Vasilii Golovanov  <<

Nestor Makhno 

Published by

Molodaia gvardiia, Moscow

Groupe Artege, France

Matthes & Seitz, Germany

„Vasilii Golovanov’s book is one of the few which gives us an unprejudiced and comprehensive retrospective view of our past.”

The meaning of the October Revolution of 1917, one of the most important events of the 20th century, has never been really examined in all of its aspects. No one can count the number of victims or account for the amount of destruction caused by the release of tension that was building up over decades and was waiting for the moment to explode from inside Tsarist Russia in all of its blind violence. Even Lenin did not understand the magnitude of the revolutionary upsurge of 1917. Not long after the plotter and extremist returned from abroad, he stood on a tank, got a look at the people, and was astounded to realize that they could be manipulated and utilized for a seizure of power. Lenin began bombarding them with slogans and promised everything they wanted, above all land, freedom and peace. What became of all this was the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk, starvation, “expropriations” of the people, the apocalypse of the Civil War, uprisings and revolts.

Vasilii Golovanov’s book is dedicated to one of the little known chapters of the history of the revolution, one which was “confiscated” by the Bolsheviks: the story of the elementary and furious resistance to the Bolsheviks on a mass scale, as well as the hero of this popular uprising: Nestor Makhno (1888-1934), an infamous figure of the revolutionary period. This impoverished Ukrainian from the village of Huliapole and leader of the popular anarchistic movement was feared and cursed by “Reds” and the “Whites” alike, as well as by German occupants and the followers of Symon Petliura, briefly premier and president of Ukraine. The case of Makhno illustrates the huge falsification of history which was maintained for decades by official Soviet science, literature and film and which served a single purpose: the justification of the monolithic and total political dominance of the party of the Bolsheviks. Since they did not succeed in completely erasing him from the memory of the people, numerous articles and books appeared in the USSR beginning in the middle of the 20th century which tried to demean Makhno, depicting him as run-of-the-mill bandit and adventurer typical for wartime situations. In his trilogy “The Road to Calvary”, the “classic” Soviet writer Alexei Tolstoy depicts Makhno as an evil dwarf, a demon and a werewolf. Tolstoy was obviously afraid of the surge of popular sentiment, which the Russian intelligentsia long dreamed of. In films, Makhno appears as an evildoer in the attire of a fool. Sometimes he is shown as a shabby high school student, riding a rusty bicycle in his uniform with long filthy hair. Other times he masquerades as a female villager or dons the uniform of a captain of the army of the “Hetmanate” (i.e. the puppet government installed by the German High Command during WWI). In another depiction, he is seen wearing a wedding gown and conducting a massacre in the house of a landowner. Makhno’s followers are shown as constantly drunk, burning priests alive in locomotive heating boilers, shooting young officers of the White Army on the coast of the Azov Sea, plundering wine cellars in conquered cities and committing robberies in landowner’s homes. They appear as beasts in human form, as bandits, and their leader as the “son of a illiterate village idiot” who “does not comprehend” Marxism in all of its “progressiveness”. So many lies and half-lies have been told about Makhno, that it is impossible to refute them all. Even the published passages from the accounts of Makhno’s own close companions are nothing but the results of police interrogations adapted for print.

What is the source of this paranoid hate? The answer is obvious: Makhno as an instigator and leader of a peasant uprising was particularly odious for the Soviets. In the case of their attitude towards Makhno, the representatives of “workers’ and peasants’ power” allowed themselves a certain amount of aristocratic snobbery. The explained that Makhno was cunning, but in the manner of a beast. The ingrained slyness of Makhno and his commanders, they claimed, and not military prowess, was the reason for their successes in battle.

But questions emerged and still emerge today: how could the “primitive” Makhno hold his ground for three years during the Civil War, while experienced Cossack leaders were quickly crushed between tectonic plates the two rivaling powers of the Reds and the Whites? How could a primitive illiterate man form “flying” partisan units which struck with the speed of lightning and immediately disappeared, only to reappear on the next day in a completely different place? Was Makhno, with his roots among the impoverished, not a child o the popular uprising – of the October Revolution?

