The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 11: P. A. Kropotkin arrives in Russia. Meeting with Ekaterinoslav anarchists

Around this time we received news that P. A. Kropotkin was already in Petrograd. The local newspapers had written about this, but we, peasant-anarchists, not hearing his powerful appeal to anarchists and his detailed instructions about how the anarchists should begin to overcome the fragmentation in their own movement so we could take our rightful place in the Revolution, did not believe the newspapers. But now we received newspapers and letters directly from Petrograd indicating that P. A. Kropotkin had been taken ill on the journey from London to Russia but had safely arrived at the very heart of the revolution – Petrograd. We heard about how he had been greeted by the socialists in power, in particular by A. Kerensky.

The joy in the ranks of our group was indescribable. A general meeting of the group was called which was devoted exclusively to the subject What Does Our Old Friend Petr Alekseevich Have To Tell Us?

We all came to the same conclusion: Petr Alekseevich showed us the concrete way to organize our movement in the villages. With his sensitivity and his lively comprehension, he saw the absolute necessity for the villages to have the support of our revolutionary force. As a true apostle of anarchism, he recognized the importance of this unique moment in Russian history and, using his moral influence on the anarchists and their groups, he hastened to formulate in a practical way the guidelines of revolutionary anarchism which must inspire the anarchists in this Revolution.

I composed a letter of welcome in the name of the Gulyai-Pole Peasant Group of Anarcho-Communists and sent it, if I remember correctly, to Petr Alekseevich care of the editorial staff of the newspaper "Burevestnik".

In this letter we greeted Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin and congratulated him on his happy return to his country, expressing our belief that his country, in the person of its best people, has been waiting impatiently for the return of a tireless fighter for the highest concepts of justice, who could not help but influence the unfolding and realization of the Russian Revolution...

We signed: the Ukrainian Anarcho-Communist Group of the Village of Gulyai-Pole, Ekaterinoslav Province.

We didn’t expect an answer to our modest welcoming letter. But we waited impatiently for an answer to the burning question of the moment, without which we would be wasting our efforts for our goal might not be the same as the goal of other groups or it might be the same but we might be working towards it in a completely different way. It seemed to us that the downtrodden countryside posed this direction question: "How do we go about seizing the land and, without submitting to any authority, drive out the parasites who produce nothing and live a life of luxury at our expense?"

The response to this question had been given by Petr Alekseevich in his work "The Conquest of Bread". But the masses had not read this work, only a few individuals had read it, and now the masses no longer had time to read. What was necessary was that an energetic voice exposed to them in clear, simple language the essential points of "Conquest of Bread" to prevent them from sinking into a speculative inertia, and to show them directly the right path to take and furnish a guide for their actions. But who could provide this lively, strong, straight-forward voice?

Only an anarchist-propagandist and organizer!

But, placing my hand on my heart, I asked: were there ever in Russia or Ukraine schools of anarchist propaganda? I had never heard of any. But if there were, then where were the advanced militants who had graduated from them?

Twice I travelled through several raions and uyezds belonging administratively to the same province, and I did not run into one situation where, in answer to my questions: "Have you had here any anarchist animators?" they would answer: "There have been." Everywhere they answered: "We have never had any such. And we are very happy and grateful that you have not forgotten us.".

Where were the forces of our movement generally? In my view they were vegetating in the cities where they were often doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.

The arrival of Petr Alekseevich and his active participation in the Revolution (if his advanced age allowed such a thing) would hopefully give a strong push to our comrades in the cities. Otherwise the oppressed countryside would be enslaved by the political parties and, through them, by the power of the Provisional Government, and that would put an end to the subsequent development of the revolution.

My opinions drew support from those comrades who, working in the factories, had not travelled about the region and sampled the mood of the oppressed peasants directly. Those, on the other hand, who knew the villages, sharply criticized my thinking. They detected in it hesitation and doubt as to the revolutionary mood of the villages. "The villages," they said, "have well understood the intentions of the agents of the different socialist parties and the bourgeoisie who have been coming around to them on behalf of the Provisional Government and would never under any circumstances allow themselves to be duped by these agents."

Indeed there were signs of this mood in the villages, but in my view these signs were weak. At this critical moment in the Revolution, the peasants needed to feel that they had better support, especially for their revolutionary activists, so that they could bring about permanent change by getting rid of the existing privileged classes and not allowing new ones to take their place.

