The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 12: Kornilov's march on Petrograd

Around August 20 1917 our group reviewed the distribution and utilization of our forces. This meeting was the most serious one we had held. I have already mentioned that our group did not have in its ranks a single theoretically-trained anarchist. We were all peasants and workers. Our schools turned out half-educated people. Schools of anarchism did not exist. Our fund of knowledge of revolutionary anarchism was obtained reading anarchist literature for many years and exchanging views with each other and with the peasants, with whom we shared all that we had read and understood in the works of Kropotkin and Bakunin. We owe thanks to Comrade Vladimir Antoni (known as Zarathustra) for supplying us with literature.

In the course of this very important meeting we discussed a number of burning questions and came to the conclusion that the Revolution was having the life choked out of it by the garrotte of the State. It was turning pale, weakening, but could still emerge victorious in the supreme struggle. Help would come to it principally from the revolutionary peasant masses who would remove the garrotte and get rid of this plague the Provisional Government and its satellite parties. Drawing some conclusions from our analysis for practical activity we formulated a series of positions, namely:

The Russian Revolution has, from the beginning, posed a clear choice to the Russian and Ukrainian anarchist groups, a choice which imperiously demands a decision on our part. Either we go to the masses and dissolve ourselves in them, creating from them revolutionary cadres, and make the Revolution; or we renounce our slogan about the necessity of social transformation, the necessity of carrying through to the end the workers' struggle with the powers of Capital and the State.

To remain as before, restricted to isolated group activities, limited to publishing pamphlets, journals, and newspapers and holding meetings was impossible. At this time of decisive events, the anarchists risked finding themselves completely isolated from the masses, or dragging along behind them.

Anarchism, by its very essence, cannot accept such a role. Only a lack of understanding and enthusiasm on the part of its adherents the anarchist groups and federations created the possibility of dragging it down the wrong path.

Every militant group, the revolutionary anarchists in particular, must try to draw the labour masses to its side at the moment of insurrection or revolution. At the moment when they begin to show confidence in the group, it must, without being carried away, follow the broken path of unfolding events (a path which may be revolutionary but not anarchist) and seize the right moment to draw the labouring masses in the right direction.

This is an old method, but one not experienced by our movement in practice, and one which will not be experienced until such time as we master certain organizational principles and create our own organization. A serious movement requires strategic planning. A movement without a definite organization of forces is a bunch of uncoordinated groups, frequently ignorant of each other and even taking conflicting actions in relation to their political enemies. Such a movement could, certainly, be created at the revolutionary moment, but it would be impossible to infuse it with a lasting existence, to give it a credo which could guide the revolting masses towards genuine liberation from their economic, political, and moral chains. There would just be a useless loss of human lives, sacrificed in a struggle both necessary and just in its goals, but unequal.

After having observed for seven months the anarchist movement in the cities, our group could no longer ignore the very numerous militants who failed to recognize their role and were stifling the movement, preventing it from liberating itself from the traditional forms of disorganization and transforming itself from grouplets into a mass movement. That is why our Group threw itself with renewed energy into the study of problems not yet solved by the anarchist movement, for example: the problem of coordinating the activities of different groups as events unfolded. None of the federations which sprang up after the February Revolution had formulated an answer although they all published their resolutions and indicated their view of the way forward.

That's why, after having feverishly searched for a guiding rule in the works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta, we arrived at the conclusion that our group of anarchist-communist peasants of Gulyai-Pole could neither imitate the anarchist movement of the cities, nor could we listen to its voice. We could count on no one but ourselves at this critical moment in the Revolution. It was up to us to help the downtrodden peasants realize that they must create the Revolution themselves in the villages, that it is up to them to determine the character and the course of the Revolution. We must not let their faith in themselves be shaken by the political parties and the government which have done nothing to create the revolutionary movement in the villages.

And the group dispersed among the downtrodden toilers of the countryside, leaving only an information office; by word and action the Group helped the toilers get their bearings at that moment in the Revolution and inspired them to a great intensity in their struggle.

In a very short time after adopting our decision, as we began already to notice the fruits of our organizational activity in the raion, we became convinced that we had been correct in our perception of stagnation in the Revolution and the critical situation full of mortal menace. The Revolution found itself definitely in the noose which the statists needed only to tighten in order to strangle it.