As a twenty-year-old fanatical revolutionary, Makhno was condemned to 20 years hard labor, and served nine years of that sentence. Like his role model, Mikhail Bakunin, he dreamed of a people’s uprising that would “wipe all parasites from the face of the earth”. It was the irony of fate that none other than his later archenemy Lenin helped him to come home with a fake passport – to the village of Huliapole, which was located in territory which was occupied by Germans in WWI. There he gathered his people into units under the black flag of anarchism. Ukrainian peasants, who hat suffered under German occupation and under the landowners, were glad to join his cause. After successful raids, they returned home as peaceful farmers.

Golovanov writes: “Makhno could write (but was not an intellectual), was smart (but inexperienced in political, diplomatic and economic matters), was sly (but not far-sighted – a great tactician, but a dreadful strategist). He was modest, impatient with empty chatter and shallow formalism, and above all he relied on violence.” “As inappropriate as it might seem for an anarchist, he was attracted to power, mainly due to its material, tangible and visible features: a sidecar upholstered in light blue cloth, a well-fitted shoulder strap, bread and salt presented with a slight bow, being addressed as “Batko” (father), etc. Makhno was of the same type as the Russian rebels Stenka Razin and Yemilian Pugatchov, as well as the Zaporozhian Sich (the free Cossack “republic” which emerged in the 16th century). It is no coincidence that Makhno’s followers were celebrated in folk songs as heroes of the Civil War. The poet of the Russian village Sergei Yesenin dedicated a poem to him just before he killed himself.

The documents on Makhno, which have now been published after being top secret for many years, do not show the comic figure presented by Soviet propaganda, but rather an extraordinary military commander and organizer who wanted to realize the ideals of freedom and justice in his homeland Ukraine. Makhno’s units operated in an area 600 kilometers from north to south, the same from east to west – 350 villages in all. There were many units of this type in Ukraine. They were small and sly and organized their own revolutions – one which was truly a grass roots movement.

Among their enemies were the troops of the “hetman” Skoropadski, who was supported by the German and Austro-Hungarian occupants and Symon Petliura, who conducted negotiations on the creation of a French protectorate for Ukraine, but also the anti-Bolshevik White Army of General Denikin. Their weapons were pitchforks and spears – only a few had rifles or shotguns. The events of October 1917 led to the formation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic at the end of 1918. Power was in the hands of the Makhno-Soviets, and the land was in the hands of the farmers – but without the Bolsheviks and their strident declarations.

At the beginning of January 1919, the Bolshevik military directed its attention to Ukraine. Formally, the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic and the Ukrainian People’s Republic were independent states; the creation of a front of one of them against the other was thus tantamount to a declaration of war. But nothing of the kind happened. Soviet troops entered Ukrainian territory unnoticed and conquered Kharkov on January 3. When the “Directory” of Petliura asked for an explanation, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs Grigorii Chicherin answered that it wasn’t regular Soviet troops who were operating in Ukraine, but rather Ukrainian partisans. At this point, the representative of the provisional worker-and-peasant government of Ukraine was already reviewing a military parade and met the new head of government Piatakov that very evening. Doesn’t one have a feeling of déjà-vu when one thinks of the recent events of 2014-2015?