Two weeks went by. No news from Petrograd. We didn’t know how Petr Alekseevich viewed the role of our movement in the Revolution: Were we on the right track? Or was it correct to concentrate our forces in the cities, paying little or no attention to the oppressed peasantry?

* * *

During this period of expectation arrived the time of the Provincial Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Peasants’, Soldiers’, and Cossacks’ Deputies and the Peasants Unions. [August 5-7, 1918]

An assembly of the Peasants’ Union was held in Gulyai-Pole. We discussed the agenda of the Provincial Congress. We spent a lot of time discussing the re-organizing of the Peasants’ Unions into Peasants’ Soviets and finally decided to send delegates to the Provincial Congress. I was elected representative of the peasants, and Comrade Seregin was elected representative of the workers.

I was particularly happy to go to Ekaterinoslav where I hoped to make contact with the Anarchist Federation and discuss all the questions which were of interest to our Group (especially the question: why are there no anarchist agitators going from the city into the villages?).

I deliberately arrived at the Congress a day early. From the railway station I went directly to the Federation’s office. I found there the secretary – Comrade Molchansky, an old friend from Odessa. We knew each other in prison. With great joy we embraced each other.

I immediately pressured him: what were they doing in the cities? Why didn’t they send organizers around the whole province?

Comrade Molchansky, waving his hands excitedly, said: "Brother, we don’t have the forces. We’re weak. We’ve only just pulled together a group and we’ve hardly attended to the workers in the local factories and soldiers in the garrison. We hope that with time our strength will increase and then we can establish closer links with you and the villages and begin more energetic work in the countryside... ."

For a long time after this we sat quietly and looked at each other, each of us absorbed in thinking about the future of our movement in the revolution... . And then Comrade Molchansky began to reassure me, affirming that in the near future there would arrive in Elizavetgrad Rogdaev, Roshchin, Arshinov and a bunch of other comrades and the focus of our work would be shifted into the villages. Then he led me into the Federation’s club, which had earlier been known as the "English Club".

There I found many comrades. Some were arguing about the Revolution, others were reading, a third bunch were eating. In a word, I found an "anarchist" society which did not allow, as a matter of principle, any order, any authority, and which did not devote a moment to propagandize among the mass of toilers in the countryside who were in such dire need of this propaganda.

Then I asked myself: why did they requisition from the bourgeoisie such a large and well-appointed building? What use is it to them when, in this babbling crowd, there is no order even in the animated discussions with which they resolve the most important problems of the Revolution? Meanwhile the hall is not swept, in many places chairs are overturned, and the big table, covered with luxurious velvet, is scattered with lumps of bread, fish heads, and picked bones.

I observed all this with a heavy heart. At that moment into the club came Ivan Tarasyuk (actually Kabas), comrade Molchansky’s deputy. With anguish and indignation he yelled, at first quietly, then at full voice: "Whoever ate at this table, clean it up!"... . Then he began to straighten the chairs... .

Quickly everything was removed from the table and people set about sweeping the floor.

From the club I returned to the Federation office and picked out a bunch of brochures to take to Gulyai-Pole. I was intending to go to the office of the Congress to get a billet for the duration of the event when a young woman entered who turned out to be a comrade. She asked the comrades present to go with her to the Winter Theatre to back her up in a debate with the S-D "Nil" who was winning over a good number of workers. But the comrades present told her they were busy. Without another word she turned and left.

Comrade Molchansky asked me: "Do you know her? She is a fine, energetic comrade." I immediately left the office and overtook her. I proposed that we go together to the meeting but she answered: "If you will not speak, you will not be necessary to me there." I promised her I would speak.

Then she took me by the hand and we hurried to the Winter Theatre. This young and charming comrade told me along the way that she had become an anarchist three years earlier. It wasn’t easy for her. She had been reading Kropotkin and Bakunin for about two years. Now she felt that the works she read had helped to confirm her convictions. She had become an active proselytizer. Up until July she had spoken before worker audiences but had not dared to debate with the enemies of anarchism – the social democrats. In July at one of the open air meetings she debated "Nil". He had whipped her. "Now," she said, "I’m going to try as hard as I can to go up against 'Nil" again. He is the agitational superstar of the S-Ds."