The introduction of the death penalty at the Front was direct evidence that revolutionary soldiers must die on the external Front, while the counter-revolutionaries could continue their work at the very heart of the Revolution. Revolutionary military units, which were fraternizing with workers in the cities and with peasants in the villages, were beginning to see themselves as slaves of militarism and were thinking of using the tools provided them cannons and machine guns against their real enemies. Now those units with a revolutionary attitude were being ordered to the Front, as being too dangerous to the growing forces of the counter-revolution.

Seeing all this and recognizing how the way was being prepared for strengthening the power of the bourgeoisie, already recovering from its original defeat by the Revolution and ready to get its revenge, we were still more strongly convinced that our method of helping the toilers to correctly orient themselves at this critical moment was the true method. However, it was imperative to complete the process and issue clear directives.

What had we accomplished with our actions?

We had ensured that from the end of August the peasants had completely understood us and would not allow their ranks to be splintered into various political groupings, thereby dissipating their power so that they were incapable of achieving what was strong and durable in the Revolution.

The better the peasants understood us, the more strongly they believed in themselves and in their direct role in the Revolution. Their role was, firstly, to abolish private ownership of land and to proclaim it social property; and secondly, with the help of the urban proletariat, to abolish any possibility of new privileges.

And thus we arrived at those days when our gloom and doom about this anxious moment in the Revolution received its full justification. We received news from the Provisional Government itself and from the Petrograd Soviet of Workers', Peasants', Soldiers' and Cossacks' Deputies that the commander-in-chief of the external Front, General Kornilov, had withdrawn from the Front a division of soldiers loyal to him and was advancing on Petrograd to liquidate the Revolution and its conquests.

That was on August 29, 1917. An anarchist from Aleksandrovsk, M. Nikiforova, had arrived and organized a meeting which I chaired. While she was speaking, a courier delivered a packet in which I read the news about Kornilov's advance. I broke into her speech and made a brief statement about the bloody repression which was threatening the revolution. Then I read two telegrams from the Government and from the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers', Peasants', Soldiers', and Cossacks' Deputies.

This news produced a painful impression on the peasants and workers present. They tried to contain their emotions, but someone cried out from the crowd: "The brothers' blood is already flowing, but here the counter-revolutionaries are walk around freely, laughing at us!" He pointed at the former Gulyai-Pole political cop Citizen Ivanov. Comrade Nikiforova jumped down from the tribune and arrested him while the crowd hurled abuse at him.

But I also jumped down and went to Nikiforova and Ivanov, already surrounded by a bunch of comrades from our Group and the Peasants' Soviet and insisted that the constable be released. I told him to relax, that no one was going to touch him. Then I made my way back to the tribune and told the peasants and workers that our struggle in defence of the Revolution should begin not with the murder of a former policeman like Ivanov, who had turned himself in without resistance in the first days of the Revolution and had not gone into hiding.

"All we should do with the likes of him is keep an eye on him. Our struggle must find expression in a more serious way: what exactly I'm not going to say right now because we need to have an emergency meeting of the Peasants' Soviet together with workers from the Anarchist Communist Group; but afterwards I promise to come back and explain my ideas."

All the members of the Soviet had gathered. When I arrived the meeting was started. I read the dispatches and next presented my report on what we needed to do and how we were going to do it. The dispatch from the Petrograd Soviet suggested the formation of local "Committees for the Salvation of the Revolution".

The meeting assigned members to this Committee from its own ranks, expressing the wish that it call itself the "Committee for the Defence of the Revolution" and entrusted me to direct its work.

We, the members of this hastily knocked together organization, got together and decided to begin disarming all the bourgeois in the region and liquidating their rights to the wealth of the people: on the land, in the factories and plants, in the printshops, theatres, circuses, cinemas and other public enterprises.

We considered that this was the only sure way to liquidate both General Kornilov's movement and the rights of the bourgeoisie to dominance over the toiling masses.

During the time that I was at the meeting of the Soviet, and then the meeting of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (all this took about five hours), the mass of toilers was still awaiting my return to finish my speech on how to defend the Revolution.

When, finally, I arrived back, all the members of the Soviet, the members of the Group of Anarcho-Communists, and some members of the Trade Union were parading up and down the street with rifles and shotguns on their shoulders. Gulyai-Pole had been transformed into an armed revolutionary camp.

I went through the gate into the public garden and made my way to the square where the tribune was situated. The peasants and workers had broken up into groups dispersed throughout the garden and were animatedly exchanging opinions about the disturbing news. They gathered around me rapidly, saying: "Well! Are you finally free? Are you going to finish what you were starting to tell us? The bad telegrams prevented you!"