Makhno then considered Bolshevism to be the “lesser evil”. Delegations of the rebels went to Moscow and Kharkov in order to negotiate a peace treaty and fight the occupants and the Whites together. Ironically, the putsch was planned precisely for the moment of the negotiations. The French landed in Odessa and Petliura became the head of the “directory”. Ukraine declared war on Soviet Russia on January 16. However, already in February, Kiev, Cherkassy, Kremenchug and Yekaterinoslav were in the hands of the Reds. The military successes were caused by Makhno’s lack of manpower and weapons. In Russia, the Red Army already existed and was reasonably well supplied. Ukraine had nothing like this. The Bolsheviks counted on the rebel partisans and made all sorts of false promises of supplies and Red Army support. A cat and mouse game began. The partisan war of Makhno’s followers and other rebel units against the Whites helped the Reds beat back Deniken’s attack on Moscow, and Makhno’s troops conquered one city after the other. For the conquest of Mariupol, a Makhno brigade commander was decorated with the highest medal known at the time, the “Red Banner” with the number four (soon he disappeared from the list of those honored with this medal). This was truly a high honor, considering the fact that heroes were often rewarded with golden watches, cigarette cases and even with wedding rings taken from the bourgeoisie. At the same time, Trotsky, whose hate of partisans knew no limits, issued an order to revile Makhno and liquidate him and his followers. In 1920, Lenin’s government again offered Makhno a military alliance – this time the common enemy was the White general Vrangel. During these times, Makhno’s troops were not “bandits”. They were simply the Ukrainian Red Army. Makhno was viciously attacked by the Bolshevik newspapers for victories and defeats alike. They published orders for the annihilation of the “criminals” and “traitors” – with which they meant the entire Ukrainian liberation movement. When one reads in Bunin’s “Cursed Days” about bowl-legged members of the Red Army spitting out the shells of sunflower seeds in the conquered Odessa, one must realize that this is reality the Ataman Grigoriev who conquered the city. Soon he was executed by firing squad on the orders of a military tribunal.

At this time, the Red Army wasn’t in Ukraine at all. To put it more precisely: The Red Army consisted of Makhno’s troops, Grigoriev’s troops, Dybenko’s marine units and other spontaneous revolutionaries. In 1920, the Soviet military leader Mikhail Frunze noted that there were only 9% Ukrainians in the Red Army unity on the southern front. Frunze explained this with the incompetence of the recruiting apparatus. In 1919 and 1920, Makhno’s recruiting was successful. This is why the Bolshevik leaders used these already existing formations for their own purposes - people whom they knew would later be designated as “bandits” and subject to retribution. The units the Bolsheviks made use of were made up of farmers who had no understanding of politics and were simply defending their homes and their land.

The annihilation of the partisans in Ukraine is a story full of mysteries and drama which no one before Golovanov has ever described. In February of 1918, the disarming of the Anarchists in Russia began, and they were indicted as criminals. Makhno, however, remained a romantic until 1920. His conviction to bring the revolution onto the “proper path” did not waver. His original idea was to eliminate the landowners and occupants as soon as possible, and then come to terms with the Bolsheviks whom he considered to be basically on the same side as he was. However, despite their similar attitude towards the “old world”, the differences between Makhno and the Bolsheviks quickly became clear. First of all, Makhno’s forces prevented the Bolshevik forces from taking bread away from the farmers, and, secondly, they built up their own Soviet power – they were Soviet but not connected to the party. In the winter of 1919, three congresses of the Soviets took place in the “free districts”. Their decisions were decisive for the development of the region. Makhno’s program contained the elimination of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leading role of the Communist Party, the support of self-administration on the basis of independent “anarchist” delegates, a “third social revolution” and the creation of popular power, the elimination of the exploitation of the farmers, the protection of villages from starvation and the policies of “war communism”, as well as the right of farmers to own land.

In contrast to the Bolshevik “dictatorship of the proletariat”, Makhno’s model was a march backwards into the past, the ideal being the Zaprozhian Sich of the Cossacks, whose peasant descendants again struggled for freedom and brotherly equality. Anarchism was a modern version of this age-old attitude, and in this context archaic forms of collective consciousness came to the surface. When people came to Makhno complaining of poverty, “Batko” would simply put cash in their hands (like a modern day Robin Hood). Today, this sounds like narcissism or primitive PR, but at that time it was nothing less than the establishment of justice. Still, despite the fundamental sympathy for the idea of the self-determination of the people, which gave the Ukrainian farmers a sense of fulfillment, Makhno’s model was in the final analysis a rejection of civilization. This is one of the reasons why Makhno’s followers couldn’t make serious inroads in the cities. After they had executed their enemies, declared the emancipation of the working masses and taxed the bourgeoisie, they only had a vague idea about what the next steps should be. The cities became a trap for them. The army, which had displayed such courage and discipline, began to dissolve, and industry was on the verge of disappearing altogether. Epidemics rampaged with a force last known in the Middle Ages. The Makhno system worked only as a military organization. By following the partisans, the Bolsheviks attained power practically for free. The Makhno system awaited the ineluctable end of all popular movements: a bloody defeat, the annihilation of the leaders, and a vague and fearful commemoration on the part of those who followed them.

