The Russian Revolution in Ukraine
Chapter 21: Armed peasantry go to the aid of the city workers; the Aleksandrovsk Revkom and the Commission of Inquiry
On January 3, 1918, the Red Guard Commander Bogdanov addressed an appeal for help to the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole.
During the night of January 4, our group issued an appeal to the peasants and workers, inviting them to take up arms. On the same night I handed over my chairmanship in the Soviet to a comrade, and placed myself at the head of the anarchist detachment, composed of several hundred peasants. Fully armed, we set out for Aleksandrovsk.
I recall that just before leaving Gulyai-Pole our detachment, at my insistence, elected its own commander. I refused the position because I foresaw that in Aleksandrovsk my presence might be required away from the detachment arranging liaison between the city and the village. The detachment then elected as commander my brother, Savva Makhno.
A crowd of people gathered alongside the detachment. As we were leaving, the old men said to their sons who were in our ranks:
"You are going to your deaths. And we accept that. We will find the strength to take up your weapons and fight for your ideas, ideas which were unknown to us not so long ago but which we now accept. We will defend them to the death, if necessary. Don't forget that, dear sons!"
And the sons replied:
"Thanks to you for having raised us. Now we are grown up and able to assert in life the ideas of freedom, equality, and solidarity. We would be happy to see our fathers fighting for these great ideals. But for the time being, follow our actions from a distance and, if we fail in the struggle against the enemies of the Revolution, you will defeat them here – and defeat them forever."
Our farewells were touching.
Each of us knew where we were going and why. As soon as we were seated in the carts carrying us to the train station, we burst into revolutionary songs. Happy smiles lit up the faces of these young revolutionary peasants, the people whom Marx and followers regarded as beasts of burden fit only for obeying orders. Now here they were, conscious of themselves and aware of their duty to the Revolution, hurrying to help the urban workers. For decades the socialists of all stripes had considered urban workers as their own cadre through which they would seize power and begin to rule over others.
These peasants, knowing the danger they faced, did not hesitate to hasten to the city. They weren't the kind of revolutionaries who like to take part in parades and whose radicalism is purely verbal – no! They were true working class militants, devoted to the anarchist ideal. They might make mistakes, but their mistakes were honest ones and happened only because they were making an effort to put their anti-authoritarian ideals into practice.
There were between 800 and 900 of them – and more than 300 were members of the Anarchist Communist Group. They went to the city knowing that the urban workers were their brothers, were just as hostile as they to the domination of some by others, that they became upholders of authority only when, uprooted from their class, they fell under the sway of politicians.
As they left Gulyai-Pole, the peasants knew that the happiness and freedom of the toilers of town and country depended on the going forward of a truly social Revolution, and so they hastened to the aid of the city which was being besieged by the enemies of social revolution, in fact, of Revolution in general.
Our detachment arrived in Aleksandrovsk without incident. The city was quiet. The Red Guards were ensconced in their trains, only a few patrols roamed the streets.
By contrast the Aleksandrovsk authorities were
engaged in feverish activity. The Revkom, composed of Bolsheviks and Left SRs,
had at first tried to regulate the life of the workers. But they did not
succeed: the Federation of Anarchists stood in the way, keeping the workers up
to date about the doings of the newly-elected municipal authorities. Then the
Revkom decided to confine itself to setting up a united front against the
Counter-Revolution. With this in mind they proposed that the Aleksandrovsk
Federation of Anarchists send two delegates to the Revkom.
The Federation appointed comrades M. Nikiforova and Yasha. M. Nikiforova was immediately elected deputy chair of the Revkom.
On the same day the Revkom asked our detachment to appoint our own representative. After consulting with the Aleksandrovsk anarchists who had always supported us, the detachment appointed me to represent the detachment at the Revkom. Joining the Revkom was a necessity of the moment. Refusing to take part in the Revkom would, we believed, have a negative effect on any future ideological struggle with the Left Bloc.
Upon our arrival in Aleksandrovsk, we protested against the continued detention of political prisoners: "Why have the prisons not been emptied?" Numerous peasants and workers had been incarcerated for refusing to recognize the regimes of Kerensky and the Central Rada. One of the Bolsheviks explained to us that they had not been freed because it was thought they would also rebel against the power of the Left Bloc.
