capture and over the next few days searched for an area where they could lick their wounds and gain strength. They finally settled around Velyka Mykhailivka. The village was ideal for continuing his guerrilla operations.    During the next month, Makhno’s guerrillas raided as far as Ekaterinoslav and the Tavria mainland with success from this base. The attracted many recruits. Makhno rebuilt his force by coercing the German and Polish estate owners into paying them to stay away and confiscating weapons from demobilized soldiers and deserters who had come home with everything from rifles to machine guns. By October 1918 Makhno felt confident enough to try another campaign.

Click on Map to Enlarge

The Theater of Operations for the Anarchists

Southeast of Hulyai Pola, the guerrillas ambushed an Austro-Hungarian supply train. The guards put up little resistance and were captured with few casualties. Makhno’s men took as much of the supplies as they could and insisted on shooting the prisoners. Makhno interceded and got them to spare the enlisted men, but four officers were executed. The act brought reprisals. A large force of Austro-Hungarians went after the guerrillas finally corralling them at Temyrivka.  The village was blasted off the face of the map. Nearly half of Makhno’s men were killed, while the others, with a wounded Makhno, escaped toward Russia.

Makhno returned to Ukraine in early November just as the Austro-German soldiers were beginning to leave for home in accordance with their own wishes and because of the terms of the armistice ending the Great War. Skoropadsky and his government departed with them, leaving the country in the hands of a government called the Directory. It consisted of former Rada members and was chaired by Simon Petliura. The Directory began to assert itself by a military campaign. Opposing them was a new Russian-Ukrainian Bolshevik invasion and a counterrevolutionary White movement under the command of former tsarist general Anton Denikin which had formed along the Don River.  Makhno allied himself and his guerillas with the Bolsheviks, rejecting Petliura’s nationalism as counterrevolutionary. There was never any thought of reaching an accord with the White movement. Denikin viewed the Directory, the Bolsheviks, and the anarchists as his enemies.

Makhno made this home town the center of an anarchistic enclave as the Austro-Hungarians left and the Varta crumbled. The guerrillas organized themselves into a standing 500-man army to protect the enclave and work in conjunction with Ukrainian Bolsheviks toward securing the eastern portion of Ukraine from Petliura’s Directory. The first confrontation between the two adversaries occurred at Ekaterinoslav. 

(Continued tomorrow on Roads to the Great War)

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