Makhno was not a secondary product, but rather a central figure of the popular war. He was an upwardly mobile person who embodied the fighting spirit and the hate of his people. This is the knot which needs to be unraveled in order to comprehend the entire situation. He is a popular hero in the exact sense of the word. He went through all crimes and heroisms of the people in rebellion. Why did this popular hero become a mortal enemy of the “popular power “ which the Bolsheviks represented, and why did their class theory not work in Ukraine? Why could they never operate in any way different from an axe in an operation room?

With time it becomes more and more clear what Makhno’s genuine peasant consciousness felt in the first years of the revolution. It was not 1929 or 1937, but rather the spring and summer of 1918, when his country chose totalitarianism. The Bolsheviks began creating a system which was particularly capable of fighting the inner and outer enemy, a system which became ever stronger after the final split with the democratic parties of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries and the increasing attacks upon the peasant class. It was already Lenin who said that the system required the limitation of freedom, pressure on the organs of power of the people, the Soviets. He left no doubt that repression of political enemies to the left and right would come, and said clearly: “you can’t expect us to pussyfoot around – we are pragmatic revolutionaries.” In the spring of 1918 they turned on the anarchists whom they had used to seize power: All units who had gone over to the Bolshevik side at the moment of the October revolution were disarmed and dissolved in 1918. This led to excesses, to uncontrolled fire fights between the Red Guards, who considered themselves to be volunteers and revolutionary heroes, and the members of the regular Red Army, who had been mobilized in a normal fashion and were designed to replace them without any extraordinary or spectacular actions and without the claim to any special rights. This page of the revolution is completely forgotten. It is quickly turned to get to the story of the Civil War. This is why hardly anyone realizes that in April and May of 1918 the Bolsheviks betrayed their own first soldiers – partially since the cause they had been serving demoralized them, and partially because they still believed in the spirit of liberation of 1917, now considered to be useless or even dangerous. There were regional skirmishes, for instance in Saratov, where Makhno wound up when the Bolsheviks tried to dissolve the sailors’ organization of the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Volga region and the sailors even destroyed the “Smolny” of the city, i.e. the seat of regional power.

The Bolsheviks transformed the revolution’s quest for truth into an inquisition, brought forth countless inquisitors required for this operation and thus squandered the entire moral capital which the Russian revolutionaries hat accumulated. And so when Lenin couldn’t control events anymore and the farmers demanded the promised land and freedom, he suppressed them with utmost brutality and didn’t comprehend that he had led his party, which had briefly breathed the air of freedom in 1917, directly to Robespierre’s guillotine. His party would be able to conquer the people, but Lenin didn’t understand that it would subsequently die and turn into an enormous apparatus of destruction. Lenin broke the resistance of the people by destroying all forms of self-organization and workers’ self-administration –from the unions to the Soviets - and absorbing them into the empty and lifeless structures of his party.

Golovanov’s final conclusion is: “Makhno placed his bets on the strength of the people, and he lost. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, bet on human weakness and won. This basic truth leads to further reflections. The first and foremost aspect is the mysticism of totalitarian regimes and the attractiveness of totalitarianism in general. The Bolsheviks brought dreadful tribulations to the country. Normally one thinks first of terror – but first and foremost was hunger. And typhus fever. The effect of all of this is the same: long years in fear of death. The Bolsheviks were responsible for all of this, but in time people got used to it and attributed the terrible conditions in war to the elements, while viewing the Bolsheviks as s force or order, as a savior from hunger and epidemics and from the horrors of war.”