After consulting with the workers who had tipped us off about these prisoners who were languishing in the crowbar hotel, we decided to send a representative immediately to the Revkom to demand their release. If the Revkom refused, we planned to force open the gates of the prison, free the prisoners, and burn down the prison.
Our detachment delegated me to go to the Revkom about this. The Revkom empowered me, the Left-SR Mirgorodsky, the SR Mikhailovsky, and some others to liberate the prison. We went there, had a look around, and listened to the grievances of the prisoners. Then we went to the prison office, exchanged opinions, and left. Our delegation was incomplete – the most important figure was missing. That was the Bolshevik Lepik who, behind the scenes, had just been appointed to be in charge of the Cheka; this was concealed from us at the time.
For me personally, having been incarcerated twice in that prison and knowing how dirty and uncomfortable it was, it was painful to leave without freeing anybody. But I limited myself only to expressing some criticisms of Lepik and, together with Comrade Mirgorodsky, got in a cab and returned to the Revkom.
After supper we all got together and decided to forge ahead. The prison was emptied.
Still acting as agents empowered by the Revkom, I and the Left-SR Mirgorodsky were then delegated to the Front-line Military-Revolutionary Commission at the Red Guard unit of Bogdanov. This was the first armed group from the north which had entered Ukraine under the pretext of "helping the Ukrainian workers and peasants in their struggle against the counter-revolutionary Central Rada."
I was elected Chair of the Commission by the Red Guards from Petrograd (Vyborg district), and Comrade Mirgorodsky was elected Secretary. The Commission had seven members. We were brought a stack of files from the Commander's office, dossiers on the prisoners incarcerated in the railway wagons of the Stolypin-type which were coupled to the troop train.
We were asked to examine the dossiers and give our conclusions. But Comrade Mirgorodsky and I protested against such a procedure. We insisted that we could in all conscience examine the paper work only in the presence of the accused against whom this paper work had been put together. Then we could ask the accused to explain to us who he was, under what circumstances he was arrested, where, etc. (Our fellow members on the Commission, Petrograders, agreed with our reasoning but, as subordinates of the Commander, were unable to protest with us.)
The Commander was indignant at our behaviour but felt unable to ask the Aleksandrovsk Revkom to replace us with different people for moral, political, and strategic considerations. Indeed the Revkom was unlikely to agree and a whole storm would be raised against him, a storm which he and his Red Guards might not survive.
Consequently we were granted unlimited powers to summon each prisoner, ask them questions, read out the written evidence against them, and listen to their explanations and refutations of all these documents.
This Commission, which one could call a Military-Revolutionary Frontline Tribunal (and so it was considered by Bogadanov), kept me busy for three days. I worked feverishly, without taking time to eat or sleep.
There were a lot of prisoners. They were locked up in old tsarist, Stolypin-type wagons. Here were generals, colonels, and other ranks of officers. There were chiefs of police, public prosecutors, and simple soldiers from haidamak units. There was this in common about them: all, or almost all, were sworn enemies not just of the October Revolution but of Revolution in general. Thus they knew what they were doing when they acted against it.
Nevertheless the majority of them were not guilty of
the crime of which they were accused. Most of them were arrested in their own
apartments, without weapons, even, one can say confidently, without a thought of
taking up arms and fighting against the Revolution. They were arrested because
of the denunciations of evil people. I mean people who, in order to conceal
their own dirty past record vis-à-vis the revolutionaries, had become even more
odious by reversing themselves and hypocritically supporting the Revolution.
These people denounced those who, due to their own social situation, were
formerly outside the revolutionary movement but yet did not hinder its
development. These vile people fabricated accusations in order to save
themselves and contrived to find enemies of the Revolution in all ranks of the
But to the commanders of Red Guard detachments these informers were welcome since their denunciations of "enemies of the Revolution" assisted in cleansing the rear areas of enemies.
In this way were combined, in the course of the
Revolution, the meanness of some with the self-sacrifice of others, and this
because those with full powers in the struggle against the enemies of the
Revolution were unable to discern the duplicity of their self-appointed
Under my chairmanship, the Commission examined over 200 dossiers and gave its opinion on each of them. There were many cases in which the persons involved were recognized by the Commission as being active enemies of the Revolution. The Commission remanded their files to the headquarters of Commander Bogadanov who forwarded them to the headquarters of Antonov-Ovseyenko. (This meant, in the Bolshevik-Left SR jargon of the day, that the accused would be shot.)