I climbed up on the tribune exhausted, because I had been travelling all over the raion in the preceding days, promising myself that I would only have one meeting on Sunday and then I could rest. But the disquieting telegrams, which the peasants called "bad", did not allow me any time to rest.

Finishing my thought about the defence of the Revolution, I clarified that no one except they themselves could defend and further develop it. The Revolution is their business and they must be its bold propagators and its real defenders.

I next told them what had been decided at the assembly, that a Committee of the Defence of the Revolution had been formed which was destined to combat not only the movement of General Kornilov but also the Provisional Government and all the socialist parties which shared its ideas. I added that this Committee would become effective only when everyone, no matter who, adopted it as their own. As we group ourselves around this Committee, I said, we will sustain it not just with words but with actions.

I presented in shortened form to the large audience the program of action of this Committee.

From the crowd were heard cries of "Long Live the Revolution!" And these were cries not of activists used to carrying on in this way at political meetings, but truly spontaneous cries coming from the depths of the soul of the people.

"What now, Comrade Nestor," sounded several voices, "should we prepare to go fight at the side of the city workers?"

I explained to them a point from the program of action of the Committee in which it was said that the peasants by "sotnias", and the workers by factories and workshops, must discuss our resolution and tomorrow (August 30) send us their delegates with their final decision.

With this ended August 29, 1917. It was a depressing day because of the news about General Kornilov's movement. But then it pushed the masses to take the initiative and engage in revolutionary self-activity. And wherever among the workers were found revolutionaries who understood the tasks at hand, there the theoretical side of events was discussed and a plan of action formulated to guide the masses in their direct struggle.

On the next day early in the morning I walked to Cathedral Square in Gulyai-Pole. Groups of workers from the plants and peasants from the sotnias were marching along the street under black and red banners and singing as they proceeded to the building of the Soviet of Peasants' and Workers' Deputies, in which was located the "Committee for the Defence of the Revolution". I sprinted through the courtyard of the building and then into the front yard of the Soviet in order to meet the demonstrators. When they spotted me they broke into a thunderous shout: "Long Live the Revolution! Long Live Its True Son, and Our Friend, Comrade Makhno!"

These shouts were flattering for me, but I felt I didn't deserve them from the toilers. I stopped these enthusiastic shouts and asked them to listen to me. But the crowd picked me up and carried me on their hands, crying "Long Live the Revolution! Long Live Comrade Makhno!"

Finally, I prevailed upon the demonstrators to listen to me and when they had quieted down I asked them in honour of what they had come to the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution?

"We have come to put ourselves at the disposition of the Committee," was the response, "and we are not alone."

"You mean there's still life in the old dog?!"

"Yes, yes, and again yes!" cried the demonstrators.

I began to feel dizzy, I almost wept with joy because of the great spirit of the Ukrainian peasants and workers. Before me was embodied the peasant will for freedom and independence, which only the Ukrainian spirit can so quickly and strongly display in such breadth and depth.
My first words to the demonstrators were: "Listen, comrades, if you have come to put yourselves at the disposal of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, then I propose that you divide yourselves up into groups of 10 or 15, with 5 to a wagon, and don't lose any time cover the whole Gulyai-Pole raion and visit the pomeshchiks' estates, the kulak khutors, and the rich German colonies and confiscate from the bourgeoisie all the fire-arms you can find: rifles, muskets, shot-guns, even swords. But do not harm in any way, either by word or gesture, the bourgeoisie themselves... . With revolutionary honour and courage we must do this in the interests of the Revolution. For the leaders of the bourgeoisie, taking advantage of the negligence of the revolutionaries, have organized their forces under the protection of the Provisional Government and have already taken up arms against the Revolution.

"As the representative of the Soviet of Peasants' and Workers' Deputies of the raion, the Anarchist Communist Group, and the Soviet of the Trade Union, I am authorized to direct our revolutionary movement on an interim basis, while at the same time remaining the chief commissar of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. As such I consider it appropriate to say to all the comrades setting out to disarm the bourgeoisie that they must not get carried away and be involved in pillaging. Pillaging is not a revolutionary act, and so long as I am at the head our movement any delinquent parties will find themselves before the Tribunal of the Revolutionary General Assembly of Peasants and Workers of Gulyai-Pole.