This basic truth was behind everything connected to the “Makhnovshchina”, the popular movement named after Makhno. This truth was so unpleasant und inopportune that one didn’t even begin reflecting on it, shrouded it all in silence and eliminated it from all commemorations. Golovanov writes: “All complexes of Bolshevism and the guilty conscience of the Communist Party were blamed on the Makhnovshchina and the rebels. The rebels are associated with everything that honest people with a conscience accused the Bolsheviks of: unjustified cruelty, concentration on power alone, making use of the instincts and ambitions of the masses, political rigor, a dull and destructive concept of revolution, lack of comprehension for the laws which govern a civilized society and make for a proper role of the state. Did the sailors of the “Aurora” plunder the wine cellars in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg? No, it was Makhno’s followers who served wine from the cellars of Berdiansk. Did the Bolsheviks tax the bourgeoisie? No it was Makhno! Was Zaenko, a Chekist in Kharkov and incorrigible executioner, a curse for Ukraine? No, the real executioner was Liovka Sadov from Makhno’s counterintelligence.

Makhno’s followers didn’t belong to us, and thus they could be viewed as bad and horrible. The enemy camps eliminated each other and mishandled prisoners. If it was a Makhno follower, the Whites “roasted” him: put him on a bonfire or burned him at the stake after torturing him. A member of the White Army was generally cut to pieces with the swords of Makhno troops, or stabbed to death with bayonets and fed to the dogs Thus both sides saved ammunition.” There was no economic policy at the time: the Bolsheviks plundered both by Makhno and the cities – the only question was who stole more and whether the spoils were sent to Huliapole or Moscow.

The tragedy of Makhno’s fate is obvious. He wanted to serve the revolution, but no one let him. He wanted to be a leader of the people, but in the end he became a figure of horror, capable, like a bandit, of every crime imaginable. He contributed a great deal to the destruction of the White movement, and expected recognition, but the Bolsheviks treated him as a thief and an archenemy. And this is what he became in the end: a ruthless and calculating mortal enemy.

“What separated Makhno from the Bolsheviks was something quite ephemeral: a sense of self-dignity,” writes Golovanov. “Makhno didn’t want to simply execute orders of some alien will and didn’t want to be a scapegoat. This is why he was damned, like Oedipus, to move from one terrible disappointment to the next. From time to time he hoped to be able to be reconciled with the Bolsheviks – for instance in the winter of 1919, after he had been declared a criminal in the summer, and then even in 1920, after he had become a total outlaw. He simply couldn’t believe that the Makhno system and Bolshevism were irreconcilable. He wanted to serve the revolution, but couldn’t serve the revolution of the Bolsheviks – the same went for his commanders and troops who wanted to served the Bolsheviks but couldn’t. For they were independent and free, and thus couldn’t subordinate themselves to the Bolshevik inquisition. Makhno was declared by history to be a traitor; his justification and his legacy are to be found in his merciless struggle which refused every compromise – his struggle against the Whites, against the Reds – and in his resistance to the very last moment, against all logic and common sense. Not everyone can continue resistance when all others have reconciled themselves to the new situation; not everyone can continue to fight when others are fearfully succumbing; not everyone can continue on the path to freedom, like a fish with its absolute will to reach its spawning ground.”

Naturally, the Makhno movement had a specific national character. The core of this character drew from the peasantry of the left bank of the Dnieper, in whose veins flowed the blood of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. They simply could not accept alien and brutal force and could not reconcile themselves with it. For the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, all individual farmers were “kulaks” who necessarily had to be dispossessed. Love of liberty and the rejection of bureaucratic statehood were the elements which gave the Makhno system its strength. Is the echo of these events and the ineradicable drive for independence not the explanation for the fact that two popular revolutions – twice Maidan – in the territories former Soviet power was only possible in Ukraine?