Among the detainees interrogated by the Commission, almost all of those who were acknowledged as guilty showed themselves to be weak and cowardly. Facing imminent death, they had recourse to the most shameful means to try to save their skin. We saw generals weeping. On the other hand there were colonels who regretted falling into the hands of the revolutionaries because they were convinced they could have organized a sizeable force of volunteers to help General Kaledin restore the Romanov dynasty. And as they were led out of the salon carriage where the Commission was sitting, they cried out: "Long Live the House of Romanov! Long Live Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich, Master of All Russia! May He Crush the Revolution!"
Mind you there were only two such colonels who remained true to their aristocratic-monarchist principles.
Among the many accused released after the review of their case by the Commission, I especially remember the commander of the Aleksandrovsk Military District. He was arrested for having followed orders from higher up to mobilize young recruits during the short-lived triumph of the Ukrainian Central Rada. There was no other evidence proving him to be an enemy of the Revolution. However, the Commission was divided on the question of releasing him. Four members of the Commission saw him as a convinced, active counter-revolutionary and insisted that the Commission accept their opinion and record the result in writing. Three members were against. It was clear that the district commander would be shot. A storm broke out among us. Comrade Mirgorodsky suggested to me that we quit the Commission and go back to the Revkom: perhaps the Revkom would delegate someone else in our place. The Petrograders started laughing at us, saying we were not conducting ourselves as revolutionaries. So Comrade Mirgorodsky and I explained to them how to act like revolutionaries. And then three of them changed their opinion that the district commander was so guilty against the Revolution that he must die. And the commander was freed.
While we were studying the dossiers, the Red Guards led in some newly arrested persons: Mikhno (the government commissar from the Kerensky period – the very same Mikhno who had threatened me with legal action four or five months previously for disarming the bourgeoisie in Gulyai-Pole raion), the uyezd chief of police Vasilyev, the public prosecutor Maksimov, and Peter Sharovsky. The latter had been a member of the Gulyai-Pole A-K Group and on May 1, 1910, betrayed our comrades Aleksandr Semenyuta and Marfa Piven, receiving for this vile deed 500 rubles of the 2,000 promised by the State for giving up A. Semenyuta. It was very painful for me to meet this old "comrade". On seeing me, he fell to his knees, raised his hands, and uttered: "Nestor Ivanovich, save me. My betrayal was unintentional. I talked too much to an undercover cop", etc.
Maybe I would have believed him, if not for information received from close friends while I was serving time at forced labour in Moscow. Furthermore, after my return to Gulyai-Pole, this information was confirmed by Marfa Piven who was present when A. Semenyuta was killed. She had been struck by a bullet in the forehead but fortunately survived. Sharovsky's own brothers, Prokofii and Grigorii, had helped me in 1917 establish his role as a provocateur. One of them had even helped our comrade "Yaponetz" try to assassinate Peter Sharovsky soon after Semenyuta's death. Peter took two bullets but unfortunately was not killed. He himself showed that he was guilty. After recovering from his wounds, he bricked up all the lower windows in his house; and upon my return from prison he disappeared completely.
Then in Aleksandrovsk I spotted him going around from one group of workers to another with a tin cup in his hand. When I tried to grab him, he escaped.
I made use of my influence with the Red Guard commander Bogdanov to insist that the revolutionary authorities in Aleksandrovsk make the capture of Peter Sharovsky a priority. Bogdanov, without hesitation, dispatched two group of Red Guards to the square where I had seen Sharovsky, and they arrested him.
On January 6, 1918, I made a detailed report to the Commission (of which I was the chair) about who Peter Sharovsky was, and who A. Semenyuta was, and how Semenyuta had been betrayed by Sharovsky and how much reward Sharovsky received for his betrayal. In presenting my report I advised my listeners that I was not speaking to them as members of the Commission, but as Socialist-Revolutionaries and Bolsheviks who were to witness that Peter Sharovsky would not be killed unjustly. The Petrograd Bolsheviks on the Commission proposed handing over Sharovsky to Commander Bogdanov, but Mirgorodsky and I didn't agree with this and requested only that the Commander put Sharovsky in a holding cell until I was freed from pressing business. Then comrades from our Gulyai-Pole group arrived: Filipp Krat, Savva Makhno, Pavel Korostelyev, as well as some members of the Aleksandrovsk anarchist group. We repeatedly interrogated Sharovsky and then one of the comrades put a bullet in his head.