"In the course of two or three days we must disarm the bourgeoisie and turn in all weapons to the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution for distribution to the real defenders of the Revolution. So don't waste time, break up into groups, be sure to take a certificate from the Committee verifying your official role in confiscating the arms we need from the bourgeoisie. Go!"

When the peasants realize that something has to be done, they quickly get it done. As soon as I mentioned to the demonstrators that they should split up into groups, with five to a wagon, immediately people went to fetch conveyances from their homes, and about 30-40 wagons had already arrived and were assembled on Cathedral Square awaiting passengers.

As for the certificates, they had been prepared the night before by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. It remained only to inscribe the names of the bearers and add the signature of the Chief Commissar. And the latter was prepared to sign these certificates even standing in the middle of the street. That's what happened I stood next to the wagons and signed the certificates of peasants and workers who were setting out to disarm the bourgeoisie.

When everything was ready, and everyone had taken their place on the wagons, I spoke a few words about the present critical moment for the Revolution, about the importance of simultaneous and decisive actions on the part of the toilers on the local level. And here in Gulyai-Pole the peasants and workers were setting an example by their action against the bourgeoisie, an example which was being emulated by several neighbouring regions. The wagons then set out to cover the raion.

Another group of peasants and workers proceeded to confiscate weapons in Gulyai-Pole itself from the bourgeoisie and from officers who had arrived here from the Front.

The Committee for the Defence of the Revolution together with the Soviet of Peasants' and Workers' Deputies held a special meeting at which it was decided to convene in short order an extraordinary raion Congress of Soviets, with the participation of the Anarchist Communist Group and the Soviet of the Union of Metal and Carpentry Workers of Gulyai-Pole.

It was also decided at this impromptu meeting to strengthen links with the Anarchist Communist Group in order to take joint action, before the Congress of Soviets, to withdraw from the "Public Committees" in the raion the right to make binding decisions of a social character.

This collaborative work of the three revolutionary entities allowed our group to further develop its activity among the oppressed toilers of the villages and to get them used to the idea of a free, libertarian society.

The toilers of the Gulyai-Pole raion, without worrying about any repercussions on the part of the central authorities, acted to limit the power of all the Public Committees of the coalition government of socialists with the bourgeoisie. These Committees, the principal function of which had consisted of issuing ordinances and decrees telling people what they could or couldn't do without permission from the government, and what they could or couldn't think without authorization by the future Constituent Assembly. Now they were limited in their rights to the point that they were transformed from legislative bodies into consultative bodies. They were deprived of the right to decide in a definitive way any question of public interest no matter what, without having it approved by a public assembly.

Such an attitude on the part of the toilers towards "rights" and towards the authority of their oppressors and enemies of the Revolution, enemies of everything healthy and creative in it, raised a terrible stir in the ranks of the ruling stratum. The zealous supporters of the idea of coalition with the bourgeoisie against the Revolution began to sound the alarm. However, in spite of the fury and rage they displayed at meetings of the Communal Committees and other local meetings, and in spite of all the actions taken by them with the help of the central authorities to undermine the position taken by the toilers of Gulyai-Pole raion towards them and the power of their government, and in spite of, finally, all the foul tales spread everywhere, either orally or in print, attacking the toilers of the raion in general and the Anarchist Communist Group in particular, all their efforts came to nought.

The real actions of the authorities in general, including the authorities who called themselves revolutionary, collided with the real demands of the Revolution. These actions stalled the course of the Revolution and encouraged the growth of the Counter-Revolution, which, in the repulsive form of the Kornilov movement, starkly confronted the toiling masses.

The toilers of Gulyai-Pole raion, having observed these facts during long months, now recognized that only the anarchist conception of the Revolution was capable of saving the Revolution and carrying it through to fulfilment. That's why, every time the uyezd Public Committee and the uyezd Government Commissar requested from Gulyai-Pole weekly reports about the development of revolutionary-social life in the raion, and also the remittance of taxes to be used to spread the propaganda of the Provisional Government, they received the answer that through the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution the whole bourgeois element in the raion had been disarmed and all rights to private property in land, factories, workshops, and other enterprises of the raion had been declared null and void. "Everything must belong to everyone, and not to some clique of idle parasites"... (from the Minutes No. 3, Book 2, Committee for the Defence of the Revolution in Gulyai-Pole, 1917).


On to Chapter 13 Struggle with the Counter-Revolution. Going to the villages

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

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