The Makhno movement never operated on the nationalist or separatist slogans, which they were accused of spreading. Makhno’s army put up resistance to three regimes which represented alternative models for Ukrainian statehood: the Central Rada, the Hetmanate of Skoropadski and Petliura’s “directory”. Makhno’s rebel army was international. The largest group was the Ukrainians, but there were also Russians, Jews, Greeks, and even an Estonian military orchestra which defected from the Reds. There were even Germans, even though the anti-German element in the movement was strong, due to the occupation in WWI and the jealousy for the German colonists which no one wanted to admit to.

After defeating Vrangel, Makhno’s units were hunted like rabid dogs, and many perished. Since the Bolsheviks had occupied Huliapole and they couldn’t return there, they wandered about Ukraine and tried to escape the Bolshevik chase. At the end of the summer of 1921, what was left of Makhno’s troops was surrounded on the Romanian border. 78 of them hid in a Romanian internment camp. In the spring of 1922, Makhno fled to Poland, where he was arrested. After incarceration and a trial, he managed to get to Germany, then to France. In his life abroad he was poor, but he did not live his life as senselessly as other emigrants. He participated in European anarchist activates and published articles. The Spanish revolutionaries invited him to lead their fight. Although he was pained by consumption and wounds of past battles, he helped where he could, giving advice to the rebels in Castile. In 1934, he died at the age of 45 in a Paris hospital. The cause of death was osseous tuberculosis.

Two years after Makhno’s death, the Spanish anarchists raised the black flag. It was the same story - the story of the human struggle for freedom. Which names inspired the Spanish rebels during the civil war against Franco’s army? And why do Latin American revolutionary romantics honor Makhno to this day on the walls of the Paris cemetery Pere Lachaise?

Golovanov writes: “What I have written is not the biography of Nestor Makhno. It is a book about the mysticism of history, about the thrownness of a romantic revolutionary who was prepared to sacrifice everything for the cause of the people. At first, this figure exerted deep attraction on me. Then I discovered that I was dealing with a murderer. I did not have to reconcile myself with this, for revolution is bloody and horrible, and good intentions have no place in them. Everyone who took a weapon into his hand in 1917/1918 and was intent on using it, was devoted to the good of their homeland in the name of humanity. The war shattered the fundaments of this pathos. The romantics turned out to be bloodthirsty wrongdoers, and Russian patriots betrayed their country. Good and evil were fused into an alloy which medieval alchemists could never have dreamed of. The decent into brutality has its own logic. It destroyed the empire. And then the revolution exterminated those who had destroyed the empire. Then further exterminators exterminated these exterminators. It often seems odd that after the huge detonation of revolution, the century long search for truth in Russia ended with the colossal lie of Bolshevism. Political banditry – a subliminal ‘non-parliamentary’ resistance of the farmer’s class against the dictatorial regime of Lenin’s party – in the final analysis gave the country the outlet of the New Economic Policy (NEP), and gave the Bolsheviks a chance which they didn’t use. The tragedy of the Bolsheviks was that they conquered everyone. And as in a fairy tale they paid for their victory with all living parts of the organism which gave rise to the revolution: first it was petrified to the knees, then to the breast, then to the pate of its head, and then finally the brain itself was petrified.”

Vasilii Golovanov’s book is one of the best studies of the phenomenon Makhno, combining sober factuality with a mastery of depiction, and tells the story of the Makhnovshchina, this strong revolutionary movement emerging from the people themselves with its profound influence on the outcome of the Civil War, with impressive thoroughness and in strict chronology The author collected material for ten years – memoirs of eyewitnesses, interviews with participants in the Civil War, a unique letter by Makhno’s wife Galina Kuzmenko, and others. In addition, Golovanov made use of sources from the Central Archive of the Soviet Army, countless articles from Soviet military newspapers of the 1920s, memoirs of White Army members, etc.

Golovanov has succeeded in depicting the events of that time in all of their horrible torment and contradictions with unusual clarity and the graphic power of film. This graphic quality gives one the impression of reading an extraordinarily moving novel.