Another painful encounter was with the former commissar Mikhno. I had a gut feeling that it would be hard to establish his guilt before the revolutionary peasants and workers. He had ordered my indictment during his stint as Commissar of the Provisional Government for revolutionary actions carried out by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution in Gulyai-Pole raion. He demanded the Gulyai-Pole Public Committee exclude me from any organizing activities. But when I wrote him a letter of protest in the name of the Gulyai-Pole raion Peasants' Congress and insisted that he withdraw his demand, he did indeed withdraw it. I felt that in determining his guilt I would be prejudiced and that this would lead to his doom; and yet, he compared favourably with many of the zemstvo leaders of Aleksandrovsk uyezd – he was known as an honest man and a liberal still in tsarist times. Moreover I was persuaded that he shouldn't be destroyed just for carrying out his obligations as a government commissar of the Provisional Government, even if he was from a hostile camp. Our raion never followed his orders, always rejecting them, and he was powerless to impose them on us so long as the toilers had the upper hand.
Our Commission questioned him closely about all his actions, reminded him of his campaign against me and the "Committee for the Defence of the Revolution" in Gulyai-Pole, and then released him.
Quite different were the cases of the prosecutor Maksimov and the uyezd chief of police Vasilyev. Both these characters, one a representative of the tsarist justice system, the other of the Provisional Government's police institutions, were regarded by the Commission, on the basis of a range of documents, as active enemies of the worker-peasant revolution. Both of them were, by the decision of the Commission, remanded to Bogdanov's headquarters. The Commission informed the Aleksandrovsk Revkom about this decision. The Revkom was headed at that time by the Bolshevik Mikhailevich, the anarchist Maria Nikiforova, and several other revolutionaries well-known and influential in proletarian circles in the city. Hastily organized, the Revkom's hold on power was shaky which was why they tried to suck up to such members of the bourgeoisie who had not fled the city and who were lobbying behind the scenes to save Maksimov and Vasilyev. The chair of the Revkom, Comrade Mikhailevich, along with most of the other members of the Committee, hurried to the Commission, still sitting in Bogdanov's staff railway wagon at the southside railway station. They protested our decision in the matter of the prosecutor and the chief of police. Maria Nikiforova also showed up to support them along with several Bolsheviks from the Revkom and a delegation of Right SRs.
Our Commission was furious. According to documents presented to us by Bogdanov's headquarters, documents which had been gathered by intransigent Bolsheviks, Maksimov, in tsarist times and continuing under the coalition of the SRs and SDs with the bourgeoisie, had always been an implacable enemy of the toilers and their aspirations for liberty. His guilt before the revolutionary workers and peasants was manifest. He had organized among the bourgeoisie in Aleksandrovsk a committee of action against the Revolution. But he was able and energetic and the Bolsheviks, as became clear later, wanted to recruit him and indeed eventually they did.
When the Red Guards were attacking Aleksandrovsk, Vasilyev mounted a machine gun on the roof of one of the buildings and helped the haidamaks repulse the attack. He killed or wounded many of the Red Guards. Moreover, when he was chief of police of the city and its district, people arrested were always beaten. According to documents collected by the Bolsheviks, he was aware of and approved of these beatings.
Based on all this, the Commission declared Maksimov and Vasilyev enemies of the Revolution and the people. Accordingly they were remanded to the Bogdanov's headquarters where the commander could either have them shot or release them because the decisions of the Commission were not binding on him. Nevertheless, he generally followed our decisions, immediately releasing those we had found innocent and shooting the guilty ones.
After taking notice of the protest of the Revkom and receiving the delegation of the SRs, the Commission asked Bogdanov's headquarters to cancel our verdict and consider the cases of Maksimov and Vasilyev still before the Commission as we had received new information about them.
I, along with Comrade Mirgorodsky, tracked down Bogdanov and secured his promise that the lives of Makismov and Vasilyev would be guaranteed until the conflict between the Commission and the Revkom on this matter was resolved.