Our conversation ended there.

At the meeting I spoke against the celebrated "Nil", using the pseudonym "Skromny" (my nickname in prison). I spoke badly although my comrades later assured me that I had been very good, just a little nervous.

As for my young and energetic comrade, she won over the whole hall with her pleasant but strong speaking voice: the auditorium was delighted with this voice and there was dead quiet when they listened to what she said, changing to stormy applause and thunderous cries: "Excellent, excellent, Comrade!

The comrade didn’t speak long, 43 minutes, but she stirred up the mass of listeners against the positions espoused by "Nil" so that when the latter tried to respond to all those who had spoken against him, the entire hall erupted against him: "That’s not true! Don’t make up false stories – the anarchists are telling the truth – you are telling lies!... ."

When we returned from the meeting, several comrades joined us. Our young comrade said to me: "You know, Comrade Skromny, this 'Nil" with his influence over the workers up to now has been driving me crazy. I have set myself the goal of destroying his influence, whatever the cost. There’s only one thing holding me back – my youth. The workers are more trusting of older comrades. I’m afraid that this will prevent me from fulfilling my duties to the workers... ."

I could only wish her further successes in her revolutionary anarchist work, and we separated after promising to meet the next day to speak about Gulyai-Pole about which she had heard good things.

This meeting caused me to arrive late at the office of the Congress and I was unable to obtain a hotel room. So I spent the night in Comrade Seregin’s room.

I devoted the whole next day to the Congress and could not find a moment to meet with the young comrade as I had promised her. The second day of the Congress I was occupied the whole time at the Land Commission. Here I met with the Left S-R Schneider, sent to the Provincial Congress from the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Workers’, Peasants’ & Cossacks’ Deputies and elected to the Land Commission of the Congress. The Commission unanimously passed a resolution about socializing the land and passed this resolution on to the presidium of the Congress. After this the Commission asked Comrade Schneider to make a report about what was happening in Petrograd.

He made only a brief summary as time was lacking, he said, and asked us to support the resolution about re-organizing the Peasants’ Unions into Soviets. This re-organization was, subsequently, approved by the Congress. This was the only question on the agenda at the Congress which had not been considered at the meeting in Gulyai-Pole.

On our return from the Congress, and after a series of reports, the Peasants’ Union of Gulyai-Pole was transformed into a Soviet of peasants; its principles were not modified nor were its methods of struggle which it was intensively preparing the peasants to use in its upcoming struggles. It appealed to the workers to drive out the owners of the factories and plants and to liquidate their right of private ownership of social enterprises.

During this time, while we were busy with the formal transformation of Union into Soviet, in Moscow on August 14 opened the All-Russian Democratic Conference and on its tribune appeared our esteemed, dear elder – Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin.

Our Anarchist Communist Group of Gulyai-Pole was dumbfounded by this news, although we appreciated very well that it was difficult for our old friend, after so many years of work and being shunted about foreign lands, preoccupied in his old age with humanitarian ideas, to return to Russia and refuse his assistance to this Democratic Conference. But all such considerations had to take a back seat to the tragic crisis in the Revolution which immediately followed this Conference.

We condemned our old friend for taking part in the Conference. We naively imagined that the former apostle of anarchism had transformed himself into a sentimental old man searching for peace and quiet and the strength for applying his knowledge to life one last time. But this blame we kept inside our group, and our enemies were not aware of it, because deep down Kropotkin remained for us the greatest and strongest theoretician of the anarchist movement. We knew that if he were not so advanced in years, he would have put himself at the head of the Russian Revolution and would have been the uncontested chief of anarchism.

Whether we were right or not, we never discussed with our political enemies the question of the participation of Kropotkin in the All-Russian Democratic Conference of Moscow... .

Thus with a sinking feeling we listened to what Petr Alekseevich said. We didn’t lose faith that he remained always dear and close to us, but the revolutionary moment called us in a different direction. For a number of reasons of purely artificial character, the Revolution showed signs of reaching an impasse. On it was fitted a noose by all the political parties participating in the Provisional Government. And all these parties were gradually becoming more entrenched in power and becoming in themselves a threatening counter-revolutionary force.


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