I informed the SR delegation about this, and we began to wrangle with the members of the Revkom. Mikhailevich and Maria Nikiforova invited Commander Bogdanov to take part in our discussion. Bogdanov came and made it clear that he supported the decision of the Commission. The discussion was heated. The Commission sent a written copy of a resolution to Bogdanov's staff requesting that the prosecutor and the police chief be held in a special wagon under strict guard until notified by the Commission.
The discussion lasted six of seven hours. The result was the members of the Revkom acknowledged the justice of the Commission's decision in the cases of Maksimov and Vasilyev. But, according to the Revkom, the Commission had not taken into account what was happening at the moment. Either today or tomorrow it might be necessary to abandon Aleksandrovsk as Don and Kuban Cossacks were approaching the city in numerous echelons after abandoning the external front, heading for the Don to join the troops of General Kaledin.
Around Kaledin were grouped all the dark forces of
the counter-revolution and their hangers-on – small rural proprietors,
merchants, mill-owners. This bunch had all crawled together to build a
counter-revolutionary Front for the monarchy and for their own privileges over
the toilers. And they were going to do it on the backs of the Cossacks, who
stood to have their families wiped out and their farms devastated.
The Revkom members insisted vigorously that if Bogdanov had Maksimov and Vasilyev shot, this would discredit the authority of the Revkom in the city. And if the city had to be abandoned, it would be that much more difficult to occupy a second time.
I had taken on the thankless role of member of the Commission for two reasons: (1) to see for myself and be able to explain to the revolutionary peasants, how the state socialists occupied themselves in these great days of the revolution, how these "fighters for freedom and equality" sacrificed these great ideals for the privileges of their own power; and (2) in order to gain some important experience in a time of great events.
I considered myself a militant revolutionary who had come to the city with other peasant-revolutionaries with one goal: to help the workers defeat the hired warriors of the bourgeoisie – the haidamaks, and to disarm the Cossacks who had abandoned the External Front to help General Kaledin set up an Internal Front – against the toilers.
For me personally the argumentation of the of members of the Revkom – the Bolsheviks, Right SRs, and the anarchist M. Nikiforova – seemed criminal. I told them so. Supporting my view were the Left SR Mirgorodsky, the three Red Guard Bolsheviks from Petrograd who were members of our Commission, and Commander Bogdanov himself.
Dawn was already breaking. Everyone was exhausted. The members of the Revkom were clearly mad at me but decided not to remove me from the Commission. The jesuitical politics which already at that time saturated the Bolsheviks and their hangers-on, the Left SRs, would not allow them to do so. They agreed to continue holding the prosecutor and the police chief under detention so that, on the one hand, they could save their lives, and, on the other hand, they could embarrass me in front of the numerous peasant-revolutionaries from Gulyai-Pole raion. Therefore they proposed a compromise resolution which read: "to transfer the prosecutor Maksimov and the police chief Vasilyev to the Revkom, which will collect further information about them and make a thorough examination of their cases." This deplorable resolution only enraged the Commission and we decided that, rather than submit the cases to the Revkom, they should be subject to a new review in which the Commission would take part. This decision, after some protests from the Revkom, was finally adopted.
At this time arrived news that almost 20 echelons of Cossacks were headed to Aleksandrovsk from Apostolovo by way of Nikopol, hoping to pass through on their way to the Don and Kaledin. After quarrelling all night, this news suddenly brought us together and we hurriedly transferred the two prisoners from their railway wagon to the Aleksandrovsk prison, Cell No.8. (In tsarist times I spent more than a year in this cell. The prosecutor often visited the prison and I complained to him that the cell was dirty, had lots of bugs, and little air. His reply was: "You want more air?" and with a malicious grin ordered me sent to solitary confinement for 14 days.)
The regimen in Cell No.8 when I was there was like this: one visit per month from family, change of linen and bath twice a month, no looking out the window into the courtyard, etc.
Our meeting broke up and each of us returned to our posts. We proceeded to prepare our forces for action. We led them across the Kichkass Bridge to the right bank of the Dnepr in order to set up a battle line.
On to Chapter 22 Battle with Cossacks, negotiations, and an agreement
Back to Chapter 20 With the Left Bloc against the Counter-Revolution
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